Witty Socialite, Reformer, Mystic, Doctor of the Church
St. Teresa of Avila
Even at a young age, Teresa had a knack for getting into trouble. She was born to a prominent and pious couple in Old Castille, a city of Avila, Spain. Inspired by the stories of the saints, at the age of seven, Teresa recruited her younger brother Roderigo as a travel companion and set out for Africa where they intended to become martyrs for the faith. Their plan was foiled when they were captured by an uncle, who returned them to their disgruntled parents.
Motivated by her love for God, and possibly annoyance at her father’s strict rules, Teresa secretly entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation against her father’s wishes in 1535. She was the life of the party in the convent, which in those days focused on prestige and comfort. Her days were often spent charming guests with her wit and humor in the parlor and gossiping with acquaintances. In between the conversations, the servants, and the jewelry, there was hardly any time or encouragement to develop a deep spiritual life. In addition, Teresa was plagued by serious physical and mental health issues, which she struggled with throughout her life. Living with a lukewarm spiritual life, Teresa often gave up mental prayer entirely, blaming her illness for her lack of enthusiasm. But in her forties, she was encouraged by a priest to take up prayer again. She did, but with great difficulty, and an hour of prayer became a grueling task of counting the minutes. She was constantly met with distraction. She later recalled, “I was more anxious for the hour of prayer to be over than I was to remain there. I don’t know what heavy penance I would not have gladly undertaken rather than practice prayer.”
As a mystic, Teresa was bombarded with supernatural experiences and visions. Jesus once said to her in a vision, “I would create the universe again just to hear you say that you love me”. Teresa suffered discouragement when rumors of her visions spread through the convent and she was the subject of gossip and mockery. When complaining to Jesus about this injustice, He simply said, “Teresa, that’s how I treat my friends”. She responded, “No wonder you have so few!”
On Prayer: “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.”
At the age of forty-three, Teresa decided to reform Carmel back to its fundamental state of simplicity, prayer, and poverty. No more frivolous conversations, jewelry, or servants. This initiative was most unwelcome and Teresa encountered hostile reactions from her own convent, the papal nuncio, other religious communities, and the surrounding towns. As she traveled and founded new convents, she often entered towns at night to avoid starting a riot. But Teresa, a woman with an iron will, persevered and continued to establish foundations for her new community, the Discalced Carmelites. She had a strong spiritual friendship with St. John of the Cross, who also became involved in her reform of Carmel, and they worked closely together to set up new convents and monasteries. Teresa died at the age of 67, and was named a Doctor of the Church for her writing and teaching on prayer. Her spiritual and psychological insights led her to compose a number of works on the spiritual life, including “The Way of Perfection” and “Interior Castle.”
Feast Day: October 15