LAST Sunday, October 15, was the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, one of the greatest saints of the Catholic Church, a woman, a pioneer reformer of convents and in life a participant in mystical experiences.
St. Teresa is identified with the Catholic mystic tradition, along with a handful of other saints, like her colleague, St. John of the Cross. We are in the realm of the ultra-spiritual here and if the reader does not think this aspect of existence is important or even exists, time to stop reading now.
Teresa of Avila is a 16th century Spanish figure that resonates through the ages. Born in 1515 near Avila of an austere father whose serious books she read, she grew up influenced by her reading. The Lives of Saints implanted in her a desire to meet God and the easiest way was martyrdom. To achieve it, she ran away from home at 7 with a brother to seek martyrdom from the Moors. An uncle saw them just outside Avila’s formidable walls and they were brought back home. At 14, she lost her mother and, bereft, she looked to the Blessed Mother to take her place. Teresa then started reading chivalric romances with their songs and spectacles and began to be interested in looking beautiful, well-dressed and well-coiffed. So vain in the eyes of her father had she become that he put her in a nearby convent to be educated by nuns. After 18 months she fell ill and had to return home to recover.
Reading the letters of St. Jerome, who was a hermit in the desert, while recuperating, she became drawn to the religious life. Over her father’s objections, she left home to join the Carmelite Convent in Avila. During that period in Spain, convents were not quite what they were meant to be with regard to solitude, austerity, or prayerful life. Rather, they would be akin to what we now think of as “assisted living” or a club, a safe course of life chosen not necessarily or exclusively for religious purposes but to be comfortable. Teresa joined the convent with true religious fervor, planning a future of devotion. But she found it was a social center for the townspeople, with worldly relatives dropping by frequently with the latest gossip, frivolous talk and far from spiritual goings-on. And the nuns were always leaving the convent for outings or any excuse.
Teresa did take her vows but soon fell seriously ill. and had to endure a prolonged cure back home. The wrong set of doctors caused her more illness and her health became permanently impaired. It is conjectured that she had malignant malaria. Back in the convent, she secluded herself from distractions and adopted mental prayer as a form of devotion. Perhaps it was meditation, centering prayer, mindfulness, our modern terms for the exercises that she practiced. She was soon visited by intellectual visions and experienced conversations with God, interior images and interior conversations, manifestations felt by the exterior senses and impressed on the mind.
Obviously, it was an extraordinary experience. The conversation or interior voice was a combination of reprimands and consolations, giving strength yet causing her insecurities as to where they came from. She felt unworthy and sinful and tried to keep these very graphic or felt experiences to herself. But they became public and she was seen as a controversial figure, a crazy nun who the public thought could be under an evil spell. Teresa was frightened that this could be diabolical and used mortification, like self-flagellation, to ward it off. Disturbed, she sought spiritual counsel from Dominican and Jesuit priests who eventually discerned that her visions and locutions were God-given. She once had a vision of hell that made her realize that she had to save souls. Teresa wrote a spiritual autobiography of her experiences which is considered to be as remarkable as the Confessions of St. Augustine.
Life as a mystic
Her mystical experiences are at the core of Teresa’s being. They began when she was given Francisco de Osuna’s book, Third Spiritual Alphabet, when she was recovering from illness. It advocated examination of conscience, spiritual self-concentration, inner contemplation – a withdrawal from the distractions of daily life. Teresa moved from here towards a devotion that featured silence and culminated in extraordinary visions, locutions leading to a gamut of tears, pain, exhaustion, happiness, agony, ecstasy – a cavalcade of mental states that can hardly be explained or understood but are so real for those who experience it. One of them stands out: a beautiful angel pierced her heart with a flaming spear, a combination of pain and sweetness that only mystical language can attempt to explain. With her deep insight and analytical gifts, Teresa was able to describe these mystical moments where the experience was so strong she levitated, moving beyond her senses, her humanity, to some preternatural or miraculous apotheosis. To her, these events were personal and individual with nothing further to be made of them by her but to keep them and live them. She did not take them as a start of some mystical tradition that she should pursue and spread, or initiate a school of mystical theology that would be identified with her. It was personal, a gift from God, a lesson, an experience and an expression of love, a love that she returned to God. She went through life impatient to arrive at her soul’s destination, union with her God.
Reform of religious life
She remained in the Carmelite convent enduring its imperfections until she decided to found one that would be closer to monastic rule. With a niece, who was also in the convent, the idea come to found a convent that would be what it should be – secluded from the world for prayer, work and contemplation. Reform of religious life became her mission and by 1567, when she was 52 years old and had been 25 years a nun, she embarked on it. She was given permission by church authorities who saw the need to start new and more strict houses. Thus, her journeys throughout Spain began from 1567-1571 to found convents and even monasteries. She met priests who became partners in her work like St. John of the Cross, a teacher and preacher whose inner life was much like Teresa’s in mystical devotion and experience. But then came persecution as new church figures, particularly the traditional Carmelites, opposed the founding of new and different Carmelite convents which were known as discalced (barefoot, unshod) Carmelites for being more austere. Everyone of her friends and colleagues doing the work were similarly harassed. Teresa was condemned to retire to a convent and she obeyed and chose the one of St. Joseph in Toledo.
She wrote her Foundation Book about the establishing of convents and monasteries along with letters to King Philip II to secure relief from the Inquisition, one of her persecutors. The King listened and she was brought back to active life, protected and allowed to found more convents bringing reform to the church and strengthening it.
Teresa was a woman of letters. She wrote poetry, prayers, her spiritual biography, narratives of her convent-founding and humorous anecdotes of her travels around Spain in an era of travel hardships as she walked the countryside. For that she is known as “la andariega,” the walking woman.
She died in 1582 while on the road, visiting her convents. She founded 17 in all. It was October 4 in Alba de Tormes. But at midnight that day the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian and 10 days were removed from the year and the month. October 4 became October 15 and that is the date designated as her feast day, the day she went to the ultimate experience of mystical rapture.
Teresa of Avila together with another woman saint, Catherine of Siena, was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by the Pope in 1970, many centuries after her erudite writings, her beautifully composed and written prayers, her poetry, her spiritual autobiography, her miracles, and her convents.
She is now the patron saint of Spain and the one to pray to for headaches. The first is explainable, the second is mysterious. But then maybe Teresa of Avila was both.