Patrick Burke, O.Carm.
From all these occasions and dangers God delivered me in such a way that it seems clear He strove, against my will, to keep me from being completely lost, although this deliverance could not be achieved so secretly as to prevent me from suffering much loss of reputation. Life 2:6
Throughout the Church, St Teresa of Avila is readily acknowledged as one of the great spiritual women who has come to the fore in the history of Christianity. For the ordinary followers of Christ she is an outstanding figure of holiness that continues to inspire people; and to encourage everyone who wishes to grow in their closeness to Christ. But the fact is that the Teresa that is known to most people is the Carmelite nun of fifty years and more who wrote about the God who abandoned divine status, even becoming defenseless and rejected, in order to present the love of God in our everyday world.
Her early years as a teenager and particularly the first decades of her life as a Carmelite nun, portray her as an ordinary person of her time with peculiar struggles, but normal struggles, that anyone might have had to face. When Teresa began to write the “Book of her Life”, she was nearly fifty years old. Because she had been experiencing some mystical graces, which she tried to have explained to her by “professional” expert counselors, she was obliged to give an account of her life which reflected nothing more than one would expect of a person of her time and society. She failed to describe the mystical life she had begun to experience. Later she wrote in her Life: “For a long time, even though God favored me, I didn’t know what words to use to explain His favors; and this was no small trial.” (L 12, 6)
At the instigation of Garcia de Toledo, an outstanding Dominican authority who seemed to know her well and who received the first copy of her book, she included several additional chapters. Later she explains this: “For it is one grace to receive the Lord’s favor; another, to understand which favor and grace it is; a third to know how to describe it” (L 17, 5).
Teresa gives a clear account of her youthful years in her book, but it is in the hindsight of her older experience and surely with an eye on the people who will read it - the Inquisitors. We know from her biographers what she was like as a teenager. “Cheerful and friendly whom people found pleasing to hear as well as look at”. She admitted that when she was about thirteen years old her religious fervor began to grow cold. She became more interested in romantic tales of chivalry and in cultivating her natural feminine charms. After her mother’s death in November 1528, she caused an upset in the family by her affection for her cousins, sons of her aunt, Dona Elvira de Cepeda, and her friendship with some relative, not identified, that would not enhance Teresa’s piety. The vain company and dangerous enticements that she was entangled in caused great worry to her father, Don Alonso. However, when in 1531 his eldest daughter married, he used the occasion to find a solution. He entrusted Teresa to the care of the Augustinian nuns of Our Lady of Grace in Avila. Teresa was sixteen at the time. She recognized God’s hand in this. She says in her Life that “from all these occasions and dangers God delivered me in such a way that it seems clear He strove, against my will, to keep me from being completely lost although this deliverance could not be achieved so secretly as to prevent me from suffering much loss of reputation and my father from being without suspicion.” (L 2, 6)
When Teresa was at school in Avila, there was a Sister in charge of the girls who was gentle and friendly, Dona Maria Briceno. A woman of deep prayer, she made a lasting impression on Teresa. With reference to her, Teresa says: “I understand the great profit that comes from good companionship” (L 2, 5) and further on: “Beginning then to like the good and holy conversation of this nun, I was glad to hear how well she spoke about God, for she was very discreet and saintly” (L 3, 1). Teresa acknowledged that the influence of this nun was such that she began to get rid of the habits that the bad company had caused. She began to turn her mind to the desire for eternal things. Over the year and a half that Teresa stayed at the convent school, she gradually lost the resistance that she strongly felt within herself against becoming a nun. In fact she began to recite many vocal prayers and besought everyone to pray that God might show her “the state in which I was to serve Him”. However fervent she appeared to have become, she states “I still had no desire to be a nun and I asked God not to give me this vocation” (L 3, 2). By the end of her time at school, the thought of being a nun was more favorable to her, although it was not for that convent because she considered the virtues practiced there to be extreme. In her Life she states that “I looked more to pleasing my sensuality and vanity than to what was good for my soul” (L 3, 2).
Because she became seriously ill, Teresa had to return to her father’s house. When she got better, she was brought to see her sister who lived in a little town, not far from Avila. On the way they visited her uncle, her father’s brother, Don Pedro Sanchez de Cepeda. He prevailed on her to stay with him for a few days. He was a holy man whose talk was mostly about God and the vanity of the world. He asked his niece to read to him which she did, though she admits that she did not like the books, although she pretended otherwise. The few days she spent with Don Pedro made a lasting impression on her. (Later he retired to the Monastery of the Jeronimites. It was there he died). While the thought of becoming a nun was still not attractive, she saw that the religious life was “the best and safest state, and so little by little I decided to force myself to accept it” (L 3, 5). During the following months she tried to convince herself that the nun’s way was the best. Her reasoning was all wrong and her choosing was motivated more by servile fear than by love (L 3, 6). However when she informed her father of her intention, he flatly refused her. Even after her persistence, she got his final answer: “After his death she could do whatever she wanted but not now. His attitude was quite understandable since Teresa had been ill for most of the time with high fever and “great fainting spells”.
Despite this setback, she went with her brother Antonio when she was twenty to the Convent of the Incarnation in Avila to see a Sister, Juana Suarez, who was a friend of hers. She entered the following year to begin her postulancy, a period of probation. What this cost her she readily recalls. “When I left my father’s house, I felt that separation so keenly that the feeling will not be greater, I think, when I die.” One year later, on 2 November 1536 Teresa received the habit of the Carmelite Order and began her novitiate. It was a moment of great joy. Of God, she says: “Within an hour, He gave me such great happiness at being in the religious state of life that it never left me up to this day, and God changed the dryness my soul experienced into the greatest tenderness” (L 4, 2).