Saint Teresa the Great

Saint Teresa of Avila was one of the greatest feminine figures in all of history. So extraordinary that she deserved to be proclaimed Doctor of the Church.

Newsroom (15/10/2020 17:35, Gaudium Press) There are people so united to God that they personify greatness because in them shines the light of the divine life present to a high degree within.

One of these souls stood out in the 16th century, carrying out the plans God had traced out for her with such perfection and fidelity, that greatness was incorporated into her name: Saint Teresa the Great.

Sickness and invitation to contemplation

Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada was born on March 28, 1515, in Gotarrendura, in the province of Avila, into a large family of the small Castilian nobility. Since she was a little girl she was interested in stories of the lives of the saints, and when she learned of the deeds of the first martyrs, she thought this was a straight line to heaven. So she decided to flee with her little brother Rodrigo to the country of the Moors, to give their lives there in defense of the Faith. They were already a long way from the city walls when an uncle managed to find them and returned them home.

Having lost her mother when she was only 14, Teresa gave herself into the hands of Our Lady, taking Her as her only Mother. At the age of twenty, she entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila – against her father’s wishes at first – where she took her vows a year later.

There lived almost 200 nuns under the mitigated rule of Mount Carmel. Sister Teresa was given a spacious cell, along with the freedom to see visitors at any time and to go into town for any reason. It was customary for the nuns to spend hours chatting in the hall, which was converted into a kind of center for social gatherings.

However, the cross, an essential element of greatness, soon presented itself to this chosen soul. Shortly after her religious profession, her health had weakened to such an extent that her father, Alonso de Cepeda, obtained permission to take her to the village of Becedas, where a lady lived whose medical treatments were reputed to be effective. On the trip, Teresa learned about mental prayer through the book Third Spiritual Alphabet by Father Francisco de Osuna and felt invited to a life of contemplation.

The treatments, however, did not produce the expected results: “At the end of two months, with the help of medicines, my life was over. On her return to her father’s house, a very strong muscular contraction left her unconscious for almost four days. They would have buried her if her father had not objected. Upon awakening, her state was pitiful: “I was shriveled up, as if curled up. I looked dead, unable to move arms, feet, hands, and head.”

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Even in this condition, Teresa wished to return to the convent immediately. Her soul, like that of Job (cf. 2:10), was in excellent dispositions: “I was very much conformed to the will of God, even if it always left me in that state. If I wanted to get well, it was only to have solitude, as before, and to pray”.

After three years of paralysis, her prayers to St. Joseph obtained a cure, and from that moment on, devotion to the Holy Patriarch became paramount in her life.

Inner Fight and Peace of Mind

With her health somewhat failing, Teresa resumed community life in the Incarnation. However, there she remained dissipated, neglecting the interior prayer in which she had made so much progress during her illness. That monastery had lost the first fervor of her vocation and had drifted away from the Carmelite spirit. In the guest room, open to the ladies of society, there was frequent talk of frivolities and worldly vanities, and all this had a negative influence on the Saint’s spiritual life.

After some time, on the advice of Friar Vicente Varrón, a Dominican priest, she resumed the habit of praying mentally, although this meant, at first, waging a real battle against herself: “in fact, to avoid going to prayer, the violence that the devil did to me – or my bad habit – was so unbearable, and the sadness that I felt when I entered the oratory was so great, that to overcome me I had to use all my strength, which, they say, is not small.”

One day, while praying in her oratory, when she realized how her futile conversations had increased Christ’s pains, she felt so vividly sorrow for her faults that she threw herself at the feet of an image of Our Lord crying, promising not to get up from there until He strengthened her not to offend Him any more.

“My soul” – she recounts in the Book of Life, her autobiography – “received great strength from the divine Majesty, who must have heard my cries, having compassion on so many tears. The desire to spend more time with the Lord began to grow in me. And she adds: “When I thought of myself as being with Christ, […] I suddenly had such a feeling of God’s presence that I could not doubt that the Lord was within me and I was completely immersed in Him.”

Christ seemed to walk always at her side

“I no longer want you to speak with men, but with the Angels,” were the words heard by Teresa in the first ecstasy that granted her divine grace. “From that day on, I was so excited to leave everything for God, as if at that very moment – which I don’t think was anymore – He had wanted to transform His handmaid.” Alongside the trials, Christ now continued to speak to her often and seemed to always walk at her side.

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It was not unusual, in these intimacies with Jesus, to feel the fire of divine love in her soul. More than once she even had his heart pierced by an Angel, leaving her the physical marks of a perforation: “It pleased the Lord to favor me a few times with this vision. I saw an Angel near me […]. I saw in his hands a long golden dart. In the iron tip I thought there was a little fire. Sometimes it seemed to go right through my heart so that it reached my entrails. When I pulled it out, I had the impression that it was taking them with it, leaving me all aflame with a great love of God. The pain was so intense that it made me give the groans I have spoken about. This immense pain produces such excessive softness, that one does not desire its end, nor is the soul content with anything less than God.

This is not the time to deal with God on matters of little importance…

After a vision of hell around 1560, the great mission that was reserved for her became clear to her soul. When she saw the frightful torments of the accursed, she felt great compassion for the great number of souls who were being condemned. The situation of the Holy Church pained her greatly because news reached her of the damage caused at that time by the sects that were beginning to spread throughout Europe. She saw with bitterness how many people were turning away from God and how few were His friends.

She then began to wonder what she could do to be useful to the Church at this terrible crossroads: “I became convinced that the first thing was to follow what His Majesty had in mind when he called me to religious life, and to keep my Rule as perfectly as possible. And she advised her sisters of vocation: “All of us, busy in prayers for the defenders of the Church, preachers, and scholars who support it, would help in any way we could to this Lord of mine, who was so upset by those to whom he had done so much good.”

From this resolution on, her life was marked by a growing love for her Religious Order, not thinking of her own spiritual benefit, but of serving the Mystical Body of Christ, for whose cause her heart was consumed with zeal.

She saw, above all, the need to reform Carmel and felt the call of Providence to accomplish this mission. He desired communities that would not be mere refuges of contemplative souls, concerned with enjoying the divine conviviality, but true torches of love, busy in repairing the harm that was done to the Church. “The world is on fire. They want, so to speak, to sentence Christ again, they raise a thousand false testimonies to him. They want to throw his Church to the ground. [No, sisters, this is not the time to deal with God on unimportant matters!”

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Foundation of Saint Joseph and beginning of the Reformation of Carmel

This desire to found religious houses of strict observance of the primitive Carmelite Rule was soon confirmed and encouraged by Our Lord. “One day, after Communion, His Majesty expressly commanded me to work at this enterprise with all my strength. He made great promises that the monastery would not be neglected, in which He would be very well served. He told me that it should be dedicated to Saint Joseph. This glorious Saint would guard us at one door, Our Lady at the other, and Christ would walk with us. The new house would become a star from which great splendor would radiate. […] He also told me to reflect on what the world would be like if there were no religious.

With the help of some friends, she acquired, in the city of Avila itself, a tiny house in precarious conditions, destined to be the new monastery. Once the undertaking was embraced, the trials began: a wall that was being rebuilt fell on her little nephew; her brother-in-law, who was directing the work, became ill; the papal bull approving the foundation arrived incomplete from Rome… And when, at the decisive moment, another wall of the house, built with the last ducats that Sister Teresa had obtained, collapsed, the temptation to become discouraged threatened everyone. But looking at the wreckage, she said, “If it has fallen, let us get it up again.”

Finally, with the necessary authorizations, on August 24, 1562, the first Mass was celebrated in the Monastery of Saint Joseph in Avila, the first of the reformed Carmelites. In the strictest poverty and enclosure, Teresa began to form her nuns, showing them the strength of a well-led community life, in obedience and joy. She always reminded them of the main reason for which they had consecrated their lives: “If we have courage with God for this, let us fight for Him in our enclosures. I will consider the sufferings I went through to make this little corner, where I wanted the Rule of our Empress and Mistress to be kept in its primitive perfection, very well used.”

This radical way of living soon attracted many new vocations. When St. Teresa entered eternity in 1582, she left more than 20 monasteries of the reformed branch, female and male, founded.

Text extracted, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n.130. October 2012. Maria Teresa Ribeiro Matos, EP 
Compiled by Camille Mittermeier

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