"If This is How You Treat Your Friends…"

St. Teresa's descriptions of contemplative prayer and its effect upon the soul are unparalleled. She writes with joyous abandon and humorous, self-deprecating humility, and her writings are accessible to all.

François Gérard, “Teresa of Ávila” (detail), 1827
François Gérard, “Teresa of Ávila” (detail), 1827 (photo: Public Domain)

“It is Love alone that gives worth to all things.” —St. Teresa of Ávila

“My Lord, it is time to move on. Well then, may your will be done.
O my Lord and my Spouse, the hour that I have longed for has come.
It is time to meet one another.” —St. Teresa of Ávila, upon her deathbed

It's hard to pick a favorite saint. And the truth is, I need as much help as I can get, so I'm not interested in excluding anyone. Any friend of God is a friend of mine, but St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) will always have a special place in my heart.

As the hagiographic accounts relate, as St. Teresa (1515–1582) also called St. Teresa of Jesus, made her way to her convent during a fierce rainstorm, she slipped down an embankment and fell squarely into the mud. The irrepressible nun looked up to heaven and admonished her Maker, "If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!" Only a true friend of God could speak with such familiarity and temerity. For this reason, among many others, she has endeared herself to me.

St. Teresa is the Patroness of those who suffer from physical pain, headaches and, oddly chess players.

But, now that I think of it, I get a headache every time I play chess so there might very well be a connection.

She was a mystic, Counter-Reformation author and a mystical theologian of the contemplative life through mental prayer. Along with St. John of the Cross, she managed to reform the Carmelite Order, ultimately establishing the Discalced Carmelites―a stricter interpretation of the Carmelite spirituality and religious life.

Teresa was a tiny but feisty woman who, as a small girl, received visions which astounded her family and friends. Her Interior Castle is a brilliant, soulful and at times humorous love letter and textbook replete with magnificent psychological observations and spiritual instruction. The book, among her other writings, helped earn her the title "Doctor of the Church"―one of only 36 individuals in Christendom's history and one of only four women to hold such a title.

In her book, Teresa explains how to navigate the interior spiritscape towards ultimate union with the Lover Who called her into being. Her book and her life were enough to inspire both Thérèse of Lisieux and Mother Teresa to choose her name as their own. For these reasons, and many others, I decided to include Ávila in my pilgrimage across Europe.

Teresa of Ávila was born in 1515 in Gotarrendura, in the province of Ávila, Spain. Her paternal grandfather, Juan Sánchez de Toledo, was a Jewish convert to Christianity and had run afoul of the Spanish Inquisition for supposedly reverting to his original Jewish faith. His son, Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda, and family were by far better assimilated into Christian Spain, having only defeated the Moslem occupation of the Iberian Peninsula of the previous 800 years.

Teresa's mother, Beatriz de Ahumada y Cuevas, was a particularly devout women and raised her children accordingly. Her death when Teresa was only 14 resulted in developing a profound devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Pope Gregory XV canonized St. Teresa in 1622―a mere forty years after her death, which is warp speed considering it was the 17th century.

On September 27, 1970, Pope Paul VI named her a Doctor of the Church. Her books include her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus, her most important spiritual treatise The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection.

It was her dedication to contemplative life that directed her to explore the true nature of evil in her life. And what she learned about her own inherent sinfulness, the awful terror of sin and the inherent nature of original sin which had made short work of our Progenitors. It also made her realize that mankind is useless in defeating sin on its own. Instead, she also became conscious of her own natural impotence in confronting sin, and the necessity of absolute subjection to God.

Teresa entered a Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in Ávila on November 2, 1535 but immediately became uncomfortable with life there thinking it too lax and purposeless. In fact, there the daily stream of visitors was particularly disconcerting.

With the help of her spiritual director, Franciscan friar St. Peter of Alcantara, she resolved to found a reformed Carmelite convent.

Even before her new St. Joseph Monastery, established in 1562, both the locals and bishop were up in arms because of the absolute poverty Teresa insisted upon. Neither wanted to be responsible to feed yet another bunch of impoverished nuns.

The diminutive Spanish spitfire assured them both that this wasn't the case.

She managed to convince St. John of the Cross and Anthony of Jesus to help with her project to reform the Carmelites. Together, they founded the first convent of Discalced Carmelite Brethren in November 1568 at Duruello. Other man and women soon joined their cause.

However, not everyone was happy. In 1576, Carmelites from her original order ganged up on her and friends seeking to put an end to the reformation process effectively stopping construction of any new monastery. Teresa was also required to retire to the St. Joseph Monastery at Toledo.

Her friends, monks, nuns and supporters were subjected to even greater trials.

Thankfully, in 1579, Spain's King Philip II came to her rescue by demanding that the inquisition against her be dropped and that her work continue unimpeded. Pope Gregory XIII added to her nascent order certain administrative structures that helped protect her and her work.

By the time of her death, Teresa the Dynamo Saint had built seventeen convents, all of them founded by her except one. In addition, she created an additional seventeen monasteries for men. All of this was accomplished in a mere twenty years of active apostolate. That means one new reformed religious community every seven months.

There's an interesting connection between Teresa of Avila and the Gregorian Calendar which is currently in use.

Apparently, no one is sure when she died.

Teresa lay dying on the night in 1582 in which Catholic countries were making the changeover from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, thanks to the reforms implemented by Pope Gregory XIII. This switch necessitated the removal of the ten days between October 5–14 from the calendar. Thus, though she came to her deathbed before midnight of October 4, her death was registered as having taken place on October 15. The letter is the day set aside as her feast day.

In AD 1617, and the University of Salamanca posthumously conferred the academic title Doctor ecclesiae with a diploma. On September 27, 1970, Pope Paul VI conferred the title "Doctor of the Church" upon St. Teresa of Ávila. Her very apt moniker is the "Doctor of Prayer."

Ávila is a small town of 50,000 inhabitants, approximately sixty-miles northwest of Madrid. It is situated on Spain's meseta and still retains the best-preserved medieval walls in Spain. Movie buffs will recall seeing them as a backdrop to Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston's 1961 film, "El Cid." King Alfonso VI built the walls after he wrested the city from Moslem invaders in AD 1090. The one-and-half-mile-long wall has nine gates and 88 towers making it the technological wonder of 11th century urban defense systems.

At the Plaza de Santa Teresa is the Convento de San José. Built in AD 1562, it was the first monastery founded by the mystic. It contains numerous Teresan relics each imbuing in me a profound gratefulness at being able to witness them. Construction on the nearby Cathedral d'Ávila was started in the twelfth-century. Technically, it isn't finished yet as its main entrance is still missing a tower. It is a delightful mélange of Romanesque and Gothic forms and elements. The church is infused with a holiness that works on all willing to open themselves to it.

I made my way to the parapet that overlooked the part of Ávila that spilled from its walls years ago. In the midst of that urban sprawl, like a magnificent jewel nestled in a sea of leafy greenness, was the terracotta roof of the Convento de la Encarnación, one of the many monasteries Teresa's created and the one God chose as her final resting place. Since it was a middle of the week, there were only two other people ready for the tour that day, two Mexican Carmelite priests. As I walked through the halls of this magnificent monastery, seeing the spots where the saint wrote, sang, prayed and slept, I could feel the reverberations of her holiness and the sanctity of the other men and women she guided through her example and her writings. The four of us walked through the rooms reverentially as the tour guide pointed out the places described in St Teresa's "The Spiritual Castle" and her autobiography. I thrilled at the sites where she received her mystic visions of Christ, Mary and the Trinity. I think that if it weren't for these two Mexican Carmelite priests, I might not have seen the all of the treasures that I did. But, either way, the experience was something I will never forget.

The culmination of the tour was the Chapel of the Transverberation. "Transverberation" is a word St. Teresa created specifically to describe the experience of her soul being permeated and overwhelmed by God's love. In her autobiography, she described an angel piercing her heart with an arrow. It is a moment of Christian spiritual history that has been immortalized in Lorenzo Bernini's bronze, "The Ecstasy of St Teresa."

Off to the left of the main chapel was the actual small cave-like niche in which St. Teresa experienced her ecstasy. The chapel in which I stood was built to accommodate the pilgrims that come to visit this holy spot. Behind a dark wooden screen, I could hear the soft chanting of the cloistered nuns who live at the monastery. It was almost too beautiful to hear. I was grateful to take a seat in one of the pews and offer my prayer of thankfulness for the beauty and holiness around me.

As I made plans to leave Ávila, I wanted to make sure I saw Los Cuatro Postes; a chapel about a mile down the road towards Salamanca. St. Teresa, a precocious seven-year-old, convinced her brother to run away together intending to be martyred at the hands of the Moors. One of these spots where they were found is marked by a four-posted oratory. I turned around to admire Ávila's walls and thanked God at being able to include the sites my patron saint imbued with the holiness bestowed upon her by her Creator and Lover. One rarely has a direct experience of the Holy but Teresa's Ávila is headily infused in what I can only describe as a palpable holiness―something for which I am grateful for having shared.

Around 1556, in her confessor, the Jesuit Saint Francis Borgia, reassured her of the divine inspiration of her thoughts. On St. Peter's Day in 1559―June 29 on the then in-use Julian calendar―Teresa admitted that Christ had presented Himself to her in bodily form, though invisible.

This tough as a titanium tire iron saint is still one of the world's foremost spiritual writers. Her descriptions of contemplative prayer and its effect upon the soul are unparalleled. But, in addition to being uncannily accurate, her writings are also completely accessible to all. She writes with joyous abandon and humorous, self-deprecating humility. Her books draw the reader and reading her once is sufficient to put the Christian on the road of incorporating contemplation into his prayer life.

As mentioned previously, St. Teresa of Ávila is the Patron Saint of Chess Players. Perhaps one needs the concentration of a chessmaster to navigate the intricacies of Christian contemplation. St. Teresa was more than competent enough for that and learning from her is time well spent.