I. – The Life
St. Teresa was born in Gotarrendura, Avila, Castile, of Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda and Beatrice (Beatriz) de Ahumada on 28th March, 1515, 500 years ago. As a child she ran away from home in search of martyrdom at the hands of the Moslems Her desire was ‘to see God’, which was later to be realized in her exercise of mental prayer, which particularly in the form of contemplation, is of course nothing else than the knowledge and love of the Most Blessed Trinity as a foretaste of the Beatific Vision.
After a period of a certain levity and frivolity, although in innocence, she was entrusted by her father to the educative care of the Augustinian nuns of Avila, whence she later entered in the order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
She was animated with a desire for perfection even if until her forties remained a religious of merely average virtue. One morning as she entered the convent oratory, she was profoundly moved at the sight of the Ecce Homo – the wounds, the blood, the lacerated flesh. In this period she read the Confessions of St. Augustine and felt she had encountered a great spirit, a great heart on fire with the flame with which she also was consumed: love, love to the point of sacrifice, to the point of death.
Exceptional Graces are granted her: the prayer of quiet, of union, and frequent visions. She feels the need to embrace a life of greater austerity and mortification, and receives permission to found a monastery where, in contrast to the laxness and the dissipated spirit of the religious life of her day, the primitive Rule is to be observed in all its severity, where absolute poverty and a prayer-life of great intensity are cultivated.
Another important motive for this foundation is the Lutheran heresy.
‘About this time I heard of the miseries of France’ she writes in the Way of Perfection (1.2), ‘and of the disorders and havoc those Lutherans had committed there, and how rapidly this miserable sect went on increasing. This afflicted me exceedingly; and as if I could have done something, or had been something, I cried to our Lord, and implored Him to remedy so great an evil. It seemed as if I could have laid down a thousand lives, to recover only one of those innumerable souls who are lost in that heresy. But seeing myself only a woman, and so wicked too, and prevented from promoting as I desired the glory of God (and all my care was, and is still, that as He has so many enemies and so few friends – these last at least might continue good), I resolved to do the little which lay in my power, viz. to follow the evangelical counsels with all the perfection I could, and to induce the few nuns who are here to do the same, confiding in the great goodness of God, who never fails to assist those that are determined to leave all things for Him; and hoping (these nuns being such as I had represented them in my desires) that, in the midst of their virtues, my faults and imperfections might have no force, and that thus I might be able in something to please our Lord…’
After the first Monastery dedicated to St. Joseph, many others followed, as the saint undertakes a reform of the Carmelite friars as well. For a while her work is held in check by the Calced, or unreformed, Carmelites, who also detain her collaborator St. John of the Cross in prison, submitting him to scourging and other maltreatments, until at last permission is given to continue the reform. After a long illness she dies on the 4th. October 1582 in profound peace, a smile upon her lips.
II – The Doctrine
On the saint’s Feast day, the prayer of the Mass contains the following words: ‘caelestis eius doctrinae pabulo nutriamur, et piae devotionis erudiamur affectu’. Her doctrine is called ‘celestial’ and indeed forms the basis for her later nomination as Doctor of the Church, together, of course, with St. John of the Cross.
St. Teresa teaches with the same St.John, that all are called to the mystic union with God, even in this life.
The means to this end are the perfection in the virtues and the faithful and diligent practice of meditative prayer. Following her mentor St. Peter of Alcantara, she counsels a form of simple meditation consisting of reading devout literature, particularly the Holy Scripture, and that which speaks of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a little at a time, and pausing to meditate upon the words when they strike one, then proceeding with the reading in the same way. The person must persevere in this practice despite temptations and aridity, and the Lord will perhaps reward him with the prayer of recollection of simple affectionate vision of simplicity. This prayer is however not yet contemplative in the strict sense of passive, infused, contemplation, but only in the active, acquired sense.
To find God, St Teresa explains in the same Way of Perfection, ‘the soul does not require wings to fly and seek Him, but she can compose herself in solitude and behold Him within herself: and let her not separate from so good a Guest, but with great humility speak to Him as a Father, entreat Him as a Father, relate her troubles to Him, and beg a remedy for them, knowing that she is not worthy to be His daughter….This kind of prayer, though it be vocal, recollects the understanding much sooner, and is a prayer that brings with it many benefits. It is called the prayer of recollection, because in it the soul recollects all the faculties, and enters within herself with her God; … Those that can thus shut themselves up in this little Heaven of our soul, where He abides who created heaven and earth; and they who can also accustom themselves not to behold, or stay where these exterior senses distract them, let them believe that they walk in an excellent way, and that they shall not fail of being able to drink the living water from the fountain…’
At this stage in the ascent of the soul to God, there follows the ‘Night of the Senses’, with its pain, illnesses, aridity, violent temptations, and contradictions, which serves to detach the subject from creatures, pleasures, and self, to attach him to God in a state of passive recollection, at the beginnings of infused contemplation. In her ‘Relation to Father Rodrigo Alvarez’ the saint writes: ‘The soul seems to desire to withdraw itself from the external tumults retreating into herself; and sensing that they sometimes come after her, feels the need to close the eyes and not see, nor hear, and not understand anything but that with which she is now occupied, that is to to be able alone to treat with God alone.’
Then it is that a deep and delightful peace inundate the soul in a sweet and supernatural sleep which dilates and enormously expands her love. This is the ‘prayer of quiet’. It is most of all the will that participates in this joy, happy to be enslaved in this way by God and happy to enjoy this union with Him, like St. Mary Magdalen in the presence of Our Lord.
In the ‘prayer of union’, not only the will but all the other faculties – intelligence, memory, imagination – are suspended and immersed in God. The soul feels so united with God that it is impossible for her to doubt their interpenetration. She is inundated with an extreme loving tenderness and filled with courage. This is the time for heroic resolutions, and ardent desires, accompanied by a horror for the World and all worldly vanities. This prayer admits of various degrees and can assume an ecstatic quality. Despite the fact that God wounds the soul with arrows of love and inflames her with the most holy desires, He does not cease to purify her with great internal and external trials. This is the ‘passive night of the spirit’ in the words of St. John of the Cross. ‘When I think of these pains’, writes the saint in ‘The Interior Castle’, ‘I fear that if we had foreseen them, it would have been very difficult for our natural weakness to have resolved to bear them.’
These trials prepare the soul to enter the ‘Seventh Mansion’, the state of ‘transforming union’, or ‘spiritual marriage’: the highest and most sublime degree of prayer possible on this earth. This prayer too has various phases or stages. the Divine Spouse communicates his invitations of a more and more intimate and delicate nature, and unites Himself to her to such an extent that she forgets all things and has only one thought: how to please Him. He immerses her in a calm and sweet state, usually without raptures and ecstasy, in which she sees the Three Divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity communicate Themselves to her ‘in a representation of the Truth’, whereby it is especially the Second Person Who contracts an alliance of affection with her. The soul resolves zealously to pursue the interests of the Beloved, with an immense desire to suffer and to labour therein, while at the same time exclaims with St. Paul: ‘Cupio dissolvi et esse cum Christo’.
This then is the mystical doctrine of St. Teresa, always combined with the ascetic doctrine (as we have already seen at the initial stage of the spiritual life): the perfection of the soul notably in the virtues of humility, detachment, abnegation of self, and of Charity.
III – A Message for Us
Sometimes people will ask about Church teaching: ‘How is all that relevant to us?’ The answer is that the Church teaches the Truth, and the Truth is always relevant, even in its smallest details. But the life and doctrine of St. Teresa do indeed have a particular relevance to-day in that they teach us what is prayer and give witness to the importance of self-sacrifice.
Today there is, in the first place, much ignorance about prayer, and, in the second place, a spirit of activism which either supplants prayer or attempts to insinuate itself within it. When one speaks to the faithful of prayer to-day, they will probably think immediately of vocal prayer such as the Rosary, or prayers of petition in general. If they know anything about mental prayer, they will think of meditation, the type of mental prayer that involves the exercise of the mind. Who thinks of contemplation, where the mind is completely passive, the type of prayer to which Our Lord is calling us all?
As for self-sacrifice, this virtue essential for the Christian life is but seldom preached by the contemporary men of the Church, while they have done their best to suppress that great model and teacher of self-sacrifice which is the Holy Mass according to the venerable Roman rite: this rite about which St. Teresa said that she would have gladly given her life for the least of its rubrics. This is the virtue, then, that resonates from every page of her writings: essential for progress in prayer and for the work of perfection of oneself: that is for our sanctification, for the attainment of that degree of Glory in Heaven for which God has created us.
So, dear reader, take courage after the example of this great saint: dedicate yourself to prayer with greater seriousness, and any-one contemplating a religious vocation, dare to follow the example of St. Teresa and her first communities: ‘True cenacles of souls thirsting for perfection, desirous to repair with their love the innumerable offenses against God, longing for a life of cordial intimacy with Him’ (Fr. M.N. Morando, Introduction to the ‘Opere di Santa Teresa di Gesù’ on which this short treatment is principally based). We have only one life, and there follows Eternity.
So if we want to celebrate the fifth centenary of a famous figure and their Reform, let us not turn to Martin Luther along with certain of our more muddleheaded contemporaries, but to St. Teresa, inspired, not to praise him or to ‘clamber up mirrors’ trying to reconcile Truth and Falsehood, but to repair the damage he caused to Our Holy Mother the Church with all the strength of her soul. Let us follow in her footsteps in a life of self-sacrifice: to console His Divine Majesty as much as lies in our power, and to sanctify our souls for the love of His Most Holy Name. Amen.
Saint Teresa of Avila, Pray for us!