Saint Teresa of Avila11 min read

“God preserve me from sullen saints ! ” was one of  St. Theresa’s favourite exclamations, and so He did, for she herself was the epitome of joy.
Everyone of her books overflows with this high spirit, and to read even one is to be captivated by her, not only because she was one of the most sublime contemplatives and visionaries of the Christian Church, but because she was also a most lovable and intelligent woman, whose lofty spirit was not above enthusing over a new type of cooking-stove for her nuns, or preventing her from being such a good cook that all the nuns rejoiced when it was her turn to work in the kitchen. Here she found ‘ God among the pots and pans ’ as did Brother Lawrence in his monastery a hundred years later.

She was a truly ‘ whole ’ woman. Living a life steeped in prayer, she was at the same time eminently practical. Very suspicious of her own visions for a long time, warm-hearted and energetic, she was capable of arguing with a confessor until he exclaimed : “ I would rather argue with a thousand theologians than with this woman ! ” and of persuading hostile bishops and business men into letting her found convents all over Spain.

As a little girl she and her brother would play at hermits in their garden, but at adolescence the thought of entering a convent filled her with repulsion. Though this attitude was modified by closer contact with nuns, she forced herself to enter as a novice more from fear of Hell than from a desire to dedicate her life to God. Fear of the devil and Hell were very real in Inquisitorial Spain and Theresa’s parents had been devout, so it is not surprising that the thought of everlasting torment was a constant one. When she secretly fled from her father’s house (for he had forbidden her to become a nun), she said that the agony of parting could not be greater at death ; yet she made herself do it, and once she had taken the habit,

“ The Lord at once showed me how great are His favours to those who use force with themselves in His service.”

From the first she was given experiences that as a rule, only come to very advanced souls. This did not prevent her from leading what must have been quite a gregarious fife ; for the rule in convents at that time, even for the Carmelites, had been relaxed, and visitors to the nuns’ little parlour were frequent. Theresa spent many hours in delightful chatter, as she found out, to her cost. She was a voluble, and from all accounts a fascinating, talker. She loved people, and says that a pride in her personal appearance and a passion for cleanliness and a general fastidiousness were her vanities. So although God was leading her to the prayer of Quiet during her solitude, her progress was continually hindered by her love of contact with the outside world. For nearly twenty years this struggle went on, partly because her confessors were men of meagre intelligence who had no conception of the spiritual stature of the woman before them, and partly because although she knew these worldly contacts should be given up, she was unable to do it by her own unaided efforts.

For a long time her confessor reassured her that these contacts were permissible. She was in torment and puts it thus : “ I wanted to live, for I knew that I was not living at all, but only battling with a shadow of death ; but there was no one to give me life and I was unable to take it for myself.”

She even gave up prayer for a year, thinking she was so bad that it was humility not to desire the “ friendly intercourse and frequent solitary converse ” that she calls mental prayer. This prayer did not come as easily to her as one might expect. For years the prayer hour was often spent in wishing the time was over and in listening to the clock striking—yet when she had forced herself to pray, though without any natural inclination for it, she found more tranquillity and happiness than when she had prayed because she wanted to.

At last her time was ripe. She heard the voice of the Lord telling her that henceforth she would converse only with angels and not with men. To her great joy she was now able to cut the thread of attachment, and it was from this time that her work for the reformation of the Spanish convents and monasteries dates.

It had been a bitterly long struggle, and not always accompanied by consolations and favours by any means. In her beautiful illustration of the four degrees of mental prayer, she likens them to four methods of watering a garden. The most laborious and primitive is by drawing water from a well; that is, the soul has to work very hard at mind control and meditation in order to draw even a little water to refresh the plants in her garden, that the Lord may take his pleasure among the flowers when they eventually bloom. Of this period she says she endured aridities for many years, “and when I was able to draw one drop of water from this blessed well, I used to think God was granting me a favour.”

How well she describes these states of aridity and their value ! Here is an example from the dozens of illustrations in her writings :

“ Whom the Lord loveth, in that measure He lays on them His Cross. And the heaviest of all our crosses is a life of sanctification and service without sensible consolation. ”

And she knew what she was talking about when it came to crosses. While still very young she was very seriously ill, and became paralysed in an excruciatingly painful way. This lasted for three years, during which time she remained so cheerful and patient that those who saw her were astounded. All her life she had miserable health, but gloom she would not allow at any cost. She thought fife so terrible anyway, that unless one was gay it would become quite unbearable.

“ Let no one be affrighted or turned away from the life of virtue and religion by your gloom and morosity. This concerns religious women very much. The more holy they are, the more affable and sociable they should study to be . . . Let not your soul coop itself up in a corner . . . the devil will keep you company there and will do your sequestered soul much mischief.”

To cheer her own nuns she would on occasions leave her writing, take down her tambourine, and sing and dance for them.
Her glorious joy came of course from the fact that she gave herself utterly to ‘ His Majesty ’ and lived in the mystic sense of Union.

“ God is the Soul of my soul,” she writes. “ He engulfs in Himself my soul ”.

During a large part of her fife she was given raptures, locutions and visions in extraordinary abundance, though not so much in her later years. She has been labelled hysterical, but her own shrewd selfexamination and distrust of her experiences, and also her embarrassment at the onset of raptures or levitation in public, are sure indications that she was nothing of the kind.
Extraordinary as her experiences were, the real wonders of her fife for us are her books and letters, her psychological insight into the problems of the spiritual life and clear analysis of mental prayer, and the enthusiasm that abounds for this fife on every page that she wrote. Even when she gave up prayer for a year, she spent her time in persuading others to take up mental prayer for the great benefits it conferred.

But she did not despise vocal prayer ; in fact she recommended it as the surest and swiftest way to recollection that she knew. “That prayer is most acceptable which leaves the best results. Results, I mean, in actions. That is true prayer. Not certain gusts of softness and feeling, and nothing more … it is the best prayer that has with it the most work and the most suffering.”

A bishop once wrote for her advice on this subject, and this is part of the reply he received :

“ It was discovered to me that you still wanted that which is the foundation of every virtue, and without which the whole superstructure dissolves, and falls into ruins. You want prayer. You want believing, persevering, courageous prayer. And the want of that prayer causes all that drought and disunion from which you say your soul suffers.” To ask for her prayers was no light thing evidently. She continues : “ Sometimes He will teach you by turning His back on you, and anon by lifting up the light of His Countenance upon you. And you are to receive it all with the same equability of mind . . . .”

This is very much the same as the Gita : “ Steadfast in devotion do thy works . . . being the same in success and failure. Evenness is called Yoga.”

Another Yogic similarity with St. Theresa’s teaching is on the subject of self-knowledge. She thought it no small pity that we are unaware of who we are and do not understand ourselves.

“ Self-knowledge is so important that even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should never like you to relax your cultivation of it.” To do this the gaze must be fixed on God. As a bee flits from flower to flower in its search for honey, so must we constantly ‘ soar aloft ’ in meditation ; this is ennobling ; to be forever concerned with our lower natures would make us timorous and fearful. “ The Blessed Augustine testifies that neither in the house, nor in the church, nor anywhere else, did he find God, till once he had found Him in himself. Nor had he need to go up to Heaven, but only down into himself to find God. Nay, he took God to heaven with him when at last he went there.”
“ Settle yourself in solitude,” she says, “ and you will come upon God in yourself ”. “ The life of prayer is just love of God and the custom of being ever with Him.” How simple, how utterly delightful she makes it sound !

For those who have to live in the world she said rather wryly that they should have no fear, “ for the world will not pardon them or fail to observe their imperfections.”

Humility she loved above all perfections. On considering why God loved humility in us she decided it was because He Himself is Truth, and therefore the less there is of ourselves, the more room there will be for Him, Truth. If we cannot recognise our own nothingness, we are walking in lies, for we are excluding the Truth. So she calls humility the Queen, Empress and Sovereign of all the virtues. Nevertheless, beware of spurious humility which troubles and confounds the soul. True humility brings with it great peace and delight; it does not stifle or crush the soul, but makes it a more perfect instrument for service. She would have her nuns take so little notice of their own honour, that if they were wrongly accused they must make no excuses. If this practice were faithfully carried out they would begin to gain freedom until, in time, it would be as though two people were talking in their presence and they were quite uninterested in what was being said. Here is the Witness Consciousness acting, par excellence !

“ With humility we can draw Him into our souls by a single hair.”

What a wealth of experience and purification lies behind that sentence. And also a certain boldness ! She was often surprised herself at the way she addressed her Lord and was continually amazed that He granted her requests so frequently. She desired to have a friend of hers made a better man and “ said so too freely, I fear. ‘ O Lord ’, I said, ‘ Thou must not deny me this favour that I ask. This is a man for us to make a friend of ’. And He did it. Yes, He did it! ”

“ For us to make a friend of ”—it is a delightful and characteristic example of her sense of complete oneness with God.

But for all her insistence on humility—and she devotes many pages to it—she would not have her nuns unaware of the very great honour it was to have been called to the spiritual life. Unless good use is made of these high treasures given by God, they will be taken away and given to another, one worthier.

“ For how can a rich man unaware that he is rich make good use of his riches ? ” “ There is no place here for fear, but only for desire,” and, as well, “ we must have a holy boldness, for God helps the strong, being no respecter of persons, and He will help you and me.”