St. Teresa of Avila

Today is the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and is also the 500th anniversary of her birth (March 28 in Avila, Spain). She is one of my favorite historical figures and saints of the Church. Teresa reformed a corrupted religious order, built sixteen monasteries (both for men and for women) while often suffering from paralyzing pain. She wrote two of the best books I’ve ever read (The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle) that are considered classics of theology, was a poet and a mystic, and is also a Doctor of the Church.

There is a wealth of information on this remarkable woman available and unfortunately I have not had the time to provide even a few links. (Not very helpful today, I know. Mea culpa.) However, here’s a link to Catholic Online and to Wikipedia. I have however put together a few quotes or passages from her books below.

I own and have read (with plans to re-read) both The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle. They were difficult for me at first and are challenging at times to read, but the fruit is well worth the effort. In particular I enjoy Teresa’s meditations on the Our Father contained in Perfection. Written to her religious order (the Discalced Nuns of Our Lady of Carmel) at times it reads like a commanding officer providing guidance and tactical advice on spiritual combat. And good advice it is, for she had a lot of experience in waging those battles against the devil. And like any good soldier, Teresa knew her enemy.

From The Way of Perfection, Ch. XLII:

But if you feel this love for God which I have spoken of, and the fear which I shall now describe, you may go on your way with happiness and tranquillity. In order to disturb the soul and keep it from enjoying these great blessings, the devil will suggest to it a thousand false fears and will persuade other people to do the same; for if he cannot win souls he will at least try to make them lose something, and among the losers will be those who might have gained greatly had they believed that such great favours, bestowed upon so miserable a creature, come from God, and that it is possible for them to be thus bestowed, for sometimes we seem to forget His past mercies.

Do you suppose that it is of little use to the devil to suggest these fears? No, it is most useful to him, for there are two well-known ways in which he can make use of this means to harm us, to say nothing of others. First, he can make those who listen to him fearful of engaging in prayer, because they think that they will be deceived. Secondly, he can dissuade many from approaching God who, as I have said, see that He is so good that He will hold intimate converse with sinners.

Teresa is a worthy general. I would have no issues following her into battle.

A manuscript of “The Way of Perfection” written in Teresa’s own hand.

A manuscript of “The Way of Perfection” written in Teresa’s own hand.

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It is love alone that gives worth to all things.

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In anything that is for the service of Our Lord, the Devil tries his arts, working under the guise of holiness.

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Great courage is required in spiritual warfare.

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I don’t understand those fears that make us cry, “The Devil! The Devil!” when we can say, “God! God!”

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These cursed spirits torment me quite frequently, but they do not frighten me in the least. For I am convinced that they cannot move except by God’s permission.

Let this be known well: Every time we make the demons the object of our contempt, they lose their strength, and the soul acquires a greater superiority over them. They have no power except against cowardly souls who surrender their weapons.

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On another occasion I saw a great multitude of evil spirits round about me and, at the same time, a great light in which I was enveloped, which kept them from coming near me. I understood it to mean that God was watching over me, that they might not approach me so as to make me offend Him. I knew the vision was real by what I saw occasionally in myself.

The fact is, I know now how little power the evil spirits have, provided I am not out of the grace of God. I have scarcely any fear of them at all, for their strength is as nothing, if they do not find that the souls they assail give up the context and become cowards; it is in this case that they show their power.

From Teresa of Avila, The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, David Lewis, trans. Chapter XXXI.

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Let the Christian be valiant; let him not be like those who lay down to drink from the brook when they went to battle (I do not remember when). [1] Let him resolve to go forth to combat with the host of demons, and be convinced that there is no better weapon than the Cross.

From The Interior Castle, The Second Castle: War, Chapter One, No. 13

[1] Judges 7:5: So he brought the people down to the water; and the LORD said to Gideon, “Every one that laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself; likewise every one that kneels down to drink.”

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teresaofavila-quote

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A favorite story of mine about St. Teresa shows her sense of humor and speaks to her intimate relationship with God.

One day she fell off her donkey into a mud puddle. She looked up to heaven and said, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so many enemies.”

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There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.

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I do not fear Satan half so much as I fear those who fear him.

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I am yours; I was born for you, what do you want to do with me?

(Teresa’s question to Our Lord in Poem 2)

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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.

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Truth suffers, but never dies.

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Vocal prayer … must be accompanied by reflection. A prayer in which a person is not aware of Whom he is speaking to, what he is asking, who it is who is asking and of Whom, I don’t call prayer–however much the lips may move.

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We shall never learn to know ourselves except by endeavoring to know God; for, beholding His greatness, we realize our own littleness; His purity shows us our foulness; and by meditating upon His humility we find how very far we are from being humble.

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(Note: I’ve made a bookmark with these words and keep it in my breviary. I first came across it over 15 years ago in an old Catholic library at our local Catholic retreat house and copied the text into my notebook.)

Let nothing disturb thee;
Let nothing dismay thee:
All thing pass;
God never changes.
Patience attains
All that it strives for.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.

— St Teresa, The bookmark of Teresa of Ávila

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Today Amy Welborn included a letter sent by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 to the Bishop of Avila on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the beginning of Teresa’s reform. As Amy points out:

I do think here that you can really see the particular way of expression that Benedict used again and again: the journey of the Christian is to be conformed to Christ. (Very Pauline, yes?) Not merely to imitate, but to be conformed. This suggests a deep level of engagement, a degree of surrender and understanding of the dynamic and purpose of human life that is far different that simply “trying to be like” and radically different than simply being inspired by.

Too many today clamor for an all-inclusive Church and a Christianity that accepts anyone and everyone (which it does) but without any of us having to call to mind and repent for our sins (which it does not). They are not wanting the culture to be conformed to Christianity, but for the Church to be conformed by the culture. In short: no sacrifice, no humility, no repentance. Which means of course there’s no forgiveness. How can there be with no sins to forgive? I’m pretty confident Teresa would have had none of that.

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Finally, here is an excerpt from the video series Catholicism in which Fr. (now Bishop) Robert Barron discusses St. Teresa.

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