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Teresa of Avila (1515 – 1582)

 

Teresa of Avila

1515 – 1582

She was born Teresa Sanchez y Cepeda, a name whose aristocratic ring points to her father’s vast wealth and social privilege. Rich enough to buy his shirt-cuffs and collars in Paris, he was yet denied admission to the most elite levels of society. For in 16th century Spain, “honour” was everything, and Teresa’s grandfather had been Jewish. (Actually her grandfather had “converted” under the arm-twisting of the Inquisition.)

The town of Avila knew Teresa to be beautiful, an able chess-player, an accomplished horsewoman, and a fine dancer. Her teenage days in a convent-school left her thinking that she had been driven into a box that offered no escape. After all, marriage appeared loathsome in that it entailed, in 16th century Spain, a wife’s servile submission to a tyrant-husband. Convent life, on the other hand, required its own form of submission. Her independent spirit raged at the dilemma. She was helped past it through reading the letters of Jerome, a theologian and spiritual guide from the Patristic era. Her feistiness now tempered by her vocation, she entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation. She was 21 years old.

To Teresa’s surprise she relished convent life, never missing the clutter of former luxuries. Nevertheless, as her vocation intensified day by day, she was puzzled and then disquieted at a contemplative order that belittled protracted private prayer, content as it was to have outer liturgical formalities disguise inner spiritual impoverishment. Seeking out the priest who had provided spiritual assistance to her dying father, he urged her to attend Holy Communion at least twice monthly and to persist in concentrated mental prayer. Gradually her inner aridity gave way to a spiritual fecundity that was to became famous the world over.

Helped by Augustine’s Confessions, Teresa faced the horror of her sin-corrupted heart. In the midst of an unpromising service of rote-worship she beheld Christ wounded for her. “So great was my distress when I thought how ill I had repaid Him for those wounds”, she blurted through her tears, “that I felt as if my heart was breaking, and I threw myself down beside him.” She was 40 years old.

At this point she began to undergo mystical visions and raptures. Protestants tend to find all of this incomprehensible. Alas! What, then, are we to make of Paul’s Damascus Road episode when the vision and locution arrested and redirected the man whose doctrine Protestants cherish –forgetting, as we do, that his doctrine arose only as a result of his experience? Plainly he thought that his telling the Corinthians of being “caught up” and hearing “things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2Cor. 12:3-4) would help correct the Christians there. How can Protestants deny the mysticism of Isaiah’s experience in the temple amidst incense-fumes that he saw to be nothing less than the train of God’s royal robe, even as he heard and beheld what left him convinced he was going to perish in the collision between his uncleanness and God’s purity? What do Protestants make of God’s “still, small voice” that Elijah heard more clearly than he heard an earthquake? of God’s lion-roar that caused Amos to roar in turn? And concerning our denominational foreparents, what are we to make of Charles Wesley’s mysticism when he writes of being “drowned” in God, “lost” in His oceanic “immensity”, “plunged” so deeply into God’s depths as never to find his way out (or even want to)? Before we snicker at Teresa’s finding relief from spiritual assault by flinging holy water at the devil we should recall Luther’s relief upon hurling the inkpot!

In any era triflers resent those who have abandoned themselves to God and dwell where the uncommitted gain no entry. Not surprisingly, then, the spiritual dabblers who occupied the pulpits of Avila reviled Teresa as deluded herself and dangerous to others.

Undeflected, she knew God had summoned her to reform an order long since riddled with frivolity, shallowness, corruption, materialistic preoccupation; in her words, “the great evils that beset the church.” She began her momentous task with only four sisters. They found a mud and stone house in Avila, so small and frail, said Teresa wryly, that “it wouldn’t make much noise when it fell on Judgement Day’’ – even as the five women exulted, dancing to flute and tambourine.

The reformers proceeded on several fronts: frequent attendance at the Lord’s Supper, renewed attention to spiritual direction, immersion in the works of the spiritual masters, discipline to fend off cavalier self-indulgence.

Her influence rippled throughout Spain. A Jesuit at Salamanca, famous for its superb university that trained legions of intellectual, political and ecclesiastical leaders, pleaded with her to establish a reformed house there. As the reform movement spread, embarrassed church authorities scrabbled for any pretext to sue, ceaselessly multiplying lawsuits against her.

At age 60 she met the man who would be the closest friend she ever had. He was half her age, a Jesuit, a brilliant graduate of Alcala (the other famous university in Spain.) He became her soul-mate, ending the isolation that mystical vivedness had forced upon her. Such a friendship, given but once in a lifetime, was slandered as malicious gossip exploded. Undeterred, she knew that the deeper the Christian sinks into God, the more urgently a human soul-mate is needed.

The church’s persecution reached its worst from 1576-1580. Imprisoned for one year at Toledo and then released, she was welcomed among sisters whom church authorities promptly excommunicated. Only the intervention of King Phillip – that is, only the intervention of civil authority – fended off the church’s injustice and reinstated the nuns. Nothing daunted her. Upon departing a convent where community-life had degenerated into endless idle amusement, she denounced it: “I find a puerility about that house which is intolerable.”

Ill-health shortly overtook Teresa. “We can die, but we cannot be conquered”, she reminded those who shared her zeal. Two years later she slipped away, having told her readers that discerning God’s will and desiring to do it above all else was everything. The prayerbook she was using at her death contained her “bookmark”, the outpouring of her own heart:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

 

As recently as 1969 the Roman Catholic Church pronounced her Doctoris Ecclesiae, a teacher whom Catholics and Protestants alike should hear and heed. Her books have been translated into scores of languages. Apart from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, her works are the most widely read today of any Spanish author.

 

Victor Shepherd
June 1998