(I was hoping to post this article on the great 16th century Carmelite reformer Saint Theresa of Avila, the 500th anniversary of whose birth we celebrate this year, on the memorial of the Presentation of Our Lady, which is itself dedicated to the religious life. Due to a technical glitch, however, it had to wait until today. So enjoy, in the spirit of prayer and devotion to this most likable and approachable of saints – Editor)
We cannot know whether we love God, although there may be strong reasons for thinking so, but there can be no doubt about whether we love our neighbor or not.
– Teresa of Avila
As she was about to establish a fifth religious community, this one in Toledo, Spain, Teresa of Avila was questioned how she could possibly do it when all she had was a mere five ducats (approximately ten dollars). With confidence she answered: “Teresa and this money are nothing! But, God, Teresa and these ducats suffice.” With that minimum focus on materialism and maximum trust in the Divine, Teresa of Avila would emerge as the towering figure of sixteenth century Catholic Spain. She was a mystic, poet, religious reformer, feminist, founder of convents, author of four books, and a spiritual master in meditation and prayer.
Teresa was born on March 28, 1515 into an upper class, privileged family. Her parents, Alonso and Beatriz were both devout in their faith. Though it was customary and even proper for individual of Alonso’s wealth to own slaves, he refused to do so. Furthermore, Teresa reported that when a slave girl belonging to Alonso’s brother was present, Alonso treated her like one of his own children. “He used to say that it caused him intolerable distress that she was not free,” Teresa wrote. Her mother, who nurtured the Christian faith in Teresa, died when Teresa was fourteen. In shock and grief stricken, Teresa’s faith was tested so she turned to the Virgin Mary seeking motherly comfort and support.
Alonso arranged for Teresa to be educated at a local convent. There her spiritual interests were heightened and, by 20, she decided to become a nun. Her father opposed this decision but she ran off to join a Carmelite convent in Avila (1535). She took first vows a year later but withheld a deeper, more permanent commitment for 20 years. During this time she struggled with various illnesses, some of which made her an invalid for months at a time. This difficult period of her life was also permeated with several powerful spiritual experiences and visions which moved her deeply. In her autobiography titled Life Of St. Teresa by Herself, she describes one such experience of Christ:
One day, when I was at prayer, the Lord was pleased to reveal to me nothing but His hands, the beauty of which was so great as to be indescribable….a few days later I also saw that Divine face, which seemed to leave me completely absorbed…at last I realized his Majesty was leading me.
Those spiritual experiences led her to the conviction that she had been careless, timid and hesitant about her own spiritual growth. She resolved to give herself fully to a life of devotion and prayer.
For her this meant adhering to the original and more strict rule of the Carmelites. The convent where she had been for several years was deficient in spiritual discipline. She felt called to establish a new and reformed Carmelite which would come to be called Disclaced (shoeless) Carmelites. With considerable persistence and patience Teresa was finally granted permission to proceed in this direction establishing her first new convent in Avila in 1562. She and her sisters adopted a life dedicated to poverty, chastity, obedience, prayer, fasting, solitude, and manual labor. Furthermore, she did not want the order to be sustained by endowments from wealthy patrons but primarily by their own labor and alms gathering. Along with a rigorous cycle of silence and prayer, the order maintained a vegetarian diet.
Almost immediately, Teresa received opposition and hostility from various groups. Spanish ecclesiastical authorities, already fanatically suspicious over anything which appeared Protestant, debated and disputed her private spiritual visions. Municipal officials of Avila brought a lawsuit to prevent her from establishing a convent in the city fearing that a convent without an endowment would become dependent on civic financial resources. In spite of opposition which seemed to plague her throughout her life, Teresa forged on eventually establishing nearly 20 convents and monasteries. The criticisms and hostilities which came her way may have been the inspiration for her famous poem God Alone Is Enough:
Let nothing upset you,
let nothing startle you.
All things pass;
God does not change.
all it seeks.
Whoever has God
God alone is enough.
Though Teresa’s order adopted a strict asceticism, she also encouraged her sisters to act kindly and lovingly toward others, especially to other sisters, so that they would not become spiritually rigid and emotionally harsh. In The Way of Perfection, she offered this advice:
Try, then sisters, to be as pleasant as you can, without offending God, and to get on as well as you can with those you have to deal with, so that they may like talking to you and want to follow your way of life and conversation, and not be frightened and put off by virtue. This is very important for nuns: the holier they are, the more sociable they should be with their sisters. Although you may be very sorry if all your sisters’ conversation is not just as yo would like it to be, never keep aloof from them if you wish to help them and to have their love. We must try hard to be pleasant, and to humor the people we deal with and make them like us, especially our sisters.
Teresa has been described, both positively and negatively, as a feminist. Her writings do make clear that even in conservative Spain she resisted views of women as the inferior sex. She admired women, their dedication, and their contribution to the church. In The Way of Perfection, Teresa wrote this spirited defense of women:
When you walked on this earth, Lord, you did not despise women, rather you always helped them and showed great compassion toward them. And you found as much love and more faith in them than you did in men …. Is it not enough, Lord, that the world has intimidates us, so that we may not do anything worthwhile for you in public or dare to speak some truths that we lament over in secret, without your also failing to hear our petition? I do not believe, Lord, that this could be true of your goodness and justice, for you are a just judge and not like those of the world. Since the world’s judges are sons of Adam and all of them men, there is no virtue in women that they do not hold suspect….when I see what the time are like, I feel it is not right to repel spirits which are virtuous and brave even though they be the spirits of women.
Teresa not only establishing convents but also remained an important source of inspiration for the nuns. The prayer poem, Christ Has No Body, attributed to Teresa but not found in her writings is believed to have been written in a letter sent to encourage her Carmelite sisters reminding them of their important role in the world –
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Teresa of Avila died on October 4th, 1582 at the age of 67. In the years and centuries after her death, her life continues to impress, inform and inspire. She was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. In 1970 Pope Paul VI named the first female Doctor of the Church. On the occasion of her 500th birth anniversary in 2015 Pope Francis I, sent a message to the Superior General of the Discalced Carmelites saying, “Saint Teresa is above all a teacher of prayer.”
WORDS OF WISDOM FROM TERESA OF AVILA
Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
I cannot understand how humility exists, or can exist, without love, or love without humility
Our Lord does not care so much for the importance of our works as for the love with which they are done.
Do not think of the faults of others but of what is good in them and faulty in yourself.
The closer one approaches to God, the simpler one becomes.
Trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
There is no such thing as bad weather. All weather is good because it is God’s.
We need no wings to go in search of Him, but have only to find a place where we can be alone – and to look upon Him present within us.
Nothing is small if God accepts it.
God is full of compassion and never fails those who are afflicted and despised if they trust to him alone.
Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you. All things are passing. God never changes. Patience endurance attains all things. Whoever possess God lacks nothing. God alone suffices.
God gives when he will, as he will and to whom he will.
Know even when you are in the kitchen, our Lord moves amidst the pots and pans.