Saint Teresa of Avila is remembered for many things – she was a reformer, a mystic, a pre-eminent teacher of the Faith (or, to speak more formally, a Doctor of the Church), a spiritual guide for all times and places, a patriotic Spaniard (and now patron saint of her beloved homeland), a writer of prayers, and fiercely independent yet deeply committed to the Church. Today is her feast day, and therefore affords an excellent opportunity for me to embarrass myself trying to do justice to even one of the many areas of life in the Church that she contributed to. To give myself some help, I have narrowed things down to one area of her teaching – that of her instruction in the life of prayer – and have enlisted the help of another great teacher of the Faith, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Saint Teresa, also known as Saint Teresa of Jesus, whose full name was Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, was born in Gotarrendura (in the province of Avila) in 1515, and so grew up under the shadow of the explosive acts of rebellion that were taking place across Europe at the time (particularly in Germany). Contrary to the expectations of popular imagination, during this period the religious life of Spain was vital and versatile, and had begun to experience a spirit of renewal before what was later termed the Counter Reformation. The difference was that the Spanish Church, perhaps in response to the recent restoration of its Catholic roots after centuries of Islamic occupation, was more determined to remain true to the Faith once received, and less inclined to break from the roots it had so recently recovered.
Be that as it may, Teresa was certainly born into a devout family, and showed great desire for the religious life from an early age – at seven, she ran away from home with her brother to give their lives in preaching to the Moors, hoping to receive martyrdom so that she could see God. At the age of fourteen, her mother died, and at this point she developed a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary as her spiritual mother. Not long after this, she was sent to an Augustinian convent at Avila for education, and at the age of twenty she joined the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation there, where she would remain for many years (this is also where she took the name Teresa de Jesus).
She experienced much illness during these early years, as well as losing many of her family members – by 1543 her father had died and all her siblings had emigrated to the Americas. In 1554, during Lent, after many years of suffering and struggling through spiritual dryness, she reached something of an epiphany, with a statue of the wounded Christ making a great impression upon her. At the same time, she was overcome by a profound mystical experience where she felt with the utmost realness that God was within her and without her, and that she was wholly immersed in Him. This proved to be a turning point in her prayer life, but also gave shape to her reforming work – she had long felt the Carmelites of her age to have become progressively lax, and in 1562 formed the first Discalced Carmelite convent, with sixteen more to follow over the years.
It is her teaching on prayer that I am particularly interested in commenting on here though – especially the sense in which she sees patience as the key to developing a genuine relationship with God; one that does not depend upon feelings or spiritual reward but that is rooted in an authentic commitment to the will of God and recognition of His love for us. The suffering she endured (which I have so briefly outlined), and the ways in which she responded to them, were almost certainly instrumental in bringing her vision of the spiritual life about – that vision was summarised with great clarity in a General Audience given by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2011:
‘It is far from easy to sum up in a few words Teresa’s profound and articulate spirituality. I would like to mention a few essential points. In the first place St Teresa proposes the evangelical virtues as the basis of all Christian and human life and in particular, detachment from possessions, that is, evangelical poverty, and this concerns all of us; love for one another as an essential element of community and social life; humility as love for the truth; determination as a fruit of Christian daring; theological hope, which she describes as the thirst for living water. Then we should not forget the human virtues: affability, truthfulness, modesty, courtesy, cheerfulness, culture…
…Prayer is life and develops gradually, in pace with the growth of Christian life: it begins with vocal prayer, passes through interiorisation by means of meditation and recollection, until it attains the union of love with Christ and with the Holy Trinity. Obviously, in the development of prayer climbing to the highest steps does not mean abandoning the previous type of prayer. Rather, it is a gradual deepening of the relationship with God that envelops the whole of life.’
from the General Audience of February 2nd, 2011, in the Paul VI Audience Hall.
What is common to all that Pope Benedict describes above is the strong sense of commitment that Saint Teresa urged in her teaching – commitment to God above all things, and to growth in the life that He wants for us – as well as the sense that our prayer life must be integrated with our active life at a deep level (‘prayer is life’). The actual practice of contemplative prayer is akin to a habit that must be learned; this is done again through a deep interior commitment to growing in relationship with God, as well as patience in the actual day-to-day practice of prayer. Saint Teresa’s teaching in this area is very down-to-earth and practical – she (from hard-worn personal experience) knows that there will be times that it is hard and we will want to give up, and knows equally well that these are just the times that we need to re-double our commitment.
For Saint Teresa, patience and perseverance are the key to strengthening and renewing that initial commitment to God and life with Him, as well as to the purifying of our souls – the clearing out of self-interest and our habitual tendency towards distraction that clutter up our prayer lives and prevent us from deepening our relationship with God. She even counsels against paying too much attention to visions or feelings of spiritual ecstasy – as someone who had experienced both she knows that, whilst they have their place in the spiritual life and should not be rejected, they are not the heart and soul of the matter, and too much emphasis should not be placed on them. What is important is the patient development of relationship with God, with growing in love.
Pope Benedict continues to say that Saint Teresa insisted on the life of prayer being something that is never wholly individual, but is conducted in ‘profound harmony with the great biblical figures and eager listening to the word of God’ – by constantly testing the validity of our friendship with God by comparing it to and sharing it with the lives of those who communed closely with God in Sacred Scripture. An authentic Christian life cannot be one which is divorced from, let alone opposed to, the wider traditions and experiences of the Church’s life:
‘Another subject dear to the Saint is the centrality of Christ’s humanity. For Teresa, in fact, Christian life is the personal relationship with Jesus that culminates in union with him through grace, love and imitation. Hence the importance she attaches to meditation on the Passion and on the Eucharist as the presence of Christ in the Church for the life of every believer, and as the heart of the Liturgy. St Teresa lives out unconditional love for the Church: she shows a lively “sensus Ecclesiae”, in the face of the episodes of division and conflict in the Church of her time.
She reformed the Carmelite Order with the intention of serving and defending the “Holy Roman Catholic Church”, and was willing to give her life for the Church (cf. Vida, 33,5).
A final essential aspect of Teresian doctrine which I would like to emphasize is perfection, as the aspiration of the whole of Christian life and as its ultimate goal. The Saint has a very clear idea of the “fullness” of Christ, relived by the Christian. At the end of the route through The Interior Castle, in the last “room”, Teresa describes this fullness, achieved in the indwelling of the Trinity, in union with Christ through the mystery of his humanity.’
The three points mentioned by Pope Benedict above are all deeply interconnected. It was the profound sense Saint Teresa had of the significance of the Incarnation that led her to see how important it was to think and pray with the whole Church. The connection between Christ and His Church is of course given its most vivid expression and realisation in the Holy Eucharist and the liturgy of the Mass; thus while the active and contemplative life of the Christian cannot be separated from one another, neither can Christian life as a whole be separated from what is prayed and confessed in the liturgy, or Who is received in the Eucharist – they are all of a whole, because Christ and His Church are also one. This recognition and deeply held belief was what enabled Saint Teresa to endure so much discord within the Church during her life.
The final point made by Pope Benedict also flows from this, as the perfection we are all called to is precisely the fullness of Christ’s very own life, and is also precisely what the instruments of the Church – Sacraments, Magisterium, Scripture, Tradition – are there to draw us towards. All the life of the Church is one, not only because it is the Body of Christ, but because it is through that life that we are called to one goal – perfect loving union with Our Lord, by which we will then also achieve perfect participation in the life of the Most Blessed Holy Trinity, itself the very foundation of all life and all love. That Saint Teresa saw these strands of interconnection and unity at such a deep level is why she remains such an important figure for the Church.
This consistency and clarity of vision, coupled with her practical counsel on the need for patience in the life of prayer, and the need to integrate that prayer life with our everyday living, is why Saint Teresa of Avila was honoured with the title of Doctor – her teaching is not only in full concordance with the Catholic Faith, but it presents that Faith with particular lucidity, laying out the path to perfection in a way that is accessible, sensible and realistic, managing to access great depths of mystery and yet imparting them with simplicity. She saw that the strange tension and creative dialogue between mystery and simplicity is at the heart of Christianity, because it is the heart of Christ Himself – disarmingly direct, yet delivering truths that are full of meaning and Life.