St. Teresa of Ávila was one of the most earthbound mystics our Church has ever seen. She knew how to ascend to the heavens with the Holy Spirit yet never lose her footing on the earth.
This woman, who had deep spiritual insights, described prayer as nothing but an intimate sharing between friends. Rather than describe a formula for prayer, she taught an attitude for life. She discovered that all we need to do is seek the Lord actively; then he will do his part to bring us closer to him.
Once Teresa had arrived at this point in her life, all the other problems she faced became less intimidating. She was able to take on an attitude that echoed St. Paul’s: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” This casual but confident approach turned her into what I like to call a spiritual dragon slayer as she overcame some of the most powerful—and common—spiritual obstacles that we all face. So let’s take a look at how Teresa’s example and teaching can help us slay some of the dragons that threaten our spiritual lives.
The Dragon of Somberness. Teresa saw the spiritual life as one of happiness, modesty, and freedom rather than a burdensome list of steps leading to spiritual superiority. “May God deliver us from cheerless saints” was her motto. And she lived out that motto with a winning gracefulness. For example, during an early meeting with John of the Cross, she noted his small stature and remarked that while she had asked God to send her two good friars to help, he instead sent “a friar and a half.”
There is also the famous story about a mishap she had while crossing a stream on a mule. The mule had its own ideas, and Teresa wound up in the stream, covered with mud. “No wonder you have so few friends,” she told Jesus. “Look how you treat the ones you do have!” This popular tale, which may not have actually taken place, illustrates Teresa’s sense of perspective. She never took herself too seriously and was able to find good humor in every situation she faced.
There was no room for formalities or an exaggerated sense of self-importance in Teresa’s vision. To overcome the formality, she liked to enliven her sisters’ community with singing and dancing. As for self-importance, she insisted that they all (beginning with herself) join in the manual work of the monastery. She taught that we can discover God “among the pots and pans” just as easily as we can on our knees in prayer.
One of the greatest gifts Teresa gave the Church was a sense of liveliness. She taught us to enjoy God and the life he has given us. Through her writings and her example, we can learn to laugh and have some fun even as we strive to please the Lord and get to know him better. So let Teresa teach you how to do the dishes, mow the lawn, change diapers, and go to work every day with a lighter, happier heart. Let her show you that monastic life—and everyday home life—doesn’t have to be a burden. It can be a source of joy and freedom!
The Dragon of Suspicion. In the Spain of Teresa’s day, it was assumed that women should not assert themselves in religious matters. Teaching on subjects of spirituality or personal prayer by anyone other than an acknowledged “expert” was highly suspect—and even more so if the teacher was a woman. Clerics and scholars held a tight monopoly on all things spiritual. They were concerned that too much emphasis on religious experience outside of well-established devotions and the sacraments could lead to a subjective and individualized form of pseudo-mysticism.
Teresa realized that the only safe way for religious women to share their insights or approaches to prayer was to pretend that there was nothing innovative about them. Frequently in her finest writings, Teresa shields herself by saying something self-deprecating like, “I am only a poor woman who knows nothing about this.” She further protects herself by insisting that she is merely relating her own experiences, not proclaiming general details about prayer and spirituality.
Teresa’s earliest autobiography was confiscated by the Inquisition and never returned to her because it was judged to have contained some imprudent assertions or teachings. So when her confessor asked her to write another story of her life, she took an even more circumspect approach, saying such things as, “I know someone who . . .” She found that humility and modesty—even when used with a touch of shrewdness—went a long way in allaying people’s doubts. She felt that it was best to drop into the shadows and let the truths that she was teaching take center stage instead of herself.
Teresa saw that nothing melts a suspicious heart more powerfully than simplicity and humility. Even if you begin to question your own spiritual experiences, you can follow Teresa’s example. “I’m trying my best to understand,” you can tell yourself. “I may not be a seasoned theologian, but here’s how I’ve felt Jesus giving me his peace and his guidance.” And if someone questions you or speaks disparagingly about your faith, you can always find a way to reply humbly but point out how much your prayer has helped you in your everyday life. Remember Jesus’ words: “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). Nothing can stand against the fruits of a quiet heart and a changed life!
The Dragon of Pessimism. During Teresa’s later years, and especially after her death, well-meaning superiors fell back on burdensome practices that were rooted in a pessimistic outlook about the world at large and about the human soul. Many of these practices had little to do with the Carmelite ideal of an easy and happy life in God’s presence. Teresa maintained that simplicity was the best guarantee that the Holy Spirit was active within a community. “We pray as well as we live, and live as well as we pray,” she would say.
Despite her vigorous prayer life, Teresa made sure that she and her followers devoted their lives to the service of the Church. They should never think so negatively about themselves that it kept them from doing any good. There was no room for such a bleak outlook! She took seriously Jesus’ teaching that a lamp shouldn’t be hidden under a basket, no matter how dim its light may seem. Rather, it should be raised high enough to enlighten people. That’s why she encouraged her friars to preach and write, and she supported plans for foreign missionary efforts to Africa and America. She trusted that if her spiritual children lived well, giving of themselves in service and love, they would pray well also.
In Teresa’s own time, she had to confront those superiors who did not believe that women’s communities should control their own affairs, including finances; select their own confessors and chaplains; or elect their own leadership. An excessive pessimism and fear of evil underlaid the belief that women couldn’t manage their own dealings. It’s ironic, then, that Teresa’s reform began with an experimental community of women and only later spread to include men. What’s more, most of the discord and political bickering that soured her work came from the friars, not the nuns. It’s not hard to imagine Teresa sighing and rolling her eyes at the antics of her spiritual children!
This dragon of pessimism can find its way into our hearts especially as we think about our families. “Will my children ever find peace with the Lord?” “Will my husband and I ever find a way to stop fighting?” “How can I possibly be happy when I am facing this major illness or this financial hardship?” Of course, these are serious questions, and we shouldn’t just dismiss them. But at the same time, we need to remember Teresa’s advice and keep seeking the Lord. He has a plan for our lives. He sees us, and he loves us, even in the midst of life’s messiness.
If we can hold on to hope because Christ is in us, we’ll find a way through our challenges. What’s more, if we try to adopt a positive, hope-filled attitude, we have a good chance of helping other members of our families lift up their hearts as well.
A Warm Opponent. Throughout her years as a reformer and spiritual teacher, Teresa of Ávila never backed away from an argument when it involved important values. She was a formidable opponent, no matter which “dragon” she was facing. Much of her success lies in the fact that she never lost respect for her adversaries. Even in her hottest conflicts, this dragon slayer was always careful to reflect the warm smile of a loving God. How could she not? It was a loving, warm smile from God that had filled her with so much love in the first place!
So go on out and face down the dragons in your own life! Arm yourself with confidence in Christ. Take up the shield of humility and the sword of good humor. And whatever challenges you face, know that Jesus is smiling at you. He is proud of your faith, no matter how weak you think it is. Let him help you live it out in freedom, happiness, and peace.
Fr. Leopold Glueckert, O.Carm., is a lifelong teacher at both the high school and university levels. Among many other schools, he has taught at Loyola University in Chicago. He is also the author of The Desert Springs in the City, a short history of the Carmelite order.