Monday, August 20, 2007

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

Her life and experience:
Saint Teresa was born in Avila, Spain, on March 28, 1515. She was the daughter of Don Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda, and Dona Beatriz de Ahumada, his second wife, who died at the age of 33 when Teresa was 12. Teresa was one of ten children. Later after a couple of years, she was placed by her father in a school under the charge of the Augustinian nuns. Her father had hoped that she would be benefited by the pious Christian atmosphere of the school; but had not expected, Teresa began to feel the first attraction to the religious life. After reading the letter of St Jerome, she decided that she must follow the call to enter religion. But her father loves her dearly that he was unwilling to allow her to leave, but later acquiesced.
In 1535, she joined the Carmelite Order and spent a number of years in the convent. Followed by a severe illness that left her legs paralyzed for three years, doctors were unable to determine the cause or find a remedy. In order to be cured she had to leave the cloister to undergo for experimentation with some more drastic methods of cure used by a woman in the town of Becedas. She herself explained: “I was nothing but bones,” she also explained, “When I began to crawl on hands and knees, I praised God.” These words signify the pain and agony, which she undergone, but her faith was unshaken. She died in her small Carmelite cell on October 4, 1582, repeating some verses from The Song of Songs and thanking God that she had been a daughter of the Church.
Mystical experience: After many extraordinary mystical experience of rapture, intellectual and imaginative visions, Teresa received her terrifying vision of hell. The result of which was her determination to live the Carmelite rule with greater perfection, which of contemplative life within the Church. Then On two occasions in 1554, she experienced a vision of “the sorely wounded Christ” that changed her life forever. She experienced at the sight of a statue of her Lord in His sufferings, and with much tears she begged Him to strengthen her. From this point forward, Teresa moved into a period of increasingly ecstatic experiences in which she came to focus more and more on Christ's passion. In the other instance, she was reading the Confessions of St. Augustine, and how he heard the voice calling him in the garden, she also experienced the call of the Lord from deep within her, and felt a new strength Her new way of life was with the first monastery of St Joseph in Avila in 1562. Teresa’s mysticism focused on communicating with God through meditation. “Enter into yourself” was her motto, but her goal was not mere inward reflection, but bringing God inside oneself and finally, spiritual marriage (to consider Christ as the bridegroom of the soul and to be union). In her most well known mystical dream, she experienced her heart being pierced by a spear of divine love. Following her conversion and more debilitating illness, Teresa began to experience ecstasies. These voices, visions, and levitations persisted during periods throughout her lifetime and contributed considerably to her reputation as a saint. In 1556, in her first experience of rapture, Teresa heard, not through her bodily ears but in her soul, Christ speaking to her. She explained that the rapture came unexpectedly, and said, “Having spent a day in prayer and begging the Lord to help me, I began the hymn (Veni Creator); and while I was reciting it, rapture came on me, so sudden that it snatched me out of myself… It was the first time the Lord had given me the grace of raptures. I heard these words: ‘Now I want you to talk no longer with men, but with angles.’ Some of Teresa’s friends believed that she was demon-possessed; they advised that she be exorcised, and her confessor instructed her to snap her fingers whenever she felt a rapture coming on. “Others advised her to spit.” Unlike many visionaries, Teresa did not equate ecstatic experiences with sanctity. She believed that women were more prone to have visionary experiences, but warned that they should seek them, lest they fall prey to “spiritual greed.”
Like other Catholic women who sought to make changes in the church, Teresa met with strong opposition. Sega, the papal nuncio, came to Spain to investigate her activities and to make certain of her absolute allegiance to the Church. The very fact that the religious houses needed reform reflected poorly on the Church, and Sega was obviously threatened by Teresa’s ministry. He describes her as, “a restless gadabout, disobedient, contumacious woman who promulgates pernicious doctrine under pretence of devotion.” As to her reforming activities, he wrote, “She leaves her cloisters against the orders of her superiors contrary to the decrees of the Council of Trent. She is ambitious and teaches theology as if she were a doctor of the church in spite of St. Paul’s prohibition.” Teresa’s involvement in Carmelite Convents: Teresa’s most enduring work was the reform and establishment of Carmelite Convents all over Spain. Her work began from reviving the Carmelite when a group who assembled inspired her in her house in 1560. When she was willing to reform the Carmelite like monastery of an eremitical type, her advisors ranged them with the opposition. She returned to Avila at the end of June 1562 for the foundation of the new convent arrived. In Aug’1560, the new monastery dedicated to S. Jose was founded. There was strong opposition among the town people and at the Incarnation. On August 25, 1560, the council at Avila met to discuss the matter of the new foundation, and on August 30 a great assembly of the leading town dwellers gathered. A lawsuit followed in the royal court, but before the end of 1562 the founders, as Teresa of Jesus, was authorized by the provincial to return to the new convent.

In 1567 Carmelite general, Giovanni Battista accepted Teresa’s reformative works and encouraged her to establish some more convents with some nuns from the convent of the incarnation. Following this, she found many convents in various places like Malagon, Pastrana. These foundations were followed by an interval during which Teresa served as prioress at the Incarnation monastery in Avila, an office to which she was appointed.
Teresa’s contribution through her writing: During the mid-1560s, she wrote the Way of Perfection in response to the need of the Carmelite nuns for more doctrine and practical instruction about the life of prayer, and the Interior Castle. She also left an autobiography, the Life of Teresa of Avila. Because of her efforts to describe her experiences group of people like theologians, teachers of spirituality, Dominicans, Jesuits, secular priests, laymen and women, and even the bishop of Avila were fascinating by both her personality and writings. Teresa’s autobiography, The Way of Perfection written between 1562 and 1566 and The Interior Castle written in1577 are prominent and useful contributions to understand the struggle of a soul, for she wrote, from her own experience that she faced at different stages of her life. Her doctrine of prayer found in her autobiography presents in a symbolically as found in the manner of securing water to wet a garden. The beginners in prayer life after being liberated from mortal sins are like first waters taken painfully from the well in bucket to water the garden. In the second stage Teresa refers to the prayer of quiet a gift from God, which helps individual to have a passive experience of prayer, which Teresa considers as an important stage in the spiritual life. The fourth method of watering is God given the rain. Teresa employs this metaphor to describe a state of union in prayer in which the soul is apparently passive. Teresa’s Way of Perfection, addressed to her nuns, teaches them the major qualities that demand their concern, throwing further light on the practice of prayer.
The Interior Castle is the principal source of mature thought on the spiritual life in its integrity with an expression of the soul’s progression toward God, through the many rooms of the castle until it reaches the very centre. The interior castle is the soul, in the center of which God is seated at the seventh dwelling place and preliminary dwelling places refers how the soul has to struggle or different stages to be union with God. According to Teresa, prayer and contemplation should lead to energy and action, not to passivity and lethargy. Growth in prayer enables the individual to enter into deeper intimacy with God-signified by a progressive journey through the dwelling places of the castle from the outermost to the luminous center.
Re- reading the history of Saint Teresa of Avila by using the methodology of experience:
Saint Teresa of Avila was a woman who built up her faith through prayer and contemplations. I personally feel that these two are the outcome of her life experiences within her family, and society. While re-reading the history of Teresa of Avila I asked myself some fundamental questions like, what made her to enter into religious life? How did her faith grew stronger day by day? If we look from her experiences in the family, we can understand the pain and agony that she underwent as a child. She must have been noticed the suffering of her mother who married at the age of fifteen, gave birth to ten children, and died at the age of thirty-three. She lived a life without hope during her illness, but she was restoring to life through her faithful prayer. All the experiences that she came across in her life molded her faith, and the unbroken cord of divine love interweaves her relationship with God.
Conclusion : Life of Teresa of Avila indicates the faith journey towards God and it talks about various stages in the life of our faith. I believe that she is really a spiritual leader in the early century. Her writings focus upon the spiritual life i.e. prayer and meditation, and the commandment of God ‘Love our neighbor’ which helps the present community to develop the spiritual life. In spite of her rich personality and the high mystical gifts with which she was endowed, she does not insists on or preach only contemplation and mysticism, she does not want everybody to deny the world, nor does she make self deny her central doctrine. She simply preaches and lives a holy life; a life of sanctity, and purity. Her contribution about prayer with reference to the spiritual life of a soul pictures the real struggle of a person who wishes to move ahead in prayer life. In today’s modern world people find less or no time for prayer, place an urgent need to realize the significance of prayer.
Along with Catherine of Siena, She was one of the two women declared “Doctor of the Catholic Church” by Pope Paul VI, because of her writings in 1970. She remains an important and inspiring religious figure. St Teresa was both a mystic and a religious reformer, and her ecstatic visions, fervent piety, and spontaneous writing style make her a fascinating character and a profoundly effective spiritual guide. She urged a return to God through belief in His infinity mercy, prayer, courage, and determination, underscoring her basic message that the mystical life has an incomparable value and leads to sacred truth and inner glory. Her writing about the soul as interior castle is very relevant if we think about the pain or problem that a person faces if the person really wants to move forward in the spiritual life.
Teresa of Avila was and is still an example for the women in the present context to be the leader in the church as reformers. Her life, experiences, suffering is the message to all the women in her time until today. True devotion and living a life of contemplation is the must. In spite of much opposition, and criticisms Teresa moved forward to reach the higher goal, which passed throughout all human understanding.

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