Carmelite Spirituality Series: Saint Teresa of Avila – Understanding her Message for Us Today

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Sheila Grimwood unpacks for us the message that Saint Teresa of Avila (Teresa of Jesus) has for today’s Church and World.

Sheila is a member of the pastoral team at Aylesford Carmelite Priory in Kent (www.thefriars.org.uk) and serves on the Executive Board of The Carmelite Institute of Britain & Ireland (www.cibi.ie).

Teresa of Jesus (1515-82) was a Carmelite nun in sixteenth-century Spain, entering the Monastery of The Incarnation in the town of Avila. She spent the last twenty years of her life on the road, pursuing what she believed was God’s will for her, establishing communities of nuns devoted to prayer and mutual love.

Teresa’s original reason for becoming a nun was fear, not joy, thinking it the best way to avoid eternal damnation. But this changed for her in 1554 at the age of 39 when – looking at a small statue of Jesus crowned with thorns – she was overwhelmed by the realisation that Jesus accepted and loved her just as she was. Teresa began to meditate on the Gospel episodes in Jesus’ life, especially when he was most alone, and in meditation she strove to be his companion. This opened her up to realise the presence of God within her.

In “The Book of Her Life”, Teresa wrote that “prayer, in my opinion, is nothing else but an intimate sharing between friends. It means taking time frequently to be alone with Him whom we know loves us.” This prayer can be “mental” (reflecting silently with the mind and heart) or “vocal” (prayers said aloud). In her book “The Way of Perfection” she told her fellow nuns that mental prayer and vocal prayer are linked.

Prayer as companionship with God – a mutual desire to love and be with each other – is at the centre of Teresa’s message for us. We need to give time to this relationship with Jesus Christ, sharing openly with him. For Teresa, the important thing is not to think much, but to love much. The length of time spent in prayer is not essential either; like good works, prayer enkindles love in the heart. Even small works are signs of our love for God and great in God’s eyes. This is a very forceful teaching on the unity of prayer and practice.

In “The Interior Castle”, Teresa says the purpose of prayer – a “spiritual marriage” between the soul and God – is “the birth always of good works, good works … Let us desire and be occupied in prayer, not for the sake of enjoyment, but so as to have the strength to serve.”

From her experience at The Incarnation Monastery, Teresa perceived the disadvantage of large numbers of sisters in a community where it’s not easy to know everyone; cliques or factions can develop. She also saw the distractions of not keeping “enclosure” (remaining within the monastery). Teresa wanted to establish small communities with three essentials: love for one another (“all must be friends … all must be helped”); detachment from all created things; and true humility.

Teresa founded 17 monasteries and took the care of her communities very seriously, keeping in touch with them through letters that she often wrote late at night after a long day. She cared about practical details such as having enough food, and she encouraged the prioresses.

Teresa often speaks of “detachment” in the context of religious life, and also in her teaching about striving to overcome faults and increase in virtue, which brings freedom, as does the practice of humility which frees us from self-concern.

Detachment is also necessary in order to find time for prayer. Teresa told her sisters: “We must disengage ourselves from everything so as to approach to God interiorly, and even in the midst of occupations withdraw into ourselves. Although it may only be for a moment that I remember the company I have within myself, doing so is very beneficial.”

Speaking of humility, Teresa says this virtue is the main practice and embraces all the others. Humility does not disturb, disquiet, or agitate. It comes with peace, delight, and calm. The pain of genuine humility does not agitate or afflict the soul, but expands and enables it to serve God and all. Teresa encourages her sisters to be affable and understanding, making virtue attractive not intimidating.

The depiction of Teresa as a “pilgrim on the way” is very appropriate for a woman on the road, never driven out but rather drawn out to pursue God’s will. In “The Book of Foundations” and her letters, Teresa tells of the joys and difficulties of her travels.

The essence of Teresa’s journeying is understanding prayer as companionship. Christ becomes a very close friend in whom we can confide. The more we get used to placing ourselves in the presence of Christ, the more we grow accustomed to being inflamed with love for his sacred humanity. “The soul can keep him ever-present, and speak with him, complaining of its labours, being glad with him in its enjoyments, and not forgetting him because of them, and trying to speak to him, not through written prayers, but with words that conform to its needs and desires.”

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