Teresa of Avila
Portrait of Saint Teresa of Avila by Sally
never expected a sixteenth century saint to enter my twentieth
spiritual journey. After all, my United Methodist background contained
no exposure to historical Catholic figures like St. Teresa of
Yet it seemed that every time I turned around, there she was again,
with an unexpected word to expand my idea of God or chart the
step of spiritual growth for me.
of my mentors pointed out
that St. Teresa seemed to “expose my spiritual growing edge.”
I suppose she spoke a timeless
sacred language that had a way of jolting me into the growing awareness
that God and I were not separate. Though I had been
brought up to say my prayers to God, the Divine Other…to
“lift up” my prayers, as if to some far off heavenly
realm, St. Teresa spoke of God in ways that exploded those concepts.
talked of relationship, connection, communion—a
constant interplay between doctrine and experience. When she
spoke of the
indwelling of the Holy - and of herself as dwelling in God
- she expressed it in powerful metaphors:
seemed to me there came the thought of how a sponge absorbs
and is saturated with water; so, I thought, was my soul, which
overflowing with that divinity and in a certain way rejoicing
within itself and possessing the three Persons. I also heard
“Don’t try to hold ME within yourself, but try to hold
yourself within Me.”
her style was often rambling and unsophisticated, her mystical
experience was unmistakable.
Oddly enough, the intensity
prayer life did not lead her to cloistered isolation, but
into vigorous action and service, despite a lifetime of illness
She is remembered not only for her passionate metaphors
also for championing reforms within the Carmelite order.
was born in Avila, Spain, in 1515 during tumultuous times.
She had to deal with the Spanish Inquisition, the
and a culture in which the theological opinions of women
were thought to be absolutely worthless. Very early, she
feel an attraction
to the religious life, but she was her father's favorite,
and he was unwilling to allow her to enter the convent.
followed her own yearnings, and at age 20, she ran away
from home and entered the Carmelite Monastery in Avila. Later
gave his blessing, so she could be openly enthusiastic
her new life.
her troubles were not behind her. At age 23, she fell severely
ill—with no discernible cause. She
to leave the
to undergo experimental and drastic treatments, which
almost killed her. One can only imagine what "experimental" might
have meant in the 1500s. Though she survived the ordeal,
the rest of her life from complications of that experience.
Teresa also experienced ups and downs in her spiritual
life, largely as a result of guilt-based theology and
that still exist in the minds of many today. At age 39,
however, she experienced a transformation that gave her
a new kind
in Christ and a new outlook on life. Though a mystic,
she went on to lead an extremely active life as a teacher,
reformer in the Catholic
Church, poet, and author.
most famous work, The Interior Castle, came to her in
a vision in 1577. She “saw” a
magnificent crystal globe like a castle in which there were
seven dwelling places. In the seventh,
in the center, was the King of Glory. This seventh
room, one of complete union with God, is expressed in language
the Song of Songs, in which the relationship is likened
to spiritual marriage. The fruit of this mystical connection
is the strength
to live in service to God and neighbor.
rooms in the castle depicted spiritual conditions along the journey
have illuminated the path for
hundred years. However, it was another of her images
that painted the spiritual landscape in vivid colors
of the life of prayer (and consequently of personal
growth) became for me more an experience than an
be seen in retrospect. I had to live into it rather
than merely understand it. So, in a way, I “borrowed” her
image and made it my own. Here’s the way I
we get serious about our spiritual journeys, we expend a great
deal of effort. We are obsessed with trying harder. Teresa imagined
a field that needed watering (our spiritual state in need of nurture).
In the first stage of spiritual growth, it is as if we are dragging
a heavy oaken bucket, dipping it into a well, hauling the water
up, bucket by bucket, and watering the field. This represents
the condition where we try desperately to please God, to obey
the rules, to get it right for God.
the second stage, our prayer and progress lead us to notice
a stream running
oaken bucket through the water and haul it
to the field and water it. A little easier, but we still
efforts. That is, we decide what tasks and
projects we will undertake, what the content of our prayer
will nurture our
spiritual lives and be pleasing to God.
the third stage, we become aware of a gate at the end of
the field that opens to an
All we have
do is fling
the gate open, and the water comes pouring
into water the field. It seems that God meets us with
that we have only to open ourselves to
it. Our faith journey becomes
not so much what we can do for God, but
what God can do through
us, for us, in us.
the final stage, we merely stand in the rain. When I first
in a cleansing
in the saving love of God through no
effort of my own, I was overcome
with the realization that Divine Love
require my effort. It was not dependent
on my deserving. It was truly, profoundly,
to St. Teresa of Avila, I finally got it.
©2006 Linda Douty.