| Women of Prayer and Justice|
Session 3: Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
prepared by Eleanor Lincoln, CSJ and Catherine Litecky, CSJ
Women at the Well Ministry, St. Paul, MN
“Let nothing disturb you,
let nothing cause you fear
All things pass.
God is unchanging.
Patience obtains all:
Whoever has God
needs nothing else.
God alone suffices.”
poem, found as a bookmark in St. Teresa's prayer book, tells of her
complete trust in God. Read this “bookmark” several times as a way of
readying you for this part of the retreat. GOD ALONE SUFFICES!
her autobiography, The Book of Her Life, Teresa describes the stages of
prayer by using the analogy of watering a garden, a task with which
most of us are familiar since gardening is the number one hobby of
Americans today. The four methods by which a garden can be watered
correspond to the progressively advanced stages of prayer: drawing
water from a well, obtaining water by means of an aqueduct (or hose),
letting water flow from a stream, and receiving natural rainfall.
water from a well can be compared to our taking the initiative to place
ourselves in the presence of Christ. Obtaining water from an aqueduct
(or hose), Teresa calls the prayer of quiet which comes through less
effort and with more consolation.
Water flowing from a stream
into the garden is the third stage of prayer where we find rest only in
God. While the second stage represents “the holy idleness of Mary,”
this third stage also includes the activity of Martha. While welcoming
the stream of grace flowing into our garden-soul, we can be both active
and contemplative in doing works of charity, taking care of business,
conversing with our friends. Meanwhile, as Teresa says, “the best part
of the soul” is elsewhere.
The fourth stage of prayer is like
gentle rain watering the garden. This is the stage of union with God,
or divine communication. Mystics reach this stage of prayer.
her writings we know that Teresa sometimes reached this fourth stage of
union with God. The intensity of her experience was overwhelming. But
she did not always experience such intensity. Like her we sometimes
need our garden to be watered by a well or a hose. And sometimes we
have moments of refreshing rain. We need to remember that our
soul-garden grows because of life-giving grace with which God blesses
Take a few quiet moments to
reflect on your own soul-garden by thinking about your prayer today.
How does your garden receive the water of God's grace? Whatever your
prayer experience, thank God for it. Try to become more conscious of
the God who loves you, no matter how you pray.
journeys through Spain where she established many Carmelite convents,
she constantly called upon God. Even those who know little about St.
Teresa of Avila may have heard her famous quip to God. In 1582 while on
her way to make her last Carmelite foundation, where in fact she died,
she and her companions encountered life-threatening flood conditions.
Standing in a river torrent, she complained: “Lord, amid so many ills
this comes on top of all the rest.” A Voice answered her, “Teresa, that
is how I treat my friends.” She retorted, “Ah, my God! That is why you
have so few of them!”
This banter between friends suggests
much more than Teresa's familiarity with God; it reveals the depth of
their relationship. Only someone in very close friendship with God
could speak with such familiarity! Teresa demonstrated the quick wit of
a woman noted for her vivacity and charm, which were in no way lessened
by the hardships that marked her efforts to reform the Carmelite order.
For Teresa, the great Christian mystic and first woman doctor
of the Church, prayer is nothing more, and nothing less, than the
deepest friendship with God. Writing of her prayer life, as she did at
the request of her confessor because church authorities were suspicious
of her profound mystical experiences, Teresa describes friendship with
the Divine as deep and loving communication. Being a woman of
exceptional human qualities, brought to fullness by the graces she
received, Teresa changed not only the Carmelite order but also set the
church in a new direction. She did this through her complete and
unwavering trust in her divine Friend.
a few moments to think about your relationship with God. Is it true
friendship with intimacy on both sides? How could you deepen this
Prayer as friendship is the theme of St.
Teresa's life. In The Book of Her Life (1565) she describes the “battle
and conflict between friendship with God and friendship with the world”
(p. 95) which marked her early years in religious life. She then goes
on to show how she learned to trust her own experience of God.
her practical guide for prayer written for her nuns, The Way of
Perfection (1566), she tells them that the spiritual friendship which
must exist among them shows itself in their life of prayer and their
service of one another and the church. Christ is both “their Guest who
comes to stay” with them and also their friend. Teresa develops the
metaphor of prayer as hospitality, the virtue of friendship, in her
greatest book, The Interior Castle (1577).
In this book on
prayer Teresa expands the metaphor of a place (a castle) of many rooms
or dwelling places. In 21st-century terms we might think more of a home
with all the meanings the word suggests. This image is a domestic and
feminine one; God dwells in the center (the home of the heart) inviting
souls to full hospitality. Deep within this home, or castle, with its
many rooms, says Teresa, “the very secret exchange between God and the
soul take place” (The Classics of Western Spirituality, First Dwelling
Place, ch. 1, p. 36).
In The Interior Castle, as in her other
writings, Teresa never allows love of neighbor to be slighted for love
of God. She tells her readers: “[l]et us desire and be occupied in
prayer not for the sake of our enjoyment but so as to have this
strength to serve” (SeventhDwelling Place, ch. 4, p. 192).
concludes The Interior Castle with the Mary/Martha analogy favored
throughout her writings. This gospel story of Jesus' two intimate
friends ties together the idea of prayer as friendship and as
hospitality: “Believe me, Martha and Mary must join together in order
to show hospitality to the Lord and have him always present and not
host him badly by failing to give him something to eat. How would Mary,
always seated at his feet, provide him with food if her sister did not
help her? His food is that in every way possible we draw souls that
they may be saved and praise him always” (Seventh Dwelling Place, ch.
4, p. 192).
Teresa lived the fullness of a life both active and
contemplative. In working hard and praying much, Teresa shows that the
deepest and truest Christian life can develop through blending prayer
and action in friendship with God.
about your own soul, your deepest self. Where and how does God live in
you? Take a few moments to get in touch with the God who dwells within
you by closing your eyes, breathing deeply, and gently calling on God
as “loving Friend,” “Holy One,” etc.
Teresa, who was
blessed with many human friendships throughout her long life,
experienced God in the same way she enjoyed these human friends: by
spending time with them, telling experiences, sharing hopes and fears,
investing mutual trust and confidence, finding support and love, and
sometimes enjoying deepest intimacy. This is what Teresa's teaching on
mystical prayer is all about.
As a friend to herself, she knew
the importance of knowing herself, accepting and loving herself,
valuing her own experience, integrating the physical and the spiritual
into a wholeness, and bringing this complete identity into the
encounter with her loving divine Friend.
are you a friend to yourself? Reflect on how you know yourself, accept
and love yourself, value your own experience. How are the physical and
spiritual sides of yourself integrated? How do you bring your complete
identity into your prayer. Pray for a deeper knowledge of yourself in
order to have a deeper friendship with God. Take a few moments again to
get in touch with the God who lives within you.
Teresa's genius in valuing her own experience as a woman that enabled
her to write her books, books which had great influence on Christian
spirituality--in her day and ours. She wrote about are her own
experiences as a woman of prayer and action. Whatever else she had
learned about prayer had come to her through male experience. Unable to
read Latin, she knew the Bible only as it was quoted by priests in
sermons and books.
Her own writings had tremendous influence not
only because she was able to value her own experience of God but also
because she was able to share her experiences through human language.
She describes the indescribable through the simple metaphors of her own
reality: gardens, hospitality, and friendship.
life. She lived it with an intensity and enthusiasm which never
slackened. With the wit and charm which attracted people to her
throughout her life, she shared her great gift for human friendship.
This sometimes caused her problems in her youth, but it helped to bring
success to her reformation of the Carmelite order which had lost its
original fervor. Her success was often won by making enemies into
Teresa was born in Avila in Castilian Spain in 1515,
just prior to the beginning of the Reformation. Her life coincided with
the Counter-reformation and with the Inquisition which was set up by
the Catholic church to counteract heresy. The Spanish Inquisition
shadowed Teresa who called herself a loyal “daughter of the Church”
because the authorities were suspicious of what she said about her
prayer life and of the reforms she made. But nothing could harm her
because she insisted that God was her “all.”
She came from a
wealthy family and lived a worldly youth. She was beautiful, charming,
and attractive, and the people of Avila said of her, “She will marry
whom she chooses” (rather than submit to the customary arranged
marriage). She decided that religious life was, as she said, “the best
and safest state.” But for 20 years, in the quite worldly Convent of
the Incarnation, she struggled with her heart divided between prayer
and worldly interests. Then one day, noticing a statue of the wounded
Christ, she had a conversion experience. At age 40 she became vividly
aware of God's presence. Her sisters and her confessor did not
understand her at first, questioning whether her mystical experiences
were from God or the devil.
She realized the need for a life
that would be more conducive to prayer, and she set about to return the
Carmelites to the primitive Carmelite rule which included complete
cloister, absolute poverty, and strict obedience--all of which were
supportive of a life of prayer and contemplation.. Opposition to this
reform came from various sources such as church and Spanish authorities
and even her own order. But her relationship with her Divine Friend in
prayer sustained her in her reform of Carmel.
For the next 15
years (1555) until her death (1582), her life became one of intense
activity as well as constant prayer. She founded 17 convents for women,
meanwhile suffering from ill health. She traveled all over mountainous
Spain under the most difficult conditions. In founding each convent
Teresa had opponents and problems, but trusting totally in God, she
cheerfully and courageously carried on.
Teresa was a vibrant
extroverted woman who lived life with great energy and courage. Her
accomplishments still have a profound effect on the church and
Christians of our day. She functioned in the way the CEO of a company
might operate today. Her reforming of a large order with many
traditions was a tremendous accomplishment. Not only did she reform the
Carmelite order for women; she also reformed the men's order of
Carmelites with her friend, John of the Cross. She knew how to work
with and around people in church and society, and often won them to her
views by both reason and prayer.
A woman of deep prayer she
inspired others to be the same. In her several books on prayer she says
very little about her other accomplishments. The flourishing of the
Carmelite order--in her day, in the time of her namesake, Therese of
Lisieux, and still today--attests to her powers of persuasion and
planning. Her secret, of course, was her deep and abiding friendship
with God. She was early canonized by the Catholic Church and more
recently (1970) was proclaimed a doctor (a theologian, a teacher) of
Teresa of Avila was probably as busy as any woman in
history but her accomplishments can be attributed to her visionary life
of prayer. This great administrator worked in a spirit of great joy, in
spite of frequent illness and many hardships.
Her life and
teachings are significant for contemporary Christians, especially women
whose experiences of God have often been undervalued by themselves and
others. Today we are more and more in need of hearing and telling
stories of such experiences. We can see the interior castle as a place
of relationship and intimacy where receptivity and openness are
integral to mystical prayer.
The story of Teresa's relationship
with the Divine, and her ability to share this with us, can encourage
us in our search for an intimate relationship with God. Her message
speaks especially to us contemporary Christians who still need to work
at trusting and valuing our experiences as persons of prayer.
You may find the following intercessions a helpful way to conclude this session on Teresa of Avila, woman of prayer and justice:
O God, we ask you to
teach us the ways of prayer;
give us the grace to cherish our friendship with Jesus;
help us to grow in self-knowledge, humility, and love for one another;
bless all those who seek to bring about reform in church and society;
grant that women who study theology and spirituality bring their wisdom and insight to the church.
God, in Teresa you have given us a model--a woman who was faithful to
prayer and to the work she was called to do. Help us to be so committed
to you that our daily work fosters our life of prayer and our life of
prayer enables us to live fully in the world around us and be aware of
its needs. We ask this through Jesus, her friend. Amen.
(Adapted from Peoples Companion to the Breviary, vol. 2, p. 522, (published by the Carmelites of Indianapolis, 1997)
Click to go to the next Women of Prayer and Justice retreat:
Catherine of Siena
| Session 1: Dorothy Day|
Session 2: Therese of Lisieux
Session 3: Teresa of Avila
Session 4: St. Catherine of Siena
Session 5: Blessed Julian of Norwich
Session 6: St. Hildegard of Bingen