Reformer and Mystic

Saint Teresa of Avila

Feast Day: 15th October

One of the towering figures in Christian history lived at a time when people paid little attention to women and yet she outshone nearly all her contemporaries. Teresa of Avila was a mystic, a religious reformer, the foundress of 17 convents, the author of four books and one of the outstanding masters of Christian prayer. She could be charming, imperious, irreverent and impossible, depending on the circumstances and the provocation. There is little doubt among any she encountered that her courage and wisdom were rooted in a special relationship with God.

Born in 1515, her father was a merchant but her mother died when she was 14 and six years later she decided to become a nun, more for fear of going to purgatory than for loving God. This displeased her father but Teresa, with characteristic willfulness, disobeyed him. Within a year she became so ill that he came to take her home. Her convalescence was long and painful and for three years she was virtually paralyzed from the waist down.

Eventually she was well enough to return to her convent, but her spiritual life had grown tepid and superficial. Her progress was not helped by the worldliness in the convent. The spirit of their rule was relaxed and the convent at Avila had come to resemble a boarding house for wealthy maidens more than a house of prayer. The enclosure was not seriously maintained, and the nuns spent much of their time in the parlour entertaining visitors and gentleman callers. In this atmosphere Teresa's natural charm and extroverted personality brought her much attention. But when she was 29, Teresa had an experience of conversion when she happened to glance at the image of the suffering Christ on the Cross. Instantly she was filled with a loathing for the mediocrity of her spiritual life. From that moment she was determined to devote herself more seriously to a life of prayer. Almost immediately upon this resolution she began to experience the sensation of being deeply loved by God. She decided to establish a new reformed Carmelite branch of the Order, returning to the spirit of the original rule of Carmel. This met with much opposition, but eventually she won permission to undertake this initiative. Her new convent was founded in Avila when Teresa was 47.

Her new community was known as the Discalced (shoeless) Carmelites. In fact the nuns wore hemp sandals, but their name referred to the strict poverty that was a feature of Teresa's reform. Her nuns were to seek no endowments but to live entirely by alms and their own labour. A strict enclosure was to be maintained, along with a rigorous prayer life. They were to live on a vegetarian diet.

Teresa went on to establish 16 other convents in Spain. In the meantime she had to endure opposition from within her Carmelite family, suspicion from members of the hierarchy, and eventually formal investigation by the dreaded Spanish Inquisition. Not so many years had passed since the Spanish victory over the Moors and the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Spain at this time was exultantly and aggressively Catholic and had a fanatical suspicion of anything that smacked of Protestantism. As a woman and reformer, who based her authority on private visions, Teresa's activities entailed considerable risk. She had the support of her confessor John of the Cross whom she inspired to form a male branch of Discalced Carmelites.

Teresa boldly surmounted all obstacles in her path. When asked how she intended to found a monastery with only a handful of ducats in her purse, she answered, "Teresa and this money are indeed nothing; but God, Teresa and the ducats suffice. "Her health was far from robust and she found the rigours of travelling long journeys by donkey carts arduous. Once her cart overturned, throwing her into a muddy river. When she complained to God about this ordeal, she heard a voice within her say, "This is how I treat my friends.” “Yes, my Lord," she answered, "and that is why you have so few of them."

Teresa's public accomplishments are all the more remarkable in the light of the intensity of her life of prayer. As she advanced in life she experienced frequent ecstasies in which it seemed her heart had been pierced by God's love. She described this in great detail in her autobiography, along with several other volumes on prayer and mystical spirituality. Even though she had advanced to such a unique degree in communion with God, she was able to speak in down to earth language. She wrote, "Prayer, in my view, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse with Him Whom we know loves us." She was able to counsel many people.

She once wrote to her Sisters, "Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life, which is short and has to be lived by you alone; and that that there is only one glory, which is eternal. If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing." She died, aged 67, and was canonised 40 years later. In 1970 she was the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church.

We could all ask Teresa to help us to reform our lives and improve the quality of our prayer life. This is what God did for her because she cooperated with His grace. May that same grace be given us and may we respond to God's help as did Saint Teresa.