Today on the feast of Teresa of Avila I thought I’d reflect upon this complex and paradoxical saint and share of my favorite quotes from her. Teresa was born in 1515 in Spain, and her grandfather had been Jewish at the time when Ferdinand and Isabella gave the Jews the choice of converting or being expelled. Teresa’s early spirituality was based in boldness and fear. At the age of seven she and her brother ran away from home to be martyred in the name of Christ. An uncle found them and brought them home. At the age of 14 her mother died and Teresa appealed to the Blessed Mother to be a mother to her. Later at the age of 17 she determined that being a religious was the “safest course” for her.
Her early life as a Carmelite did not go well. She became seriously ill and three years later had to return home. She recovered but for eighteen years lived in a dark period of doubt and illness. At the age of thirty-nine she experienced a profound conversion. She sought out confessors who encouraged her not to doubt her spiritual experiences and to concentrate on the passion of Christ. In 1560, unhappy with the unreformed Carmelites, she began to meet with a group of like-minded sisters who wished to establish a new monastery based upon the primitive tradition of Carmel and the discalced reform of Saint Peter of Alcantara. The monastery would live entirely by alms and the sisters’ own labor; they would be vegetarians and adhere to a rigorous schedule of prayer. At this point she began to write her autobiography under obedience to her confessors and later wrote the Way of Perfection and the Interior Castle even though she said she had neither the health or intelligence for writing.
|Painting done in 1575 by Brother Juan|
de la Miseria. Teresa said upon seeing
it, "God forgive you, Brother Juan!
How ugly and bleary-eyed you have made
Her reforms were not universally accepted and 1576 she was put under house arrest and her new convents were forbidden to accept more novices. In 1580 partly because of the intervention of King Phillip II, her Discalced Carmelites were made a separate province from the unreformed Carmelites.
The main themes of Teresa’s spirituality are friendship with God, love of neighbor, obedience, humility, humor and the integration of contemplation with activity. Teresa herself says:
• “Mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing other than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with the One who we know loves us.”
• “The Lord does not look so much at the magnitude of anything we do as at the love with which we do it.”
• “We cannot be sure if we are loving God, although we may have good reasons for believing that we are, but we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbor.”
• “Well, come now, my daughters, don’t be sad when obedience draws you to involvement in exterior matters. Know that if it is in the kitchen, the Lord walks among the pots and pans.”
• “When I fast, I fast. And when I eat partridge, I eat partridge!” (to a critic of her gusty enjoyment of a good meal)
• “What a brain for a foundress! But I can tell you I thought I had a great brain when I made up this.”(after re-reading some verses she composed)
• “I was amused at your remark that you could sum her up immediately if you once saw her. We women cannot be summed up as easily as that.” (Speaking to Ambrosio Mariano who presumed he could judge who would make an acceptable Carmelite candidate)
In 1622 Teresa was canonized; in 1970 she was made a Doctor of the Church.
Sr. Deborah Harmeling, OSB