St. Teresa of Avila and the keys to union with God
By SARAH METTS
On October 14th the Church celebrates the feast day of one of the greatest of all Spanish saints. A mystic, Carmelite reformer, prolific writer, and the first woman declared a doctor of the Church—St. Teresa of Avila.
Blessed with physical beauty, charm, wit, an affectionate nature, a down-to-earth personality and a keen mind, St. Teresa of Avila would have been a remarkable woman, even had it not been for her great sanctity. But when one considers her heroic virtue, her reform of the Carmelite order, the heights she achieved in prayer, and the wisdom found in her writings about the spiritual life, it becomes clear that St. Teresa is one of the most fascinating saints in the history of the Church.
St. Teresa possessed natural leadership qualities paired with humble obedience to the Church and her superiors; she combined action and an impressive list of accomplishments with sublime contemplation and union with God. Despite her claims to the contrary, St. Teresa was extremely intelligent, and she could hold her own while speaking with the professional scholars of her day. One prominent scholar of the time, a Dr. Manso, said that he “would rather argue with all the theologians in Spain than with this nun who knew no Latin.”(1)
And yet, St. Teresa was, in many ways, very normal. As a child she loved stories of war and glory, and it is said that she was “wilder than all of her brothers put together.”(2) She loved her father dearly, she was warm and affectionate with her family and friends, and she loved Jesus and Our Lady from a young age. St. Teresa’s mother died when she was only twelve, and after coming to terms with this great loss, she went to a statue of Our Lady and asked her to be her mother from that moment on. St. Teresa was a beauty, and as a teenager she was attracted to fine clothing. As a young woman she loved talking with people, and she mentions frequently in her writings later in life how much she regretted the time she wasted talking about frivolous things.
From the age of twenty to her death, St. Teresa was in very poor health. She had malaria, suffered from seizures, and was bed-ridden for three years of her life. It was during this time that she realized the importance of accepting whatever God sent her. She wrote, “I thought I might serve God much better if I were well. This is our delusion; we do not resign ourselves absolutely to the disposition of our Lord, who knows best what is for our good.”(3)
St. Teresa had a conversion at the age of 40, when she became completely consumed with love for God and for doing His will. She wrote extensively on prayer and the spiritual life, including her masterpiece of mystical theology, the Interior Castle. In this book she described the seven stages of union with God in everyday, easy to understand language. She wrote this treatise primarily for her sisters, but also for anyone who wanted to make progress towards union with God. While a summary of the Interior Castle is beyond the scope of this article, I want to share a few of the insights that are found in it, and to highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about spiritual progress and growth in prayer.
One of the most important points to take from the Interior Castle is that St. Teresa firmly believed that infused contemplation was possible for every Christian. Throughout the chapters of this book she clearly maintained that God desires union with each one of us, even in this life. St. Teresa asserted that spiritual favors should never be expected or sought out, because we must always strive to see our state before God and remain humble before Him, but that God can and does give them to many people. The conditions of growth in prayer and infused contemplation, according to St. Teresa, are consistent prayer and meditation, along with a willingness to give up the things of the world. Writing to her sisters about the fifth mansion, St. Teresa said that there was no way to describe the “riches and treasures and delights”(4) to be found there, and then on the next page she exhorts them,
“if you are to gain this, He would have you keep back nothing; whether it be little or much, He will have it all for Himself, and according to what you know yourself to have given, the favours He will grant you will be small or great.”(5)
For me, this quote is the most inspiring and convicting I have ever read. Inspiring because of what God promises us—His very self, and convicting because I know how attached I am to the things that stand in my way of attaining Him. We must, as St. Teresa said, ask God to give “strength to our souls”(6) if we are ever to persevere in prayer and detach ourselves from the world, so that we might grow closer to “His Majesty,” as she refers to God.
One other thought gives me hope as well—because the Interior Castle is based on St. Teresa’s own experience of the spiritual life, I know that I have a very dear friend to help me with my struggles. I hope and pray that more people will turn to St. Teresa of Avila and to the Interior Castle to understand more fully that God is the object of our prayer, and that if we are willing to do whatever it takes, he will let himself be captured, and he will capture us in return.
1. Fr. Thomas Dubay, Fire Within (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 19.
2. Dubay, Fire Within, 21.
3. The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, (Charlotte: Tan Books, 2009), 37.
4. Peers, E. Allison, trans. Interior Castle, (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 81.
5. Peers, Interior Castle, 82.