The Incredible Life of St. Teresa of Avila
There are few who have made such an impact on the Church, or the lives of believers, as St. Teresa of Avila. If it were only her mysticism, her writings, or her reforms of the Carmelite order alone it would suffice to place her with the saints; but the combination of all of these give St. Teresa a very honored place among the saints. Looking at her biography, her writings, her mysticism, and her reforms will help anybody grow in holiness.
Born in the early 1500’s in Spain, St. Teresa’s family had an interesting history. Her grandfather was a convert from Judaism and would actually face the inquisition for allegedly returning to Judaism. St. Teresa’s mother raised her as a pious young girl and the young Teresa loved reading the lives of the saints, particularly the martyrs. She was so inspired by these stories that when she was 7 years old she and her brother left home to try to become martyrs, seeking out Muslims invading Spain. Thankfully her uncle found the two young children and brought them back home. Teresa’s mother died when Teresa was 14 years old and Teresa would turn to the Blessed Virgin in a much deeper way after this traumatic experience. She left for boarding school, where she was educated by religious, and she eventually joined the Carmelite order.
While in the religious life, Teresa began to read deeply mystical literature and became deeply interested in the progression of the soul's relationship with Jesus Christ. This interest was not purely academic however, as Teresa’s own mysticism was deepening.
Visions and Mysticism
Teresa began to experience visions of Jesus Christ that some people claimed were not from God at all, but Teresa was reassured by her spiritual director that these were real. These mystical experiences led to perhaps her most famous mystical experience. In one of her visions she saw an angel pierce her heart with a spear with a golden tip and the pain, instead of being debilitating, became a movement into ecstasy for the mystic. As she herself wrote, “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.” This event became symbolic of her life, that she was chosen in a special way to share in the pain of Jesus Christ.
The great Italian sculptor Bernini would eventually create a masterpiece depicting this event that can be seen in the Santa Maria della Vittoria Church in Rome.
Her writings focus on her mystical theology, particularly the ascent of the soul towards God. She says that the soul goes through four stages in its ascent. The first stage she called the Devotion of the Heart. In this stage the person engages in deep mental prayer and through effort and concentration begins to pray on Christ’s passion. The second stage she called the Devotion of Peace. In this stage, God gives a special grace of quiet and peace to the person, and although distractions may come, the supernatural gift of peace is present. The third stage she called the Devotion of Union and in this stage God gives the gift to the person of becoming one with Him in that their reason is completely subsumed into Him and the only thing left that the person can control is their memory and imagination. The fourth, and final stage, she called Devotion of Ecstasy. In this stage the person, through the grace of God, is totally unaware of their own self and their own body and is completely subsumed by God.
It is important to note that human discipline and effort can only get one to the first stage, the other three stages are all gifts freely given by God and as such may be withheld from some people. They are also usually only given to those people who are quite mature in their spiritual life and so many people never achieve them in their lifetimes.
Doctor of the Church
By virtue of her writings on mental prayer and mysticism Teresa was declared a Doctor of the Church, alongside saints such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Her writings, together with the force of her life, led to reforms in the Carmelite order. However, rather than simply calling them reforms, it would be more accurate to say that through her life St. Teresa succeeded in calling the Carmelite’s back to their original charism after they had begun to stray.
From her writings to her contribution to the understanding of mental prayer and mysticism, to the continued faithfulness of the Carmelites, we have so much to be thankful for in the life of St. Teresa of Avila. The best way we can honor her is to begin to engage in the first stage of her soul’s ascent to God and begin to practice mental prayer of our own, and hope that God gives us the grace of bringing our soul into union with himself.