Teresa of Avila, one of the pioneering mystics in the Christian faith, was born March 28, 1515, in Avila, Spain. Her father was strict, her stepmother loving. The writings of St. Jerome (4th C) encouraged her to pursue a religious life as a nun, although the decision between marriage or convent life was difficult for her. Life in the convent for the charming and likable Teresa was not as she expected. Instead of simplicity she found extravagance. Many women entered because they had no where else to go. Status was dominated by money. Women wore jewelry and stylish veils. Teresa lived amidst this worldly religiosity feeling the weight of her sinfulness and struggling to pray and be ever aware of Jesus’ presence.
After some years, a vision of the “sorely wounded Christ” redirected her life and ministry. Following this vision, she had a number of mystical encounters with Christ in his suffering. This reformation of her inner spiritual life led her to push for external reformation in the convent.
These ideas for change centered on simple living – a life of poverty and prayer, a focus on love not rules. She was renounced for her efforts and some sought the Inquisition against her. She battled throughout her life with various church and state officials on her ideas of true spirituality. She started her own convent centered on the life of prayer, and eventually traveled around teaching on her visions and starting other convents. She was criticised by the Pope and others as disobedient and restless. She wrote her autobiography as a purposeful answer to many accusations made against her.
Teresa is perhaps most well-known for her thoughts on the life of prayer. She believed prayer to be an expression of love between God and his child. She wrote, “For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything.” God gave her great spiritual delight in prayer through an intense awareness of his presence. Her encounters with Christ, as well as her experiential prayer life, define her as a mystic.
In addition to her autobiography, her writings include the Way of the Perfection and the Interior Castle. Teresa died in 1882.
What have I learned from this precious woman of faith?
1. Experience God through prayer. The spiritual life, although not founded on experience or emotion, involves both, and to discard these leaves us with a shallow understanding of the heart of God. Union with Christ is experienced through prayer.
2. Prayer is driven by love, and that leads us to action. Teresa stood for Biblical truth in a corrupted religious society. Her visions caused her to fight for biblical truth. Will we do the same?