A saint who had a tough time in prayer
Today’s saint sympathizes with all of those who have difficulty in prayer. Because like most of us, she experienced the distractions of everyday life, a wandering mind, hardships, boredom, challenges, and everything possible to pull her away from lifting her heart up to God. It is hard to imagine that a saint who eventually became a spiritual Doctor of the Church once had a tough time praying. But she did.
The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection
October 15 is the Feast Day of a Doctor of the Church and the Carmelite nun St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1585). She is also referred to as St. Teresa of Jesus. She is known for her profound writings on prayer and the spiritual life. Her works include her Autobiography as well as deep mystical reflections in The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection. She wrote of castles and mansions but not the type that most of us are familiar with in fairy tales. Rather she described the castle of one’s interior heart and the soul’s journey in achieving union with God.
Off to Africa to get her head chopped off
St. Teresa was born in the Avila province of Spain on March 28, 1515. At the age of about seven, St. Teresa ran away from home with one of her brothers in hopes of going to Africa to become a martyr. She figured that in such a way they would get to see Jesus quicker. Their plan was to seek out the Moors in order to beg for beheading. Their little adventure became short-lived after barely getting out of the neighborhood. So they attempted to become hermits in their own back yard. In the midst of these acts of piety, St. Teresa eventually grew into a typical teenager of the 1500s in that she also enjoyed reading romance novels, fashion, flirting, and parties.
Convent was quite the social center in her day
At the age of 15, St. Teresa’s mother died. She had difficulty adjusting to the death of her mother so her father sent her to live in a convent. St. Teresa actually found the nuns there to be quite the socialites and less strict than her own father. During her day, the convents were places where many women went because they had no other place to go. Their habits were worn attractively and the parlors were full of visitors that included young men.
St. Teresa considered herself to be quite the sinner. Upon taking a vocation, she tried to embrace the Carmelite order very seriously. She dedicated herself to long hours of prayer of which she felt unsuccessful for many years. The environment of the busy convent became a hindrance for her. A likeable and popular person, she felt herself becoming easily caught up in the gossip, flattery, and social events surrounding her community.
Struck down with illness
Then she became very ill with malaria and went into a coma for several days. Many thought that she was dead and started digging her grave. After surviving this event she became paralyzed for three years and never regained perfect health. At this time she encountered even greater difficulty in being able to pray. She was easily distracted and would come up with whatever excuses she could find not to pray. It wasn’t until she was 41 years old that a priest convinced her to take up praying again. Gradually she progressed from being able to recollect her thoughts, to having devotions of silence, to experiencing ecstasies, visions, and spiritual union with God. It was out of these experiences that she became a master of mystical theology and went about reforming her Carmelite order. Along with St. John of the Cross, she became the founder of the Discalced Carmelites.
Some of St. Teresa’s advice on prayer
The advice that St. Teresa gives about prayer comes out of her own personal experience. Her works, very profound and detailed, make them a challenge to describe in a few short words. Yet, they contain simple wisdom that can be understood by anyone with childlike faith. According to St. Teresa:
“Contemplative prayer [oración mental] in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”