Saint Teresa of Ávila and Drawing Closer to God

Teresa of Ávila by Peter Paul Rubens

As Blessed Pope John Paul II observed, “People today put more trust in witnesses than in teachers, in experience than in teaching, and in life and action than in theories” (Redemptoris Missio, 42, citing Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41).  This explains the popularity of Saint Teresa of Ávila, a Doctor of the Church whose writings are profoundly personal in the same manner as the Confessions of Saint Augustine, which greatly affected her.  She speaks to us not from an academic perspective, but from what she experienced herself in seeking spiritual perfection through her personal relationship with Jesus, culminating in union with him through grace, love and imitation.

She was 20 when she entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in Ávila, Spain, taking the name “Teresa of Jesus,” but it wasn’t until she was 47 that she began her spiritual writings.  In Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis uses the familiar imagery of a journey to describe our growing in faith.  Saint Teresa similarly describes the soul as advancing through different stages or interior chambers, each growing closer to, and deeper in, God.  At the heart of her message is the theme of prayer.

In her autobiography, The Life (1565), she relives the profound experience of her relationship with God, writing that prayer “means being on terms of friendship with God, frequently conversing in secret with him who we know loves us” (Ch. 8).  Beginning with vocal prayer, then progressing to meditation and contemplation, she describes a gradual deepening of the relationship with God which envelops the whole of life until a mystical union with him is attained.

Saint Teresa further describes her experiences in prayer in The Way of Perfection (1566).  She reminds us that our voices are not unknown to God, “However quietly we speak, he is so near that he will hear us. We need no wings to go in search of him, but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon him present within us” (Ch. 28).

In The Interior Castle (1577), Saint Teresa again recounts her own spiritual development by depicting the progression of the soul as a journey through a castle with seven chambers, each drawing the person closer to God through prayer and grace.  In the elevation to the seventh room, Teresa describes the fullness of Christian life, which is achieved in transforming union with Christ through the mystery of his humanity, and the indwelling of the Trinity.

Together with her legacy of spiritual writings, Saint Teresa also commenced a reform of the Carmelites and, with the help of Saint John of the Cross, founded the Discalced Carmelite Order.  She showed that the contemplative life can be combined with action, emphasizing a radical witness of detachment, humility, simplicity and service, no matter how small that service might seem.  “We offer to Christ, inwardly and outwardly, what sacrifice we can,” wrote Saint Teresa in The Interior Castle.  “The Lord does not look so much at the magnitude of anything we do as at the love with which we do it.  If we accomplish what we can, His Majesty will see to it that we become able to do more each day” (Seventh Mansions, Ch. 4).

Saint Teresa demonstrates for us that, as we approach those who have grown cold or distant in their faith, what is needed is simplicity of personal witness, which motivates and speaks warmly to the depths of the heart.  She shows us that the first moment of any evangelization originates not from a program, but in an encounter with a Person: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Like this great saint, we need to communicate to others our own joy of being definitively and completely loved by Christ and, therefore, capable of loving them. We offer our experience of Jesus’ love, not an academic philosophical thesis on behavior.  Love that is nurtured in prayer and translated into action is alive and dynamic, and can transform ourselves and the world.