Saint Teresa of Avila teaches us above all that the goal of the human person is union with Divine Beauty: our loving and wondrous God and Father.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
15 October 2015
It is only in and through and with God that we can attain perfect happiness, human fulfillment, and total completion. In fact, without God, as St. Teresa so often emphasizes, we have nothing and are nothing. However, he who has God possesses everything. St. Teresa proclaims: God alone suffices! Her feast day is October 15th.
Teresa Sanchez Cepeda Davila y Ahumada was born on a Wednesday morning in the Castilian town of Avila, March 28, 1515. She was the third of nine children. Her mother, Dona Beatriz Davila y Ahumada, a woman of great understanding and virtue, died while St. Teresa had but reached only her thirteenth year. She describes her father as a virtuous man, always chaste, who carefully and joyfully followed the Lord’s commandments.
As a youngster, St. Teresa had a strong devotion to St. Joseph and Our Lady, often finding a quiet place in the house to pray the Rosary. She had a favorite brother who was close to her own age; they enjoyed reading the lives of the saints together, and, one day, decided the quickest path to heaven was that of martyrdom. St. Teresa says of this:
I used to think that they [the martyrs] had bought their entry into God’s presence very cheaply. Then I fervently longed to die like them, not out of any conscious love for Him, but in order to attain as quickly as they had those joys which, as I read, are laid up in Heaven. (St. Teresa, Her Life by Herself, Penguin Classics).
She notes that, as she grew into a teen, vanity, idle companionship, and unfruitful reading caused her harm. As for her interest in books, she comments: “I was so enthralled by it that I do not believe I was ever happy if I had not a new book” (Ibid). St. Teresa often relates of her sorrow for those teenage years, as well as some years beyond them, when she had not yet given herself completely to her beloved Jesus; even writing of a vision of hell, in which she experienced a horrifying place that she believed had been prepared for her as her eternal residence had not Jesus rescued her.
At age sixteen, though happily acting as a boarder in the Augustinian Convent of Avila, St. Teresa had no interest in becoming a nun. Yet under the influence of Sister Maria Briceno, a holy and pious woman, St. Teresa’s love for prayer and holiness grew stronger. After an illness which required her to return home, she visited with her uncle, read some spiritual books he had, and, after three months of spiritual conflict, decided to become a nun. After reading from St. Jerome, she found the courage to tell her father of her plans, though he was opposed to the idea. St. Teresa, at age twenty-one, quietly entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation at Avila in November 1536. St. Teresa spent, chiefly, the next twenty years at this convent.
During her life in the Carmelite Convent, St. Teresa struggled with her spiritual growth, yet, through persistence and love and over the course of many years, her union with God would flourish. She would experience unfathomable spiritual graces: locutions, transports, visions, and levitations – her soul would reach spiritual maturity. From about 1562 to 1582, St. Teresa traveled Spain founding 17 convents; the last of which was at Burgos, Spain, in April 1582.
At the request of her confessors, she wrote one of the greatest works on prayer, her autobiography, best known as The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself, which she completed in 1565. According to J. M. Cohen, who wrote the introduction, her autobiography is the second most widely read prose classic of Spain. This work, considered one of her most important, explained many aspects of her life in the convent: her struggles with the sins of her past life; her constant pursuit of virtue and holiness; the distress the devil caused her; suffering inflicted by inexperienced confessors; and the ways in which God granted her mercy and wondrous mystical graces.
Among one of the most important aspects of St. Teresa’s autobiography is her account of the four stages of prayer. St. Teresa teaches “beginners,” as she refers to them, the way in which they might attain, with God’s grace, higher levels of perfection, holiness, and prayer. It is a book in which the devout and properly disposed soul may achieve great profit; for its descriptive language is simple, beautiful, and readily understandable.
Moreover, not long before her death, St. Teresa wrote her book, Interior Castle, which is considered to be her greatest work on the beauty of prayer and the path to union with God. Using an analogy of a single diamond containing numerous mansions to describe the immense beauty of the soul created by God, Teresa carefully leads us along the path of advanced prayer toward the unitive way and entry into the central mansion in the inner recesses of the castle: there Christ dwells in a most intimate way as king and Lord. There the soul encounters the Love and Light above all other love and light.
Among Catholic spiritual writers on prayer, St. Teresa, along with St. John of the Cross, remain as unparalleled experts on the life of Catholic spirituality and mystical union with God.
One thing is certain, St. Teresa never lost sight of her reliance on God, her need for Christ, and the sins of her past life. Of her sins, in her usual candid and warm style, she writes: “I wish [in the autobiography] that I had been allowed to describe also, clearly and in full detail, my grave sins and the wickedness of my life. This would have been a great comfort to me, but I may not do so. In fact, I have been put under severe restrictions in the matter” (Her Life By Herself, 21). Even so, St. Teresa often took the opportunity to relate in a revealing manner her view of herself.
Certainly, the most important element of St. Teresa’s teaching is the way to perfection; that is, the method of living a life of prayer and virtue with one goal in mind: God’s love. She is careful to guide “beginners” along the proper path, warning them of the many dangers, the evil intent of the Devil, and other obstacles which commonly prevent souls from advancing in prayer.
She describes a wonderful insight she received on the day she took the habit at the Convent of the Incarnation, outside the walls of Avila:
When I took the habit the Lord immediately showed me how He favours those who do violence to themselves in order to serve Him. No one saw what I endured, . . . At the moment of my entrance into this new state I felt a joy so great that it has never failed me even to this day; and God converted the dryness of my soul into a very great tenderness. (Ibid., 33)
One of St. Teresa’s most well-known metaphors concerning prayer is the one in which she describes meditation as similar to cultivating a spiritual garden. She says of this:
A beginner must look on himself as one setting out to make a garden for his Lord’s pleasure, on most unfruitful soil which abounds in weeds. His Majesty roots up the weeds and will put in good plants instead. Let us reckon that this is already done when the soul decides to practice prayer and has begun to do so. (Ibid., 78)
St. Teresa, Doctor of Prayer, is always careful to guide souls that they should diligently set themselves to prayer, not allowing discouragement to hinder them. She says of the worth of mental prayer: “It is of special note, that the soul which begins resolutely to tread this path of mental prayer, and can manage not greatly to care about consolations and tenderness in devotion, neither rejoicing when the Lord gives them nor being discouraged when He withholds them, has already gone a large part of the way” (Ibid., 81).
Note that when St. Teresa speaks of mental prayer, she speaks of authentic Christian prayer, with our Lord Jesus Christ as the focus. Prayer is man relating to and conversing with God, the All-Holy Creator; therefore, as with religion, the first act of prayer ought to be adoration. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:
Adoration is the first act of the virtue of religion. To adore God is to acknowledge him as God, as the Creator and Savior, the Lord and Master of everything that exists, as infinite and merciful Love. ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve,’ says Jesus, citing Deuteronomy. (2096)
It is necessary to maintain and guard a proper perspective during prayer. Who is it to whom we pray? It is His Majesty, as St. Teresa often addressed Him, the Giver of life and immortality, our God who first created us and now sustains us. She would tell us to be mindful of the fact that we are speaking with God. The CCC explains:
In the first place, we ought to be astonished by this fact: when we praise God or give him thanks for his benefits in general, we are not particularly concerned whether or not our prayer is acceptable to him. On the other hand, we demand to see the results of our petitions. What is the image of God that motivates our prayer: an instrument to be used? or the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? (2735)
St. Teresa reminds us that, while God is always listening and calling us to converse with him, it is necessary and profitable to set aside time for formal, serious prayer. The CCC explains:
Prayer cannot be reduced to the spontaneous outpouring of interior impulse: in order to pray, one must have the will to pray. Nor is it enough to know what the Scriptures reveal about prayer: one must also learn how to pray. Through a living transmission (Sacred Tradition) within “the believing and praying Church,” the Holy Spirit teaches the children of God how to pray. (2560)
If one were to sum up the life of St. Teresa in a word, it would be “prayer.” As we gaze and reflect upon her life and her writing, we find she helps to open to the soul a wonderful doorway to God. St. Teresa encourages us all to step forward and enter this door with a sincere heart, to trust in Jesus and beg him for not only his ever-available mercy and forgiveness, but his graces that draw us into his gracious and loving heart. It is there, with Christ, that we discern our purpose; it is there that we see clearly our every desire.
St. Teresa teaches us above all that the goal of the human person is union with Divine Beauty: our loving and wondrous God and Father. It is only in and through and with God that we can attain perfect happiness, human fulfillment, and total completion. In fact, without God, as she so often emphasizes, we have nothing and are nothing. However, he who has God possesses everything. St. Teresa proclaims: God alone suffices!
Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing; God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing: God alone suffices.
—St. Teresa of Avila
Photo Credit: François Gérard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Image modified by Deacon Frederick Bartels.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.