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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

Teresa of Avila

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.

This 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!

In 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.

Drawing 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.

From 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 us.

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.

On her 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.

Take a few moments to think about your relationship with God. Is it true friendship with intimacy on both sides? How could you deepen this friendship?

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.

In 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).

She 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.

Think 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.

How 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.

It was 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.

Teresa loved 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 friends.

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 the Church.

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.

O 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)

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Catherine of Siena