06 Apr Teresa of Jesus
Today is the feast day of Saint Teresa of Avila. Ora pro nobis.
By Bridget Green
We hear these famous wry words of St. Teresa of Avila, uttered after an awful accident in the pouring rain overturned her cart and left her, in her heavy Carmelite robes and bare feet (she was ‘discalced’ after all), soaking wet, covered in mud, and late for a very important meeting.
It should be pointed out that Teresa was addressing God, the Father, Creator of our world and everything in, on, above, below, and around it. Teresa spoke to God the way she would to any of her dearest friends, and He [usually] responded in kind.
Teresa was born in Avila in 1515, to a wealthy Jewish family. Her grandparents had converted to the Faith after the Fall of Granada in 1492. Her parents became devout Catholics.
TERESA’S CONVENT: After her mother's death when Teresa was just 12 years old, her father sent her to be educated at a nearby Augustinian convent. It was here that she first truly “fell in love” with the Lord.
Upon her return home, Teresa expressed an intense desire to enter immediately into religious life, and so, at the age of 17, she professed her final vows and joined the nuns at the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation. This was to be her first step on a long road of reforming this vast Order, a task she continued until her death almost 50 years later.
The story of how Teresa came to count the Lord among her circle of loved ones is one of true adventure. It's also one of the greatest love stories of her day – or any day, for that matter.
MYSTICAL STAIRCASE ENCOUNTER
It was here, in her Avila convent, where Teresa reported her encounter with a mysterious little boy.
“Who are you?” the boy asked the Carmelite nun.
“I am Sister Teresa of Jesus,” she replied kindly, using her formal religious name. “And who might you be?”
“I am,” he said, fixing his eyes calmly on hers, “Jesus of Teresa.”
Throughout her adult life, Teresa was the receiver of many Beatific visions. She would daily be taken up in ecstasy, quite literally.
THE CHAPEL WHERE SHE FLOATED: It was not uncommon for her fellow nuns to find Teresa levitating in the kitchen or the garden of the convent and most often at Mass, lost in prayer, meditating on the glory of God and the love of Christ. It is said that she floated several feet above the ground during her flights of prayerful fancy, gently returning to the ground when each was over.
Teresa was a Catholic mystic. Her spiritual life was fed directly by daily communication with God and contemplation of His plan for creation and salvation, and more specifically His love for mankind. It was during these “communions” with God that Teresa was told to reform her Order.
HOW THE CARMELITES LIVED: When Teresa entered the convent at Avila, each nun had a private apartment, complete with kitchen, entertainment area and personal servants. The Carmelites had lost their way and were no longer adhering to their former strict rule and simple lifestyle.
TERESA’S WIMPLE: In her efforts at reform, Teresa had the help of several learned men, including her confessor and fellow mystic St. John of the Cross. She set about traveling the country, going from convent to convent, reinvigorating the nuns’ zeal for Christ and calling them back to holiness. This did not make her popular. Undeterred, Teresa followed God as she would have followed her lover, going wherever He went, without question.
CONFESSOR’S CHAIR: This is the chair of St. John of the Cross, confessor to the Carmelite nuns of the Avila convent. Here, in the mid-1500s, John heard the confessions of all, including St Teresa. John – a mystic in his own right — would become a close advisor of Teresa as she set about the Herculean task of reforming the Carmelite Order in Spain.
On Aug. 24, 1562, Teresa’s first convent under the Carmelite’s ‘primitive rule’ was inaugurated, with the small monastery of St. Joseph and the clothing of the first four novices. Before her death at age 67, she had aided in the founding of 32 monasteries under her Reformed Rule.
TERESA’S INSIGHTS on attaining true friendship with God are almost entirely based on her personal experience of Him, and focus extensively on the meaning and nature of Love.
As if all of that gallivanting and reforming wasn't enough to keep her busy, Teresa managed to find time to write some of the most important works on spirituality ever written. To this day, her Interior Castle continues to draw men and women closer to Christ. The book is still, almost 500 years later, one of the most well- known and well-read works on Christian mysticism ever published.
As she wrote, “Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” This seemingly simple, yet ultimately difficult to achieve state of being, is at the heart of Teresa's mysticism, which is based on a close, personal love affair with Jesus.
TERESA WAS CANONIZED in 1614 by Pope Paul V, relatively soon after her death. This was due to the large cult that almost immediately arose around her memory at the time of her passing.
Doctor of the Church
It wasn't until 1970, however, that an even greater title was bestowed upon Teresa, as one of the first female ‘Doctors’ of the Church. The title is usually given to men and women whose writings have been so voluminous and have had a great impact on the world at large, not just in his or her own time or place. This is certainly true of St. Teresa of Avila.
In Love With God
St. Teresa of Avila remains one of the most beloved saints of all time. She was in love with God and strove to share that love with others through her writings and her reformation.
Throughout her life, she used her gifts, her ability to communicate God's love with word and deed, to draw herself and everyone around her into a closer communion with the Lord, and indeed, today, 500 years later, her writings and intercession are still working to do the same. As she said herself, “It is love alone that gives worth to all things,” and it was her love for God that gave her life purpose and has given us a great saint of the Church.
“LORD, A TRUE DAUGHTER OF THE CHURCH,” in the words of St Pope John Paul II, who visited Teresa’s convent in October 1982.
St. Teresa of Avila.
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
St.Teresa, so greatly gifted by the Almighty, was born in 1515, at Avila, in Spain, of not less pious than noble parents. Among other devout exercises, her parents were accustomed frequently to read pious books, and their daughter was taught to do the same as soon as she was able to read. Teresa soon became so much attached to this that she often retired with her brother Roderick to a solitary place, in order to read more undisturbed. Though scarcely seven years of age she thus obtained so vivid a knowledge as well of temporal as of spiritual things that she sometimes would exclaim, as if in ecstasy: “O Eternity! O Eternity! To be tormented during a whole eternity! To rejoice during a whole eternity! To be without end in pain! To be without end in joy! Oh, who can find words for it?” Whilst she read the lives of the Saints, her heart became so inflamed with the desire to die for the honor of Christ, that, in company with Roderick, she secretly left her father's home, intending to go to Africa to preach Christ among the Saracens, and thus earn the glorious crown of martyrdom. Although the two young adventurers were immediately pursued and brought back to their parents, yet the desire to die for Christ could not be torn from Teresa's heart. When, in the twelfth year of her age, she lost her mother by an early death, Teresa cast herself down before an image of the Blessed Virgin, and in a flood of tears, cried out: “Mother of Mercy! I choose thee for my Mother! Take me, a poor orphan, among the number of thy children!” The wonderful protection of the Queen of Heaven, which she enjoyed in the future, proved that her prayer was heard.
Through the natural levity and forgetfulness of childhood, it happened that Teresa, after the death of her mother, gradually left off her devout reading, and instead of it, fell upon worldly books. She also became very intimate with one of her cousins, who was much addicted to vanity. This caused her to grow cold in her devotion; she no longer found pleasure in prayer, but became idle and vain,–without, however, losing the innocence of her heart. When her pious father became aware of the change, he sent her into an Augustinian convent, where she soon came to the knowledge of her fault, and bitterly repented of it. That she did not fall into greater spiritual danger she always ascribed to the special favor of the Divine Mother. She again began to read devout books, and thus brought back her former pious zeal, which had almost entirely died out, since she had spent so much time in reading romances. Soon after, she became dangerously sick, and her father took her home again. During her illness she recognized more thoroughly than before the vanity of the world, and was filled with an intense desire to leave it entirely and to serve God in the religious state. Her father was greatly opposed to this; but she secretly fled to the convent of the Carmelite Nuns, near Avila. This took place when she was in her twentieth year. But no sooner had she left her father's house, than she felt so ardent a desire to return to it, that she trembled in all her limbs. Looking upon this as a temptation of Satan, she courageously continued her way, and when she had arrived at the Convent, an entire change suddenly took place within her; her sorrow and dread became joy and comfort. Thus did the Almighty recompense her self-control.
Teresa began her noviciate with great zeal, continued in it, and ended by taking upon herself the usual vows. Some time later, however, she once more lost her fervor in the service of God, because she conversed too long and too often with people of the world and thus neglected her prayers and lost her love for devout exercises. One day, going into church to pray, her eyes fell upon a picture of Our Saviour representing Him covered with wounds. At the same moment, her inmost soul was deeply moved by the thought that Christ had suffered so much for her, and that she had hitherto been so ungrateful and disobedient to Him. Her heart became so filled with grief, that it seemed to her as if it would break. Hence, sinking down before the image, she began to weep bitterly over her inconstancy, and said, with the most perfect trust: “Lord, I will not rise from the ground, until Thou hast bestowed sufficient strength on me, not to sin in future, but to serve Thee faithfully and with my whole heart.” This short but fervent prayer of Teresa was heard by the Almighty. Her heart was suddenly and forever changed; all affection for human beings was banished from it; her love of God and her delight in prayer and other spiritual exercises renewed, and the resolution taken to continue henceforth in the same. From that hour Teresa vacillated no more in the service of God, but persevered, with uninterrupted and daily increasing zeal, in the path of virtue and perfection.
God afterwards revealed to her that she owed her conversion to the intercession of St. Joseph and of the Blessed Virgin; hence she sought also to obtain the grace of perseverance by their aid. To this end, she represented frequently to herself the example of St. Magdalen and St. Augustine, and thus animated herself against a relapse. She repented daily most bitterly of the faults of her past life and endeavored to atone for them by wearing rough penitential garments, by scourging herself, and by other penances, although, according to the words of her confessors, she had not been guilty of great sin. One day, God showed her a terrible place in hell, saying that she would have been precipitated into it, if she had continued in her frivolous conversations at the convent-gate with people of the world, and in her neglect of devotional exercises. Her hair stood on end at this revelation, and her eagerness to serve God most faithfully and also to persuade others to do the same, was newly awakened. For this reason, she determined to use all possible means, in order to institute once more the original austerity of the Carmelites, from which, by consent of the spiritual authorities, they had somewhat departed. God Himself inspired her with these thoughts and promised her His aid in the execution of them. But as this was an undertaking which had never yet been attempted by a woman, it is easy to imagine the many and great obstacles she had to overcome. Many of the Clergy and laity opposed her plans, and she was slandered and persecuted on account of them.
But notwithstanding this, heaven so visibly assisted her, that, before her death, she counted thirty-two new convents, either of men or of women, in which the religious of her order led a holy life in the observance of all the severity of the original rule. Whoever reflects on the trouble and labor it must have cost St. Teresa to carry out this great enterprise, will not hesitate to pronounce her success a great miracle. It is impossible to describe the great virtues of this holy foundress or the wonderful graces which God bestowed upon her. She possessed among others, the gifts of prophecy and of reading the secrets of the heart. During her prayer, she frequently fell into ecstasy, and was often seen surrounded by a divine light. Once she was heard to exclaim: “Ah! only one God! Only one death! Only one soul! “the explanation of which words she herself gave afterwards, as follows: “There is only one God; if we displease Him, there is no other from whom to seek help. Man dies only once; if therefore his death is unhappy, there is no chance left to remedy the mistake. One soul only do we possess; and if this is lost, there is no hope of salvation.”
The visions she had of our Lord, of the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, the holy Angels and other Saints, were almost without number. In the last years of her life, seldom a day passed in which she was not favored with the sight of Christ in the holy Sacrament. The Divine Mother herself instructed, comforted and strengthened her on all occasions. She said of St. Joseph, that she never asked anything of him which she did not obtain. But notwithstanding these and other great graces, her humility was so deep, that she called herself the greatest of sinners, and desired to be considered as such. She often said that she owed it to the especial grace of God that He had not, according to her deserts, precipitated her into hell. She hated all human praise, and it was her greatest delight to be abused, reviled and slandered. She often begged God to withhold His gifts, as she had so often offended Him and made herself unworthy of His grace. Not less wonderful was her patience and desire to suffer. She said, one day, that during forty years she had scarcely been one hour without pain, except at the time when she received Holy Communion, when the interior consolation she felt made her forget her bodily ailments. Incredible almost are the many and severe sicknesses with which she was visited by divine Providence. Among these were violent pains in her side and joints, trembling in all her limbs, disgust of food, and a fever which troubled her for five long years. All these were increased by temptations and spiritual desolation, and also by many and great persecutions.
But in all these trials, she never manifested the slightest impatience; on the contrary, she felt an insatiable desire to suffer still more. Hence she was frequently heard to exclaim: “Lord, either to suffer or to die! For, life is too burdensome when I have nothing to suffer.” During her maladies she said with Job: “If we have received good things from the hands of the Lord, why should we not also be grateful for that which is evil? “She never manifested any dislike, much less hatred towards those who most unjustly slandered and persecuted her; on the contrary, she showed them a great deal of kindness and endeavored to be useful to them. Hence a certain bishop said: “Whoever wishes to be favored by Teresa, must revile or injure her.” She wept bitterly over the blindness of the heretics, and offered many penances for their conversion. She also prescribed in her regulations that the religious of her Order should offer prayers and other good works, in order that God might aid preachers and others who labor for the salvation of souls and the conversion of heretics and sinners. God, one day, showed her the joys of Heaven, saying: “Behold! of what great treasures sinners deprive themselves! “This increased more and more her zeal to further the conversion of sinners. To the poor and sick she was like a tender mother. She offered for the souls of the departed many penances and prayers, thus opening the gates of heaven to a great many of them. In purity of mind and body, she was more an angel than a human being; for besides never having the least fault to reproach herself with in that regard, she had received from God the grace of being free from all unclean thoughts and temptations. Nevertheless she employed all the means which are necessary or useful to preserve purity.
Her other virtues, as her perfect obedience, her extreme poverty, her constant self-abnegation, her wonderful moderation in everything, and her great austerity, must be omitted for want of space; but of her love of God we feel obliged to speak, as in this virtue she seems to have reached the highest point which a human being can attain. And can it be wondered at? She herself saw that an angel pierced her heart with a burning arrow, as a sign of her intense devotion to the Almighty. Christ Himself gave her His hand, saying: “In future shalt thou, as a true spouse, labor zealously for my honor.” Nothing grieved her more painfully than when she heard that God, whom she loved so intensely, had been offended by others; and she avoided nothing so carefully as in the least to offend Him. God was constantly in her thoughts even in the midst of her occupations. To Him she constantly raised her heart by short interior prayers, which she sent to heaven with such fervency, that the flames of divine love which burned within her, were reflected on her countenance. The least fault she committed caused her many tears, and she made a vow, not only never to displease God by a voluntary venial sin, and to guard herself against every imperfection, but also constantly to endeavor to do what she knew was most agreeable to the Almighty. The Roman Breviary testifies that she died more from the greatness of her love for the Most High, than from the pains of her sickness.
She knew the hour of her death, eight years before it took place. When she felt it approaching, she wrote a most touching and beautiful letter to all the members of the Convents she had founded, exhorting them to persevere in their fervor. After having most devoutly received the Holy Sacraments, she occupied herself with mental prayer. “At length, the long wished for hour has come, in which I cannot offend Thee any more, O my Lord!” exclaimed she, “the hour in which I shall see Thee.” Soon after, she thanked God that she had been born in the Catholic Church, and repeatedly said: “I am a daughter of Thy church, I die a child of the Catholic Church.” She was also frequently heard to say: “O Lord! cast me not from Thy face A contrite and humble heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” Turning on one side, her arms crossed over her breast and pressing a crucifix to her heart, she prayed silently for some time, and calmly expired, in the 68th year of her age, in 1582. Christ visibly appeared to her in her last hour, accompanied by His divine Mother and many Angels. She appeared in great glory to several of her absent friends, at the hour of her death. At the moment when she gave her soul to God, a dead tree, which stood before her cell, began to bud. Her holy body, from which a most delicious odor emanates, has remained incorrupt until this hour; and the relation of the many miracles which took place after her death, fill several books. But what appears most worthy of our admiration in the life of this Saint, is that she, though a weak woman, and almost always afflicted with sickness, could have written many books filled with more than human wisdom; worked so much for the honor of God and the salvation of souls, endured so many persecutions, wrongs and slanders in her holy undertaking; and yet succeeded so well in what she had begun by divine inspiration. God manifested in her, what a feeble human being can do with His aid, and what great works He can perfom through feeble hands.
Featured image: Closer view of central figures, Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, artist: Bernini
Saint Teresa of Avila resources by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff: