Teresa the Great
“The birth of Saints brings joy to everyone since the benefit of it belongs to all,” says St. Ambrose. This year has been marked by the joyful celebrations surrounding the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Jesus (March 28, 1515–2015). The Holy Mother, as she is often called, has been the object of the veneration and love of generation after generation, not only within the Order of Carmel to which she belongs, but throughout all of Christendom and beyond.
She is known as a great saint and mystic, as the Reformer of the Carmelite Order, and as an invaluable guide on the subject of mystical theology thanks to her writings, which have earned her the praise of many saints and popes over the ages and have caused her to be honored on a par with the doctors of the Church long before Paul VI officially declared her so in 1970.
The Church calls her Mater Spiritualium, the Mother of interior souls, recognizing her unique charism to lead them by the way of prayer to perfect union with God at the summit of the Mount of Perfection.
No doubt, her world-wide popularity and renown are due, for a large part, to her enchanting and lovable personality which is kept alive through her books, written in a lively, colloquial style, revealing to us delightful qualities of virile courage and tender love, of holy madness and robust common sense, making her one of the most colorful women of all time.
She was a gift from God, sent at a precise moment in history, to be a powerful antidote against the outbreak of Protestantism in 1517 and all its consequences by giving to the Church an in number praying of fervent souls dedicated exclusively to a life of prayer and contemplation, on fire with apostolic zeal for the cause of the “Lord God of Hosts”—Pro Domino Deo Exercituum!
Teresa was born on March 28, 1515, in the ancient town of Avila in the very Christian and rugged region of Castile, Spain, which at the time was reaching the apogee of its golden age. Her father, Don Alonso Sanchez y Cepeda, was a deeply pious, noble, and wealthy silk merchant of Jewish and Spanish roots. Her mother was the youthful and delicate Beatriz de Ahumada, who died at the age of 33, bequeathing to her 12-year-old daughter Teresa her tender love for the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Rosary in a such a way that the sorrowful child turned spontaneously to Mary to ask her to replace her dead mother. All her life she felt assured that her prayer had been answered, especially when “Mary took her child to herself” by calling her to the Order of Carmel.
Teresa had two sisters and nine brothers, eight of whom would embark as conquistadores to seek fortune and adventure in the newly discovered American continent. From an early age she was the life and soul of her family and the leader among her siblings. At the age of seven, she persuaded her favorite brother, Redrigo, who was four years her senior, to run away with her to Morocco to gain the crown of martyrdom. They didn’t get very far before they were caught by an uncle and brought back to their distraught parents. “I want to see God,” Teresa explained, “and to see God we must die.” She would then resort to trying to live like a hermit in the garden and would love to gaze at a painting picturing Our Lord convening with the Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well while repeating over and over the words: “Lord, give me of this water.” No doubt she didn’t yet understand the full meaning of them, but do these words not express and foreshadow her life-long quest and the happy torment of her soul? Teresa’s desires to “see God” and to “drink of this water” would become so great that she would have the heroic courage to satisfy them and lead her fellow Christians in the same quest.
It is true to say that her good desires waned somewhat when she reached adolescence and became infatuated with the romantic tales of chivalry, in vogue at the time, featuring handsome knights whose deeds were frequently all too human rather than heroic. “So completely,” she later wrote, “was I mastered by this promise that I thought I could never be happy without a new book.” She even wrote one of her own of the same kind, and all this, behind her disapproving father’s back.
Being exquisitely pretty and talented, she became aware of the powers of her feminine charm. Looking back in later years, she admitted to one of her confessors: “You know, Father, when I was young I was congratulated for three things in particular: they said I was a saint, that I was witty, and that I was beautiful. I believed two of these things. I thought I was witty and beautiful, which showed enough vanity on my part.” Luckily, her father had the good idea of sending her to the nearby convent of the Augustinian nuns to be educated, and it was there that her prior desires returned to the point that she reached the determined resolve to be a nun, despite her strong natural repulsion towards the religious state. She saw it as the safest option if she were to save her soul. She was then twenty years old.
A Nun Not by Halves
Once Teresa, noble Christian that she was, had made up her mind, there was no turning back. She left her father’s home very early one morning in 1535 without even saying goodbye, and entered the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation (which lies just beyond the city walls of Avila), in such inner distress that she later admitted: “I do not think it will be greater when I die.”
Generous in all her undertakings, she would not be a nun “by halves,” however, and it wasn’t long before her “marriage of reason” turned into a “marriage of love” and this came about mainly when she began to lead a serious life of prayer and reflection. “All good came to me through prayer,” she said, and as long as she persevered in it, she was fervent, whereas when she became slack in prayer, her fervor dwindled.
She thus spent twenty years of her religious life between periods of great piety and periods of relative lukewarmness, accommodating herself to the general ambience of her convent where the spirit of laxity and worldliness had crept in since the rules of the enclosure were no longer strictly in force. During these years she was shackled with attachments and miserable habits that she felt too weak to break: “I wish I knew how to describe the captivity of my soul at that time,” she later wrote, until the day when she was granted the grace of a profound conversion of heart at the sight of a statue of the “Ecce Homo” covered with wounds. As she fell in tears at her Mother’s feet like another Magdalen, she reached the conviction once and for all that: “All our efforts are unavailing unless we completely give up having confidence in ourselves and fix it all upon God.”
This conversion at the age of 39, impelled her to surrender herself completely to Our Lord, without the least reserve. She gave herself with fresh determination to a serious life of prayer, and it was not long before the good Lord responded by raising her to a state of inspired contemplation and lavishing upon her extraordinary mystical graces. She refers to this time in her autobiography: “Until now the life I was describing was my own; but the life I have been living since…is the life which God has been living in me.”
Through the power of this Divine Life, Teresa would now embark on a glorious adventure of love and conquest in the service of her Lord and His Blessed Mother Mary “whose habit she wore” by reviving the primitive ideal of her Order of Mount Carmel in the spirit and strength of her St. Elias, whose cry was: “As the Lord liveth in whose sight I stand.…With zeal I have been zealous for the Lord God of Hosts.”
Aflame with Divine Love
“O strong love of God!...Nothing seems impossible to one who loves.” Born and raised in Avila, Teresa inherited the courage of its women, who were famous for having successfully defended their city during a memorable siege in the absence of their men-folk. Fuelled moreover with Divine Love, there is nothing she would not do for the Lord she loves so much: “The least that anyone who is beginning to serve the Lord truly can offer Him is his life.”
For a state of chronic bad health, plagued with infirmities which would have kept others bedridden, without penny and amid fierce opposition, she founded convent after convent, extending the reform to the Friars as well as to the Sisters, according to the will of God and under obedience to her superiors and confessors. Along the way she was encouraged by several future canonized saints: St. John of the Cross (co-reformer of Carmel), St. Peter of Alcantara, St. Francis Borgia, St. John of Avila, and St. Louis Bertrand.
She envied her “priest-brothers” who unlike her could early satisfy their burning zeal for souls by preaching and going off to the Missions. Not content with formulating unfeasible desires, she would make up for this by doing what lay in her power. Firstly she would strive for greater perfection and sanctity: it was at this time that she made the vow of doing always what seemed the most perfect. Secondly, she would put her outstanding organizational and administrative abilities at the service of her zeal by founding convents.
In these convents, the “little dovecots of the Virgin,” as she called them, she would assemble little groups of fervent nuns within the confines of a strict enclosure, thus ingeniously recreating the solitude of the desert according to the primitive spirit of Carmel, by means of high walls, grates, and veils. Together they would dedicate themselves exclusively to a life of prayer and immolation for the Church, for priests, and for souls—more especially for those priests who were preachers, theologians, and defenders of the Faith. “Oh, my sisters in Christ! Help me to entreat this of the Lord, who has brought you together for that very purpose. This is your vocation, thus must be your business, these must be your desires, these your tears, these your petitions… Let us strive to be such that our prayers may be of avail to help these servants of God.”
She felt intense anguish over the great evils which beset the Church, the spread of Luther’s heresy, the reports of the missionaries in America of the millions of souls of Indians who are being lost. “Those Indians have cost me no little suffering!...I do not know how we can look on so calmly and see the devil carrying off as many souls as he does daily.…To worry about anything else seems ridiculous.”
The more Teresa progressed in Divine intimacy the greater her apostolic desires became. Far from distracting her and her Carmelite daughters from contemplative prayers, the zeal which this prayer enkindles is a spur to ever greater apostolic immolation. United to Our Lord they embrace the whole Christ, i.e. the Church, the Mystical Body. Their love for their Divine Spouse is inextricably linked with their love for this Church and the souls that compose it. The two grow in union, and in St. Teresa, this will be beautifully expressed in her final words spoken on her death bed at Alba de Tormes on October 4, 1582: “I am a daughter of the Church. Oh, my Beloved, the time has come for us to see each other.”
Holy Madness and Robust Common Sense
The last twenty years of her life, Teresa the mystic was most often seen traveling throughout Spain on mule back or in a covered wagon founding convents. She came to rub shoulders with people of all ranks: muleteers, beggars, bankers, bishops, theologians, saints, miners, dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses, and even kings and queens. Her extensive correspondence, which has happily been passed down to us, shows that no less than a thousand people crossed her path. She became past master in the art of dealing with them all and, thanks to her charm and her gift of persuasive humor, she managed to win over everyone from the most cantankerous neighbor to the good Lord Himself. “God be praised!” exclaimed Princess Juana of Spain after a meeting with her, “He has granted us to see a saint whom we can all imitate. She talks like us, sleeps and eats as we do, and her conversation is unpretentious!!”
Her down-to-earthness would sometimes cause others to overlook the mystic in her who, all the while, was living in profound union with God amidst raptures, locutions, and visions. From 1572 onwards, she was experiencing the most elevated mystical grace of all, that of “spiritual marriage” whereby she had a near continual vision of the Trinity dwelling within her soul. She could have happily spent her time savoring this sublime intimacy with the Three Divine Persons, but no, as she says herself: “The Lord wants deeds, He wants works. This is the reason for prayer, this is true union with His will, the purpose of Spiritual Marriage: the birth of good works.”
She therefore gracefully descended from the lofty heights of her mystical union to suffer and to work in the service of her Lord and His Church until her death, thus becoming a true mother to all through the fecundity of her Spousal love.
Teresa’s wise and perceptive confessors, who realized the great value of her experience in the ways of prayer, ordered her to write for the benefit, not only of her Carmelite daughters, but for all interior souls. Here are some points which she particularly insists upon:
1) “We are not able to please God, nor is God accustomed to impart this gift to us except through the most holy humanity of Christ in whom He is well pleased.”
2) We best find Jesus in the “Interior Castle” of our souls, in the innermost mansion where he resides with the Father and the Holy Ghost.
3) The gate by which we enter the “Interior Castle” is prayer and recollection, which is “nothing but a friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him who we know loves us.”
4) And since prayer consists “not in thinking much but in loving much,” it will kindle a strong desire within the soul to return love for love and make it understand the necessity of complete detachment from created things and of laying a firm foundation to its prayer life by the practice of the virtues, humility and fraternal charity especially. The soul becomes “a servant of love” embracing the ascetical life for the sake of the mystical life.
5) Asceticism is a labor of love and as “love has the power of making us forget our every satisfaction in order to please our beloved” (far more effective than the most rigorous spirit of penance would!), it demands the surrender of absolutely everything: “To give all in order to possess all.”
6) Thus freed from all attachments to self and to creatures, joyous and ardent, the Teresian soul revels in “the holy freedom of spirit which our souls seek in order to soar to their Master unburdened by the leaden weight of earth.”
“God gave her a heart as wide as the sand that is on the sea shore” (Introit of the Mass of St. Teresa). Well might we rejoice, then, in celebrating the anniversary of her birth. That great heart, which the good God created for the benefit of us all, longs to embrace all souls to lead them to Divine Intimacy.
“Christians, the Lord’s mercy is so great that He has forbidden none to strive to come and drink of His fountain of life…indeed he calls publicly and in so loud voice to do so.…So take my advice and do not tarry on the way, but strive like strong men until you die in the attempt… The Lord never tires of giving, let us never tire of receiving.…All thing pass away, God alone suffices.”