St. Teresa of Avila became the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church in 1970.
A 16th century mystic, contemplative, writer and reformer, she founded the Discalced Carmelites, established 17 convents, wrote three spiritual classics, and is esteemed as a master of prayer.
“Her writing is filled with beautiful and profound teachings on the practice of mental (or contemplative) prayer,” said seminary professor Anthony Lilles, an expert on Carmelite mysticism who co-authored “30 Days with Teresa of Avila” (Emmaus, 2015).
Mental prayer, he explained, is where one learns to listen to the Lord with their heart.
“Her descriptions are filled with a genius use of images that everyone, no matter where they are in the spiritual life, can relate to,” Lilles added. “In the beginning she describes prayer as drawing water from a well, ‘it’s a lot of hard work,’ but as she matures, she experiences prayer as ‘a rainfall that you simply receive into your heart.’”
Prayer leads to action
That Teresa of Avila was both a prayerful mystic and an active reformer dispels a common misperception that people of prayer don’t have time to do other things.
“Her witness is that the deeper you go in prayer, the more strength you have from the Lord to do beautiful things in your life,” Lilles said. “We see in her life and in her writings that prayer makes us more fruitful.”
Recognized as having achieved the heights of spiritual knowledge, her contributions to mystical theology and Christian spirituality are based on her own struggles with mediocrity and conversion. That the quincentennial of her birth falls at the threshold of Holy Week seems appropriate, noted Lilles.
“Sometimes in our spiritual life we struggle with attachments and difficult habits of sin. Teresa of Avila was no stranger to this struggle,” he said. “Her writings tell about how the Lord raised her up while she prayed and freed her from these attachments as she made an act of trust in him.
“What we can learn from her is to trust in the Lord in everything, like she did.”
The Spanish saint renowned for prayer is also a model of perseverance, as for the first 20 years of her religious life she found it challenging to pray. At age 39, however, she experienced conversion when during prayer one day she gazed at an Ecce homo (“Behold the man”) statue of the scourged, suffering Christ and saw his face filled with love for her. Gripped with intense grief at the poorness of her spiritual life, she vowed to change. Suddenly she felt the sensation of Christ’s love transforming her, which moved her to reform the Carmelites to return to their original spirit of poverty, enclosure and rigorous prayer.
“After she describes this encounter (in her autobiography) where Jesus’ look of love pierced her to the heart, she talks about development of prayer as different kinds of water that irrigate her soul,” Lilles said. “She distinguishes forms of prayer she used when she was first beginning to pray from forms that she experienced as she matured.”
Beatified in 1614 and canonized in 1622, the saint’s legacy includes her insightful writings on mysticism and prayer—the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses her definition of contemplative prayer—and a spiritual family of Carmelites.
“This legacy of Carmelites and other religious communities inspired by them has become part of the universal patrimony of the Church,” Lilles said.
A woman of courage and compassion, Teresa of Avila offers much encouragement for Christians at every stage of their spiritual journey.
“She helps us understand the hard work of beginning prayer and the determination it requires,” Lilles observed. “She helps us understand the spark of mystical contemplation that is ignited as a pure gift in the heart and can become a fire that consumes our whole being. And she helps us understand the transforming union with Christ that he invites us to embrace when we reach full spiritual maturity.”
Ultimately, Lilles said, Teresa of Avila teaches us that the pathway of spiritual growth and prayer that draws us into communion with Christ enlarges our heart and enriches every aspect of our life.
“(It) makes the friendships that we have in the Lord (with others and with the saints) all the more beautiful and our life all the more full.”
Books by Teresa of Avila
“Autobiography” (or “Life”)
“The Way of Perfection”
“The Interior Castle”
Quotes by Teresa of Avila
On prayer: “Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.”
On trust in God: “Let nothing disturb you, nothing dismay you. All things are passing, God never changes. Patient endurance attains all things….God alone suffices.”