ST TERESA OF AVILA by Sister Ellen Marie Quinn
An article written by Sister Ellen Marie Quinn of the Carmelite Monastery in Kew and first published in the Melbourne Anglican, February 2015
1) An outline of her life
Teresa was born into a complex and delicate social situation in Avila, Spain, on March 28th, 1515. Her father, Don Alonso, was a wealthy man whose public status was nevertheless ambiguous: a member of a familiar and much resented class, the conversos.
Reflections draw us back inexorably to the question of Teresa’s Jewish identity. Her Jewishness is the key to particular themes in her writings, and indeed to some of the central problems of the Spain of her day. The question remains of how much she knew of her ancestry, and how she regarded it. It is perfectly clear that she was aware of her Jewish blood.
We understand her as a religious, as a reformer, as a theologian, as a ‘displaced person’ in the Spain of her day. In the Life, we become more and more aware of how she has to negotiate her way in an almost wholly suspicious environment. Thus the main interweaving themes in the Life are Teresa’s willingness at every point to submit her experience to the judgment of others (though not necessarily to submit in the sense of accepting their judgment). The Life is, centrally and basically, about struggle and conflict — Teresa’s struggle for acceptance and legitimacy, and God’s struggle to be present to Teresa.
March 28, 2015 marks the fifth centenary of the birth of St Teresa of Avila. The occasion is a grace-filled invitation to explore and reflect on the legacy and teaching of one of the great women of the sixteenth century. Teresa has left an indelible mark on the history and spirituality of the Church, not only in her own time but for the past five hundred years. She is an incredibly gifted teacher, a persuasive writer, a sure spiritual guide and a woman of great charm and persuasion. Not without reason has she been ranked among the Doctors of the Church — the first woman to be granted this title.
Teresa of Avila: What was the significant contribution of this woman? Her contribution was the presentation of the unique experience of God that was hers, for her own life she lived in deep union with the Lord, and her reflections on her own experience have been found to offer insights that are valid for every authentic experience of God.
Prayer was central to the life of Teresa, and she saw it not just as an act to be performed but a way of life to be lived. It was a companionship, a friendship with God, and her whole life was a deepening of her union with her divine Friend. This relationship is the key to her life, and it is in the fullness of it that the people of her own time, and those of our own, came to share. The work that she did, the success of her mission, can only be understood in the light of her deep union with God. It was from here that she drew the riches that she shared, and the strength that was necessary to share them. In considering her life of prayer, we are not disengaging from her involvement in the world, and in the life of the Church. Rather we are piercing to the very heart of that involvement. A great highlight in Teresa’s life, I think, is the Reform, 1562. She set up St. Joseph’s monastery with a small group of women and she had very clear ideas of how religious life was to be lived. Teresa brought to the Reform her own experience and development through the years of struggle and prayer that she had lived.
Teresa’s own account of her family background suggests that she grew up within a good Catholic family, who taught her the essential values necessary in seeking God. Her parents were religious people and her brothers and sisters seem to share in the religious fervour so evident in her childhood. The sisters in the Augustinian convent where she completed some of her education had a significant influence on her religious aspirations, and, later in life, one of her uncles was to be instrumental in teaching her a way of prayer that was to open up to her a whole new way of life. Reflecting on the early years of her life, Teresa is overcome with the inadequate response she made to the good atmosphere in which she was brought up. She is looking back from a mature spiritual viewpoint, and she sees the frivolous things of her youth as drawing her attention away from God, who has become now the centre of her life. These “sins” of her youth are important because they gave Teresa the ability to relate to others who, in their turn, needed to overcome the frivolous things of life in order to find God.
At the age of twenty-one (1536) she entered the Carmel of the Incarnation, in her native city of Avila. (She was to remain there for the next twenty-seven years.) These years were important for Teresa. During them she patiently developed that relationship with her divine Friend, which was to grow to such deep intimacy later in her life. What little we know of these years centres mainly round her early years in the convent, and these were characterized by serious illness. So grave was her condition, she was prepared by her sisters for death, and the grave was dug to receive her. She passed through the illness but it left her an invalid for several years, and throughout the rest of her life she suffered greatly from its effects. This is significant, because this woman who comes through as such a strong person, really had to achieve what she did in the face of great personal suffering. This included the foundation of sixteen monasteries all over Spain.
We do not have many details of Teresa’s life during her years at the Incarnation. We do, however, have her thoughts on growth in friendship with God. Since she tells us that the source of her teaching is her experience, we can know something of the transition which was taking place as she lived the simple life of a Carmelite nun. More and more God moves to the centre of her life. He is becoming the Person round whom her whole life revolves.
2) The essential elements of her theology/spirituality
St Teresa uses the story of her life to analyse and teach from her experiences her development and understanding of prayer. Teresa says that many speak about what we must do in prayer, but she wants to tell what God does in a soul to bring it to union with Him. The Life written in 1562, deals with her mystical experiences and development in prayer. The Way of Perfection (1566) was written for her nuns, a treatise on prayer and how to live the Carmelite life as she envisaged it. The Foundations tell the story of the sixteen monasteries she personally founded. It is full of interest and lively spirit, courage and psychological insight, dealing with so many different personalities. The Interior Castle (1577) depicts the journey to God analysed as she had lived it.
Teresa’s great capacity for friendship gave her an understanding of mental prayer as a friendship with Our Lord. Her definition of prayer: “Mental prayer is nothing else than a close sharing between friends. It means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us” (Life ch. 8:5). Teresa is generous in sharing with us her way of prayer, and her intimate, spontaneous words with Our Lord are all through her writings. It is friendship that allows Teresa the privilege to draw near; she found the perfect Friend whom she could console, who needed her — this “close sharing” that allows her to be near Christ. The humanity of Christ was central to her way of prayer and as her path to the Trinity.
If we are to grow in this “intimate friendship” with Our Lord, we can take Teresa as our experienced teacher, and I would like to look at her explanation of the prayer of Recollection. This prayer, Teresa tells us we can reach with our own efforts, and God’s grace. The soul “enters within itself to be with its God” (WP CH. 28). It endeavours to put away distractions and centres its thoughts on the presence of Our Lord truly present within it. Teresa recommends that one speaks to Him in one’s own words in a companionship of humble, open attention. Teresa tells us that if we cannot achieve this Recollection in a year — keep trying with determination! And remember always “the great love He has for you.” Teresa tells us that “perfect contemplation” comes quickly to those who practise this Recollection. And for her, “perfect contemplation” is the Prayer of Quiet, the first steps in the experience of “passive” prayer, where God gives grace and delight to the soul. It is pure, unmerited, gift “that can only come from God’s goodness.” Teresa makes a clear distinction between these two prayers. Recollection, (our effort) which brings “contentos”, a certain satisfaction; the “gustos” (the delight) which is experienced in the Prayer of Quiet — God is taking over, the soul merely “consents to God, allowing Him to imprison it,” happy to be His captive (Life ch. 14.2). This gift brings a great growth in the virtues as indeed do all the graces and mystical graces Teresa experienced. Everything that St Teresa has advised us about, is directed towards “the complete gift of ourselves to God, the surrender of our wills to His, and detachment from creatures” (WP ch. 32.9).
To grow in this friendship with Our Lord we must learn how to prepare ourselves. Teresa points out the virtues that we must develop and also the importance of recognizing the graces and different stages of growth so that the soul will not be alarmed, or draw back from prayer. Do not let mental prayer frighten you, nor contemplation; we are all called to this life of contemplation, Teresa tells us.
Teresa’s spiritual masterpiece, The Interior Castle (1577) was written at the peak of her experiences. She had received the grace of the “Mystical Marriage,” her soul united to God in total union; the rare graces of locutions, raptures etc., had ceased and from her deep and abiding awareness of the indwelling of the Holy Trinity she entered the period of enormous labour for the expansion of the Reform. Reading her works which convey energy, enthusiasm, it is easy to forget that Teresa had very poor health.
Teresa invites us to travel with her through this wonderful diamond Castle, with its millions of rooms, “we do not understand the beauty and dignity of a soul — made in the image of God” (IC 1.1) all that is within us. In the centre of the Castle is the mysterious light that is drawing the pilgrim to itself — but there are “distractions” attitudes, faults, sins which can dim the Light for the soul, even though it is always there, even if the soul is outside in all the muddle of sin, God’s light is still in the soul. God always knows where we are, even in our darkest despair; and it is prayer that can open the way to begin the journey.
Teresa was privileged, as few have been, to live and move in the presence of the living God revealed in the hidden depths of her own soul. Her writings are great — not for what they tell us of Teresa, but for what they tell us of God and of his dealings with each human soul. Teresa was given the grace not only to experience divine mysteries, but in a sense to stand back from them and to record what she had seen and heard.
As she struggled to understand the things she experienced, she was able to narrate, with deep psychological insight, the moods and patterns of the human response under the direct action of God’s guiding hand. The supports, the pitfalls, the dangers, the signs, the lessons so painfully learned and so masterfully recorded of her own spiritual journey, have now become the principles of discernment for all who walk the inner path of prayer and contemplation.
3) How Teresa has shaped my own life and faith
I have chosen some of the highlights from St Teresa’s writings which have taught me through the years to love and admire this great “mother” with all her amazing gifts, her courage, common sense, determination, her special charism, and her great love for Christ.
Teresa has taught me the importance of a living relationship, in my deepest self, to God, my sisters, and to all. Teresa has shown me how to raise the quality of my love in these relationships, to grow and progress spiritually. She teaches me how I must encounter my true self. Self-knowledge is the rockbound foundation of every spiritual life. The starting-point of my spiritual journey is my own lived experience.
Within her warm heart, Teresa had a gift of friendship, a gift of life with the Trinity. A tender and intimate relationship with her beloved Christ opened her heart to the world and she was at ease with people of all walks of life. Teresa was the kind of person I would like to have as my friend, and the friend I would like to be to others: totally selfless and concerned for the good of the other.
Teresa for me has been my inspiration:
Let nothing disturb you
Let nothing affright thee
All things are passing
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
The one who has God wants for nothing
God alone suffices. –St Teresa of Avila
Those memorable sayings of hers, so vivid and original: “the Lord walks among the pots and pans helping you both interiorly and exteriorly” (F 5.8), and her humour I find a good remedy for many ills, along with plenty of common sense and realism. “God deliver us from sorry saints!” she once said.
For me in my years of living the Carmelite life seeking deeper prayer and meaning to life she has been a teacher and friend throughout.