Saint Teresa of Avila was the first woman in Roman Catholicism given the title "Doctor of the Church". She was a mystic, theologian, nun, and founder of the reformed order of the Discalced Carmelites. She was lived in the 16th century in Avila, Spain, and frequently received visions from God. She wrote an autobiography which recounts her life, her mystical experiences, and her teachings on prayer. This book has continued to be very influential up to this day.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Teresa of Avila, mystic, theologian, abbess and founder of the Order of Discalced Carmelites.
Saint Teresa of Avila (also known as St Teresa of Jesus) was born as Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda in 1515 in Avila, Spain, to devout parents. Even as a young child she displayed a strong devotion to Jesus Christ. Fortunately, Saint Teresa wrote an extensive autobiography, and she recounts her childhood here:
had one brother almost of my own age. It was he whom I most loved, though I
had a great affection for them all, as had they for me. We used to read the lives of
saints together; and, when I read of the martyrdoms suffered by saintly women for
God's sake, I used to think they had purchased the fruition of God very cheaply; and
I had a keen desire to die as they had done, not out of any love for God of which I
was conscious, but in order to attain as quickly as possible to the fruition of the
great blessings which, as I read, were laid up in Heaven. I used to discuss with this
brother of mine how we could become martyrs. We agreed to go off to the country of
the Moors, begging our bread for the love of God, so that they might behead us
there; and, even at so tender an age, I believe the Lord had given us sufficient
courage for this, if we could have found a way to do it; but our greatest hindrance
seemed to be that we had a father and a mother. 63 It used to cause us great
astonishment when we were told that both pain and glory would last for ever. We
would spend long periods talking about this and we liked to repeat again and again,
"For ever -- ever -- ever!" Through our frequent repetition of these words, it pleased
the Lord that in my earliest years I should receive a lasting impression of the way of
When I saw that it was impossible for me to go to any place where they would put
me to death for God's sake, we decided to become hermits, and we used to build
hermitages, as well as we could, in an orchard which we had at home. We would
make heaps of small stones, but they at once fell down again, so we found no way of
accomplishing our desires. But even now it gives me a feeling of devotion to
remember how early God granted me what I lost by my own fault.
I gave alms as I could, which was but little. I tried to be alone when I said my
prayers, and there were many such, in particular the rosary, to which my mother
had a great devotion, and this made us devoted to them too. Whenever I played with
other little girls, I used to love building convents and pretending that we were nuns;
and I think I wanted to be a nun, though not so much as the other things I have
I remember that, when my mother died, I was twelve years of age or a little less. 64
When I began to realize what I had lost, I went in my distress to an image of Our
Lady 65 and with many tears besought her to be a mother to me. Though I did this in
my simplicity, I believe it was of some avail to me; for whenever I have commended
myself to this Sovereign Virgin I have been conscious of her aid; and eventually she
has brought me back to herself.
The early death of her mother had a profound impact on young Teresa. Initially, it led to a dampening of her Christian fervour. She became distracted by romance stories, reading them for hours at a time and the vanities that preoccupy wealthy young women of the time. Her father,noticing that Teresa’s devotion had cooled, hoped to rectify the matter by enrolling her in a school run by Augistinian nuns. This intervention worked, and St Teresa returned to her former piety, eventually resolving to become a nun herself. However at this time she would suffer from extreme illness – but was miraculously restored back to health. This account is from Butler’s lives of the saints
She at length, in August, 1537, lay near four days in a trance or lethargic coma, during which time, it was expected that every moment would be her last. It being once imagined that she was dead, a grave was dug for her in the convent, and she would have been buried if her father had not opposed it, and testified that he still perceived in her body certain symptoms of life. Through excess of pain she had bit her tongue in many places, when out of her senses; and for a considerable time she could not swallow so much as a drop of water, without almost choking. Sometimes her whole body seemed as if the bones were disjointed in every part, and her head was in extreme disorder and pain. She could neither stir hand, nor foot, nor head, nor any other part, except, as she thought, one finger of her right hand. She was so sore, that she could not bear any one to touch her in any part, and she had often a great loathing of all food. Her pains being somewhat abated, she so earnestly desired to return to her monastery, that she was carried thither, though her body seemed reduced to skin and bone, and worse than dead, through the pain she endured. She continued thus above eight months, and remained a cripple near three years.
The saint endured these sufferings with great conformity to the holy will of God, and with much alacrity and joy. Under these afflictions she was much helped by the prayer which she had then begun to use. When, in the beginning of this sickness, she was taken out of her convent, and soon after carried into the country, her devout uncle Peter put into her hands a little book of F. Ossuna, called The Third Alphabet, treating on the prayer of recollection and quiet. Taking this book for her master, she applied herself to mental prayer, according to the manner prescribed in it, was favoured with the gift of tears, and the prayer of Quiet, (in which the soul rests in the divine contemplation,) so as to forget all earthly things, and sometimes, though not for a longer space than an Ave Maria at a time, she arrived at the prayer of Union, in which all the powers of the soul are absorbed in God. However, for want of an experienced instructor, she made little progress, was not able to hold any discourses in her understanding, or to meditate without a book, her mind being immediately distracted. Yet she was wonderfully delighted with this holy meditation, and received a heavenly light, in which she saw clearly the nothingness of all earthly things, looked upon the whole world as under her feet, and beneath the regard of a soul, and pitied all persons who vainly pursue its empty bubbles. The paralytic disorder in which her fevers, violent headaches, and convulsions and contractions of her sinews had terminated, began so far to be abated, that she was able to crawl upon her hands and feet. After three years’ suffering, she was perfectly restored to her health: and she afterwards understood that she had received of God this favour and many others, through the intercession of the glorious St. Joseph, which she had humbly and earnestly implored.
At this time also she would receive the miraculous visions she would be famous for. They would come in many forms. Here is an example of one of her written accounts, where she receives visions about a religious order . Her book is filled with these accoutnts, I will share just one of them:
. While I was at prayer, I saw myself in a great field, all alone, and around me
there was such a multitude of all kinds of people that I was completely surrounded
by them. They all seemed to have weapons in their hands for the purpose of
attacking me: some had lances; others, swords; others, daggers; and others, very
long rapiers. Well, I could not get away in any direction without incurring mortal
peril, and I was quite alone there, without anyone on my side. I was in great
distress of spirit, and had no idea what I should do, when I raised my eyes to
Heaven, and saw Christ, not in Heaven, but in the air high above me, holding out
His hand to me and encouraging me in such a way that I no longer feared all the
other people, who, try as they might, could do me no harm.
This vision will seem meaningless, but it has since brought me the greatest profit,
for its meaning was explained to me, and soon afterwards I found myself attacked,
in almost exactly that way, whereupon I realized that the vision was a picture of the
world, the whole of which seems to take up arms in an offensive against the poor
soul. Leaving out of account those who are not great servants of the Lord, and
honours and possessions and pleasures and other things of that kind, it is clear
that, when the soul is not on the look out, it will find itself ensnared, or at least all
these will strive their utmost to ensnare it -- friends, relatives, and, what amazes
me most, very good people. By all these I found myself oppressed: they thought they
were doing right and I did not know how to stand up for myself or what to do.
She would also experience “raptures” where she would levitate in the air. This was a source of embarrassment for her, and sometimes she even had to call for her fellow nuns to sit on her and hold her down. Here is her account of these raptures in her book:
I can testify
that after a rapture my body often seemed as light as if all weight had left it:
sometimes this was so noticeable that I could hardly tell when my feet were
touching the ground. For, while the rapture lasts, the body often remains as if dead
and unable of itself to do anything: it continues all the time as it was when the
rapture came upon it -- in a sitting position, for example, or with the hands open or
shut. The subject rarely loses consciousness: I have sometimes lost it altogether, but
only seldom and for but a short time. As a rule the consciousness is disturbed; and,
though incapable of action with respect to outward things, the subject can still hear
and understand, but only dimly, as though from a long way off. I do not say that he
can hear and understand when the rapture is at its highest point -- by "highest
point" I mean when the faculties are lost through being closely united with God. At
that point, in my opinion, he will neither see, nor hear, nor perceive; but, as I said in
describing the preceding prayer of union, this complete transformation of the soul in
God lasts but a short time, and it is only while it lasts that none of the soul's
faculties is able to perceive or know what is taking place. We cannot be meant to
understand it while we are on earth -- God, in fact, does not wish us to understand
it because we have not the capacity for doing so.
Saint Teresa was concerned about the laxity of the monastic order to which she belonged. She is celebrated for being a reformer of the Carmelite order, bringing back a greater rigour to their prayer and devotion, and in this work she was supported by St John of the Cross. She founded many men’s and women’s monasteries for her reformed orderThose who followed her reforms are known today as the discalced, or barefoot Carmelites. However, in pursuing these reforms she attracted opposition. We read again from Butler’s account of her life:
St. Teresa, burning with a desire to promote with her whole strength the greater gratification of her own soul and that of others, and of labouring to secure by the most perfect penance her eternal salvation, concerted a project of establishing a reform in her Order. The rule which had been drawn up by Albert, patriarch of Jerusalem, was very austere: but in process of time several relaxations were introduced, and a mitigation of this Order was approved by a bull of Eugenius IV. in 1431. In the convent of the Incarnation at Avila, in which the saint lived, other relaxations were tolerated, especially that of admitting too frequent visits of secular friends at the grate in the parlour or speak-house. St. Teresa one day expressing a great desire of living according to the original institute of the Order, her niece Mary d’Ocampe, then a pensioner in that house, offered one thousand ducats to found a house for such a design, and a secular widow lady Guyomar d’Ulloa zealously encouraged the design; which was approved by St. Peter of Alcantara, St. Lewis Bertrand, and the Bishop of Avila, and the saint was commanded by Christ in several visions and revelations which she recounts, to undertake the same, with assured promises of success and his divine protection. The lady Guyomar procured the license and approbation of F. Angelo de Salazar, provincial of the Carmelites in those parts. No sooner had the project taken wind but he was obliged by the clamours which were raised against it, to recal his license, and a furious storm fell upon the saint, through the violent opposition which was made by all her fellow nuns, the nobility, the magistrates, and the people. She suffered the most outrageous calumnies with perfect calmness of mind and silence, contenting herself with earnestly recommending to God his own work.
Saint Teresa is also celebrated as a writer and theologian. In fact, she and Saint Catherine of Siena were the first women recognized by the Roman Catholics as “doctor of the church” (the word “doctor” here is Latin for teacher, it does not refer to physician as it does in mordern times) she had a profound impact in particular on mystical theology, which she wrote extensively about. Here is a passage of her book where she describes this mystical theology:
I used sometimes, as I have said, to experience in an elementary form, and very
fleetingly, what I shall now describe. When picturing Christ in the way I have
mentioned, and sometimes even when reading, I used unexpectedly to experience a
consciousness of the presence of God, of such a kind that I could not possibly doubt
that He was within me or that I was wholly engulfed in Him. This was in no sense a
vision: I believe it is called mystical theology. The soul is suspended in such a way
that it seems to be completely outside itself. The will loves; the memory, I think, is
almost lost; while the understanding, I believe, though it is not lost, does not reason
-- I mean that it does not work, but is amazed at the extent of all it can understand;
for God wills it to realize that it understands nothing of what His Majesty
represents to it.
Previously to this, I had experienced a tenderness in devotion, some part of which, I
think, can be obtained by one's own efforts. This is a favour neither wholly of sense
nor wholly of spirit, but entirely the gift of God. It seems, however, that we can do a
great deal towards the obtaining of it by reflecting on our lowliness and our
ingratitude to God, on the great things that He has done for us, on His Passion,
with its grievous pains, and on His life, which was so full of afflictions. We can also
do much by rejoicing in the contemplation of His works, His greatness, His love for
us, and a great deal more. Anyone really anxious to make progress often lights upon
such things as these, though he may not be going about looking for them. If to this
there be added a little love, the soul is comforted, the heart melts and tears begin to
flow: sometimes we seem to produce these tears by force; at other times the Lord
seems to be drawing them from us and we cannot resist Him. For the trifling pains
we have taken His Majesty appears to be requiting us with the great gift of the
comfort which comes to a soul from seeing that it is weeping for so great a Lord; and
I do not wonder at this, for it has ample reason to be comforted. For here it finds
encouragement, and here it finds joy.
St Teresa of Avila’s writings on prayer have also brought much encouragement. Famously, she described four degrees of prayer that a Christian can pursue in becoming closer to Jesus. We read here a reflection on these four degrees of prayer by the theologian Beverly Lanzetta:
In The Book of My Life, Teresa describes four degrees of prayer, from earlier to advanced stages. Beginners on the path she likens to persons trying to cultivate a garden in very barren soil, full of weeds. God assists beginners by pulling up the weeds and planting good seeds, but these seeds now have to be watered. The way in which the garden is watered becomes a creative metaphor on the progress the soul makes in giving over its will and resting in God.
Beginners in prayer are unaware of how God is always within them, Teresa contends. Thus, beginners labor to recollect their senses and tire themselves in the effort, a fact Teresa relates to drawing water from a well. “The tedious work of often letting the pail down into the well and pulling it back up,” she writes, “[makes them want to] abandon everything.” Fetching water from the well corresponds to the rational work of the intellect, which desires to understand and thus struggles with watering the soul. The movement from effort and self-will to rest and receptivity constitutes the maturing of the practice of prayer, and the soul’s journey from natural to supernatural states of consciousness.
Teresa names the second degree of prayer the Prayer of Quiet. Here watering the garden of the soul takes place by means of turning the crank of a water wheel and by aqueducts. More water is obtained with less labor. Communion with God takes place in the depths of the soul, when the intellect is stilled and the spark of divinity at its center is enkindled by love and desire. The ease with which water now flows brings all the flowers to bud, and the soul sees very clearly.
Drawing closer to its divine source, the garden of the soul is now irrigated with water flowing from a river or spring. This third degree of prayer requires very little effort, as God so desires to “help the gardener here that He Himself becomes practically the gardener and the one who does everything.” The soul desires an intense freedom, and its virtues and good deeds are stronger than in the prayer of quiet. The flowers of the garden are in full bloom, offering life-giving fragrance. Yet, this third degree of prayer does not culminate in further stillness or inactivity, but joins “both the active and contemplative life together.” Teresa claims that the person is able to conduct works of charity and business affairs while at the same time that the best part of the soul is elsewhere.
The Prayer of Union, or fourth degree of prayer, is compared to water falling from heaven. Nothing can be done to bring the life-giving waters of rain; its blessing is simply received. The gardener is now joined with heavenly love and experiences intimate communion with God and the greatest tenderness in the soul. The gift of the prayer of union softens the soul “by living in great detachment from self-interest [and] . . . begins to be of benefit to its neighbors almost without knowing it or doing anything of itself.” Inseparable from its divine source, the center of the soul is one with God and the eyes of the soul are opened to the vanity of the world.
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The following prayer was etched in St Teresa of Avila’s beviary – you can see images of it in her own handwriting!
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.