The Church celebrates the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila, also known as St. Teresa of Jesus, on October 15th. She was born in Avila, Spain in 1515. Her family consisted of her mother, father, and twelve siblings. She described her parents as devout in her autobiography. Teresa began her spiritual journey early on and read the lives of the martyrs when she was nine years old. She had a great desire to die a martyr’s death and repeatedly told her parents that she wanted to see God. It was in her childhood that she learned that “all things of this world will pass away” and God alone is “for ever, ever, ever” (Vida).
At the age of twenty she entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila. Her religious name was Teresa of Jesus. While she was in the monastery she became seriously ill with malaria and spent four days in a coma, looking as though she would die. During her illness she realized her own weakness and resistance to God’s call. It greatly changed her spiritual life. She recovered, but shortly after her father died and all of her siblings emigrated to America.
Teresa was a rather prolific writer considering that she had no academic education. She relied greatly on the teachings and great resources of theologians, men of letters, and spiritual teachers. She was a woman of reform and set about reforming the Carmelite Order. In 1562 her first reform was Carmel in Avila with the support of the Bishop, Don Alvaro de Mendoza, and the approval of the Order’s Superior General, John Baptist Rossi. In 1580 she received approval from Rome for her own separate Province and so began the Discalced Carmelite Order which she established with her good friend, St. John of the Cross.
She wrote many books throughout her lifetime. Her most famous work is her own autobiography, The Life of St. Teresa (Vida), The Way of Perfection, a commentary on the Our Father, her most famous work on prayer, The Interior Castle, various works for her Carmelite Order, and Book of the Foundations. It is easy to see why St. Teresa is one of the four women saints to be given the title Doctor of the Church.
The impact St. Teresa had on the Church and the Carmelite Order cannot be overstated. Her life was greatly influenced by the evangelical counsels of poverty, obedience, and chastity, as well as the virtues.
“It is far from easy to sum up in a few words Teresa’s profound and articulate spirituality. I would like to mention a few essential points. In the first place St. Teresa proposes the evangelical virtues as the basis of all Christian and human life and, in particular, detachment from possessions, that is, evangelical poverty, and this concerns all of us; love for one another as an essential element of community and social life; humility as love for the truth; determination as a fruit of Christian daring; theological hope, which she describes as the thirst for living water. Then we should not forget the human virtues: affability, truthfulness, modesty, courtesy, cheerfulness, culture.”
Pope Benedict XVI, Doctors of the Church, 222-23
She greatly loved Scripture and saw harmony in the great biblical figures. She greatly desired to hear the Word of God and had a connection with the Bride in the Song of Songs and a great affinity for St. Paul. She also focused on the Passion of Our Lord and His Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist.
Much of St. Teresa’s life and spirituality centered on prayer. She described prayer as “being on terms of friendship with God frequently conversing in secret with him who, we know, loves us” (Vida 8, 5). Pope Benedict XVI points out how similar her view of prayer is to St. Thomas Aquinas who described prayer as, “amicitia quaedam hominis ad Deum”, a type of human friendship with God, who offered humanity his friendship first; it is from God that the initiative comes (Summa Theologiae II-II, 23, 1).
It can be easy to look at the end St. Teresa achieved in her spiritual life and become discouraged. Prayer takes a lifetime to learn and develop. Teresa’s own understanding was not immediate and took root over many years.
“Prayer is life and develops gradually, in pace with the growth of the Christian life: it begins with vocal prayer, passes through interiorization by means of meditation and recollection, until it attains the union of love with Christ and with the Holy Trinity. Obviously, in the development of prayer climbing to the highest steps does not mean abandoning the previous type of prayer. Rather, it is a gradual deepening of the relationship with God that envelops the whole of life.”
Pope Benedict XVI, Doctors, 223
Teresa’s work is not just an explanation of prayer. Instead she prays with those who read her works and walks with them on the journey. She viewed prayer as an intimate discussion:
“For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything.”
Total Dependence on God
Teresa learned early on that the only One we can rely on is God. Everything else in this life is passing away. As the Psalmist says:
A thousand years in your eyes are merely a day gone by, Before a watch passes in the night, you wash them away;
They sleep, and in the morning they sprout again like an herb.
In the morning it blooms only to pass away; in the evening it is wilted and withered.
Truly we are consumed by your anger, filled with terror by your wrath.
You have kept our faults before you, our hidden sins in the light of your face.
Our life ebbs away under your wrath; our years end like a sigh.
Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong;
Most of them are toil and sorrow; they pass quickly, and we are gone.
Who comprehends the strength of your anger? Your wrath matches the fear it inspires.
Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Our lives are over quickly, much quicker than we imagine in the beginning. Even if we live into old age, the years fly by at breakneck speed and everything we have now will pass away. It is only God who is forever, and we can only put our trust and reliance in Him. Teresa summed this up beautifully in her well known poem:
“Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you, All things are passing away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.”
In reality, we can only learn total dependence on God through prayer and the Sacraments. St. Teresa became more and more dependent on God as she grew deeper and deeper in her prayer life and in her love of the Holy Eucharist. We cannot rely on someone we do not know well, and so it is in prayer that we learn to depend completely on God who loves us. St. Teresa is a wonderful saint to help us on the spiritual journey, especially in our prayer life. Not only does she want to teach us about the beauty of prayer, she wants to walk alongside of us as she intercedes for us in Heaven. She is a saint to befriend on the journey to holiness.
St. Teresa of Avila, ora pro nobis.