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"Let nothing disturb you; Let nothing frighten you. All things are passing. God alone suffices."
-St. Teresa of Avila
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Teresa of Avila
Synopsis: Who was Teresa of Avila and what was her gift? She was born at a time when Spain was at its summit in the glory of the "Golden Age," and the conquests of the New World. It was a time for greatness in people and in deeds. Spain was "a world in effervescence not only politically but also spiritually. A longing for deep spirituality took hold among the people themselves and pervaded their lives."[1] In her journey to love God she reformed the Carmelite Order, stood out as a leader of the Counter-Reformation and authored some of the finest works on the mystical life of prayer within the treasury of the Church. As a recognition of the importance of her contribution, St. Teresa of Avila is the first woman to be named Doctor of the Church.[2] This is an honor given to her despite the fact that there is nothing in her writings that even hints of her considering herself to be a theologian. Yet, she is preeminently so.

God is Your Father
The fatherhood of God is a constant and inspiring theme within Teresa’s works. She repeatedly turns to Him confident of His merciful love assured that He will not deny her. This confidence was nurtured by Teresa’s relationship with her own father, who cared for and protected her. She, in return, loved him deeply, and the greatest pain she knew was in leaving him to become a nun. "When I left my father's house I felt the separation so keenly that the feeling will not be greater, I think, when I die. For it seemed that every bone in my body was being sundered."[3]

Teresa was "saved" by her father during her adolescence on several occasions when he took steps to either remove Teresa from harmful situations or protect her from potential harm. This protective relationship with her father by whom she knew herself to be loved, sets the foundation for a positive relationship with other men and the Church. She would gauge the legitimacy of these relationships, on their ability to protect her from spiritual harm. This ability in turn was judged upon their knowledge of and consistency with the Church, prayer and experience.[4] She continually threw herself into their care despite pain and sometimes adverse consequences. Teresa offers counsel for discerning the good spiritual director, yet her submissiveness was constant and undaunted. This is indicative of both her image of God as a loving and merciful Father and her experience with her own earthly father.

Three Graces
According to Kieran Kavanaugh, there are three graces involved in the mystical life.[5] One is the gift of a particular mystical grace itself. Another is the ability to understand the gift; the third is the capacity to explain the gift to someone else. Teresa had all three graces and this is the essence of her gift from God, and what she gave to the Church. These graces enabled Teresa to build upon and go beyond her limited education but they also enabled the Church to benefit from her poverty. This poverty consisted in the lack of an education with an understanding expressed in formal theological terms. In her poverty she found a language that others can understand.

Teresa’s education, while consistent with her time, comprised mainly the ways of homemaking. In addition to this, though, she and her mother loved to read novels of romance and chivalry. Although her father disapproved of the practice, it appears that these novels may have provided Teresa with the “training” for writing from which she would later draw upon to produce some of the finest works on prayer within the Church.[6]

Christ and the Images of Spain
As we have just intimated, Teresa did not have the education nor the knowledge of the books that St. John of the Cross had. So how did Teresa come to understand and explain her experiences in the mystical life? She did not know anything of theology[7] but what she could glean from her confessors,[8] and thus she had great difficulty describing what she was experiencing. Ironically, she even possessed a poor imagination. However, in struggling to make herself clear to her confessors so that they might advise her and then later in trying to explain herself to her sisters, Teresa came up with analogies from common experiences in 16th century Spain just as Christ had done with the Near East in ancient times. Her treatise on the mystical life is a series of metaphors and similes which make the transcendent accessible to the common mind. The communication problem stems from the fact that nothing in creation bears any proportion to the God who is spirit and beyond our concrete minds to imagine.[9] How can the experience of the transcendent God be expressed in finite terms? The more than 460 analogies and images that Teresa comes up with serve as imitations of this profound reality and provide a tangible form that the reader can grasp and reflect upon. She is therefore able to provide food for the imagination so that the intellect might have the opportunity to penetrate into the truth.

Her allegories are in this way like the imitations of the musician whose art imitates truth. The artist looks upon beauty and then creates a tangible form in music that speaks to the listener of what that beauty is like. Just as Teresa’s images stir the imagination and hold the attention of the reader, music stirs the senses and emotions in a way that not only stimulates the imagination but also brings the somatic experience of the listener into the scene which is visually perceived and grasped by the imagination. Just as Teresa’s allegory is not the mystical experience but rather something that is “like it” for the imagination so is the music something like what the artist experiences of beauty. The difference is that Teresa’s mystical experience is real and is not experienced by the reader in that way that music is experienced by the listener. The mystical experience is stimulated by the direct intervention of Divine grace. It can only be understood to some degree, through analogy. The artist’s music, on the other hand, is an imitation from the beginning, and his experience of beauty may to some degree be imitated in the listener since the resonation of the music can affect the artist and listener in the same way. It may be as if they are standing side by side as they listen. Teresa, though, is standing within the mystery into which she is trying to draw the listener.

Holding the simple to behold the profound
The result of Teresa’s struggle to find analogies to explain herself is that Teresa makes the mystical life accessible and to some degree understandable to those who also lack the vocabulary of the theologian and philosopher. She enables the ignorant at least to approach something beyond them. A mystery can be held in the imagination in the form of a symbol and Teresa provides a rich supply of symbols.

Another major contribution is Teresa's counsel on prayer and discernment. One of the primary problems stemming from the movements in mental prayer came in the form of people either seeking consolations, or considering themselves saintly,[10] or, again, becoming attached to the sentimental effects and losing sight of the divine reality and eventually falling away in times of dryness.[11] Also, as previously mentioned, there was always the danger of deception by the devil,[12] but even more than this Teresa feared self-deception.[13]

Teresa's solution and counsel is simple. First, she defines mental prayer as "a sharing between close friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us."[14] She resolves the confusion between vocal and mental prayer by saying that one's mind should be on the person one is talking to, thinking about what is being said, and who we are in relationship to Him. It would be absurd to say the Our Father and not think about the words or God.[15]

Her counsel on consolations[16] is even simpler: ignore them all.[17] They have nothing to do with sanctity and are more due to our weakness and God's generosity to creatures who are so feeble.[18] Teresa discusses the arid times as being blessings and more indicative of prayer.[19] In such times one can choose to love, believe and hope despite what is felt. When one feels that God is not present, faith affords the opportunity to proclaim the truth and deepen the union with God that takes place in the theological virtues of faith hope and charity. Teresa also cautions that seeking spiritual delights causes harm and keeps one from ever finding God.[20] One is to keep his eyes on the Giver and not the gift. Once the gift is given the effects are there. One needs only to give thanks to God and to return his attention to Him who gave the gift. In this way, even if the experience is from the devil, God is given the glory, and the devil in his displeasure will soon give up the deception and seek another.

This counsel is typical of the importance Teresa gives to detachment from all things. St. John of the Cross and Teresa provide the counsel to hold on to nothing but Christ. St. John goes so far as to show how the stories of the Jewish people are also the stories of the soul with God. He cites the example of the Jews and the city of Jericho. Here the Israelites are commanded by God to kill everyone even women and children. They decided, however, to keep some people alive, and these grew and mixed with the Jewish race, some through intermarriage, eventually corrupting the Jews.[21] St. John likens this to the soul who is attached to sins or even spiritual delights. Eventually even the smallest imperfection can drag the soul down.

[1] Ibid., p. 6.
[2] A Doctor of the Church is a title conferred upon "a theologian who bears witness to ancient tradition and who must be distinguished in four respects: for orthodoxy, personal sanctity, learning and explicit commendation by the Church." Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, Dictionary of Theology, Second Edition (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1976), p.129.
[3] LF, p. 41.
[4] Ibid., p. 15.
[5] Ibid., p. 21.
[6] I should point out that St. John of the Cross shares her station as the other Carmelite Mystical Doctor of the Church. However, John's education differed greatly from Teresa's as he was educated in theology in the way of St. Thomas and understood the terminology for rational psychology. He is clear and correct in his dealings with mystical theology. The problem for the reader of St. John of the Cross is that John knows what he is talking about and exactly how to say it whereas the reader may not possess his vocabulary. John is speaking to religious and those who are living or approaching the religious life he is describing, he does not necessarily have the lay person in mind when he writes.
[7] It should be pointed out that Teresa did not have access to scriptures as we do today. She did not possess a bible and had portions of biblical passages printed in the breviary or in inspirational books. She also heard the gospels and epistles during the Mass.
[8] Hardon, Catholic Dictionary, "A priest qualified to hear confessions of the faithful and grant sacramental absolution." p, 121.
[9]JC, "Wherefore it is impossible for the understanding to attain to God by means of the creatures, whether these be celestial or earthly, inasmuch as there is no proportion or resemblance between them.", JC, p. 126.
[10] She counsels her sisters about those consolations which come from the good that we partake in such as virtue or religious practice e.g. mental prayer. We can think of things and we may well up emotionally from the joy. "Joyful consolations in prayer have their beginning in our own human nature and end in God." Whereas, "The spiritual delights begin in God, but human nature feels and enjoys them as much as it does those I mentioned. IC, IV:1:4., p. 318. "understand that one is no better because of experiencing them, for it cannot be known whether they are the effects of love. Ibid., p. 319.
[11] WP, p. 173.
[12] Ibid., p. 186.
[13] IC, p. 305.
[14] LF, p. 67.
[15] WP, p. 130.
[16] Kavanaugh, WP, Teresa uses the Spanish word contentos (here rendered in English as consolations) to denote experiences (such as joy, peace, satisfaction) that are not infused; that is, experiences perceived as a result of prayer and virtue but similar to those derived from everyday events. On the other hand, she uses the Spanish word gustos (here rendered in English as spiritual delights) to denote infused experiences. Infused, "supernatural" or mystical prayer begins in these fourth dwelling places with the prayer of infused recollection, quiet or spiritual delight." p. 487.
[17] Ibid., pp. 185-188
[18] Ibid., p. 186.
[19] IC, p. 310.
[20] Ibid., p. 326.
[21] Ibid.