Spirituality / Classics
I love God, but my prayer doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. What’s happening? Sometimes prayer seems effortless. At other times, no matter who we are or what our vocation is in life, we are bored, distracted, or consumed by some other interest. Teresa of Avila teaches us both to live and to pray in reality, and to find God’s peace and his presence in the midst of our daily lives. This collection of her advice on prayer gives us insight into her way of deepening one’s relationship with God. Each volume of the Classic Wisdom Collection provides time-tested spiritual guidance for living a Christian life. Saint Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) was a Spanish Carmelite reformer and mystic. She is known and loved for her simple approach to the spiritual life. Teresa of Avila was the first woman honored as a doctor of the Church.
lthough it is only lately that I have read St. Teresa of Avila, I am familiar with the common Catholic lore surrounding her—those tidbits we collect simply by reading and observing our religious milieu. I did frequently use her prayer, Let Nothing Disturb You, also known as St. Teresa’s Bookmark. Likewise, I was aware that she is known among Carmelites as their Madre because of the great reform she carried out. Then, of course, I have always admired the amazing sculpture by Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila, located in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. Oh, yes, and I am familiar with the delightful tale of her chiding God when a cart in which she was riding flipped over into the mud. “It’s no wonder you have so few friends, Lord,” she is quoted, “if this is how you treat them!” xiii
But I had no enduring friendship with St. Teresa, simply a passing thought here, a striking passage there. Hers were not books I would have curled up with on the couch, although I know of someone who did just that: a young agnostic philosopher who was left alone one afternoon at her friends’ home. “Feel free. We’ll be back later,” they said. Being a book lover, she headed for the bookshelves. As she scanned her friends’ collection, her gaze landed on The Book of Her Life, the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. This young woman was Edith Stein, whose consuming desire had been to discover the truth. She sought it first through philosophy, which did not fully satisfy her, but she found it played out in a life. “I read through the night,” she said, “and at the end I realized that this is the truth.” What Edith found was personified Truth in Jesus Christ, and more, she saw Jesus in a relationship with the soul of Teresa. This powerful depiction drew Edith and her search to its culmination. She entered the Church and became a Carmelite saint. When I did pick up St. Teresa’s works, I was delighted at how very real and readable they are. In her autobiography, written in obedience to her spiritual director, as well as in her innumerable letters, poetry, commentary, rules, and many spiritual works, she remains her plain-spoken, supremely practical self. She will interrupt her own flights of ecstasy to insert some poignant advice: look for the Lord within your heart and soul where the Blessed Trinity truly lives, animating, awaiting, and
drawing you closer with each breath. Look for him also within the details and duties of daily life, as she says, among the pots and pans. She advises her younger brother Lorenzo to be prudent in his generosity with the family riches because he has sons who have yet to marry. She tells one person to sleep more and another to sleep a little less, to take the proper cures, to enjoy the treats, to find pleasure in the company of others, but to seek especially the company of the Lord, savoring all the sacrifices he presents as if they were the most enviable privileges. I believe this sense of relationship with God was Teresa’s most deeply felt desire. She wanted her readers, whether they were relatives enjoying her correspondence or fellow Carmelites studying her great plan, to observe and then imitate her reverence and familiarity with the Lord.
xyx Teresa introduces her autobiography by claiming that despite her upbringing and the abundance of God’s grace, she was “quite wretched.”1 By today’s standards I suspect most parents would rejoice in such a “wretched” daughter. Teresa, however, was born in an era of far stricter standards than our own. On March 28, 1515, the family of Alonso and Beatriz (de Ahumada) Sanchez y Cepeda welcomed a beautiful new
daughter whom they named Teresa. The family delighted in this vivacious little charmer who took so seriously her religious training. At the age of seven Teresa convinced her nine-year-old brother Rodrigo to run away from Avila in search of martyrdom. Their hope, according to Teresa, was to attain the glorious things they had heard were in heaven. However, they were unceremoniously scooped up by their Uncle Francisco and returned home. As she grew, Teresa’s attention was drawn to the joys of this world. She excelled in the pursuits of the young: dancing, singing, and dressing fashionably. But things changed suddenly in 1528 when Señora Beatriz died after the birth of her tenth child. Alonso decided to entrust the education and formation of Teresa to a convent school. Illness, however, soon brought her back to the family home. Her interest in fashion and parties also returned. Realizing she was succumbing to vanity and frivolity, Teresa announced she would enter the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation. But Alonso would hear nothing of it. In her determination, Teresa again ran away, this time to the Incarnation where she was received as a postulant. After profession a serious illness again required her to return to her father’s house. Once cured, she returned to Carmel. Over the next twelve or thirteen years Teresa allowed herself to fall into the general malaise of the house. At this period of Church history, religious observance was not always as
exemplary as it should have been. Her fervor was restored only after her fatherâ€™s death in 1543. During this time of her renewal, Teresa began experiencing apparitions from Jesus. From this point on he continued to draw her higher and deeper into his own mysteries. In 1556 Jesus invited Teresa to a mystical betrothal, promising to never leave her. These visions and her voluminous writings brought her to the attention of the Inquisition, but Teresa continued with the assurance of her Lord. For his part their relationship was escalating with all sorts of mystical phenomena: visions, locutions, and levitation. These favors must be reciprocated, as is the rule of relationships, and so Teresa made a vow to seek perfection through greater prayer and penance. In order to facilitate this intense desire, in 1560 she proposed a reform of Carmelite life. New struggles accompanied this plan, which was almost universally opposed. Undaunted Teresa wrote the Book of Her Life and then a draft of the Rule for the reform. In early 1562 Pope Pius IV gave permission for the founding of the first monastery of her renewal in Avila. Thus began Teresaâ€™s journey as a foundress. Over the next twenty years she planted monasteries in seventeen cities across Spain. This great achievement was accompanied by her amazing output of spiritual writings: The Way of Perfection, Soliloquies, Meditations on the Song of Songs, The Interior Castle, and thousands of letters. She also suffered from severe headaches, fevers, and a wide variety of pains.
In 1567 Teresa first met the young Carmelite friar, John of the Cross, with whom the reform expanded to the masculine Carmelite monasteries. These two saints were constantly harassed from without, and experienced intense physical suffering within themselves. On October 4, 1582, Teresa returned to the home of the heavenly Father, after learning that her constitutions had been approved the previous year. She was canonized in 1622 by Gregory XV and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970 by Paul VI. Today her writings and her foundations endure as a lasting blessing and treasure of the Church throughout the world. Her feast day is October 15.
xyx How can a cloistered nun, Carmelite reformer, mystic, and Doctor of the Church inspire those of us who must live our life of faith in today’s world? We face far different circumstances and live in a culture far different from Teresa’s. Not much in our lives seems to match hers. But we can find ourselves in St. Teresa’s writings, in the sacred inner ground of the soul. This is where people throughout history have excelled, failed, or struggled. Thankfully, for most of us, we live in continual struggle. I say thankfully, because with the struggle always comes hope. Some days our prayers and reflection will be better than others. Often we ask ourselves: What’s going wrong? I’m not getting anything out of prayer! xviii
I complained once to my formator when I was a young sister. “You know, Sr. Concetta, I get so distracted when I pray. I’m getting nowhere spiritually.” Wisely, she suggested that I should always pray as I had when I was most fervent. That simple advice has remained with me. It seems very Teresa-like. Teresa originally entered Carmel in an effort to live a good religious life, but soon she found herself absorbed in the lax culture of that monastery. It had little room for reflection with the constant coming and going of visitors. We know how easy it is to lose focus, to stray from our original intention, and to let down our guard. No matter who we are or what our vocation is in life, at times we are bored, distracted, or embroiled in some other interest. As you are reading this book, ask St. Teresa to speak to your concerns, to your difficulties in prayer. It seems that the holy secret is to strive always to be attentive to God present within and all around us. Teresa teaches us to both live and pray in reality, to find the extraordinary within the ordinariness of our daily life. Whatever our life’s calling— be it as a spouse and parent, a religious or priest, a civil servant, doctor, lawyer, or chief cook and bottle washer, we need to choose again what we have chosen and let our prayer flow from this reality. “Thus,” Teresa assures us, “even though our works are small they will have the value our love for Him would have merited had they been great.”2
Having spoken one day to a person who had given up a great deal for God and recalling how I had never given up anything for Him—nor have I ever served Him in accordance with my obligation—and considering the many favors he had bestowed on my soul, I began to grow very anxious. And the Lord said: “You already know of the espousal between you and Me. Because of this espousal, whatever I have is yours. So I give you all the trials and sufferings I underwent, and by these means, as with something belonging to you, you can make requests of my Father.” Although I had heard we share these, now I had heard it in such a different way that it seemed I felt great dominion. The friendship in which this favor was granted me cannot be described here. It seemed to me the Father accepted the fact of this sharing; and since then I look very differently upon what the Lord suffered, as something belonging to me—and it gives me great comfort. — Spiritual Testimonies, 46. (Seville, late 1575): An effect of the spiritual marriage
t is not my intention or thought that what I say here be taken for certain and as an infallible rule, for that would be foolish in things so difficult. Since there are many paths along this way of the spirit, it could be that I will manage to say certain useful things about some of them. If those who do not walk along the path of which Iâ€™m speaking do not understand what Iâ€™m saying, it will be because they are walking by another. And if I do not help anyone, the Lord will accept my desire. He knows that even though I have not experienced all of which I speak, I have seen it in other souls. First, I want to treat, according to my poor understanding, of the substance of perfect prayer. For I have run into some for whom it seems the whole business lies in thinking. If they can
keep their mind much occupied in God, even though great effort is exerted, they at once think they are spiritual. If, on the contrary, without being able to avoid it, they become distracted, even if for the sake of good things, they then become disconsolate and think they are lost. Learned men will not fall victim to these misconceptions, although I have already met learned men who have had some of them. But it is fitting that we women receive advice with regard to all these misunderstandings. I do not deny that it is a favor from the Lord if someone is able to be always meditating on His works, and it is good that one strive to do so. However, it must be understood that not all imaginations are by their nature capable of this meditating, but all souls are capable of loving. I have already at another time written about the causes of this restlessness of our imagination, I think;1 not all the causes—that would be impossible—but some. And so I am not treating of this now. But I should like to explain that the soul is not the mind, nor is the will directed by thinking, for this would be very unfortunate. Hence, the soul’s progress does not lie in thinking much but in loving much. How does one acquire this love? By being determined to work and to suffer, and to do so when the occasion arises. It is indeed true that by thinking of what we owe the Lord, of who He is, and what we are, a soul’s determination grows, and that this thinking is very meritorious and appropriate for beginners. But it must be understood that this is true provided that 2
nothing interferes with obedience or benefit to one’s neighbor. When either of these two things presents itself, time is demanded, and also the abandonment of what we so much desire to give God, which, in our opinion, is to be alone thinking of Him and delighting in the delights that He gives us. To leave aside these delights for either of these other two things is to give delight to Him and do the work for Him, as He Himself said: What you did for one of these little ones you did for Me (Mt 25:40). And in matters touching on obedience He doesn’t want the soul who truly loves Him to take any other path than the one He did: obediens usque ad mortem.2 — The Book of Her Foundations, Chapter 5:1–3