Feast Day - October
Less than twenty years before Teresa
was born in 1515, Columbus opened up the Western Hemisphere to European colonization. Two
years after she was born, Luther started the Protestant Reformation. Out of all of this
change came Teresa pointing the way from outer turmoil to inner peace.
Teresa's father was rigidly honest and
pious, but he may have carried his strictness to extremes. Teresa's mother loved romance
novels but because her husband objected to these fanciful books, she hid the books from
him. This put Teresa in the middle -- especially since she liked the romances too. Her
father told her never to lie but her mother told her not to tell her father. Later she
said she was always afraid that no matter what she did she was going to do everything
When she was five years old she
convinced her older brother that they should, as she says in her Life, "go off to the
land of the Moors and beg them, out of love of God, to cut off our heads there." They
got as far as the road from the city before an uncle found them and brought them back.
Some people have used this story as an early example of sanctity, but this author think
it's better used as an early example of her ability to stir up trouble.
After this incident she led a fairly
ordinary life, though she was convinced that she was a horrible sinner. As a teenager, she
cared only about boys and clothes and flirting and rebelling -- like other teenagers
throughout the ages. When she was 16, her father decided she was out of control and sent
her to a convent. At first she hated it but eventually she began to enjoy it -- partly
because of her growing love for God, and partly because the convent was a lot less strict
than her father.
Still, when the time came for her to
choose between marriage and religious life, she had a tough time making the decision.
She'd watched a difficult marriage ruin her mother. On the other hand being a nun didn't
seem like much fun. When she finally chose religious life, she did so because she though
that it was the only safe place for someone as prone to sin as she was.
Once installed at the Carmelite
convent permanently, she started to learn and practice mental prayer, in which she
"tried as hard as I could to keep Jesus Christ present within me....My imagination is
so dull that I had no talent for imagining or coming up with great theological
thoughts." Teresa prayed this way off and on for eighteen years without feeling that
she was getting results. Part of the reason for her trouble was that the convent was not
the safe place she assumed it would be.
Many women who had no place else to go
wound up at the convent, whether they had vocations or not. They were encouraged to stay
away from the convents for long period of time to cut down on expenses. Nuns would arrange
their veils attractively and wear jewelry. Prestige depended not on piety but on money.
There was a steady stream of visitors in the parlor and parties that included young men.
What spiritual life there was involved hysteria, weeping, exaggerated penance, nosebleeds,
and self- induced visions.
Teresa suffered the same problem that
Francis of Assisi did -- she was too charming. Everyone liked her and she liked to be
liked. She found it too easy to slip into a worldly life and ignore God. The convent
encouraged her to have visitors to whom she would teach mental prayer because their gifts
helped the community economy. But Teresa got more involved in flattery, vanity and gossip
than spiritual guidance. These weren't great sins perhaps but they kept her from God.
Then Teresa fell ill with malaria.
When she had a seizure, people were so sure she was dead that after she woke up four days
later she learned they had dug a grave for her. Afterwards she was paralyzed for three
years and was never completely well. Yet instead of helping her spiritually, her sickness
became an excuse to stop her prayer completely: she couldn't be alone enough, she wasn't
healthy enough, and so forth. Later she would say, "Prayer is an act of love, words
are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will
For years she hardly prayed at all
"under the guise of humility." She thought as a wicked sinner she didn't deserve
to get favors from God. But turning away from prayer was like "a baby turning from
its mother's breasts, what can be expected but death?"
When she was 41, a priest convinced
her to go back to her prayer, but she still found it difficult. "I was more anxious
for the hour of prayer to be over than I was to remain there. I don't know what heavy
penance I would not have gladly undertaken rather than practice prayer." She was
distracted often: "This intellect is so wild that it doesn't seem to be anything else
than a frantic madman no one can tie down." Teresa sympathizes with those who have a
difficult time in prayer: "All the trials we endure cannot be compared to these
Yet her experience gives us wonderful
descriptions of mental prayer: "For 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. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do
that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in
As she started to pray again, God gave
her spiritual delights: the prayer of quiet where God's presence overwhelmed her senses,
raptures where God overcame her with glorious foolishness, prayer of union where she felt
the sun of God melt her soul away. Sometimes her whole body was raised form the ground. If
she felt God was going to levitate her body, she stretched out on the floor and called the
nuns to sit on her and hold her down. Far from being excited about these events, she
"begged God very much not to give me any more favors in public."
In her books, she analyzed and
dissects mystical experiences the way a scientist would. She never saw these gifts as
rewards from God but the way he "chastised" her. The more love she felt the
harder it was to offend God. She says, "The memory of the favor God has granted does
more to bring such a person back to God than all the infernal punishments
Her biggest fault was her friendships.
Though she wasn't sinning, she was very attached to her friends until God told her
"No longer do I want you to converse with human beings but with angels." In an
instant he gave her the freedom that she had been unable to achieve through years of
effort. After that God always came first in her life.
Some friends, however, did not like
what was happening to her and got together to discuss some "remedy" for her.
Concluding that she had been deluded by the devil, they sent a Jesuit to analyze her. The
Jesuit reassured her that her experiences were from God but soon everyone knew about her
and was making fun of her.