Listers, St. Teresa of Avila, one of the great doctors of the Church, wrote some of the most beautiful and animated descriptions of the intricacies of the spiritual life. Although some of her ideas and descriptions appear to be strange to the modern mind, her words still have something to give to this present age, an age of narcissism and selfishness. For example, I attended an evangelical school and always snarkily spoke of such-and-such girl who was “married to Jesus.” Little did I know that such an accusation was really a compliment. If only I read St. Teresa of Avila when I was at school perhaps I would have admired such-and-such girl for loving God so completely. Her ideas of spiritual betrothal may appear odd, but perhaps our modern mindset is what really is peculiar. As a mystic some of her archaic (or what appears to be archaic) ideas could truly quench the arid spiritual landscape of this present age. If we surrender our modern sensibilities briefly to listen to her words, then we will have new way of looking at spirituality and a new means of gaining a better relationship with God. As always I have composed a list of 10 reflections. This is only a taste of the great and beautiful things that St. Teresa of Avila wrote about the interior life.
All these reflections were taken from her Interior Castle.1 I recommend the Classics with Commentary version. This particular volume has not only summaries of the text but also questions for reflection. St Teresa’s Interior Castles has been a true blessing in my life. I hope that you find yourself a copy and let the Holy Spirit through her words and reflections transform you. Now for a little sample of the sagacious and holy words of dear St. Teresa Avila:
#1 Know Thyself
I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very crystal in which there are many rooms just as in Heaven there are many mansions[…]Now if this is so –and it is– there is no point in our fatiguing ourselves in attempting to comprehend the beauty of this castle; for, though it is His creature, and there is therefore as much difference between it and God as between creature and Creator, the very fact that His Majesty says it is made in His image means that we can hardly form any conception of the soul’s great dignity and beauty. It is no small pity, and should cause us no little shame, that, through our own fault, we do not understand ourselves, or know who we are. Would it not be a sign of great ignorance, my daughters, if a person were asked who he was, and could not say, and had no idea who his father or his mother was, or form what he came? Though that is great stupidity, our own is incomparably greater if we make no attempt to discover what we are, and only know that we are living in these bodies, and have a vague idea, because we have heard it and because our Faith tells us, that we possess souls. As to what good qualities there may be in our souls, or Who dwells within them , or how precious they are –those are things which we seldom consider and so we trouble little about carefully preserving the soul’s beauty.” Page 41-42
#2 What a Sinner Is Incapable of Doing
I once heard a spiritual man [probably St. John of the Cross] say that he was not so much astonished at the things done by a soul in mortal sin as at the things not done by it. May God, in His mercy, deliver us from such great evil for there is nothing in the whole of our lives so thoroughly deserves to be called evil as this, since it brings endless and eternal evils in its train. — Page 50-51
#3 Humility as the Essential Key to Holiness
Humility must always be doing its work like a bee making its honey in the hive:without humility all will be lost […] As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble. There are two advantages to this. First, it is clear that anything white looks very much whiter against something black, just as the black looks blacker against the white. Secondly, if we turn from self toward God, our understanding and our will become nobler and readier to embrace all that is good: if we never rise above the slough our own miseries we do ourselves a great disservice. –Page 52-53
#4 Imitating Mother Mary
But His Majesty well knows that I can count only upon His Mercy, and, as I cannot apporach God and trust in the merits of His Son, and of the Virgin, His Mother, who habit both you and I unworthily wear. Praise Him, my daughters, for you are really the daughters of Our Lady, and when you have as good a Mother as that there is no reason for you to be scandalized at my unworthiness. Imitate Our Lady and consider how great she must be and what a good thing it is that we have her for our Patroness; even my sins and my being what I am have not been sufficient to bring any kind of tarnish upon this sacred Order. –Page 76
#5 Humility during Times of Trials
Consider carefully, daughters, these few things that have been set down here, though they are in rather a jumbled state, for I cannot explain them better; the Lord will make them clear to you, so that these period of aridity may teach you to be humble, and not make you restless, which is the aim of the devil. Be sure that, where there is true humility, even if God never grants the soul favors, He will give it peace and resignation to His will, with which it may be more content than others are with favors. For often, as you have read, it is to the weakest that His Divine Majesty gives favors, which I believe they would not exchange for all the fortitude given to those who go forward in aridity. We are fonder for spiritual sweetness than of crosses. Test us, O Lord, Thou Who knowest all truth, that we may know ourselves. –Page 79
#6 The Obstacles of the Spiritual Life
How I wish ours [ardent love] would make us dissatisfied with the habit of always serving God at a snail’s pace! As long as we do that we shall never get to the end of the road. And as we seemed be walking along and getting fatigued all the time –for, believe me, it is an exhausting road– we shall be very lucky if we escape getting lost. Do you think, daughters, if we could get from one country to another in a week, it would be advisable, with all the winds and snow and floods and bad roads, to take a year over it? Would it not be better get the journey over and done with? For there are all these obstacles for us to meet and there is also the danger of serpents. Oh, what a lot I could you about that! Please God I have got farther than this myself–though I often fear I have not! When we proceed with all this caution, we find stumbling-blocks everywhere; for we are afraid of everything, and so dare not go farther, as if we could arrive at these Mansions by letting others make the journey for us! That is not possible, my sisters; so, for the love of the Lord, let us make a real effort: let us leave our reason and our fears in His hands and let us forget the weakeness of our nature which apt to cause so much worry. –Page 86
#7 As You Grow in Your Spiritual Life, Remember to Focus on Love (whatever that is)
I only want you to be warned that, if you would progress a long way on this road and ascent to the Mansions of your desire, the important things is not to think much, but to love much; do, then, whatever most arouses you to love. Perhaps we do not know what love is: it would not surprise me a great deal to learn this, for love consists, not in the extent of our happiness, but in the firmness of our determination to try to please God in everything, and to endeavor, in all possible ways, not to offend Him, and to pray Him ever to advance the honor and glory of His Son and the growth of the Catholic Church.–Page 98
#8 Using the Sacraments and Sacred Writings to Grow in Grace.
But to return to what I was saying. The silkworm is like the soul, which takes life when, through the heat that comes from the Holy Spirit, it begins to utilize the general help that God gives to us all, and to make use of the remedies that He left in His Church –such as frequent confessions, good books, and sermons, for these are the remedies for a soul dead in negligences and sins and frequently plunged into temptation. The soul beings to live and nourishes itself on this good, and on good meditations, until it is full-grown –and this is what concerns me now:the rest is of little importance When it is full-grown, then, as I wrote at the beginning, it starts to spin its silk and to build that house in which it is to die. This house may be understood here to mean Christ I think I read or heard somewhere that our life is hid in Christ, or in God (for that is the same thing), or that our life is Christ (The exact form of this is little to my purpose) […] […] We can neither subtract from, nor add to, God, but we can subtract from, and add to, ourselves, just as these little silkworms do. And, before we have finished doing all that we can in that respect, God will take this tiny achievement of ours, which is nothing at all, unite it with His greatness, and give such worth that its reward will be the Lord Himself. And as it is He whom it has cost the most, so His Majesty will unite our small trials with the great trials that He suffered, and make both of them into one On, then, my daughters! Let us hasten to perfrom this task and spin this cocoon. Let us renounce our self-love and self-will, and our attachment to earthly things. Let us practice penance, prayer, mortification, obedience, and all the other good works that you know of. Let us do what we have been taught; and we have been instructed abot what our duty is. Let the silkworm die — let it die, as in fact it does when it has completed the work that it was created to do. — Page 136
#9 How Difficult It Is to Obey the Greatest Commandment Completely
But here the Lord asks only two things of us: love of His Majesty and love of our neighbor. It is for these two virtues that we must strive, and if we attain them perfectly we are doing His will and so shall be united with Him. But, as I have said, how far we are from doing these two things in the way we ought for a God Who is great! May His Majesty be please to give us grace so that we may deserve to reach this state, as it is in our power to do if we wish. The surest sign that we are keeping these two commandments is, I think, that we should really be loving our neighbor; for we cannot be sure if we are loving God, although we may have good reasons for believing that we are, but we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbor. — Page 146
#10 The Great Influence of the Saints
I tell you, daughters, I have known people of a very high degree of spirituality who have reached this state, and whom, notwithstanding, the devil, with great subtlety and craft, has won back to himself. For this purpose he will marshal all the powers of hell, for, as I have often said, if he wins a single soul in this way he will win a whole multitude. The devil has much experience in this matter. If we consider what a large number of people God can draw to Himself through the agency of a single soul, the thought of the thousands converted by the martyrs gives us great cause for praising God. Think of a maiden like Saint Ursula. And of the souls whom the devil must have lost through Saint Dominic and Saint Francis and other founders of Orders, and is losing now through Father Ignatius, who found the Company –all of whom, of course, as we read, received such favors from God! What did they do but endeavor that this Divine betrothal should not be frustrated through their fault? Oh, my daughters, how ready this Lord still is to grant us favors, just as He was then! In some ways it is even more necessary that we should wish to receive them, for there are fewer than there used to be who think of the Lord’s honor! We are so very fond ourselves and so very careful not to lose any of our rights! Oh, what a great mistake we make! May the Lord in His mercy give us light lest we fall into such darkness. –Page 154-155
St. Teresa of Avila, Pray for Us!
- All the quotes are taken from the following text: St. Teresa of Avila with Introduction and Commentary by Denis Billy. Interior Castle: The Classic Text with Spiritual Commentary. Classics with Commentary. Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2007. [↩]