St. Teresa of Avila: Doctor of Prayer
St. Teresa of Jesus, more commonly known as St. Teresa of Avila, was one of the great Counter-Reformation leaders in the 16th century church. Through the Order of Discalced Carmelites, she had a significant impact on the revival of religious life. Both of those aspects of her life were made possible by her practice of contemplative prayer.
Teresa was born in 1515, two years before Martin Luther unknowingly kicked off the so-called Protestant Reformation. She experienced firsthand the decline of religious life, sadly common in that era of the Church. At the age of 20, she joined the Carmelite convent because it was known for its relaxed interpretation of religious life. Although it was cloistered, so many visitors came in that the cloister was pointless.
As a result of a deeper conversion, Teresa resolved to start a reformed convent with the support of her spiritual director, Peter of Alcantara. From 1560 until her death in 1582, Teresa founded 17 new convents of reformed Carmelite sisters. John of the Cross set up as many houses for men. The offshoot of the Order of Carmelites (OCarm) became known as the Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCD). After political wrangling both from secular powers as well as opposition within the OCarm communities, the OCDs received their own provincial. Official papal approval for the OCDs finally came in 1580.
Teresa died in 1582. Canonization came quickly for her for that era—she was canonized a saint in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.
Doctor of Prayer
As a reminder, a Doctor of the Church exhibits great sanctity and leaves behind a teaching for the Church. St. Teresa checks all those boxes; her writings on prayer have remained spiritual classics centuries after her death. Pope St. Paul VI proclaimed her a Doctor of the Church in 1970, citing her “prudence and evangelical simplicity, humility of spirit, obedience to superiors even in difficult things, contempt for herself, and a particular inclination for the good of others and, in order to help them, she did not hesitate to sacrifice herself and her things” (Multiformis Sapientia Dei, pg. 3).
Talking about contemplative prayer may immediately turn off some. For many Catholics who struggle to establish simple habits of prayer, talk of contemplation sounds absurdly out of reach. Why the big deal? Mental prayer “is friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him Who we know loves us” and it is “the means by which we may amend our lives again, and without it amendment will be very much harder” (The Life of Teresa of Jesus, pg. 110). Fr. Thomas Dubay, SM also answers the reluctance toward prayer. “A book on advanced prayer is a book on advanced joy. It is a love story, a book about being loved, and loving, totally. It is a book on holiness, the heights of holiness to which the Gospel invites everyone” (Fire Within, pg. 5). From the average Catholic to the levitating mystic, the invitation to deeper love of God through prayer is universal.
We are indebted to Teresa’s spiritual directors and bishop who commanded her to write, as well as the convent sisters who asked for her guidance. Teresa’s most famous works are The Way of Perfection, The Interior Castle, and The Life of Teresa of Jesus, her autobiography. In addition to those major works, she also left behind poems, letters, and other smaller works intended for the sisters in her convent.
Sometimes the writing style of the great classics—and indeed, her major works are among the amazing spiritual classics—needs some acclimation. To read St. Teresa, however, is like sitting down with a good friend and a cup of coffee. Her writing style is very approachable and familiar, all the while expressing profound thoughts on the spiritual life. She includes mental asides and some self-deprecating comments as well. Any Catholic in need of a friend in heaven to help with spiritual struggles should look up Teresa!
Here are introductions to her three major works.
The Life of Teresa of Jesus
Of all the works of St. Teresa, this one should be read first. I thought one of the best parts about this book was the descriptions of her own spiritual progress. She discusses her struggle with prayer in being tormented by thoughts and a feeling of unworthiness, to the extent that she felt unable to approach Christ. In today’s age, where talk of deep prayer is neglected, many who try to pray run into these same difficulties.
Even better than the commiseration, Teresa shows how the Lord delivered her from those difficulties. One of the biggest moments of deeper conversion for her was reflecting on the Passion of Jesus. “So great was my distress when I thought how ill I had repaid Him for those wounds that I felt as if my heart were breaking, and I threw myself down beside Him, shedding floods of tears and begging Him to give me strength once for all so that I might not offend Him” (pg. 115). Then, once she started driving away occasions of sin, a greater love for Christ would result (pg. 118). These two things are a great reminder: reflecting on the Passion bears great fruit, especially when accompanied by a humble recognition of our ingratitude. And, removing obstacles to sin has the positive effect of opening up more space for God.
Teresa goes into detail on four stages of prayer (ch. 11 – 22) where a soul builds its way up to contemplation and union with God. Let the beginner/the impatient one note: it is not something we stumble into. Above all it takes grace; on the human end, one of the most important factors is a willingness to persevere through dryness, a lack of fervor, and any number of roadblocks.
The remainder of the book chronicles her visions of Jesus, of hell, and the establishment of the Discalced Carmeline convents. ittingly, the final three chapters are thanks and praise for the favors she received throughout her life.
The Way of Perfection
St. Teresa states in the prologue that The Way of Perfection takes some material from her autobiography and builds upon it. This was written at the request of Teresa’s sisters—thanks be to God they asked!—even to her contemporaries, Teresa’s holiness and devotion to prayer was evident.
Do you have difficulty praying, like me? Here is a quote that took me back a little: “if prayer is to be genuine it must be reinforced by these things [i.e. observing the faith, disciplines and periods of silence]—prayer cannot be accompanied by self-indulgence” (pg. 52). This is a good reminder for us, as we live in an age of indulgence and instant gratification. If we do not decrease self-indulgence (whether it be excessive food, entertainment, sports, or something bad like sin), do not expect much progress in prayer. In a later chapter she notes: “this body of ours has one fault: the more you indulge it, the more things it discovers to be essential to it. It is extraordinary how it liked being indulged; and, if there is any reasonable pretext for indulgence, however little necessity for it there may be, the poor soul is taken in and prevented from making progress” (pg. 94). Was she writing for the 16th century or the present?
The essentials for mental prayer are love for each other, detachment from all created things, and most importantly, true humility (pg. 53). Some of Teresa’s advice around these three things pertains to the sisters of her convents. Even though that advice does not apply directly to those of us that do not live in a cloistered religious community, the principles do. Living a holy life is impossible without love for each other (including enemies, Matthew 5:43-44), not making idols out of things of the world, and humbly knowing that we are sinners in need of redemption. Prayer naturally flows from all those principles; we cannot treat prayer as something detached from the rest of our spiritual life. Obstacles/difficulties/sin in one area will absolutely affect our efforts at prayer.
That, for many of us, is plenty of material with which to undertake. Readers should still press forward to see the gold mine of her spiritual wisdom. She digs deeper into prayer itself in chapter 19 and continues this treatment for the second half of the book. Throughout this second half, she intersperses reflections on the Our Father.
This book is a solid read written by a truly humble saint. When she encourages contemplation/mental prayer, she does not do so from an ivory tower. She stands next to us, knowing what it was to struggle against weaknesses.
The Interior Castle
Teresa was again ordered to write down her thoughts. She was in her sixties by the time she wrote The Interior Castle. She compared the soul to a castle formed out of a diamond or crystal; inside this castle were many rooms. In the center was the chamber where God communed with the soul. Arranged around this inner chamber were many rooms: some closer to the center than others, some on the side, and so on.
As someone progresses through their spiritual life, they advance from one mansion to another. There are seven mansions in all that represent different stages of the spiritual life and of union with God. A beginner at the spiritual life prays differently, performs penances differently, and embraces the cross differently than one who has had a regular habit of prayer for years. Add onto this, that the journey to God is a life-long one—having a map with details of advancements can be of great profit for the soul.
St. Teresa of Avila is a great spiritual guide for our age. I encourage you to pick up her books, devote yourself to prayer, and sit at the foot of a mystical doctor of the Church. St. Teresa, pray for us!