The spiritual life of the woman known as St. Teresa of Avila was marked by periods of intense mystic ecstasy, followed by the cooling of her Catholic spirituality. This pattern continued fairly regularly into her adult life, until the weight of a certain experience caused her to forever give herself to God.
The patron saint of headache sufferers, St. Teresa of Avila was the co-founder of the Discalced Carmelite Order, which devotes itself to hermitage and contemplative thought. Canonized in 1622, Teresa was the first woman to receive the title of “Doctor of the Church” in 1970. Her life as a contemplative mystic, along with her writings, act as a guide to spiritual development, and make her an excellent teacher for those interested in strengthening their Catholic spirituality.
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Even as a young child, there were signs that Teresa would lead the life of a mystic. Fascinated by stories of saints and martyrs, Teresa once attempted to travel to Africa with her brother, in the hope that they would be beheaded by the Moors. Fortunately, they did not get very far before her uncle discovered them. After being safely returned to their mother, Teresa and her brother began to imagine themselves as hermits, building what they imagined to be cells in which they were to be sequestered. In these two early examples, we can see indications that Teresa’s later calling would be that of a contemplative mystic.
When Teresa was fourteen years old, her mother passed away. This could be seen to have a profound effect on her burgeoning Catholic spirituality. Though she did not lose her faith at this time, her newfound interest in things like romance novels, fashion trends, and perfumes were not exactly conducive to the lifestyle of a Christian mystic. Sensing that his daughter was becoming distracted by the flavors of superficiality, he placed her with a covenant of nuns in Avila. Shortly after her integration into the covenant, Teresa was taken ill, and was forced to return home. While in recovery, she happened upon the letters of St. Jerome, some of which contained urgings to the reader to live as a contemplative, hermit, and mystic. It was due to these readings that she officially made her decision to become a nun, and continue her mystic journey into Catholic spirituality.
Shortly after making this decision, Teresa was struck by the same illness that afflicted her a year earlier. During this second stint of convalescence, Teresa was given the book “The Third Spiritual Alphabet” by her uncle. As she read, she learned of a contemplative prayer known as “the prayer of quiet” which, for a brief time, led her to the mystic experience of “the prayer of union” in which her soul was completely absorbed by God. These teachings of contemplation which led to the mystic union between god and believer can be seen as an influence in Teresa’s later works. After her recuperation was complete, she returned to the covenant, but began to fall away from her Catholic spirituality once again due to worldly distractions.
During this time, she used her failing health as a pretext to stop her practice of contemplative prayer. However she would find her faith again in the power of mystic experience. This sort of heating and cooling of her Catholic spirituality would go on for some time, until she was finally struck by a mystic experience that changed her life forever. In recounting this experience, she remarked that an angel had come down from heaven and pierced her with a fiery arrow, which instilled her with the fire of the lord. This can be said to be the experience that forever united her with God.
Though the accounts of her mystic experiences are something to behold, perhaps the most effective way St. Teresa of Avila communicates with those eager to affect their Catholic spirituality is through her writings. These texts, including “The Interior Castle” and “The Way to Perfection” provide the reader who wishes to see prayer as a mystic connection to be achieved with God, with a blueprint to the contemplative lifestyle. Through these works and others, St. Teresa of Avila extolls the virtues of achieving a mystic connection with God.
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