Teresa of Ávila, Part I: Early Years

Mystics and Non-Dual Thinkers: Week 3

Teresa of Ávila, Part I: Early Years
Sunday, July 26, 2015

In April of 2014, the Carmelites were kind enough to invite me on a pilgrimage to visit the sites in France of Thérèse of Lisieux and in Spain of Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. The reflections for this and next week are in part the fruit of that wonderful time.

Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) was a very active contemplative. I like to say that she and John of the Cross were part of the “final supernova” of non-dual, mystical consciousness in the 16th century, before it all but disappeared for five hundred years in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the enlightenment, and the invention of the printing press. [1]

Mirabai Starr, in Saint Teresa of Ávila: Passionate Mystic, explains why Teresa is still so relevant to us today: “What can Teresa of Ávila offer us five hundred years after her death? Teresa models the living balance between action and contemplation, serving others and developing an interior life, engaging in passionate human relationships and surrendering to the divine mystery. She was an ecstatic mystic and a skillful administrator, a fool of God and an insightful psychotherapist, a penitent when she needed to be and an epicurean when she could be. . . . Teresa of Ávila was fully, deeply, unapologetically herself.” [2]

Perhaps Teresa’s greatest weakness—which was also an “effective political weapon,” as Starr describes—was her desire to be liked. When she was sent to a convent at the age of 16, Teresa found that her extroverted and social personality was right at home. The Carmelite convent of the Incarnation, as many convents of the time, was full of young women, Starr writes, “whose families didn’t know what else to do with them.” Life in the convent was austere, but there was ample opportunity to interact socially with people from outside the monastery. Everyone adored the charming and attractive Teresa, including male visitors. Teresa fell in love over and over again. [3]

Teresa’s attachment to the admiration and affection of others troubled her so much that she became physically ill and had to leave the convent. Physicians and a medicine woman (curandera) were mystified, and their treatments left her in worse condition. During this time, Teresa’s uncle gave her a copy of The Third Spiritual Alphabet by Francisco de Osuna, a Franciscan. Osuna was one of the few examples we have of people who still taught the older contemplative tradition in the 16th century. Even though Ignatius of Loyola taught the use of the mind in this era, and did it quite well, it was not the older tradition of relativizing and compartmentalizing the tyranny of the thinking mind. From Osuna, Teresa learned about contemplative prayer and how “to think without thinking” (no pensar nada es pensarlo todo). This became the foundation of her spiritual practice.

While Teresa’s prayer life blossomed, her health declined even more, until everyone but her father believed she had died. It seemed a miracle when she recovered. But it was a long and painful journey back to health. Teresa could not control her arms and legs for eight months, and it took two more years for her to even crawl.

Gateway to Silence:
“God alone is enough.”  —Teresa of Ávila

[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate . . . Seeing God in All Things (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010), CD, DVD, MP3 download.
[2] Mirabai Starr, Saint Teresa of Ávila: Passionate Mystic (Sounds True: 2013), xvii-xviii.
[3] Ibid., 6, 9.

Image credit: St. Teresa of Ávila (detail) by Fray Juan de la Miseria, 16th c.