While many presume that time committed to prayer distracts from the important responsibilities of life, for St. Teresa of Avila, prayer is no obstacle, but a source of interior strength for service to others and holy friendships in the mission of the Church. Entering into silence before the mystery of God’s presence became the animating principle of her own apostolic fruitfulness.
Five hundred years after her birth, this spiritual mission continues to send waves of grace throughout the Church and the broader culture.
Teresa Sanchez Cepeda y Ahumada is given the title “of Avila” not as her family name, but, instead, to indicate where she lived as a Carmelite nun, reformer and mystic.
Born in 1515, she grew up in a wonderful Catholic household in a beautiful, walled medieval city in the very heart of the Iberian Peninsula. At that time, Spain saw itself as a Catholic kingdom and an emerging political power. The royal family were people of not only great industry, but personal prayer, envisioning a society built around the Eucharist and entrusted with spreading the Gospel to the farthest ends of the world.
A sense of confidence that comes from this flourishing Spanish culture gives her teachings a certain freshness and charm. While her brothers went forth as Conquistadores in America for personal fortune and the glory of Spain, she herself entered a nearby convent, the Incarnation, without her father’s permission. Yet her father was a man dedicated to prayer and gave his consent as he carefully discerned God’s will.
Religious life did not automatically make her a saint. As a nun, she kept up appearances even when struggling with prayer, and many thought her to be a model religious. She was dissatisfied with her mediocre life but did not know what to do. At 39 years of age, a moment of grace caught her by surprise.
On a stairway on her way to the chapel, her eyes fell on a statue of Christ, scourged and crowned with thorns. She had probably passed by this image before without really noticing it. This time, however, she felt Jesus — rejected and despised out of love for her — look at her with a personal tenderness that pierced her to the heart. She fell down and wept in prayer, begging Christ not to allow her to backslide again.
This renewal of her friendship with Christ disposed her to further conversions. When she felt stuck in emotional attachments that distracted her from the spiritual life, a Jesuit spiritual director invited her to sing the Veni Creator Spiritus as part of her prayer. She did and found herself caught up in an encounter with the Lord that raptured her into a heavenly reality. Her heart was pierced with the love of God in an even more profound manner, and this gave her a deeper confidence to let go of what was holding her back.
Through contemplative prayer, her Bridegroom freed her from every attachment that was not worthy of her Christian dignity.
St. Teresa of Jesus desired to build up the Church through promoting a way of life completely centered in prayer. She discovered sacred doctrine to be the key to her mission.
Then, as now, very few had appreciated the relationship of scientific theology and mystical wisdom. Many were trying to renew the spiritual life of Spain without rooting their insights in sound doctrine — and this with catastrophic moral and spiritual results.
At the same time, many theologians viewed contemplation as dangerous and limited to those in the most rigorous forms of religious life. St. Teresa believed this assumption was false. Faith without reason is vulnerable to grave deceptions, and study without a deep encounter with Christ often resulted in many less-than-edifying investigations at the time. St. Teresa somehow intuited that contemplation needed solid doctrine if it was to be protected from all kinds of falsehoods, just as much as theology needed mental prayer if it was to be life-giving.
When theology and prayer come together in truth, they open up a source of love in one’s personal life and in the Church.
The more intimate St. Teresa’s friendship with the Lord, the more she desired to root her prayer in the truth of the faith and the more she gave herself in loving service to others.
Her life was in fact a whirlwind of great projects, disappointments, challenges, trials, persecution and beautiful silence.
Everything was for the glory of God: from starting a Carmelite reform to founding convents, patiently helping the Carmelites of the ancient observance recover the spiritual treasures of their heritage, writing spiritual masterpieces and engaging the public square in all kinds of creative and bold ways to make space for people of prayer.
This 500th anniversary of her birth is a time to reflect on her synthesis of sound theology grounded in authentic mystical experience and apostolic fruitfulness, a vital reminder for the Church today.
Anthony Lilles is the co-founder of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation and academic dean of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California.
He is the co-author with Dan Burke, the Register’s executive director, of 30 Days With Teresa of Avila.