Few saints have left us more extensive or intimate records of their personal spiritual lives than St. Teresa of Ávila. Her substantial contributions to 16th century religious reform are overshadowed only by her deeply rich, insightful works on the interior life of the soul.
Born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada in March 1515, Saint Teresa of Jesus (as she was known in religious life) was a Spanish Carmelite nun, author, religious superior, reformer, contemplative, mystic, and the first female Doctor of the Church. 1 She was simple yet profoundly insightful, humble yet sharply assertive, deeply compassionate, clever, witty, humorous, and warm. Teresa was a singularly talented woman whose depth, clarity of vision, unmitigated sense of purpose, deep-seated joyfulness, and motherly charm frequently inspired and encouraged those she encountered. These same traits contributed greatly to the successful outcomes of her many impressive endeavors.
It is extremely difficult to do any kind of real justice to the significance of Teresa’s temporal and spiritual accomplishments. Prior to her death in 1582, she founded at least fourteen new monasteries and made significant headway in areas of religious reform all while navigating a myriad of difficulties along the way. 2 Teresa’s work took her across Spain and into regular contact with the poor and nobility alike. Her collaborators (and occasional antagonists) included King Philip II, bishops, dukes, princes, university professors, the Spanish Inquisition, merchants, and tradespeople. She is also the author of several prolific works of enduring significance in the Christian tradition, perhaps most notably The Interior Castle.
Teresa’s personal life was also complicated and she endured all manner of private hardships over the course of her 67 years. She suffered prolonged bouts of life-threatening illness in her youth and dealt with persistently poor health for the remainder of her life. Despite this, the immense correspondence from her many projects frequently kept her up late into the night, though she would still rise early for prayer with the rest of her community. She also notably experienced periods of intense spiritual dryness and internal resistance to prayer in her early life that lasted years. In spite of all these sufferings, however, she patiently persevered with an effulgence of radiant calm, humor, and charity that were palpable to those who knew her in daily life.
The spiritual writings of this singular woman reveal the interior workings of her soul in a way that is at once both imminently accessible and unspeakably profound. She is clear from the outset that the interior life of the soul is fundamentally rooted in the cultivation of a deeply personal friendship with God. In her own words, “prayer is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.” 3 She also emphasizes the necessity of allowing one’s relationship with God to supersede and permeate every other aspect of one’s life.
Teresa’s relationship with God was founded on absolute abandonment to His care in every aspect of her personhood and being. Her whole world, her interior life and exterior work, revolved around the preeminence of this relationship. She relied on God for everything and gave herself to Him entirely without holding anything back. This type of trust wasn’t always easy or straightforward, however. Early on, she suffered deep misgivings about the authenticity of her mystical experiences in prayer. Moreover, she chronicles many mistakes she made in her personal spiritual practices throughout the years, especially regarding her approach to prayer. What is most critical to keep at the forefront though is that through all of this she understood that her relationship to God was just that: a living relationship. One that was more real, more beautiful, more fulfilling, and more life-giving than anything even remotely possible with another human person.
As she continued to dispose herself more and more to relationship with God through the surrender of self, she progressed through different levels of mystical prayer. She writes that these experiences of God “would come upon me unexpectedly so that I could in no way doubt He was within me or I totally immersed in Him.” 4 Her mystical experiences evolved in character and depth over the course of decades culminating in an experience of unity in which she was granted an intellectual vision of the Persons of the Trinity living and operating within her own soul. Although varying in intensity and clarity, she continued to consciously enjoy the company of these three Persons for the remainder of her days even as she attended to the tasks and cares of daily life. 5
There are two particularly critical takeaways from the spiritual life and works of Teresa. The first is her explicit assertion that every single person is openly invited to enjoy the same type of relationship with God that she experienced. No one is excluded. The question is not of God’s love for us or His desire to engage us. According to Teresa, “It is for you to look at Him, for He never takes His eyes off you.” 6 God is literally waiting for us at every moment of every day. Because God has given us free will, however, it is up to us to respond. The natural question is how to begin.
The second critical takeaway from Teresa is that she presents her understanding of the soul in an immensely practical way with detailed instructions for seeking greater depth of relationship with God. An important initial note is that progress in the spiritual life requires much more than mere intellectual understanding. For instance, a person can know quite a lot about God without actually knowing Him or having any kind of personal relationship. Authentic, intimate love necessarily entails an act of will wherein one desires the goodness of the other and union with them through total, unreserved, selfless self-gift.
Union with God requires just that: that we unite our hearts and wills to His in all things. God has designed us for infinite, eternal happiness and wills every possible good thing for us. Attainment of true happiness thus requires that we first learn to orient our personal desires to God’s desires for us. This doesn’t mean becoming mindless robots, however. Far from it. Rather, it means growing into a greater freedom to attain the fulfillment and happiness that God intends us for by intentionally stripping away everything that gets in the way of fullness of relationship with the Creator.
Teresa (and several other mystics) informs us that this process always begins with the pursuit of self-knowledge. We have to be willing to be brutally honest with ourselves about our priorities. For instance, what are our lives oriented towards? What directs our thoughts, words and actions in the little moments of our day-to-day lives? What really gets us out of bed in the morning, and why?
So often our “why” is tied up in attachments to worldly success, public recognition, acquisition of wealth, pleasure, entertainment, comfort, sensible delights, and all manner of other similar temporal things. But one cannot desire God with all one’s heart if one has already given their affections to these other things. No servant can serve two masters. 7 In order to dispose ourselves for total union with God, we cannot desire anything more than we desire Him. The first step is thus to ask God for the light and grace to see ourselves clearly so that we can understand what attachments and/or other areas of our lives are preventing us from wholehearted pursuit of total relationship with the Lord.
At the same time, it is essential to spend frequent one-on-one time with God the same way that one does with any intimate friend. Relationships require time and effort to grow and one’s relationship with God is no exception. Perhaps more than anything, we have to learn to really listen. Teresa emphasizes that our prayer practices should be oriented towards creating a disposition of authentic receptivity. We cannot receive the fullness that God desires to give us if we are already full of our own expectations of what we think God should give us. We have to patiently wait for God to come and fill us; we cannot do it ourselves.
The life and writings of St. Teresa of Ávila are an immense gift from God to all of us both personally and collectively. Through her, God has revealed the immensity of his burning love and His desire for an unspeakably rich relationship with each of us individually. While the previous paragraphs provide a cursory introduction to Teresa’s life and spirituality, I warmly encourage anyone with desires for deeper relationship with God to take some time with The Interior Castle to discover the fullness of what this great saint has to offer. Through her steadfastness, fidelity, honesty, humor, humility, and unwillingness to settle for anything less than the total fulfillment of her soul, Teresa has blazed a trail for us all to follow into the interior of our own hearts where the living God awaits.