Category Archives: Teresa of Avila

Fire within – St Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church

“Because there is a crucial connection in the divine plan between advanced prayer and generous suffering, we may not omit to mention the extraordinary continuity and number of physical illnesses that beset Teresa from about the age of twenty until her death at sixty-seven. While most writers dealing with the teresian account of contemplation may see no particular significance in the saint’s sicknesses, spiritual direction over the years has taught this observer that there is a close correlation between suffering well and growth in prayer depth. Of itself, of course, suffering improves no one, for a person can become bitter in his woes. But trials borne with love and in union with the crucified Beloved make one grow by leaps and bounds. I have noticed this connection over and over through the years. Students of contemplation must attend to what cannot be coincidental, namely, that this woman who reached the heights of contemplative prayer also descended to the inner abyss of pain. From her early twenties Teresa was in daily discomfort, sometimes in agony.3 She suffered from fevers, tinnitus and a serious heart condition. So grave were some of her afflictions that she “always nearly lost consciousness” and sometimes completely lost it.4 Early in her autobiography she tells us that her heart pains were so severe that she felt she was near death: “For sometimes it seemed that sharp teeth were biting into me . . . because of nausea I wasn’t able to eat anything.” Teresa was so shriveled and wasted away from a daily purge prescribed for her that she considered her nerves to be shrinking, and she said this caused “unbearable pains”. All hope was given up for her life, because in addition to her heart problem she was also tubercular. This last diagnosis did not bother Teresa much because the “bitter torment” of her other problems had already drained and exhausted her. She added that the latter “were like one continuous entity throughout my whole body”.5 A little further on she noted that she was “almost never, in my opinion, without many pains, and sometimes very severe ones, especially in the heart”.6 In a letter to Don Antonio Gaytan she observed that “I was going to say I am well, because, when I have nothing the matter beyond my usual ailments, that is good health for me.”7 From a mere factual point of view one must marvel at what this woman accomplished in her supremely busy life and how it was that she lived as long as she did, for while she lacked the skilled medical treatment of our century, she by no means pampered her body.

Eyewitness accounts agree that throughout her life, from her early teens to mature age, Teresa of Avila had a remarkable impact on people. Though she made no effort to achieve notoriety, as a young woman she became a celebrity. At the Incarnation convent, the important people of Avila who frequented the parlors (apparently as a pastime and for spiritual edification) considered this nun the number-one attraction because of her charm and intelligence and holy conversation. When later during her travels she began to speak at rest stops on the road, the men who cared for the carts and the animals stopped their swearing and quarreling because they preferred hearing about God from her to indulging in their customary pastimes.8 Her persuasive force was such that she transformed an everyday Catholic, none other than her own father,9 into a mystic. One can only be amazed that, in a century hardly known for feminism, a nun could have exercised so strong an influence over men. She was authorized by Rubeo, the master general of the Carmelite Order, to found reformed houses of men, and she gave the discalced habit to St. John of the Cross. She was spiritual director to her married brother Lorenzo, who not surprisingly became a mystic himself, and to at least one bishop. Men had so great a trust in her person and her judgment that they would give her large sums of money to use as she saw fit. About this she confided to Lorenzo that “people have such a blind confidence in me—I don’t know how they can do such things”.10

-Dubay, Fr. Thomas (2009-12-16T22:58:59). Fire Within (Kindle Locations 336-362). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.

Love,
Matthew

3 Testimony 58, no. 16, p. 353.
4 Life, chaps. 3 and 4, pp. 38-45.
5 Ibid., chap. 5, nos. 7-8, p. 49.
6 Ibid., chap. 7, no. 11, p. 60. See also Marcelle Auclair, Teresa of Avila (New York: Doubleday, Image edition, 1961), pp. 73-74, for a more detailed description of one of these frightful illnesses.
7 Letter 57, p. 144.
8 E. Allison Peers tells us that Ana reports this “from their own mouths”. See his introduction to the Book of Foundations, vol. 3, p. xii.
9 Auclair, p. 77.
10 Letter 19, p. 75.

The Joy of the Saints – St Teresa of Avila, (1515-1582), Doctor of the Church

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“She is clothed with strength and dignity; she laughs at days to come.” -Proverbs 31:25

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-by Rev. James Martin, SJ

Joy, humor and laughter are constant threads through the lives of many saints, disproving the stereotype of the dour, depressed, grumpy saint.

Traditionally, there are two ways that Christians relate to the saints: as patron and as companion. The patron model may be the one with which most people are familiar. Christians, especially Catholics, ask for the saint’s help, for his or her prayers in heaven, in the same way that you would ask for a friend’s prayer here on earth. Many Catholics regularly ask for a saint’s prayers, also called their “intercession.”

But the model more prevalent in the early church, and the model that has been of greatest influence in my own life, was the saint as companion. Elizabeth Johnson, a Catholic theologian, makes this point, and dilates on the traditional double model of “patron” and “companion” in her marvelous book on the saints Friends of God and Prophets.

The saint was seen as our fellow traveler along the way to God; by following his or her example the saint provides us with a model of Christian life. In other words, they serve as our models. So we can look to the saints as examples of those who not only lead joyful, laughter-filled lives, but often worked against the kind of deadly seriousness that infects religion.

St. Teresa of Ávila, the 16th-century Carmelite nun and reformer, herself spoke out against that kind of deadly serious Catholicism. “A sad nun is a bad nun,” she said. “I am more afraid of one unhappy sister than a crowd of evil spirits….What would happen if we hid what little sense of humor we had? Let each of us humbly use this to cheer others.” Here is a woman whom the Catholic church has designated as “Doctor of the Church,” an eminent teacher of the faith, recommending a sense of humor.

Humor suffuses the writings of St. Teresa, an intelligent, capable and strong-willed woman. Indeed the first line of her autobiography is famously lighthearted. She begins, “Having virtuous and God-fearing parents would have been enough for me to be good if I were not so wicked.”

Later on, after a lengthy description about the nature of prayer, Teresa writes, “It seems to me I have explained this matter, but perhaps I’ve made it clear only to myself.” It is a charmingly self-deprecating remark, which instantly invokes the reader’s sympathy and friendship. And throughout her writings she regularly addresses God in the most familiar, even playful terms. Susan M. Garthwaite, Ph.D., refers to the saint’s “playful teasing of God” in an article in Spiritual Life (Spring 2009) entitled “The Humor of St. Teresa of Avila in The Life.”

And one of her most famous lines, though probably apocryphal, is also apposite: “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.”

This quotation of Teresa’s is one of the most well known of the saint’s, and is quoted in many popular books on her spirituality, not to mention its appearance all over the Internet. And it is certainly in keeping with her zestful and joyful approach to the spiritual life. There’s only one problem: it seems to appear nowhere in her writings.

Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., a Catholic scholar, a translator of her works, and a member of the male branch of the Carmelite Order, told me that he could not find it in any of her writings, though he pointed me to other places where she speaks about joy and lightheartedness in the spiritual life. “That doesn’t mean that she didn’t say it,” Father Kavanaugh told me, “only that it’s not written down.” In any event, it’s a great little prayer.

And while Teresa’s spirituality was a deeply reverential one, her humor also evinces a kind of playfulness in her relationship with God. Once, when she was travelling to one of her convents, St. Teresa of Ávila was knocked off her donkey and fell into the mud, injuring her leg. “Lord,” she said, “you couldn’t have picked a worse time for this to happen. Why would you let this happen?”

And the response in prayer that she heard was, “That is how I treat my friends.”

Teresa answered, “And that is why you have so few of them!”

This story, one of the most well known about St. Teresa, is often told as a way of demonstrating the abundant humor of the saint. But it shows something else: her playful way of addressing God. Moreover, it shows her assumption of God’s playfulness with her.”

-from Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, by James Martin, S.J. (HarperOne)

Love & Joy,
Matthew

Oct 15 – St Teresa of Avila, OCD, (1515-1582) – Mystic, Doctor of the Church

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Kelly & I, ESPECIALLY Kelly, are learning A LOT about children, having a daughter of our own.  It used to be people would utter the number of children they have, and it would be a number.  And I would think or say, “Isn’t that nice!”, or pay some other innocuous compliment.  From the experience of one, now, my eyes ever widen wider and my jaw drops ever further given the same number!  And, I stop breathing. What a gift!  What a commitment!

With Mara, for me, one was easy, two was a breeze, THREE IS STILL GOING ON!!!! Whatever I say about my experience as a father multiply by a million, or more, for Kelly!  It is and always will be MUCH harder for her, as a mother!  Praise her! Praise YOU, Kelly!

My own respect for my own parents has reached unimaginably profound levels I never could have conceived of or fantasized about before.  Six! w/twins!  Life has many realities you have to actually experience to begin to appreciate.  Parenthood and marriage are some of those.

One child, alone, certainly MAKES an impression!  We can always immediately tell the waiters or waitresses who DO NOT have children!  They place the food immediately in front of Mara!  Yikes!  We HAVE TO create an area, a “buffer zone” around her, clearing away any possible projectile from within her reach!  Having children is a joyful, Divine gift and vocation!  Praise Him!  I love being a father and hope to be again, if I play my cards right! 🙂

At seven, Teresa and her brother Rodrigo loved to read the lives of the saints and martyrs. It seemed to them that the martyrs got to heaven an easy way. The two children set out secretly to go to a faraway land, where they hoped they would die for Christ, being beheaded by the Moors. But, fortunately, they had not gotten far when they met an uncle! He took them back to their worried mother at once. Next the children decided to be hermits in their garden. This didn’t work out either. They could not get enough stones together to build their huts!  Foiled, again!

Born 28 March 1515 at Avila, Castile, Spain as Teresa Sanchez Cepeda Davila y Ahumada, Teresa herself wrote down these amusing stories of her childhood.  She was born to Spanish nobility, the daughter of Don Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda and Doña Beatriz.

In 1528, when Teresa was 15, her mother died, leaving behind 10 children. Teresa was the “most beloved of them all.” She was of medium height, large rather than small, and generally well proportioned. In her youth she had the reputation of being quite beautiful, and she retained her fine appearance until her last years. Her personality was extroverted, her manner affectionately buoyant, and she had the ability to adapt herself easily to all kinds of persons and circumstances. She was skillful in the use of the pen, in needlework, and in household duties. Her courage and enthusiasm were readily kindled, as exemplified by her and Rodrigo’s adventures.  Seeing his daughter’s need of prudent guidance, her father entrusted her to the Augustinian nuns at Santa Maria de Gracia in 1531.

The fact is that when she became a teenager she changed. Teresa read so many novels and foolish romances that she lost much of her love for prayer. She began to think more of dressing up to look pretty. She gave some thought to marriage.  But after she recovered from a bad illness, Teresa read a book about the great St. Jerome. Then and there, she made up her mind to become a bride of Christ.  She entered the Carmelite Order in 1536.  Her father opposed this, but Teresa prevailed.

As a nun, Teresa often found it very hard to pray. Besides that, she had poor health. Teresa wasted time every day in long, foolish conversations. But one day, in front of a picture of Jesus, “the sorely wounded Christ”, she felt great sorrow that she did not love God more. She started then to live for Jesus alone, no matter what sacrifice had to be made. In return for her love, the Lord gave St. Teresa the privilege of hearing Him speak to her. She learned to pray in a marvelous way, too.  These mystical experiences caused much controversy.  Teresa’s conduct was more relaxed than the common ascetical practices of the time.  Many of her acquaintances and friends accused her visions of being occasioned by the devil.

One confessor was so sure that the visions were from the devil that he told her to make an obscene gesture called the “fig” every time she had a vision of Jesus. She cringed but did as she was ordered, all the time apologizing to Jesus. Fortunately, Jesus didn’t seem upset but told her that she was right to obey her confessor. In her autobiography she would say, “I am more afraid of those who are terrified of the devil than I am of the devil himself.”

I love Church technical terms:  exegesis, hermeneutical arch, etc.  One of Teresa’s most famous mystical experiences was the transverberation of her heart, immortalized by Bernini in marble in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.

“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.” –Chapter XXIX; Part 17, Teresa’s Autobiography

Teresa felt that the best evidence that her delights came from God was that the experiences gave her peace, inspiration, and encouragement. “If these effects are not present I would greatly doubt that the raptures come from God; on the contrary I would fear lest they be caused by rabies.”

Sometimes, however, she couldn’t avoid complaining to her closest Friend about the hostility and gossip that surrounded her. When Jesus told her, “Teresa, that’s how I treat my friends” Teresa responded, “No wonder You have so few friends.”

St. Teresa of Avila is well known as a great reformer of the Carmelite order and for having opened sixteen new Carmelite convents. When plans leaked out about her first convent, St. Joseph’s, she was denounced from the pulpit, told by her sisters she should raise money for the convent she was already in, and threatened with the Inquisition. The town started legal proceedings against her.

She was called “a restless, disobedient gadabout who has gone about teaching as though she were a professor” by the papal nuncio. When her former convent voted her in as prioress, the leader of the Carmelite order excommunicated the nuns. A vicar general stationed an officer of the law outside the door to keep her out. The other religious orders opposed her wherever she went. She often had to enter a town secretly in the middle of the night to avoid causing a riot.

And the help she received was sometimes worse than the hostility. A princess ordered Teresa to found a convent and then showed up at the door with luggage and maids. When Teresa refused to order her nuns to wait on the princess on their knees, the princess denounced Teresa to the Inquisition.

To Teresa, spiritual life was an attitude of love, not a rule. Although she proclaimed poverty, she believed in work, not in begging. She believed in obedience to God more than penance. If you do something wrong, don’t punish yourself — change. When someone felt depressed, her advice was that she go some place where she could see the sky and take a walk. When someone was shocked that Teresa was going to eat well, she answered, “There’s a time for partridge and a time for penance.” To her brother’s wish to meditate on hell, she answered, “Don’t.”

In another town, they arrived at their new house in the middle of the night, only to wake up the next morning to find that one wall of the building was missing.

Why was everyone so upset? Teresa said, “Truly it seems that now there are no more of those considered mad for being true lovers of Christ.” No one in religious orders or in the world wanted Teresa reminding them of the way God said they should live.

Teresa looked on these difficulties as good publicity. Soon she had postulants clamoring to get into her reform convents. Many people thought about what she said and wanted to learn about prayer from her. Soon her ideas about prayer swept not only through Spain but all of Europe.  She also left a significant legacy of writings, which represent important benchmarks in the history of Christian mysticism. These works include the “Way of Perfection” and the “Interior Castle”.
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“God, deliver me from sullen saints”. – Saint Teresa of Avila

“It is love alone that gives worth to all things.” -St. Teresa of Avila

“To be humble is to walk in truth.” -St. Teresa of Avila

“Oh my Lord! How true it is that whoever works for You is paid in
troubles! And what a precious price to those who love You if we understand its value.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

“There is more value in a little study of humility and in a single act of it than in all the knowledge in the world.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

“We need no wings to go in search of Him, but have only to look upon Him present within us.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

“Let nothing trouble you, let nothing make you afraid. All things pass
away. God never changes. Patience obtains everything. God alone is enough.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

“Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end.” -Saint Teresa of Avila

“Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

“Truth suffers, but never dies.” -St. Teresa of Avila

“Prayer is an act of love; words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.” -St. Teresa of Avila 

“The important thing is not to think much but to love much; do, then, whatever most stirs you to love.” -St. Teresa of Avila

“Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.” -St. Teresa of Avila

“If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend. And I clearly see that as we expect to please Him and receive an abundance of His graces, God desires that these graces must come to us from the hands of Christ, through His most sacred humanity, in which God takes delight. All blessings come to us through our Lord. He will teach us, for in beholding His life we find that He is the best example.

What more do we desire from such a good Friend at our side? Unlike our friends in the world, He will never abandon us when we are troubled or distressed. Blessed is the one who truly loves Him and always keeps Him near. Whenever we think of Christ we should recall the love that led Him to bestow on us so many graces and favors, and also the great love God showed in giving us in Christ a pledge of His love; for Love calls for love in return.

Let us strive to keep this always before our eyes and to rouse ourselves to love Him. For soon the Lord will grant us the grace of impressing His love on our hearts, and all will become easy for us and we shall accomplish great things quickly and without effort.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

“While in a state like this the soul will find profit in nothing, and hence, being as it is in mortal sin, none of the good works it may do will be of any avail to win it glory; for they will not have their origin in that First Principle, which is God, through Whom alone our virtue is true virtue. -St Teresa of Avila, “Interior Castle”, about when the soul is in mortal sin.

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-Ecstasy of St Teresa, (1647-1652), Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

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Teresa of Ávila, 1827, by François Gérard (1770−1837)

Prayer to Saint Teresa of Avila

Dear wonderful saint, model of fidelity to your vows, you gladly carried a heavy cross following in the steps of Christ, Who chose to be crucified for us. You realized that God, like a merciful Father, chastises those whom He loves – which to those who love this world seems silly indeed.  Grant to those who suffer like you relief from their affliction, if this be the will and the plan of God.  Amen.

Love,
Matthew