St. Teresa of Avila, Teacher of Prayer

St Teresa's Clarendon street, 15th Oct 14
The other day, 15th October, was the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, another Carmelite saint, another ‘giant’ from the past. That day also marked the start of the year of celebrating 500 years of St. Teresa’s birth (she was born in March 1515, in Avila, Spain, so the 5th centenary is celebrated from her feast day this year to the feast day next year). Perhaps this is a good time to learn more about her.

In Dublin the celebration officially started with the Mass in Clarendon street; what was particularly special about this Mass was that both Carmelite orders, OCDs and O.Carms from various communities, were present. Carmelites are not one order, but two (with separate leadership etc), one of which (OCDs) originated in the 16th century with the work and mission of St. Teresa and her companion, St. John of the Cross; the older order being O.Carm. The creation of Discalced Carmelite Order (OCD), which is known as the ‘Carmelite reform’, was not without struggle and conflict.

The atmosphere in the church on Wednesday was beautiful. Though it is not easy to put into words the beauty of the liturgy, of music that touches the core of your soul, the readings, the pauses, the sentiments that go through you as you take part, as you listen, as you pray and observe, you can get a sense of it from the picture (above). The church was also decorated for the festival of flowers.

Talking about St. Teresa I am no expert on her, and I cannot say that she influenced me as much as little Therese or St. John of the Cross did, but little bit about her that I do know makes me want to know more. As any Carmelite saint, she has had a very intimate relationship with Christ and can teach us how to progress in prayer and in growing closer to God. She was the first woman to be declared Doctor of the Church, which means that through her life and writings she gives a new, deeper, unique insight into the Gospel of Christ. Bishop Philip Boyce of Raphoe, the only Carmelite Bishop in Ireland, said that “the greatness of Teresa is not in her achievements or in her writings, but in her own love of God. It is not what she tells us about herself that matters most but what she tells us of God. The essential witness of Teresa is to the reality of the spiritual world, a world in which God is encountered as real and personal, as someone who loves each one of us unconditionally and is intimately involved in the everyday realities of our lives”.

Teresa was of a firm belief that we must not lose sight of Christ’s humanity in our journey of faith; I think we can equally say that He reveals Himself though her life and humanity too. Bishop Boyce continues, “God, she tells us, has so many enemies and so few friends that these friends should be good ones. She certainly was a friend of God, a daughter of the Church and a servant of love. And she invites and encourages us to share that journey with her”.

When she speaks of prayer, she likens it to watering a garden and mentions four stages in prayer. I guess she used imagery that was suitable for her time. One of the Carmelite images that speaks to me personally is our soul being an inner garden that we need to look after and tend to. The first stage is when we just embark on the journey of faith. She illustrates that prayer in this stage will be like taking a bucket of water, drawing water from the well in the garden and watering the garden all by ourselves, which requires a lot of effort on our part (when we just start on the journey of prayer and exploring inner life, it takes a lot of effort). The second stage is when we have some sort of a help to pull the water out of the well, a donkey perhaps, though we will still need to water the garden ourselves. The third stage in prayer is when we have a system that waters the garden, pipes that lead from the well and are spread all over the garden (there is little effort on our part here). The forth and deepest level, or stage, of prayer is rain – when God waters the garden (of our soul) with His grace, and all we need to do is receive. That is the goal in prayer, contemplative life. The contemplation she writes about is so called ‘infused contemplation’, which means that it is the working of God’s Spirit within us, the only effort on our part is that we made ourselves ready to receive it. Yet she instructs us that we cannot move from stage to stage unless God calls us to the next stage – prayer is a response, even when it requires (a lot of) effort. Prayer can teach us to love; we learn from God to love as He does. One of her famous sayings is that “the soul’s profit does not consist in thinking much, but in loving much”. This may disappoint those of us who are ‘thinkers’, but the statement rings with truth.

I’m not exactly sure what is St. Teresa’s view on this, but I think we can go through this process of growing in prayer number of times; we don’t fully leave behind the previous stages, but instead integrate them, and at times may need to go through some of them again, and again. If for no other reason, than because of our sinfulness. To live in a permanent state of ‘contemplation’ almost sounds like experiencing Heaven on Earth all the time, and perhaps this does correspond with some of the deeper mansions that Teresa writes about in her book “Interior Castle”; I guess I should read it to find out.

I am aware that this does not even scratch the surface of the depth that she has to offer, but hopefully it will be a little taster, an encouragement to you and to me to learn from her more in the coming year. There is a famous prayer by her ‘Nada te turbe’ (‘Let nothing trouble you’), and this line speaks to me the most today: “If you have patience you can do anything”.

Take some time to pray with this prayer and see which line speaks to you the most:

“Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things will pass:
but God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.”
(St. Teresa of Avila)

© Iva Beranek (15th October 2014)
Photo by © Iva B.

If you want to read the homily from the feast day Mass by Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin, you can find it here:


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