Teresa of Avila
Teresa of Avila was a woman deeply committed to finding God. In fact, one of
the most admirable things about her is her tenacious commitment to learning about God
and her dedication to experiencing life-long and ever-deepening relationship with God.
Her life (1515-1582) spans some of the most turbulent years of Christian history, and the
circumstances of her early life reflect that.
Before she was even born, her grandfather was sentenced by the Spanish Inquisition to
public humiliation, including lashing and a fine, for being a Jewish convert to Christianity; to escape the stigma of this, the entire family relocated from Toledo to Avila.
Teresa was four years old when Martin Luther was excommunicated and the Reformation began tearing its way through Europe, spurring religious violence across the continent.
In Spain, the response to the emerging Protestant movement was a deep suspicion of those seeking a life of spiritual depth and interiority. Few people were immune to this suspicion. In fact, by 1525, when Teresa was just ten years old, Spanish inquisitors’ harsh treatment of alumbrados or “’falsely illuminated’ people” drove Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, from Spain altogether.
Teresa nearly died of illness at age 20 (in 1535): in the Book of Her Life, she
describes regaining consciousness after a coma and realizing, to her shock, that she
sisters had already prepared her body for last rites and burial. During the year that she
spent recovering from that illness in the home of her uncle, the bed-ridden young woman
discovered her voracious appetite for learning about God. Who would teach her? Where
could she go to learn?
University education was denied to women. And Teresa had run through the
convent library. Poring through her uncle’s collection of classic spiritual texts, Teresa
sought to learn all of the techniques of what was then called “mental prayer.” Spanish
translations of many such prayer manuals had been commissioned by the Franciscan
reformer Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros, confessor to Queen Isabella during the years of
spiritual revival prior to the Protestant Reformation. Teresa eagerly read (slide 20,
multiple clicks) all that she could get her hands on: Francisco de Osuna, Bernardino de
Laredo, Augustine’s Confessions, Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue. Although self-
educated, her integration of Christianity’s great spiritual and theological currents
surpassed many, if not most, of her male peers. When the Jesuits arrived in Avila in
1553, Teresa was given, through her experience of Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises,
the means to ignite a new wave of reform that would change the course of Christian
As Teresa sought herself to live more deeply toward an empowering partnership
with God, she became convinced that genuine and active collaboration with God was the
vocation of each and every Christian. She dedicated herself both to creating the spaces
for engaging deepening relationship with God and to teaching people how to grow
toward the challenge of collaborating with the One who asks just three things of us: to act
justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly Together with our God. (Micah 6:8)
In 1562 she founded the reformed Carmelite convent of San José in Avila, which
became the first of many communities dedicated to witnessing to God’s ongoing desire to
dwell with us, in a world that is home for all. Teresa and her contemplative vision
provided an important strategic arm to the Catholic reform by making the Christian
mystical tradition and all of its vital resources accessible. Far from being a passive or
reclusive charism, Teresa and her collaborative partner John of the Cross offered an inner
vitality that Christianity, especially in Spain, desperately needed. Part of the critical
lesson of Teresa’s life, both for her contemporaries in sixteenth-century Spain and for us
today, is the necessity of contemplative depth for any kind of prophetic vision, genuine
leadership or sound apostolic work.
Teresa revolutionized the spirituality of the sixteenth-century by opening
up for us what it is to be in deep and direct relationship with God. Not only does she
outline in her writings the mechanics of how this relationship deepens, she reveals
the inner life of a genuine partnership with God, forged moment by moment, day by
day, like every real relationship, which is always a work in progress and is
constantly changing us insofar as we let it. Teresa epitomizes the transforming
pedagogy of God. By allowing God to reveal Godself to her in ever new ways, Teresa
models the relational process as a way of daily life.
We tend to think of contemplative prayer as something reserved for those who
have retired from the world or who dedicate themselves to silence. Interestingly, Teresa
opens up for us, through her simple and basic definition of prayer—“prayer is nothing
more than frequent conversation with the One whom we know loves us,” she says—a
dialogical way of coming to know God until, gradually, we are so attuned to God’s
constant companionship that we live in communion with God in our world. The
theological vision of Teresa helps us to see that our lives are to be one long prayer, that
prayer is life and life is to be prayer, no matter what our circumstances, roles or
vocations. This call to radical prayer and radical discipleship is rooted in the cultivation
of love—a love learned directly from God, a love translated into each of our human
relationships, a love that “changes everything.”
In his introduction of Teresa’s Book of her Life Carmelite scholar Enrique Llamas
writes: “This book places before our very eyes in a living and penetrating way the reality
of the mystical life. It helps us to understand the existence and the practicalities of this
other mysterious world, the world of God and the soul in interior communication, which
is an [intimate] communication of friendship [and love] above anything we can even
desire and imagine: the only life that deserves to be lived with intensity.” By showing us
God’s familiarity and even the naturalness of intimacy with God, Teresa encourages us to
see a God whose constancy, tenderness, and loving kindness draws us, too, into greater
friendship with God—a friendship with the capacity to anchor and orient our lives, give
us new purpose, and constantly to provide meaning life, and joy. By telling us the story
of God’s loving relationship with her, Teresa introduces us to the living God, the
incarnate One who wants to enliven us with a constant living presence; the One in whom
we live and move and have our being.
Selections from Teresa’s Interior Castle
Let us consider our souls to be like a castle made entirely out of a
diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just
as in heaven there are many dwelling places . For in reflecting upon it
carefully, we realize that the soul of the just person is nothing else but
a paradise where God takes delight.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle I:1:1
It is a pity and unfortunate that through our own fault we don’t
understand ourselves or know who we are… [For] we seldom
consider the precious things that can be found in this soul, or who
dwells within it, or its high value. Consequently, little effort is made to
preserve its beauty.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle I:1:2
So let us consider that this castle has, as I said, many dwelling
places: some up above, others down below, others to the sides; and
in the center and middle is the main dwelling place where the very
secret exchanges between God and the soul take place.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle I:1:3
Insofar as I can understand, the gate of entry to this castle is prayer
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle I:1:7
The things of the soul must always be considered as plentiful,
spacious and large; to do so is not an exaggeration. The soul is
capable of much more than we can imagine, and the sun that is in
this royal chamber shines in all parts.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle I:2:8
It is very important for any soul that practices prayer , whether little or
much, not to hold itself back and stay in one corner. Let it walk
through these dwelling places which are up above, down below, and
to the sides, since God has given it such great dignity.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle I:2:8
Never, however exalted the soul may be, is anything else more fitting
than self-knowledge… for in my opinion we shall never completely
know ourselves if we don’t strive to know God.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle I:2:9
And let us understand that true perfection consists in love of God and
neighbor; the more perfectly we keep these two commandments, the
more perfect we will be.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle I:2:17
For perfection as well as its reward does not consist in spiritual
delights but in greater love and in deeds done with greater justice and
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle III:2:10
It’s a wonderful thing for a person to talk to those who speak about
this interior castle, to draw near not only to those seen to be in the
same rooms but also those known to have entered the ones closer to
the center. Conversation with them will bring souls to where they are.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle II:1:6
Can there be an evil greater than that of being ill at ease in our own
house? What hope can we have of finding rest outside of ourselves if
we cannot be at rest within? Believe me, if we don’t obtain and have
peace in our own house, we’ll not find it outside.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle II:1:9
You cannot begin to recollect yourselves by force but only by
gentleness, if your recollection is going to be more continual.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle II:1:10
For in order to know ourselves, it helps a great deal to speak with
someone who already knows the world for what it is.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle III:2:12
In order to profit by this path and ascend to the dwelling places we
desire, the important thing is not to think much but to love much; and
so do that which best stirs you to love.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle IV:1:7
Through this prayer of union, God becomes the dwelling place we
build for ourselves.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle V:2:5
The Lord asks of us only two things: love of God and love of our
neighbor. These are what we must work for. By keeping them with
perfection, we do God’s will and so will be united with God.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior CastleV:3:7
We cannot know whether or not we love God, although there are
strong indications for recognizing that we do love God; but we can
know whether or not we love our neighbor. And be certain that the
more advanced you see you are in love for your neighbor the more
advanced you will be in the love of God, for the love God has for us is
so great that to repay us for our love of neighbor God will in a
thousand ways increase the love we have for God. I cannot doubt
Teresa of Avila, The Interior CastleV:3:8
For even though we already know that God is present in all we do,
our nature is such that we neglect to think of this. But when it has
been invited into the companionate presence of God, this truth cannot
be forgotten, for God awakens the soul to God’s presence beside
it…[T]he soul goes about almost continually with actual love for the
One whom it sees and understands is at its side.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle VI:8:4
Martha and Mary must join together in order to show hospitality to
God and have God always present… How would Mary, always
seated at Christ’s feet, provide her Guest with food if her sister did
not help her? And that food is that in every way possible we draw
souls [closer to God]…The fire of love in you enkindles their souls,
and with every other virtue you will be always awakening them.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior CastleVII:4:12; 14
In sum, what I conclude with is that we shouldn’t build castles in the
air. God doesn’t look so much at the greatness of our works as at the
love with which they are done. And if we do what we can, God will
enable us each day to do more and more…
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle VII:4:15