Rediscovering Teresa of Avila: A Lay Perspective
Today, we commemorate the feast day of one of the most remarkable women to have ever walked the earth, a Spanish contemplative nun who lived and died well over four centuries ago but whose words and deeds continue to impact us, especially those who have chosen to heed the silent call of Carmel.
Much had been said about Teresa of Avila – the great leader, mystic and reformer of the fifteenth century. Renowned scholars have written volumes of books and papers over the centuries about the depth of her theology and the complexity of her spiritual life. As one of the Church’s most popular and influential saints, she has inspired men and women to enter the religious life – particularly the monasteries and cloisters of Carmel – and to pursue a life dedicated to intimately knowing God. And from these followers of the great Teresa, there have been many martyrs, beatos and saints whom we now look up to as models of faith.
For us who are lay Carmelites, Teresa seems to be a more distant and looming figure than the “little flower” Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, who is certainly a favourite patroness of millions all over the world, or perhaps the more contemporary personages like twentieth century Carmelites Blessed Titus Brandsma and Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein).
What Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Blessed Titus Brandsma and Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross have in common is that they were all great admirers of Teresa of Avila, whose impassioned writings had greatly influenced their own vocation and spirituality.
From a lay perspective, especially for us who are neither scholars nor theologians, who is Teresa of Avila? How do we demystify her? How do we make her accessible and relevant to our daily lives?
As a media practitioner, I believe that the biggest challenge we face when introducing a subject is making our topic understood by all – because the nature of mass media is that you cannot choose your audience.
So how do we propose to speak about Teresa of Avila today? By talking less about the illustrious and lofty saint, and more about the witty and sensible woman who was, by and large, a product of her times. We have to see Teresa from the background of her historical, social, cultural and political milieu in order to understand her better and appreciate her spirituality, which ripened over time in the context of her personal human experiences.
Teresa in history: Born at a crossroads of time
Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was born within the fabled walls of Avila on March 28, 1515. At that time, Europe ruled the world and the Holy Roman Empire ruled the crowned heads of the continent. The West was expanding into Asia and the Americas, hoisting the cross on one hand and the sword on the other.
The person that was Teresa had been shaped primarily by the historical, political, cultural and religious landscape in which she lived. She was born at a crossroads in history, when the world teetered between the Renaissance Period and the Age of Discovery and Exploration. Like the promise of springtime after the long winter that was the Dark Ages, the Renaissance signified ‘rebirth’, a widespread reform in intellectual and artistic pursuits, which saw the historical world move from darkness to light, from ignorance to enlightenment. Emboldened by their newfound skills and knowledge, the kingdoms of Europe ventured into distant territories in a zealous (and often brutal) mission to claim souls for Christ and gold for the crown.
During this period, Spain and Portugal led Europe in exploring the world’s seas and in opening oceanic trade routes. Large parts of the New World became Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Meanwhile, the Protestant Reformation gave a major blow to the authority of the Papacy and the Roman Catholic Church, as religious conflicts came to dominate politics. In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire continued to expand, threatening the Christian colonizers. In the world of arts and sciences, the prodigious Italian painter Michaelangelo finished painting the Sistine Chapel, while Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a ‘heliocentric’ (sun-centred) universe but was met with strong resistance, although later proven to be correct.
Teresa was a product of this scholarly period; she could read and write, rare for women of her time. Born only 23 years after Christopher Columbus’ sail to Hispaniola under the Spanish flag, her life was in many ways intertwined with the early history of the Hispanic New World. She had at least two brothers who served as conquistadores in Peru, conquered by Francisco Pizzaro in 1533. And growing up hearing stories about the quest for gold and adventure in the New World, she harboured an intense desire to learn, to explore, to conquer the infidels and to die for the faith.
In 1542, the Roman Inquisition began, the same year that both Juan de Yepes y Alvarez (later known as John of the Cross) and Leonardo da Vinci were born. Teresa was then 27. (Two years earlier, the Society of Jesus was founded by her fellow Spaniard, Ignatius of Loyola, and in England, the apostate Henry VIII was king.)
Also in 1542, Conquistador Ruy Lopez de Villalobos sailed from Mexico on the route of Ferdinand Magellan, and reached land on the other side of the globe four months later; he named the new colony ‘Las Islas Filipinas’ in honour of the prince, Don Felipe de Asturias.
By 1562, Teresa had begun reforming Carmel with John of the Cross – just two years before, Galileo Galilei and William Shakespeare were born. In 1582, the year she died at Alba de Tormes, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the new Christian Calendar. The day she passed away – October 4 – was the last Julian day in pontifical states, including Spain. This is why we now celebrate her Feast Day on October 15.
From these few examples we can see that throughout her entire life, Teresa lived in a world that was changing rapidly, even if societies and cultures struggled against transformation. Despite the world opening up around them, she lived in a land where social customs and religious traditions continued to be inflexible, and where she was often criticized for her non-conformist ways and revolutionary thinking. If not for her inborn charisma and irrepressible wit, this feisty nun would have ended up in the unforgiving flames of the Inquisition instead of founding convents. But such was not her fate.
In 1622, forty years after her death, she was canonized by Pope Gregory XV, and in 1970 named the first female Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI. She wrote books which include her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus, and her seminal work, El Castillo Interior (The Interior Castle) – now integral components of Spanish Renaissance literature as well as of Christian mysticism and Christian meditation practices, as she teaches us in her other important work Camino de Perfección (The Way of Perfection).
She is one of the patron saints of Spain and is the special protector of people with bodily ills and headaches, of lace makers, orphans, people in need of grace, women in Religious Orders, and individuals who are ridiculed for their piety.
A saint but not an angel
Many accounts on her life and works describe Teresa as an astute religious reformer and administrator, an inspired spiritual director, and an extraordinary mystical writer. Truly, she was a saint… but definitely, she was no angel.
The first forty years of Teresa’s life give no clue to the rich depth and productivity of the second half of her life. Her grandfather was a converted Jew who climbed his way into the aristocracy by marrying well; so did her own father. Motherless at age 14 and spoiled by a doting father, she was a vain, vivacious, exquisitely stylish young lady who was the centre of attention of any social function. She was known to be an excellent singer and dancer, and held everyone enthralled by her smart conversation. As she herself admitted in her later writings, she also liked to flirt with the young men who paid her court, so much so that she became so infatuated with a handsome cousin at age 16, prompting her father to pack her off to an Augustinian convent where she had limited access to male company.
Teresa was certainly unlike most privileged young ladies of her time. Raised at par with her male siblings, she was given basic education and was allowed to think for herself. Early on, she was able to make life choices that determined her future – a concession not available to the average sixteenth century woman. She knew she did not want to enter into an arranged marriage (as was the custom then) but neither did she wish to become a sorry spinster. So at age 21, against her father’s wishes, she professed vows as a Carmelite at the Convent of the Incarnation in Avila.
The convent was known for its leniency, permitting close personal relationships with those outside the convent and allowing worldly possessions within. Being overpopulated but penniless, the convent encouraged contact with the outside world, so as to bring in donations and alms for the nuns. At its parlour the lively aristocrat from Avila was, of course, one of those often called to amuse guests or to console capricious matrons.
Even inside the Incarnation, she used her noble title ‘Dona Teresa de Ahumada’. Enjoying the convent’s indulgences, she waned in her Christian devotion. Then she was forced by a serious, prolonged illness (worsened by partial paralysis from an attempted cure) to spend three years in relative quiet. She read books on the spiritual life. When she recovered and returned to the convent she resumed what to her later seemed only a half-hearted spirituality. Of these years, she wrote in her autobiography, “I voyaged on this tempestuous sea for almost twenty years with these fallings and risings”.
When she was nearly 40, Teresa – who had found it hard to pray for the last two decades – had a profound religious experience. One day, while walking down a hallway in the convent, her glance fell on an image of Christ being scourged at the pillar. Almost instantly, her heart was pierced by the vision of his constant love throughout her desert period of infidelity.
As she said later, Jesus gently but powerfully revealed the cause of her spiritual collapse: her daily exposure to the trivial yet burdensome delights of sin. She wept all night and immediately broke with her past, undergoing a final conversion. After this, she began experiencing the profound mystical raptures that would cause her so much pain and ridicule, but at the same time, would bring her unspeakable joy and ecstasy as her existence became increasingly difficult.
In the last 20 years of her life, Teresa gave herself completely to personal spiritual growth and the renewal of the Carmelite monasteries. She spent her last years traveling the countryside establishing reformed (or ‘discalced’, meaning ‘unshod’, that is, ‘more simple’) Carmelite convents. She founded fourteen monasteries and died, quite literally, in the line of duty. On yet another mission of service at Alba de Tormes, her body exhausted and worn out by a lingering illness that led to profuse bleeding, Madre Teresa de Jesus died reciting verses from the Song of Songs.
Teresa in relation to other saints and great thinkers
In 1562, Teresa met Fray Pedro de Alcántara, a Franciscan reformer whose saintliness inspired her to confide in him as her spiritual guide. Inspired by his attempt to restore his Order to its original barefoot poverty, Teresa took it upon herself to reform the Carmelites along similar lines.
In Salamanca she chose Padre Domingo de Bañez, an eminent Dominican theologian and an exponent and defender of Thomistic doctrine, as her director and confessor, showing her acute intellect and confidence even in the company of learned men.
In 1567, she met the young John of the Cross, whom she enlisted to extend her reform into the male side of the Carmelite Order. Inspired by the Spirit, she immediately talked to him about her reformation projects even if he was then just newly ordained and almost three decades her junior. She asked him to give up his entry into the Carthusians.
Meanwhile, saints from future generations like Francis de Sales and Alphonsus Liguori, both Doctors of the Church, not only greatly admired Teresa, but turned to her works for enlightenment and inspiration.
Philosopher Edith Stein went from being born a Jew to becoming an atheist and eventually, to conversion to the Roman Catholic Church after reading Saint Teresa’s autobiography. Stein became a Carmelite nun but was murdered by Nazis for her Jewish heritage in the gas chambers of Auschwitz during World War II. We now know her as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Teresa and the gift of ‘holy wit’
“From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, O Lord, deliver us!” This is probably one of the most popular quotes attributed to Teresa, one that tells us in one humorous yet evocative line her philosophy for life and faith.
Teresa mastered the art of living lightly and well; her devotion to Jesus Christ was matched only by her zest for life and her unbridled sense of humour. She prayed a lot, she laughed a lot.
Once when praying about her many trials and sufferings, she thought she heard God say, “But this is how I treat my friends.” With characteristic petulance, Teresa replied, “No wonder you have so few...”
A healthy sense of humour allows us to break but not shatter. Teresa had many outstanding qualities as a religious reformer and spiritual director, but for this lecture we narrow our focus in order to enjoy and profit from one of her most outstanding – though often overlooked – gifts: the ability to live by ‘holy wit’.
Teresa had her eyes focused on heaven while her feet remained firmly planted on the ground. She exhibited the twin qualities of humility and humour – a woman of many healthy contradictions that made her whole. She believed that finding the lighter side of things can also be holy if you are doing it to achieve God’s work.
Doing God’s work requires hard work and virtue: concern for others expressed in deeds and not mere talk; ego annihilation through a hardy obedience and detachment from self-satisfaction; trust and humility “in the presence of infinite Wisdom”. We must have a good sense of humour as well as a healthy dose of common sense.
Indulgent yet austere, Teresa knew both pleasure and penance. She loved giving and receiving gifts, but also lived very simply in daily life. The story is told of her being invited to dinner at a patron’s house and of a guest making a snide remark about the nun enthusiastically devouring a partridge. She was said to have exclaimed: “When I fast, I fast; and when I eat partridge, I eat partridge!”
Yet Teresa was very vigilant against being selfish and self-indulgent, fussing about her health, her need for rest, her desire for tranquillity and order. She advised her young nuns to take care of their health but not to give in to every little malady, or else “the body grows fat and the soul weakens”.
She was idealistic, but also very practical, sensible and down to earth. “God deliver me from people so spiritual they want to turn everything into perfect contemplation,” she once said in relation to the extreme discipline and lack of mirth of a young friar.
Teresa, who dreamed big and always saw the positive side of any situation, also knew how to lighten the load by not taking everything seriously. As she quipped to a young nun who wanted to stifle any entertaining comments that occurred to her during recreation time: “It is bad enough… to be stupid by nature without trying to be stupid by grace.”
She had a romantic nature that was tempered by a clear and rational mind… and also a sharp tongue. To a prioress who complained of a nun’s love for books, her spiky reply was, “Better a bookworm than a fool!” On another occasion, when some of her contemplative nuns complained about doing manual work, she gave her now famous quotation: “Know that if it (the work) is in the kitchen, the Lord walks among the pots and pans.”
And in The Way of Perfection, she gives a clear example on why sensible action is just as important as pious contemplation:
“Saint Martha was holy, but we are not told that she was a contemplative. If she had been absorbed in devotion all the time, as Magdalene was, there would have been no one to prepare a meal for the Divine Guest.”
Teresa and prayer
Prayer, for Teresa, is a “solitary converse, with Him who we know loves us”. She was a renowned mystic, yet remained pragmatic. She took supernatural occurrence with down-to-earth humour and slight scepticism of the ‘here and now’.
Teresa underlined the need to cultivate lofty thoughts, which are greatly helped by spiritual guidance from a suitable confessor, reading spiritual books, and the regular practice of prayer. She saw prayer not as a passive activity but as a rugged and robust exercise. And like any exercise, you have to do it religiously and without fail, whether you like it or not. For those times when we feel empty or unsure, she recommends a simple and highly personal method: “Look at Christ who is looking at you.”
Although she was the life of any conversation, Teresa was known to spend long hours in prayer and silence. On one occasion, she heard how some of her nuns were warned by hostile priests not to engage in deep contemplation as they may be “tricked by the enemy”. To this, the unfazed foundress retorted: “Prayer is the duty of the religious, God forbid that it should be dangerous. Cease troubling about these fears. This is not the time to believe everyone; believe only those whom you see modelling their lives on the life of Christ.”
For Teresa, prayer is the source of Christian life and the wellspring of all moral virtues. Prayer is not everything, but without prayer, nothing else is possible. Under this umbrella of prayer, God works in mysterious, often unpredictable, ways, and the soul works strongly.
Her understanding of disengagement from the world is not necessarily ascetic. On the contrary, her idea of genuine suffering comes from being fully present in the world and serving others. Spiritual progress is measured neither by self-imposed penance nor by the sweetest pleasures of mystical experiences but by growth in constant love for others and an increasing desire within for the will of God.
As she wrote in Life:
“God and the soul understand each other… It’s like the experience of two persons here on earth who love each other deeply and understand each other well.”
Keeping our gaze on God
Like men and women of our generation, Teresa of Avila suffered from bouts of despair, especially as she was forced by age to weaken and slow down. “There come days in which one word alone distresses me, and I would want to leave the world because it seems everything is a bother to me,” she confesses in her memoirs.
Despite the eminent stature she occupies in the Church today, we have to remember that while she was founding her reformed convents, Teresa was actually a sickly old woman who travelled great lengths on rough roads and bad weather, often with little food and even less sleep.
In her writings Teresa openly talked about her failing health, her memory loss, her inability to do what she was instructed, even her shortcomings as an author. As she narrates and itemizes her own weakness, she calls herself “gloomy” and “ill-tempered” and admits that she often gets so angry she wants to “eat everyone up, without being able to help it”. As her disillusionment grows, she describes herself as a “helpless little bird with broken wings” or “a stupid little donkey grazing”.
Whether lay or religious, we are likely to reach a stage in our lives and in our work when we no longer feel as capable or as effective as we were years back. Or, we begin to question why we are doing these things in the first place – what have we accomplished that is of any relevance to the world?
Discouragement quickly follows, as we no longer understand ourselves and our real motivations. We become weak and cowardly on the moral level and see that “our natural bent is toward the worst rather than the best”. We find ourselves so physically limited and incapable of greatness that we are even greatly affected by “changes in the weather and the rotating of the bodily humours”.
All around us and in ourselves we see deception, duplicity, and lies. As Teresa notes, the world is a mockery, a joke, “as good as a play”. We are stunned by our experience of impermanence, instability and insecurity. We try to protect ourselves because we are afraid of the truth that haunts our sleeping and sometimes even our waking hours, the truth that the Buddhist and Hindu traditions call samsara: Everything changes, passes, and dies—and so will we. But as Teresa wrote in her famous bookmark prayer: “Todo se pasa” – all things are passing. “Solo Dios basta” – God alone suffices!
Teresa continues to inspire us even four centuries after her death. Her teaching has the power to see us through a lifetime and will endure hundreds of years after us, because the wisdom she shares is timeless and perennial.
Wherever you find yourself today, whether you are delighted or disillusioned, filled with wonder or wounded, shining or shattered in this modern world that is constantly changing and moving rapidly towards its own destruction, Teresa has a word of wisdom just for you: “All our troubles come from not keeping our eyes on Christ!”
Auclair, M.: Teresa of Avila. New York: Pantheon Books. 2004.
Hutchison, G.: Teresa of Avila: Living by Holy Wit. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press. 1999.
Smith, J.V.: The Way of Perfection: A Simplified Version. Manila: National Book Store Publishers. 1977.