“Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you, all things are passing away. God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing. God alone suffices.” These are the words of a great 16th century Catholic saint, St. Teresa of Avila, the Patroness of Spain. She was an unlikely saint of her time — beautiful, outgoing, courageous, practical, kind, intelligent, humble, and with a strong mind of her own. So, how did she come to live life as a reformer and a mystic who came to find Christ through her own internal prayer, rather than the prescribed litanies of the time? I would like to share a little of her extraordinary story.
She was born, Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, to a noble family in Avila, Spain on 28th March 1515. When she lost her mother at thirteen years of age she prayed to Mother Mary to be her adopted mother. However, the path to God is never straight, and as she got a little older her good looks and personality meant she caught the attention of many young men whom she was very happy to flirt with. Her father was worried she was going off the track, so decided to send her to the Carmelite convent in Avila when she was sixteen years old.
Initially she was happy to be there; convents were not just places of prayer and devotion; wealthy visitors were encouraged and welcomed to be entertained. With her winning personality, St. Teresa was very popular with the steady stream of visitors, particularly the men. She was torn a lot of the time between the fun and flattery of this part of convent life, and the deeper part of herself that yearned to know God. Her health suffered greatly during this time also, and she returned to family to be cared for.
As her health improved she became clear in her mind that her life was “for God”, and in spite of her father’s protests she returned to the convent, and was professed as a Sister of the Carmelite Order in 1536. While recovering from a further period of poor health in 1538 she read Francisco de Osuna’s book The Third Spiritual Alphabet, a guide to internal prayer. This was the key she had searching for to open her soul to God.
As she dived into her internal prayer, building a personal relationship with Christ, the connection she had yearned for came in the form of many visions and mystical experiences. She said later: “Prayer is an act of love, words are not needed.” Often, when she was lost in her personal prayer in the convent chapel she would levitate, which she found so embarrassing, if she felt God was going to levitate her body she would lie flat on the ground and ask the other sisters to hold her down. She had many mystical experiences where she met Jesus, Mary and other saints and angels. Describing one of these visions, she wrote of an angel appearing on her lest side, with a burning face: “He had in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God.” The sixteenth century was a dangerous time to experience mystical phenomenon. They were viewed with suspicion, and, indeed, Sr. Teresa was called before the Spanish Inquisition to account for herself- thankfully, she was cleared.
In 1559 she decided to found a new convent, a congregation that returned to the basics of a contemplative life, a simple life of poverty devoted to prayer. This is where her unique personality really showed itself. At a time when women did not dare question the authority of their superiors, who were totally opposed to her plans, she persisted. Over the course of the next 8 years she walked the country opening new convents, being opposed everywhere she went by religious orders, who did not agree with her belief that a spiritual life should be an attitude of love and not a rule book. With Christ working through her, how could she be stopped? In a short time her teachings about how to pray swept not alone through Spain, but throughout Europe.
Her way of prayer is described best in the book she wrote in 1577, The Interior Castle. In her words: “I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.” She takes the reader on a journey from the first room, where humility is acquired, all the way to the seventh, the room where transformation is complete. She called this seventh room the room of Spiritual Marriage, where “two lighted candles join and become one; the falling rain becomes merged in the river.” It is a book drawn from her own experiences, and is as popular today as it was 500 years ago.
Christ called his loyal bride home to His mansion on 4th October 1582, and she was canonised by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. St. Teresa of Avila is a wonderful example of what we can achieve when we fully embrace and trust our spiritual journey. The book of life is not a book of rules but, as St Teresa discovered, an attitude of love, an abandonment to God’s Will. Instead of always turning to God with our prayers, asking for this and that, wouldn’t it wonderful to simply pray with these words from St. Teresa of Avila: “I am yours Lord. I was born for You. What do you want from me?”