Saint Teresa of Avila
Mystic, Teacher, Reformer,
One of my mentors pointed out that St. Teresa seemed to “expose my spiritual growing edge.” I suppose she spoke a timeless sacred language that had a way of jolting me into the growing awareness that God and I were not separate. Though I had been brought up to say my prayers to God, the Divine Other…to “lift up” my prayers, as if to some far off heavenly realm, St. Teresa spoke of God in ways that exploded those concepts.
She talked of relationship, connection, communion—a constant interplay between doctrine and experience. When she spoke of the indwelling of the Holy—and of herself as dwelling in God—she expressed it in powerful metaphors:
It seemed to me there came the thought of how a sponge absorbs and is saturated with water; so, I thought, was my soul, which was overflowing with that divinity and in a certain way rejoicing within itself and possessing the three Persons. I also heard the words: “Don’t try to hold ME within yourself, but try to hold yourself within Me.”
Though her style was often rambling and unsophisticated, her mystical experience was unmistakable. Oddly enough, the intensity of her prayer life did not lead her to cloistered isolation, but into vigorous action and service, despite a lifetime of illness and adversity. She is remembered not only for her passionate metaphors but also for championing reforms within the Carmelite order.
Teresa was born in Avila, Spain, in 1515, during tumultuous times. She had to deal with the Spanish Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation, and a culture in which the theological opinions of women were thought to be absolutely worthless. Very early, she began to feel an attraction to the religious life, but she was her father's favorite, and he was unwilling to allow her to enter the convent. However, Teresa followed her own yearnings, and at age 20, she ran away from home and entered the Carmelite Monastery in Avila. Later her father grudgingly gave his blessing, so she could be openly enthusiastic about her new life.
But her troubles
were not behind her. At age 23, she fell severely ill—with no discernible cause.
She was forced to leave the cloister to undergo experimental and drastic
treatments, which almost killed her. One can only imagine what "experimental"
might have meant in the 1500s. Though she survived the ordeal, she suffered the
rest of her life from complications of that experience.
Teresa also experienced ups and downs in her spiritual life, largely as a result of guilt-based theology and ideas about human depravity that still exist in the minds of many today. At age 39, however, she experienced a transformation that gave her a new kind of freedom in Christ and a new outlook on life. Though a mystic, she went on to lead an extremely active life as a teacher, reformer in the Catholic Church, poet, and author.
Her most famous work, The Interior Castle, came to her in a vision in 1577. She “saw” a magnificent crystal globe like a castle in which there were seven dwelling places. In the seventh, in the center, was the King of Glory. This seventh room, one of complete union with God, is expressed in language reminiscent of the Song of Songs, in which the relationship is likened to spiritual marriage. The fruit of this mystical connection is the strength to live in service to God and neighbor.
The rooms in the castle depicted spiritual conditions along the journey that have illuminated the path for seekers for almost five hundred years. However, it was another of her images that painted the spiritual landscape in vivid colors for me. Her descriptions of the life of prayer (and consequently of personal growth) became for me more an experience than an idea, something that could only be seen in retrospect. I had to live into it rather than merely understand it. So, in a way, I “borrowed” her image and made it my own. Here’s the way I experienced it.
- When we get
serious about our spiritual journeys, we expend a great deal of effort. We are
obsessed with trying harder. Teresa imagined a field that needed watering (our
spiritual state in need of nurture). In the first stage of spiritual growth, it
is as if we are dragging a heavy oaken bucket, dipping it into a well, hauling
the water up, bucket by bucket, and watering the field. This represents the
condition where we try desperately to please God, to obey the rules, to get it
right for God.
- In the second
stage, our prayer and progress lead us to notice a stream running beside the
field. All we have to do is drag the oaken bucket through the water and haul it
to the field and water it. A little easier, but we still control the pace
through our own efforts. That is, we decide what tasks and projects we will
undertake, what the content of our prayer will be, how we will nurture our
spiritual lives and be pleasing to God.
- In the third
stage, we become aware of a gate at the end of the field that opens to an
irrigation system. All we have to do is fling the gate open, and the water comes
pouring into water the field. It seems that God meets us with grace so nurturing
and powerful that we have only to open ourselves to it. Our faith journey
becomes not so much what we can do for God, but what God can do through us, for
us, in us.
- In the final stage, we merely stand in the rain. When I first internalized the image of standing in a cleansing rain, immersed in the saving love of God through no effort of my own, I was overcome with the realization that Divine Love didn’t require my effort. It was not dependent on my deserving. It was truly, profoundly, eternally unconditional.
Thanks to St. Teresa of Avila, I finally got it.
Copyright ©2006 Linda Douty
Portrait of Saint Teresa of Avila by Sally Markell.