Teresa was born in Ávila in Spain in 1515 and entered the Carmelite convent there at the age of 20, not because of any great attraction to the religious life but because it seemed the most sensible thing to do. At this time Carmelite convents were comfortable places. One was well looked after, had as much contact with the outside world as one wanted, and could keep one’s own possessions. With time, and despite ill-health, she made great progress in contemplative prayer and had a number of mystical experiences, which she treated with great suspicion since she felt that she was not nearly holy enough to be accorded them by God.
Teresa’s prayer life led her to seek a more perfect life, and in 1562, in the face of much opposition, she founded a convent of Discalced Carmelite nuns in Ávila. “Discalced” (“shoeless”) signified their devotion to poverty. The rest of her life is a story of the establishment of more and more Discalced Carmelite convents in the face of intense opposition from the unreformed Carmelites but help coming from the highest levels at the same time. Thus in 1566 the General of the Carmelite Order approved Teresa’s original foundation and permitted her to make new ones. In 1575 the chapter of the Order decided to dissolve them all, and for the next five years every effort was made to destroy Teresa’s reforms and many of her followers (including St John of the Cross) were imprisoned and cruelly treated.
At length, in 1580, and with the support of King Philip II, the Discalced Carmelites were made independent and St Teresa was able to found more new convents. She died, worn out by her efforts, on 15 October 1582.
St Teresa is an outstanding example of how the contemplative life can well up and overflow into action. In addition to all this, she wrote much on the subject of contemplative prayer and her writings are still standard works today. She was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
A favourite story about St Teresa illustrates the intimate relationship that the saints have with God. When she was on one of her innumerable journeys across Spain, her horse threw her as she was crossing a river. Soaked to the skin she looked up to heaven and said, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!” We should bring everything to God in our prayers, even our reproaches. For a reproach, in the end, is simply our way of offering up to God our incomprehension of what he is giving us.
Here is a selection of quotes from St Teresa:
‘Our Lord does not care so much for the importance of our works as for the love with which they are done’.
‘And I see clearly…that God desires that if we are going to please him and receive his great favours, we must do so through the most sacred humanity of Christ, in whom he takes his delight…we must enter by this gate…on this road you walk safely. This Lord of ours is the one through whom all blessings come to us’.
‘If you are joyful, look at Him as risen. If you are experiencing trials or are sad, behold Him on the way to the garden’.
‘Whoever lives in the presence of so good a friend…who went ahead of us to be the first to suffer, can endure all things. The lord helps us, strengthens us, and never fails; he is a true friend’,
For Teresa, we dispose ourselves by becoming like soft wax ready for the divine imprint.
‘To be humble is to walk in truth, for it is a very deep truth that of ourselves we have nothing good but only misery and nothingness. Whoever does not understand this walks in falsehood’.
‘It is foolish to think that we will enter heaven without entering into ourselves, coming to know ourselves, reflecting on our misery…and begging him often for mercy’.
‘When we pray, we place ourselves ‘in the presence of Christ and grow accustomed to being inflamed with love for his sacred humanity’.
To conform our will to God’s is described by St Teresa of Avila as ‘the highest perfection to which we can attain. The more prefect the accord is, the more do we receive from the Lord and the greater is our progress’.
‘Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience turns a very short time into a long one.’
‘Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through 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 on earth but yours.’
St Teresa of Avila, Pray for us!