Whatever Best Awakens You to Love
Exploring the writings of Teresa of Avila
François Pascal Simon Gérard
I haven’t levitated very often. The first time it happened I was kneeling in the choir, waiting to go up to the altar and receive Communion. I was immediately distressed because I realized how unusual the experience was and I was afraid that everyone was going to start talking about it. So I ordered the sisters who witnessed it to keep it to themselves. Since I had been appointed as their prioress, they had to do what I asked. After that, when I felt that the Lord was about to enrapture me again, I would stretch out on the floor and ask the other nuns to hold me down. ~Teresa of Avila in La Vida, trans. Starr, chapter 20, p. 138
Passionate, fiery, badass, and absolutely captivated by God; reformer, lover of life, mystic, poet, and theologian: meet Teresa of Avila. This Catholic saint didn’t let the persecution of 16th century Spain stop her from following her divine calling. Come along with me on a journey through her life and some of the major ideas in her writings. I consider Teresa my patron saint, and the following quote is just one small reason why:
Remember, if you want to make progress on the spiritual path and ascend to the places you’ve longed for, the important thing is not to think much, but to love much, and so to do whatever best awakens you to love. (Avila, 2004, p. 91)
The Spain in which Teresa was born was as oppressive as Nazi Germany. Racism was intense. There was no religious freedom. If it was discovered that you were Jewish or Muslim and practicing your faith, you could be deported or killed. And as it happens, Juan Sanchez, Teresa’s paternal grandfather, was Jewish.
Juan purchased the status of hidalgo, a titled gentleman, so that his children could have access to the noble classes and marry well. He and his family were under suspicion by the Inquisition for secretly practicing Judaism in their home. The punishment for this was deadly, so he decided to confess before he could be condemned.
Juan received a diluted sentence, which amounted to a public humiliation in which he and his children were paraded through the streets of Toledo for seven Fridays in a row wearing costumes of bright yellow with a flaming cross and snakes on them. They were required to kneel in every church throughout the city, and the townspeople threw stones at them, spit at them, and yelled abuses at them.
Teresa’s father, Alonso, was the youngest son. Because of this early experience, he focused on cultivating a life of prestige and status for his family. Alonso was married twice. His first wife died after three years of marriage leaving him three children — two boys and a girl, Maria. When Alonso was 30, he married Teresa’s mother, Beatriz, a youth of just 14.
Beatriz was beautiful, but somewhat sickly. Teresa described her as “deeply serene and exceptionally intelligent” (Avila, 2008, p. 5). Together, Teresa’s parents had nine more children — seven boys and two girls (Teresa and Juana). Beatriz died at the age of 33 of complications birthing Juana.
Teresa’s father was, in some ways, a man before his time. Alonso loved good books and required all of his children to learn to read, even his girls, although this was not a standard practice in that period. (Teresa wrote in La Vida that she was her father’s favorite.) He was also compassionate and caring for the poor. While slavery was common and accepted in 16th century Spain, Alonso refused to keep slaves.
The house in which Teresa grew up was devout. The morning began with prayer, and mass was offered daily. The Angelus bell was rung three times a day, commemorating the Incarnation and Mary’s role in salvation history. Grace was said before meals, and the lives of the saints were read aloud. When Beatriz died in childbirth, Teresa, a girl of 12, asked the Virgin Mary to be her mother.
Life was very hard in the 16th century, so the focus was on getting to heaven. With this in mind, when Teresa was seven years old and wanting to reach heaven quicker, she persuaded her brother, Rodrigo, to travel to the land of the Moors (the Muslim inhabitants of Morocco) so that they might be beheaded and become martyrs. About a quarter of a mile from their residence, they met their uncle who promptly brought them home. Not able to be martyred, Teresa and Rodrigo decided to become hermits and built hermitages in their backyard by piling up stones. They could never get the structures to stay erect.
Teresa was a striking, black-haired, black-eyed beauty. It was said of the vivacious Teresa that she could marry any man she wanted. She was a musician, enjoyed dancing, and loved to cook and eat. As an adolescent, Teresa liked to adorn herself with fine clothes, perfume, and jewelry. In her teen years, she delighted in all the superficialities that some young girls relish.
In her youth, Teresa was especially close to a female cousin, whom she described as a bad influence. At 16, her father sent her to a convent, Our Lady of Grace, for a year and a half because Alonso was concerned about the influence that this cousin was having. He suspected Teresa of misbehavior, and it wasn’t seemly to have a young lady home alone without the supervision of an older woman.
By the time Teresa left Our Lady of Grace, she had grown to enjoy the simplicity of the routine and the devotional practices, but she was torn between her desire to desire God and her love of the world. Spanish women of this era had only two choices for their life trajectory: the convent or marriage. Teresa chose the convent by default. She did not have a vocational calling, as it is viewed today, but decided to become a nun because she didn’t want to endure repeated child-bearing and the oppression of marriage (submitting to the authority of a man). Alonso did not like this decision, so it was against his wishes that she entered the Convent of the Incarnation in November 1536. Teresa chose this convent because her dear friend, Juana, lived there; and she actually loved the life of the convent.
Convents at the time were not exactly what one might expect. Yes, the nuns had a regular schedule, spending many hours in chapel, making their confessions every few days, scourging themselves with a knotted cord three times a week, and fasting; but they were also allowed to wear padded skirts with colored sashes and jewelry, keep pets, and have personal servants. The convent that Teresa chose was lenient, showing similarities to a guest house. The nuns were referred to as ladies, addressed as madam, and could entertain and gossip with friends and relatives in the parlor. They could also spend long periods away from the convent on visits, which Teresa frequently did because she was often summoned by wealthy women who wanted her to stay with them.
Convent life included blatant discrimination between the rich and the poor nuns. Despite the dowries that the rich girls, like Teresa, brought in, the Convent of the Incarnation struggled financially. To address this issue, the nuns would knit stockings and make sweets to sell. They were encouraged to go out and eat with their families to leave more food for those who remained in the convent.
During this time, Teresa prayed for an illness that might teach her patience because she admired a pious nun who was patient when faced with sickness. As it happened, less than 2 years after that, Teresa fell ill. She had severe heart pain like “sharp teeth were biting into [her]” (Avila, 2008, p. 28). She could only take in liquid because she was nauseated all the time and ran a constant fever. Teresa was in “such excruciating pain that (she) could not sleep” (Avila, 2008, p. 28) and was “utterly miserable” (Avila, 2008, p. 28). The doctors concluded that she had tuberculosis.
Alonso came to the convent to take her home to recover. When she improved a little, he sent her to be with her sister, Maria, who was now married. On the way to Maria’s, Teresa stopped at her uncle’s home. He asked her to read to him from spiritual literature. She found it uninteresting at first, but later described it as important in fueling her desire for God.
Once at Maria’s, Teresa underwent many experimental treatments to try to cure her illness. The treatments were very hard on her body. One night, she had a seizure that left her unconscious for almost four days. During this time, she received the last rites and a grave was dug for her at the Convent of the Incarnation. When Teresa awoke, she was unable to move anything but one finger on her right hand. She felt so bruised that her friends and family had to carry her around on a sheet.
Teresa was anxious to return to the convent, so her family consented to bring her there. It took eight months for her to recover from her paralysis. She did not recover completely for almost three years and started by crawling on her hands and knees.
Teresa wrote that, except for one good year, she spent the first 18 years of her monastic career in inner strife. She shared, “The conflict was between yearning for God and attraction to the world” (Avila, 2008, p. 52). The turning point came one day when Teresa noticed a statue at the Incarnation that was an image of Christ scourged at the pillar. Teresa explained:
The sight of it was so moving that it shook to the root of my being and stirred the depths of devotion in me. I became acutely aware of what Christ had suffered for us and how little gratitude I had ever offered him in return. In a flood of tears, I threw myself down at his feet, beseeching him to give me the strength to adore him and never to forsake him again. (Avila, 2008, p. 58)
At the age of 43, Teresa became determined to found a new convent that went back to the basics of a contemplative order: a simple life of poverty devoted to prayer. When plans leaked out about her idea, the convent of St. Joseph’s, she was denounced from the pulpit, told by her sisters she should raise money for the convent she was already in, and threatened with the Inquisition. The town started legal proceedings against her. All of these events occurred because she wanted to try a simple life of prayer. In the face of this open war, Teresa went ahead calmly, as if nothing were wrong, trusting in God.
During her 40’s, Teresa began having visions, locutions, and raptures. And throughout her life, she had direct experiences of Christ. One famous occurrence of rapture is know as the transverberation, documented in La Vida, chapter 29:
I saw an angel in bodily form standing very close to me on my left side . . . I saw that he held a great golden spear. The end of the iron tip seemed to be on fire. Then the angel plunged the flaming spear through my heart again and again until it penetrated my innermost core. When he withdrew it, it felt like he was carrying the deepest part of me away with him. He left me utterly consumed with love of God. The pain was so intense that it made me moan. The sweetness this anguish carries with it is so bountiful that I could never wish for it to cease. The soul will not be content with anything less than God. (Avila, 2008, p. 225)
Because of this and her deep prayer life, Teresa was ordered by her superior to write her autobiography. At St. Joseph’s, she spent much of her time writing La Vida (The Book of My Life). The Inquisition questioned her experiences, and this book would help to clear her or condemn her. Teresa used many self-deprecating statements in the book — one finds the word wretched generously sprinkled throughout its pages--and scholars speculate that this was to show that Teresa was not trying to gain status. But whatever her motive in this criticality, the Inquisition liked what they read and cleared her.
At 51, Teresa decided that it was time to spread her reform movement. She braved burning sun, ice and snow, thieves, and rat-infested inns to found more convents. But those obstacles were easy compared to what she faced from her brothers and sisters in religious life. She was characterized as unruly and defiant by a papal diplomatic representative (nuncio). When her former convent voted her in as prioress, the leader of the Carmelite order excommunicated the nuns. A vicar general stationed an officer of the law outside the door of the convent to keep Teresa out. The other religious orders opposed her wherever she went. She often had to enter a town secretly in the middle of the night to avoid causing a riot. Nevertheless, by the end of her life, St. Teresa had founded 17 monasteries, two of which were for men.
Teresa had a great friendship with St. John of the Cross, though he was over 25 years her junior. He was the first to join her reformation movement as a discalced (barefoot) friar. He also became the confessor for her nuns. Legend holds that they were seen sitting together discussing the Holy Trinity with their chairs levitating.
Teresa was also close to the Jesuits, many of whom were her confessors. However, her most intimate friendship began at the age of 60 with a discalced Carmelite friar named Jeronimo Gracian.
Toward the end of her life, Teresa was considered a saint by many of the people around her. Two nuns heard celestial music arising from Teresa as she slept. People remarked on the sweet fragrance that seemed to emanate from her. On October 4, 1582, at the age of 67, she died at the Convent at Alba de Torres after an extended illness. Her last words are reported thusly:
Oh my Lord and my Spouse! This is the longed for hour. It is time now that we should see each other, my Beloved and my Lord. It is time now that I should go to Thee. Let us go in peace, and may Thy holy will be done. Now the hour has arrived for me to leave this exile, and to enjoy Thee whom I have so much desired. (Du Boulay, p. 265)
When she died, a woman of means had her buried immediately and made an effort to secure the body under stones. The nuns that would pray at her graveside smelled the pleasant fragrance that filled the corridors of the convent and surrounded Teresa when she was dying. Nine months after her death, Teresa’s tomb was opened (it took four days) and her body was found perfectly preserved. Gracian was there, and he cut off her left hand and took it to Avila. Additionally, he severed her little finger and wore it around his neck for the rest of his life. Two years later the body was exhumed again only to find it incorrupt. Fresh blood flowed from the wound, and there was an agreeable aroma. Eventually Teresa’s body was dismembered and disseminated. She was canonized in 1622 and made a doctor of the Catholic Church in 1970.
Enjoy Me by Teresa of Avila
What a burden I thought I was to carry - a crucifix, as did He. Love once said to me, “I know a song, Would you like to hear it?” And laughter came from every brick in the street. And from every pore in the sky. After a night of prayer, He changed my life when He sang, “Enjoy Me.”
What if you knew and understood on a real level that God dwells within you, that your soul is the home of the Divine? How would that integrated understanding affect the way you live your life? What if you understood that God dwells within the soul of everyone you meet, as in the Hindu greeting of Namaste’? How would that affect the way you treat them? This is the understanding that St. Teresa of Avila, first woman doctor of the Catholic Church, came to as a result of many transcendent experiences.
The incidents were so profound that Teresa tried various similes to explain her insights. She said that the soul is like a castle made of diamond or crystal with many mansions, and God dwells in the center. She said that the soul is like a highly polished mirror with the image of Christ at its center. She saw Christ in every part of her soul as clearly and distinctly as she might have seen him in a mirror.
Teresa suggested that the soul is like a silkworm that comes alive with the heat of the Holy Spirit. When it is fully developed, it begins to build the house where it will die. Teresa explained that we spin our God-cocoon within which we die to the world and emerge as a little white butterfly in the image of the Divine. She declared, “There is a sun at the soul’s center from which emanates a supernatural light that is transmitted to the faculties. The soul does not move from her center or lose her equanimity” (Avila, 2004, p. 271).
Humility and Detachment
Humility and detachment are at the core of Teresa’s teachings. Humility is the recognition of our human nature and our dependence on our Source for life and provision. In the Christian bible, St. Paul termed this human nature the flesh, what we might call our animal instincts and the part of ourselves that says, “What about me?” Humility is recognizing that this part of us is always operating. Teresa taught that it is very important that we acknowledge that part of ourselves — know our own bait and what triggers us to act out in unskillful ways. She wrote:
Also, when we turn away from our small selves and toward God, both our understanding and our will become more sublime and more inclined to embrace all that is good. We would do ourselves a great disservice if we never endeavored to rise above the mud of our personalized misery. (Avila, 2004, p. 47)
What we should really be afraid of is obsessing over ourselves and never getting free of ourselves! (Avila, 2004, p. 48)
Detachment is the relinquishment of outcomes and a turning away from external things as the source of our fulfillment. It doesn’t mean apathy, but rather what Ignatius of Loyola would call a holy indifference to anyone or anything as an end in itself. John of the Cross was attached to Teresa, so he burned all of her letters, admittedly an extreme response. Nevertheless, an attachment is anything that gets between us and our full availability for God. Detachment is a recognition of impermanence, a core tenet of Buddhism which speaks of the transient nature of all things. Teresa stated, “Memory demonstrates the impermanence of worldly things, reminding [the soul] of the deaths of people who used to take great pleasure in them” (Avila, 2004, p. 58). She further explained:
Do you know what I think our greatest concern should be? Becoming detached from our lives and relinquishing our self-importance. All we need to do is tell the truth and hold it up for the greater glory of God. Fame and blame should be equally meaningless to us. (Avila, 2008, p. 115)
Within Teresa’s description of the soul as a beautiful castle, she instructed that the entrance to this palace is contemplative prayer. She elucidated this practice as having three parts: the Prayer of Recollection, the Prayer of Quiet, and the Prayer of Union.
The Prayer of Recollection is a withdrawing of the senses. Teresa wrote: The soul becomes acutely aware of a gentle withdrawal inside herself. I think I read somewhere a comparison with a hedgehog curling up or a turtle drawing into its shell. (Avila, 2004, p. 105)
Jesus spoke of this when he taught, “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
The Prayer of Quiet is the practice of sitting in silence, attentive to the present moment. We do not try to make anything happen. It is a meditative space where thoughts come and go, and we allow them to pass through without clinging. In his book Armchair Mystic, Mark Thibodeaux, S.J. described this stage of prayer as “being with God.” Teresa wrote that in the Prayer of Quiet, “God wants the soul to do nothing more than rest in the garden and enjoy the sublime fragrance beginning to emanate from the flowers” (Avila, 2008, p. 116).
The Prayer of Union is when the soul is absorbed in God. Our faculties are suspended and we know nothing but the glory of God. Teresa expounded:
In a state of union, the soul sees nothing and hears nothing and comprehends nothing. . . God presses himself so fully against the inside of the soul that when she returns to herself the soul has no doubt whatsoever that God was in her and she was in God. This truth remains with her forever. (Avila, 2004, p. 123)
Stages of Prayer
Teresa used the concept of a garden that must be watered to describe the stages of prayer. She taught, “Let the beginner think of herself as a gardener who is preparing to plant a garden for the delight of her Beloved” (Avila, 2008, p.73), and suggested that the garden may be watered in four ways:
By taking the water from a well; It takes effort and discipline when we commit to regular prayer time, just like going to a well to draw water. Teresa instructed, “Beginners need to practice withdrawing their attention from what they see and hear. They should sit in solitude and reflect on their past life” (Avila, 2008, p. 74).
By a water-wheel and buckets; (the prayer of quiet) It is a little easier now that one has become accustomed to prayer and made a commitment. The flow of it moves along more smoothly.
By a stream or brook running through the garden; This is a prayer state of receptivity. Teresa explained, “This state of prayer seems to me nothing other than a death. It is the near total dying to all earthly things, a dying into God. And it is a joyous passing.” (Avila, 2008, p. 111) We feel connected and experience consolation.
By heavy rain; (the prayer of union) Our senses are completely suspended and we are consumed in the Divine. Teresa exclaimed:
O God, help me! What is a soul like in this state? She wishes she were made all of tongues to do nothing but praise the Lord. She babbles a thousand words of holy madness, trying to find exactly the right way to please the One who has taken her captive. (Avila, 2008, p.113)
Teresa’s legacy in me is to live into my truth unapologetically, to trust in our Source unreservedly (what some may prefer to call the process of life), and to embrace love as my guiding principle. This endowment does not give me the assurance of a pain-free life. On the contrary, any reading of the trials that Teresa endured will be abundant evidence otherwise. What her story does inspire in me, however, is to live my own heroine’s journey, to do it in a way that feels authentic, and to find meaning in abiding in open-hearted presence in this moment now. May you experience a spark in your deepest core ignited by the ideas communicated herein that motivates you to risk showing up in the fullness of who you are.
Avila, T. O. (2004). The interior castle (M. Starr Trans.). Penguin.
Du Boulay, S. (2004). Teresa of Avila: an extraordinary life. Darton Longman & Todd.
Avila, T.O. (2008). Teresa of Avila: The book of my life (La Vida; M. Starr Trans.). Shambhala Publications.
May your mind be peaceful and calm, may your body be relaxed and comfortable, and may your heart be filled with love.
Thank you for reading.
Blessings and gratitude, Ani
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