St. Teresa of Avila: A Spiritual Companion
So much has been said about St. Teresa of Avila. As one of four female Doctors of the Church, Teresa has been a source of inspiration for many throughout the centuries. Some might know her for her accounts of ecstatic experiences in prayer; others for her work reforming the Carmelite order in the sixteenth century or for her friendship with St. John of the Cross. In whatever way you know Teresa, there is always more to learn from her life and experiences.
In 2017, I entered the novitiate with the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM). I was embarking on a new spiritual journey and was both excited and nervous about what was ahead. I was learning new forms of prayer and found myself asking the more profound questions of what it means to be a religious and how I could grow my relationship with God. During this time, I took a course on the History of Christian Spirituality, where I was introduced to St. Teresa. I didn't know it then, but she would become my steadfast companion during my initial years in formation.
One of the first encounters I had with Teresa was in her famous work on prayer, the Interior Castle. In it, she discusses how one can deepen one’s prayer life, with the ultimate goal being union with God. This union, she believes, is possible through consistent prayer and opening oneself to God. In Teresa's metaphorical castle of the soul, there are seven mansions. Each mansion represents a dwelling place in one’s prayer life. The first mansion is vocal prayer, where one grows in self-knowledge and knowledge of God and eventually moves into the seventh dwelling place, where one reaches complete union with God. Teresa uses the term "spiritual marriage" for the last stage, but we might say there is a mutual indwelling of us in God and God in us. The stages in between represent a progression into our own awareness of our spirituality and our relationship with God.
Teresa’s view of prayer was a conversation with the One we know loves us. The more we journey with God, the deeper we know ourselves, God, and how that love spills into every aspect of our lives. She recognizes the journey with God is not easy and that often, we move in and out of the mansions depending on our life's circumstances or experiences. This movement has growth and regression, assuredness and questioning, darkness and light. But she says, “I only wish to inform you that in order to profit by this path and ascend to the dwelling places we desire, the important thing is not to think much but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you to love.” (Interior Castle, IV:1.7)
I am five years out of novitiate and am still moving through the mansions as I continue to grow in my journey with God. Like other relationships I have in my life, my relationship with God ebbs and flows. And when I struggle, I return to St. Teresa's words that encourage me to do the things that help me be more loving and open.
How might St. Teresa be your companion on your journey with God? What is stirring within your heart to move you to love?