October 15 – Teresa of Avila

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Teresa of Avila, person of prayer

Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada was a mystic, reformer of the church and teacher of Christian spiritual life. With John of the Cross she is co-founder of the Discalced (or “shoeless”) Carmelites, who observe a stricter form of monastic life than other communities.

Teresa was born in 1515 in the northern Spanish town of Avila and died at the age of 67 in 1582. Her family, probably converted from Judaism some generations earlier, were merchants and relatively well-off. She was one of 10 children, and a lively, extroverted and idealistic child who, aged about 7, set off with her favourite brother to convert ‘the Moors’ or be beheaded for Christ. An uncle turned them back at the edge of Avila.

She entered the Carmelite community of the Incarnation in Avila at the age of 20, with more determination than enthusiasm and seems to have struggled at first, with periods of paralysis that led to a prolonged stay with her family. However, she persevered, and as a contemporary Carmelite community remembers ‘her great work of reform began with herself’ (http://www.ocd.pcn.net/teresa.htm) with careful observance of the way of life and increasing understanding of God in prayer as the focus and source of all.

A more serious group within the relatively easy-going convent of the Incarnation became interested in living the earlier traditions of Carmelite life, and in 1562 after delays and public outcry against it, Teresa was confirmed as leader of a reformed community at the Convent of St Joseph also in Avila. Over the next 20 years her life combined the practicalities of leadership with intense interior prayer,  From the age of 51 as she founded 17 new houses across Spain and expanded the reform to include the Carmelite men through her collaboration with John of the Cross, although controversy continued and she often had to arrive in town after nightfall to avoid causing a riot.

Her most significant writing is her autobiography (covering up to 1562), The Way of Perfection (for the instruction of her Sisters), The Book of Foundations (a feisty account of establishing new convents), and The Interior Castle (the work considered the best account of her spiritual insight).

Her compelling image of the interior castle stands for the human soul itself. God dwells in the central apartments of the castle, and Teresa traces the journey of the spiritual life from the outer dungeons through other stages in the development of prayerful awareness to the luminous centre. Essentially, being ‘at one’ with God, surrendered to God, the human soul is also at the centre of itself.

Teresa’s prayer also included frank exchanges like that after her cart had overturned and she had watched her luggage fall into the mud.  Asking for an explanation in prayer, she understood Jesus to tell her that this was how he treated his friends. She remarked ‘Then it is no wonder you have so few.’

The apparently flippant remark underpins a more profound theological conviction, that God is to be trusted and that suffering is not necessarily to be avoided. The Way of Perfection develops this idea that growth in spiritual life involves a merging of the self with God’s will.

I believe that love is the measure of our ability to bear crosses, whether great or small. So if you have this love, try not to let the prayers you make to so great a Lord be words of mere politeness, but brace yourselves to suffer what God’s Majesty desires. For if you give God your will in any other way, you are just showing the Lord a precious stone, making as if to give it and begging God to take it, and then, when God’s hand reaches out to do so, taking it back and holding on to it tightly. Such mockery is no fit treatment for One who endured so much for us. … Unless we make a total surrender of our will so that the Lord may do in all things what is best for us in accordance with the divine will, we will never be allowed to drink of the fountain of living water.

Teresa distrusted mystical experience as a distraction from authentic prayer, but could not argue with the reality of what came to her unsought. One such occasion underlined the personal quality of God’s love for her and for each person. She saw a child in a vision asking ‘Who are you?’. She replied ‘I am Teresa of Jesus, who are you?’.  He answered her, ‘I am Jesus of Teresa!’.

In 1970 she became one of the first two women acknowledged as a ’Doctor of the Church’ within the Roman Catholic tradition, so that her writing sits alongside Augustine, Ambrose, Basil and a shortlist of others whose teaching is deemed to have ‘universal significance’.

By Dr Katharine Massam; see Hymn TIS 530 for a prayer of Teresa.