Saint Teresa of Avila
By Theresa Rose
Saint Teresa of Avila was born in 1515 and died in 1582. Her original name was Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada and her chosen name as a Spanish Carmelite nun was Theresa of Jesus. She was also known as a Doctor of the Church. She is one of the principal saints of the Roman Catholic Church and is also considered one of the greatest mystics. St. Teresa of Avila was a leading figure in the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation focused on new religious orders, spiritual movements, the foundation of seminaries, and had an influence on church music in the 16th century.
In her early life, Teresa was often times misunderstood and misjudged. She was faced with many struggles, but worked tirelessly to overcome them and yearned to purify her life. Teresa’s father was rigidly honest, pious and very strict. Her mother loved to read romance novels, but because her husband objected, she hid the books from him. Teresa knew of this and was caught in the middle. She was always afraid that no matter what she did, she was going to do everything wrong in life. She convinced herself that she was a horrible sinner. As a teenager, she cared only about boys, clothing, flirting and rebelling.
At the age of sixteen, Teresa’s father decided that she was out of control and sent her to a convent. When the time came to choose between marriage and religious life, she had a difficult time, but finally came to the decision of religious life. She did so because she thought that it was the only safe place for someone as prone to sin as she was. She entered the monastery of the Incarnation of Avila in 1535 after reading the letters of St. Jerome during the period of an illness. A year later, she fell seriously ill for a three-year period, which left her paralyzed for almost a year. Instead of helping her spiritually, her sickness became an excuse to stop her prayer completely; she couldn’t be alone enough, she wasn’t healthy enough, and so forth. Later she would say, “Prayer is an act of love, words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.” For years she hardly prayed at all “under the guise of humility.” She thought as a wicked sinner she didn’t deserve to get favors from God.
When she was 41, a priest convinced her to go back to prayer, but she still found it difficult and was distracted often. Her experience gives us wonderful descriptions of mental prayer: “For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything.”
Her biggest fault was her friendships. Though she wasn’t sinning, she was very attached to her friends until God told her “No longer do I want you to converse with human beings but with angels.” After that, God always came first in her life. Some friends however did not like what was happening to her and concluded she had been deluded by the devil and sent a Jesuit to analyze her. The Jesuit reassured her that her experiences were from God.
At the age of 43, she was determined to establish a new convent with thirteen other nuns. She wanted the convent to consist of a simple life of poverty devoted to prayer, signified by the coarse brown wool habit, leather sandals, and beds of straw, manual work, abstinence from meat, and solitude.
St. Teresa persevered courageously and faithfully, searching for God in her life and through prayer. St. Teresa of Avila was also known for her innovative views as a reformer. In a time when the majority of leaders were men, St. Teresa left her mark as a talented, courageous, and enthusiastic woman who exhausted her energy on reforming the Church and herself. She was widely known for her writings, principally The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle. Her writings were an inspiration to many, helping those who were suffering to believe and she says, “The memory of the favor God has granted does more to bring such a person back to God than all the infernal punishments imaginable.” In 1970, the church gave St. Teresa of Avila the title Doctor of the Church. She was one of the first women to be honored in this manner.
Teresa died on October 4, 1582, at the convent at Alba de Torres, while on her way back to Avila from Burgos, where she made her last foundation. St. Teresa is the patron saint of headache sufferers. Her symbols are a heart, an arrow, and a book. She was beautified in 1614 and canonized in 1622. Her feast is on October 15.
St. Teresa taught us that through her lifelong struggles with her own mediocrity, her illness and opposition, her heart still belonged to God and she clung to him in life and prayer. No matter how difficult life is for you, God is always there and don’t be afraid to ask for his help, and pray everyday for his love and guidance to get you through your toughest hardships. If St. Teresa was alive today she would tell you to keep God in your hearts, don’t be afraid to love, and never turn away from prayer. If we had more people in this world today that prayed and loved more with all their hearts, instead of hate, this society today would be a better place to live in.