Patrick Burke, O.Carm.
“It happened to me that one day entering the oratory I saw a statue they had borrowed for a certain feast to be celebrated in the house. It represented the much-wounded Christ and was very devotional so that beholding it I was utterly distressed in seeing Him that way, for it well represented what He suffered for us. I felt so keenly aware of how poorly I thanked Him for those wounds that, it seems to me, my heart broke” (L 9,1).
After Teresa had made her profession in the Carmelite Order having completed her preparation and novitiate, she experienced a great sense of joy of being in the right place. She wrote in her Life that God “gave me such great happiness at being in the religious state of life that it never left me up to this day” (L 4, 2).
The Monastery of the Incarnation at Avila had a large community, made up of nuns canonically obliged to choir office and enclosure, as well as others who were bound to recite the Divine Office but not to the obligation of enclosure. In addition there were servants and relatives of the nuns, the total numbering about two hundred people. Some commentators writing of the situation of the Incarnation Monastery of the time when Teresa entered in 1535, then twenty years old, describe it in an unfavorable way from the point of view of religious life, although it was in fact quite austere. Each week had its days of fasting and abstinence. Silence was stressed in order to encourage and maintain a spirit of prayer. The Divine Office, celebrated solemnly and according to detailed rubrics, was demanding especially on those in their early years of religious life.
For the formation of the young religious, there was regular instruction on the spirit of the Carmelite Order and on devotion to Our Blessed Lady and the Carmelite Saints. Teresa admits that despite her satisfaction and even delight in her Carmelite life, her prayer life was lacking — she didn’t know how to meditate or engage in mental prayer.
Not long into her professed life, she began to be afflicted by strange illnesses. When at school in Avila she had become seriously sick, she had to return home to her father’s house. Now as a young nun her fainting spells returned. She states also that “I experienced such heart pains that this frightened any who witnessed them; and there were many other illnesses”(L 4, 5). Her father sought medical help and doctor’s remedies at Avila without any success. Eventually he brought her to the town of Becedas about 50 miles away, which was known for cures. This painful sickness, with at times excruciating pain, was to last for three years. The effect of the treatment and the potent medicines nearly killed her. “I was so shriveled and wasted away that my nerves began to shrink causing such unbearable pains that I found no rest either by day or by night (L 5, 7). After months of intense suffering and at death’s door, her father and her companions even prepared her grave. From 15th August 1539 she suffered a paroxysm, which lasted four days. Gradually she improved and the sharp continuous pains ceased. Teresa made the Sisters bring her back to the convent. “The one they expected to be brought back dead they received alive,” she wrote (L 6, 2). Her body was crippled with paralysis, a condition that lasted another three years. Since she felt that she would serve the Lord much better if she were in good health, she decided to seek a cure from the “heavenly doctors,” in particular earnestly recommending herself to St. Joseph. She always proclaimed later that anything she asked of the glorious Saint, he never failed to grant. Throughout her life, she credited St. Joseph not only with the cure of her body so that “I could rise and walk and not be crippled” (L 6, 8). but also that he was her teacher and master regarding prayer. She advised: “Those who cannot find a master to teach them prayer should take this glorious saint for their master, and they will not go astray” (L 6, 8).
It is clear that after this period of her terrible illness, during her early twenties, Teresa became more fervent in the practice of religious life, faithful to her duties though painfully sensitive to the sinfulness of her life, talking with others about prayer but in a very distracted context. She records how undisciplined her life was becoming. “Since I thus began to go from pastime to pastime, from vanity to vanity, from one occasion to another, to place myself so often in very serious occasions, and to allow my soul to become so spoiled by many vanities, I was then ashamed to return to the search for God by means of a friendship as is that found in the intimate exchange of prayer” (L 7, 1). She is really making a judgment on the social activities that were accepted as normal for nuns, clever and with good connections, in her sort of community —gossiping, gatherings, visiting etc. She acknowledged that all of this need not be harmful to a mature person but sees it as a major problem in any community trying to develop the spirituality of the individual members.
From her uncle, Teresa received a book, “Third Spiritual Alphabet”, first published in 1527 by the Franciscan friar, Francis De Osuna, treating of the prayer of recollection. For Teresa struggling to take off on a better understanding of “real” prayer that is beyond mere vocal prayer, Osuna’s basic scheme was a start. There were three stages (i) vocal prayer with the Our Father as the model, (ii) reflection and meditation, that is, prayer which consists of holy and devout thoughts on the passion or other mysteries of the Lord, of the Church etc; (iii) mental or spiritual prayer. Osuna distinguished the second and third levels by the resulting devotion. It taught persistence and fidelity for producing fervor, which causes a response in the individual of simple expressions of a felt love of Jesus. Teresa, in the account of her life at that time, had failed in moving from vocal prayer to meditation, to even imagining the humanity of Jesus. She explains that she had such little ability to represent things with the intellect that “if I hadn’t seen the things, my imagination was not of use to me” (L 9 ,6). While she seems to have failed with Osuna’s directives on her own, she realised that while she used a book, “I began to collect (my thoughts) and my soul was drawn to recollection” (L 4, 9). It is obvious that at this time Teresa was trying to put some order in her prayer life but all her arguments indicate that she was greatly confused or bewildered about her situation.
Following her months of terrible suffering and the experience of her “cure”, she became an exemplary religious for her community, although very conscious of the distracted atmosphere through the social life then permitted which prevented intimacy with God. In the context of her later life, it is clear that she judges herself rather harshly perhaps to emphasize the great graces she received and somehow disdained. She gives her judgment:
“During my life no good should be said of me. After my death there would be no reason for doing so” (L 10, 7).
For a time after her serious illness, the scars and effects of which she would carry to the end, she was worried about her prayer. She was always eager to talk to others about God but was easily distracted by the society and social life to which she had access. In a sense of being lost, though it is clear that she was exemplary in her community exercises, she is scrupulously sensitive to her sinfulness. She prays but how is not clear. Since this state continued for many years — at least eighteen according to herself -Teresa for many people remains an enigma. She herself describes her situation: “Since I thus began to go from pastime to pastime, from vanity to vanity from one occasion to another, to place myself so often in very serious occasions, and to allow my soul to become so spoiled by many varieties, I was then ashamed to return to the search for God by means of a friendship or as is that found in the intimate exchange of prayer. And I was aided in this vanity by the fact that as the sins increased I began to lose joy in virtuous things and my taste for them. I saw very clearly, my Lord, that these were failing me because I was failing You” (L 7, 1). While she could help her father in the practice of prayer, she herself was helpless in her own regard. In his final years and particularly before his death, her father displayed a saintly union with God despite his sufferings; and his Dominican confessor assured Teresa that “he was in no doubt but that her father had gone straight to heaven.” Though she was greatly encouraged by her father’s obvious happiness and relationship with the Lord, as he died (L 7, 5), she continued to judge herself harshly but tried to improve her practice of prayer. But what in fact was her practice of prayer? Teresa stated that in the long years of her early religious life, “except after Communion, I never dared to begin prayer without a book, with a book I began to collect them (my thoughts) and my soul was drawn to recollection” (L 4, 9). Without the aid of a book, she had to sustain the many thoughts (which was) “a battle and conflict between friendship with God and friendship with the world”. She explains her own difficulties and what she suffered so that “one may understand how if a soul perseveres in prayer in the midst of sins, temptations and failures of a thousand kinds the Lord will draw it forth to the harbor of salvation as it seems He did for me” (L 8, 4).