4 Spiritual Lessons We Can Learn from St. Teresa of Avila
Saint Teresa of Avila is one of only four women honored with the title Doctor of the Church. A Doctor of the Church is a saint who is recognized for this special distinction due to the impact of their teaching or writing on the theology or doctrine. In total there are 36 Doctors of the church. Other Doctors of the Church include Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Therese of Lisieux (who was named after Saint Teresa of Avila).
What Was Saint Teresa of Avila’s Special Contribution?
Saint Teresa transformed the life of prayer in the church. Saint Teresa was a mystic herself, but moreover became a great teacher of prayer. Her work the Interior Castle is considered a spiritual classic and one of the most influential books on prayer ever written. In it, Saint Teresa describes the process of growth in the spiritual life and life of prayer by comparing it to a castle with seven mansions or rooms. Each room represents a new stage of spiritual development.
#1 Frankness in Our Relationship with Jesus
Saint Teresa defined prayer simply as a conversation between two friends. A brief story from her life illustrates this point well. You may find various versions of the story, but the basic outline is as follows. Saint Teresa and some of her sisters were traveling. The journey was a dangerous one and made more so by terrible weather. At one point, Saint Teresa was forced to cross a stream with a strong current. While crossing she lost her footing and was nearly swept away, to which she exclaimed “Lord when will you stop placing these obstacles in our path.” Then Jesus responded, “This is how I treat my friends.” to which Saint Teresa replied, “Lord, then it is no wonder you have so few.”
This story highlights the familiarity we are called to with Jesus in prayer. We can speak to Jesus as any other friend, sharing humor as well as gratitude, frustration, and all other human responses.
#2 The Value of Humility
Saint Teresa was born into an upper-class family. As she grew, she quickly became known for her beauty, intelligence, and humor. As a young woman she was a socialite. She struggled with vanity and gossip. She comments in her writings that even during her early years in the convent she struggled with vanity and squandered her time on frivolous conversation. She states that this was a direct obstacle and caused a great delay in learning to pray. Perhaps, this is why one of her great life works was to reform the Carmelite order.
Saint Teresa teaches us that we cannot serve two masters. We must turn away from ourselves in order to turn toward God.
#3 Trust in the Promises of God
Another story from Saint Teresa’s life illustrates her trust in the promises of God. When Saint Teresa was seven years old and upon hearing of the glories of heaven, Saint Teresa convinced her brother to run away to the land of the Moors in order to be martyred that they might go directly to heaven. They actually made it a short distance before their uncle met them on the road and intervened. Still, this story exemplifies the whole-hearted trust Saint Teresa had in the promises of God. It teaches us that sainthood and this great trust go hand and hand. The saints are able to do their great works because they are always looking forward toward the promises of God rather than behind themselves at the cost.
#4 Devotion to Saint Joseph
Saint Teresa reports in her autobiography that she was miraculously healed of a mysterious illness shortly after entering the convent. The illness nearly killed Saint Teresa and she maintained a strong devotion to Saint Joseph all her life. In her typical boldness, Saint Teresa wrote,
“I wish I could persuade everyone to be devoted to the glorious St. Joseph, for I have great experience of the blessings which he can obtain from God. I do not remember that I have ever asked anything of him which he has failed to grant…To other saints the Lord seems to have given grace to help in some of your necessities. But my experience is that St. Joseph helps us in them all… I only request, for the love of God, whoever will not believe me will test the truth of what I say, for he will see by experience how great a blessing it is to recommend oneself to this glorious patriarch and to be devoted to him.” (adapted from Consecration to St. Joseph by Father Donald H. Calloway, MIC page 90).
As one can see, there are many great lessons to be learned from Saint Teresa. If you are not ready to tackle reading the Interior Castle, two other books may make a great introduction to the teachings of Saint Teresa of Avila. The first is Conversation with Christ by Peter Thomas Rorhbach. This book is simply written and easy to read. The second is Fire Within by Father Thomas Dubay. This book will take you a bit deeper into the life and teaching of Saint Teresa.