Teresa of Avila
Why reach back to the 16th century for a Thought Leader? What could someone from so long ago contribute to discussions today? Especially given she’s a Catholic nun and mystic; definitely not a player on the world stage in her own lifetime.
Teresa came to mind because (1) she was facing in her era many of the same upheavals we face in our era; (2) she had a dream for BOTH women and men that was simultaneously innovative and threatening to the powers-that-be; and (3) she used every tool at her disposal to make that dream a reality, Five hundred years later she was named the first woman doctor of the Catholic Church; her books are still in print in multiple languages, and her mystical insights light the way for many.
How are some of the 16th Century’s seismic shifts in Europe similar to what we are experiencing in our lives now?
- THEN – The printing press (paper) and NOW – the internet (personal computers)
- THEN – Use of the vernacular and NOW – social media (widespread access to information)
- THEN – Discovery of the New World and NOW – globalization
- THEN – the Earth is round and revolves around the sun and NOW – a multiplicity of galaxies; space exploration
In Teresa’s Spain, the monarchy had expelled, or forced to convert, Jews and Moslems. It was a totalitarian regime with the Inquisition as State Police. The Church was beginning to splinter in other parts of Europe. Spain was determined to prevent that from happening on the Iberian Peninsula. Orthodoxy was ruthlessly enforced. Any suspicion of deviation brought immediate reprisal (torture, exile, confiscation of property, even death), Individuals having personal religious experiences? NO. Individuals reading Scripture and other religious books in the vernacular? NO. And if those individuals were of the female persuasion? NO and NO and NO.
Enter Teresa of Avila. Her father was from a Jewish family that had converted and married into minor Spanish nobility. She entered a monastery; began to have mystical experiences; told others about these; was asked to write her story; caught the eye of the local Inquisitor. Was investigated. She was convinced that others could have her experiences, including women. Felt called to create spaces for small communities of women (13 max) to grow in silence and deep meditation. Once again she is brought before the Inquisition. Their books are confiscated including her own writings.
She persisted. She documented her efforts to bring her dream to fruition (The Book of Her Foundations). Eventually, she set up 17 of these women’s communities in Spain. Her world was convulsing. She was in grave personal danger. Still, she kept on writing and teaching and going deeper into her own mystical depths. Of course, she had allies as well as enemies and she must have been a genius at both diplomacy and real estate.
So I ask myself as the world around me is convulsing—what vision gets me up and about each day? How do I prevent the fear/despair/nihilism around me from super-charging my own? What dream do I want to share? What amazing potential have I seen that I want others to see?(1)
In Her Own Words
“Deliver us from unhappy saints!”
“I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.” ~The Interior Castle, 1588
“The important thing is not to think much but to love much; do, then, whatever most arouses you to love.” ~The Interior Castle, 1588
“If we practice love of neighbor with great perfection, we will have done everything.” ~The Interior Castle, 1588
“Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you, all things are passing, God is unchanging. Patience gains all; nothing is lacking to those who have God: God alone is sufficient.”
“I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see, unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful — his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. Their names they never tell me; but I see very well that there is in heaven so great a difference between one angel and another, and between these and the others, that I cannot explain it.” ~Exclamations of the Soul to God
“St. Teresa of Jesus, making her way to her convent during a fierce rainstorm, slipped down an embankment and fell squarely into the mud. She looked up to heaven and admonished her Maker, “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!”
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours, no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which is to look out Christ’s compassion to the world;
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.
- The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 1 (The Book of Her Life, Spiritual Testimonies and the Soliloquies) (1976)
- The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 2 (The Way of Perfection, Meditations on the Song of Songs, and The Interior Castle) (1980)
- The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 3 (The Book of Her Foundations, Minor Works) (1985)
Rowan Williams on St. Teresa of Avila
What the Outsider Sees: Teresa of Avila and the Contemplative Vision
(Archbishop Rowan Williams; begins at 10:13)