A couple of excerpts from Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel--On Prayer, the late Fr. Dubay's outstanding study on prayer:
By all accounts, St. Teresa, the foundress from Avila, was a woman extraordinarily gifted, both naturally and supernaturally. In her were combined physical beauty, especially in her youth, and a charm of personality that neither illness nor age diminished. All witnesses seem to agree that she was the type of woman no one can adequately describe in a few pages. She was one of those rare personalities who combine qualities that seem to exclude one another and are seldom found together in one individual. She loved tenderly and affectionately, yet would brook no nonsense from anyone. She possessed both a strong self-image and an astonishing humility. A born leader, she was yet completely obedient to her superiors. She could be a windmill of activity at one time and at another be lost in mystical contemplation. Though she was highly intelligent and amazingly efficient, she gravitated toward simple, humble men and women. (pp. 14-15)
Regarding a woman of prayer and penance who came to visit her, Teresa remarks that "she was so far ahead of me in serving the Lord that I was ashamed to stand in her presence", and she says of the nuns with whom she lived in her first reformed convent that "this house was a paradise of delight for Him. ... I live in their company very, very much ashamed." She was of the opinion that she deserved to be persecuted, and she welcomed even untrue accusations against herself. Foundress though she was, Teresa must have been known widly for choosing to do menial tasks, for that trait comes up more than once in the depositions of her process.
In the very nature of things there is an intimate connection between humility and obedience, and while I am omitting in this sketch many of St. Teresa's heroic virtues, I feel that the latter should be joined to the former. To appreciate both of these virtues in her, we need to recall that she was anything but a timid, passive individual. Diffident people often do not find it difficult to acquiesce to another's decisions either because they are reluctant to assume responsibility for important decisions or because they fear failure and criticism. But as we have noted, Teresa was of an entirely cast of mind: she was full of ideas and abounding in initiative and determination. Criticism bothered her not in the least. Being a born leader, she must have found submitting to another's will naturally irksome. Yet her obedience was legendary. We cannot here detail the many examples of the prompt, joyful carrying out of difficult directions that she must have found extremely painful to her buoyant determination. What she taught, she lived. (p. 27)
And here are some quotes from St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), the great Carmelite contemplative, mystic, Saint, and Doctor of the Church, whose feast is celebrated today:
• "There is no stage of prayer so sublime that it isn't necessary to return often to the beginning. Along this path of prayer, self knowledge and the thought of one's sins is the bread with which all palates must be fed no matter how delicate they may be; they cannot be sustained without this bread."
• "It is a dangerous thing to be satisfied with ourselves."
• "Do not be negligent about showing gratitude."
• "Those who in fact risk all for God will find that they have both lost all and gained all."
• "We shouldn't care at all about not having devotion—as I have said—but we ought to thank the Lord who allows us to be desirous of pleasing Him, even though our works may be weak. This method of keeping Christ present with us is beneficial in all stages and is a very safe means of advancing."
• "Everything other than pleasing God is nothing."
• "Our security lies in obedience and refusal to deviate from God's law."
• "Once you are placed in so high a degree as to desire to commune in solitude with God and abandon the pastimes of the world, the most has been done."
• "Teach by works more than by words. ... We must all try to be preachers through our deeds."
• "Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. In order than love be true and friendship endure, the wills of the friends must be in accord."
• "I don't know why we are amazed that there are so many evils in the Church since those who are to be the models from which all might copy the virtues are so obscurely fashioned that the spirit of the saints of the past has abandoned the religious communities. May it please the divine Majesty to remedy this as He sees it to be necessary."
• "Now, Lord, now; make the sea calm! May this ship, which is the Church, not always have to journey in a tempest like this."
Those are from the fourth volume of Sermon in a Sentence: A Treasury of Quotations on the Spiritual Life, a series (five, so far) of books featuring quotes from St. Thérèse of Lisieux (vol. 1), St. Francis de Sales (vol. 2), St. Catherine of Siena (vol. 3), and St. Thomas Aquinas (vol. 5). The books are edited and arranged by John P. McClernon, who also writes bios of the saints for each book.
It is far from easy to sum up in a few words Teresa’s profound and articulate spirituality. I would like to mention a few essential points. In the first place St Teresa proposes the evangelical virtues as the basis of all Christian and human life and in particular, detachment from possessions, that is, evangelical poverty, and this concerns all of us; love for one another as an essential element of community and social life; humility as love for the truth; determination as a fruit of Christian daring; theological hope, which she describes as the thirst for living water. Then we should not forget the human virtues: affability, truthfulness, modesty, courtesy, cheerfulness, culture.
Secondly, St Teresa proposes a profound harmony with the great biblical figures and eager listening to the word of God. She feels above all closely in tune with the Bride in the Song of Songs and with the Apostle Paul, as well as with Christ in the Passion and with Jesus in the Eucharist. The Saint then stresses how essential prayer is. Praying, she says, “means being on terms of friendship with God frequently conversing in secret with him who, we know, loves us” (Vida 8, 5). St Teresa’s idea coincides with Thomas Aquinas’ definition of theological charity as “amicitia quaedam hominis ad Deum”, a type of human friendship with God, who offered humanity his friendship first; it is from God that the initiative comes (cf. Summa Theologiae II-II, 23, 1).
Prayer is life and develops gradually, in pace with the growth of Christian life: it begins with vocal prayer, passes through interiorization by means of meditation and recollection, until it attains the union of love with Christ and with the Holy Trinity. Obviously, in the development of prayer climbing to the highest steps does not mean abandoning the previous type of prayer. Rather, it is a gradual deepening of the relationship with God that envelops the whole of life.
Rather than a pedagogy Teresa’s is a true “mystagogy” of prayer: she teaches those who read her works how to pray by praying with them. Indeed, she often interrupts her account or exposition with a prayerful outburst.
• Drink of the Stream: Prayers of Carmelites, compiled by Penny Hickey
• Teresa of Avila: Personality and Prayer, a DVD series by Fr. Dubay
• St. Teresa of Avila, an ambitious mini-series shot in Spain