Ten Lessons from St Teresa of Avila
(FR. ED BROOM, OMV)
There are two weeks apart every year in the Church Liturgical Calendar that separate two marvelous, inspiring, and most lovable saints, who truly love us and want us to love them: Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Theresa of Avila.
Saint Therese Lisieux we celebrate October 1st; Saint Teresa of Avila we celebrate October 15th. What do they have in common? Both are women, both are in the class of the few women Doctors of the Church, both were great contemplatives, both were Carmelite nuns, but most important both were and are and will be for all eternity great lovers of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In this short essay we would like to pay tribute to Saint Teresa of Avila and highlight ten of her great contributions to the Catholic Church and to us as a model of holiness, that we are all called to attain. Remember the words of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the context of the Sermon of the Mount: “Be holy as your heavenly Father is holy.”(Mt. 5:48) Being holy, arriving at sanctity of life, is not conditional, wishful thinking nor something that only a select group is called to, but all. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta challenges us with these stirring words: “Holiness is not the privilege of the few, but the duty of all.” Now let us lift our gaze to Saint Teresa of Avila who will point us to Jesus, our Lord, God, Savior and Faithful Friend.
1. Prayer. One of the key hallmarks of the spiritual heights of Saint Teresa of Avila is the importance of prayer. Even though she struggled for many years she teaches us this basic but indispensable spiritual truth—Perseverance in prayer! Meditate upon her immortal words of wisdom and memorize: “We must have a determined determination to never give up prayer.” Jesus taught us this supremely important truth in the Parable of the insistent would and the Judge. This widow, due to her dogged and tenacious insistence finally gained the assistance of this cold-hearted Judge. (Lk. 18:1-8). St. Teresa insists that we must never give up in prayer. If you like an analogy: what air is to the lungs so is prayer to the soul. Healthy lungs need constant and pure air; healthy soul must be constantly breathing through prayer—the oxygen of the soul!
2. Definition of Prayer. Saint Thomas Aquinas gives us simple but very solid advice: define your topic before you start to talk about it. By doing this you can avoid much confusion. Saint Teresa of Avila gives us one of the classical definitions of prayer in the history of Catholicism. “Prayer is nothing more than spending a long time alone with the one I know loves me.” A short summary? Two friends loving each other! Jesus Himself called the Apostles friends—so are you called to be a friend with Jesus!
3. Love for Jesus. Saint Teresa gives us a hint to prayer growth! This woman Doctor of the Church said that she found many graces by meditating upon the Humanity of Jesus. By spending time with Jesus, the Son of God made man and entering into colloquy with Him is a sure path to growth in prayer. Try it! Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in the Spiritual Exercises insists upon us in begging for this grace:“Intimate knowledge of Jesus that we love Him more ardently and follow Him more closely.”
4. Love for Jesus in His Sufferings. It seems to be a common denominator in many saints—the call to contemplate the love of Jesus through His sorrowful passion—Padre Pio, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Faustina and Teresa of Avila. For Teresa, she had a mystical experience of “Ecce Homo”; she saw Jesus with His crowned Head and this moved her to a greater love for Jesus.
5. Holy Spirit: The Divine Teacher in Prayer. On one occasion the saint was really struggling with prayer and she talked to a Jesuit priest for advice on overcoming her struggle. His advice was simple and to the point, but changed her life! The priest insisted on praying to the Holy Spirit. From that point on, following this great advice to rely on the Holy Spirit, Teresa’s prayer life improved markedly! Saint Paul to the Romans reiterates the same point: “In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.”(Romans 8:26) Let us be led by the best of all teachers, the Interior Master of prayer, the Holy Spirit.
6. Spiritual Direction. To attain constant growth in the spiritual life, we must have some form of spiritual direction. Spiritual blindness, we all experience. The devil can disguise or camouflage as an angel of light. And the higher we climb in the spiritual life the more subtle are the tactics and seductions of the devil—“who is searching for us a roaring lion ready to devour us.”(I Peter 5: 8-9) During the course of her life, Saint Teresa of Avila had recourse to several spiritual directors and some of these are now canonized saints: Saint John of the Cross (Carmelite), Saint Francis Borgia (Jesuit), Saint Peter of Alcantara (Franciscan), and finally, Jerome Gracian—a well-known Dominican scholar and theologian. True, all of us cannot have three canonized saints and a brilliant Dominican theologian to guide us, but we can and must all find some form of periodic spiritual direction. Saint John of the Cross put it bluntly: “He who as himself as guide has an idiot as a disciple.” Bingo!
7. Conversion and Reform. A major highlight in the life of Saint Teresa of Avila was the whole concept of conversion or reform. With Saint John of the Cross, she was the primary instrument that God chose to reform the Carmelite Order. However, Teresa was keenly aware of this truth: to convert others we must start with ourselves—this she worked on during the whole course of her life on earth! Jesus’ first words in preaching were: “Be converted because the Kingdom of God is ate hand.”(Mk.1:15) May we constantly strive for a deeper conversion of heart through the intercession of Saint Teresa of Avila.
8. Spiritual Masterpieces—Her Writings. Without doubt, one of the major contributions to the Church as well as to the world at large are the writings or spiritual masterpieces of Saint Teresa of Avila. One of her basic themes is that of the importance of prayer, and striving to grow deeper and deeper in prayer until one arrives at the Mystical Union of the spouse with Jesus the Heavenly Spouse. Anybody who takes his or her prayer life seriously should know of Teresa’s writings and spend some time in reading some of her anointed writings. What are her classics? Here they are: “Her life”, “The Way of Perfection”, “The Interior Castle”, “Foundations”. In addition to these texts/books, she also wrote many inspiring letters. Want to become a saint? Read and drink from the from writings of the saints, especially the Doctors of the Church!
9 The Cross as the Bridge to Heaven. Jesus said: “Anyone who wants to be my follower must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Another common denominator in the lives of the saints is the reality of the cross. Saint Louis de Montfort would bless his friends as such: “May God bless you and give you many small crosses!” Saint Teresa lived with a constant friend—the cross of Jesus. Her health was always very fragile; she almost died while very young. Furthermore, for Saint Teresa of Avila to carry out the Reform of the Carmelite, she suffered constant attacks and persecutions from many nuns in the convent who preferred a more comfortable lifestyle, from priests (Carmelites) and from other ecclesiastics. Instead of becoming discouraged and losing heart, she joyfully trusted in the Lord all the more—anyway, it was His doing!
10. Our Lady and St. Joseph. During the whole course of her Religious Life, Saint Teresa of Avila loved the Blessed Virgin Mary—as is common in the lives of the saints, and hopefully your life! The title of her specific Marian devotion was Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Never forget, in your love for Our Lady, to wear the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This is your external sign of consecration to Mary. Furthermore, Saint Teresa of Avila cultivated a tender and filial love to Saint Joseph. She attributed her recovery from a sickness that almost ended her life to the powerful intercession of Saint Joseph. Also, every new convent that she established she gave the name of San Jose—Saint Joseph!
In conclusion, may the great woman Doctor of the Church—the Doctor of prayer—Saint Teresa of Avila, be a constant inspiration to you in your own spiritual pilgrimage to heaven. May she encourage you to pray more and with greater depth, arrive at a deeper conversion of heart, and finally love Jesus s the very center and well-spring or your life!