3. The Monastery Pupil
The monastery of Our Lady of Grace was highly regarded in Avila. The first families of the city entrusted it with their daughters. Teresa felt as if she were in prison during her first days behind the monastery walls, but soon the solitude aroused strong repentance for the past months. She was tormented by pangs of conscience. But this painful state of affairs did not last long. She again found her peace of mind and also quickly adjusted to boarding school life. With grateful love she attached herself to the boarding school directress, María Briceño, a devout nun and an outstanding educator.
Among the nuns I found one who was especially designated to supervise the pupils. Her bed was in our dormitory. It was she whom God designated to open my eyes. Her conversation seemed beneficial to me. She spoke so beautifully of God! I loved to listen to her. She told me how, upon reading the words of the Gospel, “Many are called but few are chosen,” she made the decision to leave the world. She also reflected for me the joy that God reserves for those who leave everything for the love of him. While listening to her, I forgot the recent past. I felt the thought, the longing for eternal things awakening in me. My great aversion to monastic life more and more disappeared....
I only stayed in this monastery for one and one-half years, though I had made great progress in goodness there. I asked the nuns for their prayers that God would show me a way of life in which I could best serve him. In my heart I was afraid that it could be a call to a monastery, just as I was afraid of marriage. Toward the end of my stay in the monastery, however, my inclinations turned more and more to the religious life. Since I believed that I was nevertheless not up to some of the practices of this monastery, I could not decide on this order. Moreover, I had a dear friend in a monastery of another convent. Uppermost in my mind was choosing a house where I could be with her. I was thinking less of the salvation of my soul than of the inclination of my nature. These good thoughts of becoming a nun arose now and then, but left again without my making a definite decision....
4. Vocational Decision
Still unclear about her future life’s path, Teresa returned to her father’s house. A serious illness occasioned her return. During her convalescence, she was sent to the farm of her sister María, who surrounded her with tender love and would have preferred to keep her permanently. But her father was unwilling to be deprived of her company any longer. He picked her up himself but left her en route with his brother Pedro Sánchez de Cepeda in Hortigosa for a few weeks, since he himself had to finish some pressing business.
Teresa’s stay with her uncle was to be of decisive importance for her. His life was devoted entirely to prayer and to being occupied with spiritual books. He asked Teresa to read to him. “Actually,” she writes, “this bored me a little. However, I gave the impression that I did so gladly anyhow, because I was overly compliant in order to give others pleasure.” This time it was not to her detriment. Soon she was very much taken by the books her uncle gave her. The Letters of St. Jerome and St. Gregory’s Morals, and the writings of St. Augustine captivated her active spirit and reawakened in her the pious enthusiasm of her childhood. The reading was often interrupted, and the pious old man and the young reader discussed the questions of eternal life in connection with it. Teresa’s resolve ripened in this environment. She took a glance at her past life. What would have become of her if the Lord had called her from life during the time of vanity and infidelity? She does not want to expose herself to this danger again. From then on, eternal salvation is to be her goal, and, in order not to lose sight of it again, she will heroically conquer her aversion to religious life, her love of freedom, and her tender attachment to her father and siblings.
After the interior battle came a difficult outer one. In spite of all his piety, Don Alonso does not want to be separated from his favorite daughter. All her pleas, and the advocacy of her uncle and siblings, are in vain. But Teresa is no less decisive than her father. Since she cannot hope for his consent, she secretly leaves home. As in her earlier childish adventure, one of her brothers accompanies her. It is not Rodrigo, for he no longer lives at home, having taken a post in the Spanish colonies in America. Antonio, who is two years younger than Teresa, takes his place.
She herself says: "While I was settling on my leaving, I persuaded one of my brothers to leave the world by pointing out its frivolities to him. We agreed to set out early in the morning and that my brother himself would take me to the monastery.... But when I stepped over the threshold of my family home, such fear gripped me that I believed I could hardly be more afraid at the hour of my death. It was as if my bones were being separated from one another. The love for God was not strong enough in me to triumph over the love for my relatives. My natural feelings arose with such force that, in spite of all my deliberations, without God’s support I would not have taken one more step. But God gave me courage in spite of myself and I set out."
Antonio took his sister to the door of the Carmelite monastery. Then he himself went to the Dominican monastery of St. Thomas and asked for admission. This was on All Souls Day of the year 1535.
5.In the Monastery of the Incarnation: Novitiate
The house that in her childish reflections Teresa preferred over the Augustinians because a dear friend lived there (Juana Suárez, the blood sister of her governess María Briceño) was the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation. It also had a number of other material advantages which could prejudice a receptive disposition: its magnificent location, its beautiful, spacious buildings, its expansive garden through which flowed clear streams. But these earthly motives were no longer decisive. “In spite of my preference for the monastery where my friend lived, I felt ready to enter some other one should I have had the hope of serving God better there or should it have been my father’s wish. For I was seriously seeking the salvation of my soul and placed little value on quiet living.” So it was clearly God’s mysterious grace guiding her that gave her the inner certainty of where to direct her steps.
The Order of the Most Blessed Virgin of Mount Carmel, to which Teresa now belonged, already looked back on a long and glorious past. It revered as its founder the Prophet Elijah who led a hermit’s life of prayer and fasting with his disciples in the caves of Mount Carmel. When his prayer freed the land of Israel from a drought that had lasted for years, then (according to the Order’s legend) in a little cloud that signaled the saving rain, his prophetic vision recognized the image of the Virgin who would bear God, she who would bring grace. He is said to have been the first to revere the Mother of God, and the first shrine to Mary is said to have stood on the lovely heights of Mount Carmel. During the time of the crusades, the hermits of Mount Carmel were organized as an order. At their request, Patriarch Albert of Jerusalem gave them a rule for their Order around 1200. In solitude and silence, they were to meditate on the law of the Lord day and night, to observe strict fasts as of old, and to obtain what they needed to live by the work of their own hands, as the apostle Paul exhorted. The persecution of religious by the Moslem conquerors of the Holy Land led to the transplantation of the Order to the West. Here the destiny of other orders at the beginning of the Middle Ages befell them also. The strict discipline of old gave way to a certain mitigation. Pope Eugene IV moderated the original rule; and the first women’s monasteries of the Order were founded in the fifteenth century on the basis of these moderated regulations. They also were observed at the Monastery of the Incarnation. It had only been in existence for a few decades before Teresa entered, and one could not accuse it of abuses. The existing regulations were being followed. Nuns of deep piety and of exemplary conduct lived there, but there was scarcely a trace left of the strong spirit of the original Carmel. The rich appointments of the monastery permitted a comfortable life; the old fasts and penances were for the most part abolished; there was great freedom of association with people in the world. The influx to this attractive place was so great that the monastery numbered 190 nuns in 1560. Still, the framework given it by its Constitutions continued to offer the full possibility of a true life of prayer. Teresa went through the school of the interior life to perfection here.
The last shadow to her happiness as a young novice vanished when Don Alonso subsequently gave his consent to her decision and, with a holy zeal, set about to challenge his young daughter in climbing the mountain of perfection, doing so in fact under her direction. She took up religious life with the same determination with which she had left her father’s house, eagerly turned to prayer, the practices of obedience, and sisterly love. The reward was superabundant. If Teresa’s resolute decision had mainly been based on the fear of God’s judgment and on concern about her eternal salvation, these original motives soon receded in the face of God’s love blazing up powerfully.
At the same time as I put on the holy habit, God showed me his preference for those who constrain themselves in his service. I also felt so happy in my new position that this blessed feeling still continues. Nothing could rob me of this delight. God changed the dryness that could bring me to doubt into love for him.
All the monastic practices were congenial to me. I often had to mop the floor in hours during which formerly I had dressed or amused myself. Just the thought of being free of all of these silly things gave me renewed joy. I did not understand the source of so much joy.
As I think about it, there is no difficulty then that I would not have the courage to overcome. I know from experience that as soon as one has firmly decided right from the beginning to pursue one’s goal for the honor of God without considering the opposition of one’s nature, one is soon also rewarded. In order to increase our merits, God wants the soul to undergo an indescribable anxiety before one sets to work. But the greater this anxiety, the greater, later, is the delight.
With holy joy the young novice participated in choral prayer. But the prescribed prayer times were not sufficient for her zeal. She also was happiest spending her free hours in silent contemplation before the tabernacle. It goes without saying that souls who did not like prayer as much accused her of exaggeration. But she let nothing stop her on her way. God’s love gave her natural amiability and readiness to serve a new incentive and higher motivation when dealing with people. She felt that a day was lost if she did not do some work of charity. She welcomed the smallest opportunity for doing so. She took particular pleasure in caring for the sick. She enveloped with tender care a nun who was dying of a terrible disease which disgusted everyone else, and tried in every way to show that she was not at all repelled. This sick person’s patience so strongly aroused her wonder that there was awakened in her a desire for similar trials.
...I asked God that, provided he were graciously to give me this patience, that he would also send me the most horrible diseases. I had the feeling of fearing none of them. I experienced such a strong desire for eternal goods that I would use any means to get them. Now I wonder at this myself, for at that time I did not yet have that love of God in me that I later found in meditative prayer. It was an inner light that let me recognize the little value of everything transitory and the immeasurable value of the eternal. Soon her pleas were to be heard.
6. The School of Suffering: Interior Life
Not long after her profession (November 3, 1537), heart problems sent her to the infirmary. She bore the pain, the forced idleness, the inability to participate in the religious practices, with no less patience than that of the nun who had amazed her. So she won the love of all the other sisters, even those who formerly had criticized and misinterpreted her actions. Her fond father wanted everything possible to be done, and, because the doctors could not help, he decided to take his daughter to a healer who was famous for her cures. Since the Monastery of the Incarnation was not enclosed, there was no hesitation about allowing the family to care for the young sister. The long trip took them first past Hortigosa. Pedro Sánchez gave Teresa a book [i.e., the Third Spiritual Alphabet] by Fr. [Francisco de] Osuna about the prayer of recollection, which was soon to become her guide. The travelers spent the winter at the farmhouse of María de Cepeda. Even though as in earlier years she was here surrounded by her loved ones, and devoted herself wholeheartedly to them, Teresa knew how to arrange the day to give her enough time for solitary prayer; and so she remained faithful to her religious vocation outside of the monastery setting. However, her illness steadily increased so that it was a relief when spring came, the time the healer of Becedas had designated for the cure. The long journey was a torment for the patient, but the cure was even worse. Instead of healing her, it only increased her suffering. In spite of all her agonizing pain, she steadfastly continued in contemplative prayer according to the directions in her spiritual guidebook, and God rewarded this courageous fidelity by even then raising her to a high level of the interior life.
In her writings, this doctor of prayer later presented the mystical life of grace in all its stages with incomparable clarity. The neophyte who was beginning to practice prayer did not yet know what was happening in her soul. But in order to make her further development intelligible, it is necessary to say a few words here about the interior life.
Prayer is the communication of the soul with God. God is love, and love is goodness giving itself away. It is a fullness of being that does not want to remain enclosed in itself, but rather to share itself with others, to give itself to them, and to make them happy. All of creation exists thanks to this divine love spending itself. However, the highest of all creatures are those endowed with spirit, able to receive God’s love with understanding and to return it freely: angels and human souls. Prayer is the highest achievement of which the human spirit is capable. But it is not merely a human achievement. Prayer is a Jacob’s ladder on which the human spirit ascends to God and God’s grace descends to people. The stages of prayer are distinguished according to the measure in which the natural efforts of the soul and God’s grace participate. When the soul is no longer active by virtue of its own efforts, but is simply a receptacle for grace, one speaks of a mystical life of prayer.
So-called vocal prayer is designated as the lowest stage, prayer that remains within specifically designated spoken forms: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the rosary, the Divine Office. Of course, “vocal” prayer is not to be understood as simply saying words. If the mere words of a prayer alone are said without the soul’s raising itself to God, this is only an outward show and not real prayer. The designated words, however, support the spirit and prescribe to it a fixed path.
Meditative prayer is one stage higher. Here the spirit moves more freely without being bound to specific words. It immerses itself, for example, in the mystery of the birth of Jesus. The spirit’s imagination [Phantasie] transports it to the grotto in Bethlehem, seeing the child in the manger, the holy parents, the shepherds, and the kings. The intellect ponders the greatness of divine mercy, the emotions are seized by love and thankfulness, the will decides to make itself more worthy of divine love. This is how meditative prayer involves all the soul’s powers and, when practiced with faithful persistence, can gradually remake the whole person. However, the Lord has yet another way of rewarding fidelity in meditation: by elevation to a higher manner of praying.
St. Teresa calls the next stage the prayer of quiet or of simplicity. Various activities are replaced by a recollection of spiritual energies. The soul is no longer in the position to reflect intellectually or to make definite decisions; she is completely engaged by something that she cannot avoid, the presence of her God who is close to her and allows her to rest in him. While the lower prayer stages are accessible to every believer by human effort, albeit aided by the grace of God, we are now standing at the border of the mystical life of grace that cannot be entered by virtue of human energy, for here only God’s special favor grants admission.
If the perception of God’s presence is already something which totally captivates the soul and gives it a happiness incomparable to any earthly happiness, then this is greatly surpassed by the union with the Lord, which, at first, is usually granted to it for only a very short time.
At this stage of mystical favor many events occur that are also outwardly recognized as extraordinary: ecstasies and visions. The energy of the soul is so attracted by the supernatural influence that its lower faculties, the senses, lose their effectiveness entirely. The soul no longer sees or hears anything, the body no longer feels pain when injured, in some cases becomes rigid like someone dead. But the soul lives an intensified life as if it were outside of its body. Sometimes the Lord himself appears to it in bodily form, sometimes the Mother of God or an angel or saint. It sees these heavenly forms as if through bodily perception, or also in imagination. Or its intellect is supernaturally enlightened and gains insight into hidden truths. Such private revelations usually have the purpose of teaching souls about their own condition or that of others, of confiding God’s intentions to them, and of forming them for a specific task for which God has selected them. They are seldom absent in the lives of saints, though they by no means belong to the essence of holiness. Usually they only appear during a certain phase and later vanish again.
These souls, which have been sufficiently prepared and tested by repeated transitory union with him, by extraordinary illuminations, and at the same time through suffering and various trials, the Lord wishes to bind to himself permanently. He enters into a covenant with them that is called “spiritual betrothal.” He expects them to put themselves completely at his service; at the same time, he takes takes them into safekeeping, cares for them, and is always ready to grant their requests.
Finally, Teresa calls the highest stage of blessedness “spiritual marriage.” The extraordinary events have now stopped, but the soul is constantly united with the Lord. She enjoys his presence even in the midst of external activities without being hindered in the least.
The saint had to go through all of these stages during a development that took years before she could account for them herself and give others advice. But the beginnings were during that time of greatest bodily suffering:
"It pleased the heavenly Master to deal with me with such love that he gave me the prayer of quiet. But he often also raised me up to that of union. Unfortunately, I was unfamiliar with either kind. In fact, it would have been useful to me to recognize their value. To be sure, this union did not last long, I believe, hardly as long as one Hail Mary. But it had a great influence on me. I was not yet twenty years old and already believed that I saw the world lying conquered under my feet. I pitied all who had relationships with the world, even if the ties were permitted. I tried with all of my strength to be truly present in my soul to Jesus our Lord, our highest Good, our Master. My way of praying was to think about one of the mysteries of his divine life and make a mental image of it"
The effect of her prayer life was an ever increasing love of God and of souls. If earlier her natural gifts had had an unusual influence on her human surroundings, her supernatural power to love now gave her an almost irresistible force. The first person to experience it was the priest to whom she confessed in Becedas. The insight he had into this pure soul, which blamed itself for innocent little slips with the most bitter regret, disturbed him so much that he himself confessed to his penitent the serious sin in which he had been living for years. Now she could not rest until he had freed himself from these disgraceful fetters. The power of her words and her intercession changed him into a contrite penitent.
After the return to the family home in Avila, the state of the patient got so much worse that there seemed no further hope for her life. She was unconscious for four days. The news of her death spread through the city. Her grave was dug at the Monastery of the Incarnation. The Carmelites of Avila sang a requiem for her. Only her father and siblings continued besieging heaven, and finally she opened her eyes again. At the moment of awakening she spoke some words that implied that she had seen some great things during this apparent death. During her last days she admitted that God at that time had shown her heaven and hell, besides her later work in the Order, and the saintly death of her father, her friend Juana Suárez, as well as her own.
As soon as a slight improvement began, Teresa moved back to her monastery at her urgent request. But she was confined to her bed for several more years, seemed to be crippled forever, and suffered unutterable pain. She herself describes the state of her soul during this time of trial.
I bore these sufferings with great composure, in fact with joy, except at first when the pain was too severe. What followed seemed to hurt less. I was completely surrendered to the will of God even if he intended to burden me like this forever. It appeared to me that all I wanted was to get healthy so as to withdraw into solitude as my book prescribed. This was difficult in the sick room.... The other sisters wondered at my God-given patience. Without him I truly could not have borne so much with so much joy.
Now I understood how prayer is a blessing. In the first place, it showed me what God’s true love was. Next I felt new virtues developing in me that were still very weak.... I never said anything bad about others. Instead, I excused those who were targets of negative gossip, for I reminded myself that I did not want to say nor even liked to hear anything that I would not have liked to hear said about myself. I remained true to this resolution. Sometimes but not often I failed to keep it. I advised the other sisters and people who visited me to do likewise. They assumed these practices. It was soon noticed. It was said that those absent had nothing to fear from me or from my parents and friends....
Teresa suffered for three years without asking for recovery. We do not know why she now changed her mind. She only tells us that she decided to beseech heaven to end her suffering. With this intention, she asked that a Mass be offered and turned toward the saint in whom she had always had unlimited trust, and who owes to her zeal the increased veneration shown him. “I do not know how to think about the Queen of Angels, about all of her pains and cares with the little child Jesus without thanking St. Joseph for the dedication with which he came to the help of both of them.” She ascribed her healing to him.
Soon he came to my rescue in very obvious ways. This most beloved father and lord of my soul quickly freed me of the weakness and suffering to which my body was consigned.... I don’t recall that he ever denied me anything.
St. Joseph permitted his power and goodness to me to become evident. Through him I regained my strength. I stood up, walked, and was free of the paralysis.