The people of the line old Spanish city of Avila had long been noted for their piety and goodness, and because of the courtesy and grace of their manners it had the name of “the city of knights but in afteryears, when it was known and loved as the birthplace of Saint Teresa, it had this better, nobler title of “the city of saints.”
It was in the year 1515 – just when Martin Luther began to teach his wicked doctrines and injure so many souls – that God sent the little child into the world who was to do so much for Him, and win others to His service. Teresa had a sweet face and very graceful manners; she was playful and merry, too, yet older persons liked to talk to her because she was also very sensible and full of thought about God and holy things. From quite a young child she loved to be alone, and her greatest happiness was to read or hear about the lives of the saints, which gave her so intense a desire to be very holy, that at seven years old she used to pray that God would let her die, so that she might live with Him at once.
Teresa had many brothers and sisters, but amongst them was one more dear than the rest, and that was Roderick, who was nearest her own age. These two children used to read together about the saints, and when they saw what some of them had endured for the love of Christ, it seemed to their little hearts as if they also would gladly be martyrs, so that they might enter heaven very soon. So often they talked about this, that at last they began to try and arrange some way of suffering, and they settled to go into the land of the Moors, where they would probably be beheaded, asking alms as they journeyed for the love of God. At length one day they escaped from their father’s house, with a few little pieces of bread for provisions, resolving to cross over to Africa, and they walked so rapidly that they really got beyond the city gates before their flight was known. Their mother, in great distress, sent in all directions in search of the missing children, who were fortunately met and taken home by an uncle who lived in that place. They were very much scolded for what they had done, especially Eoderick, as he was the eldest, and he began to blame his sister, saying it had been her doing, for she persuaded him to run away.
Teresa did not try to excuse herself. “I ran away,” she said, “because I cannot see God until I die, and I want to die that I may go to Him.”
The little girl shed many tears at the loss of the martyr’s crown she longed for, but she consoled herself with thinking that instead of a martyr she would be a hermit; so Roderick helped her to build small hermitages in the garden, where they meant to live like the Fathers of the Desert, of whom they had heard; but unfortunately they were not well made and quickly tumbled into ruins.
Teresa had good and holy parents, yet she was so young that they never thought of teaching her more than the prayers and devotions used commonly by children; but God had begun to lead her to a love of that way of meditating in prayer which made her so holy in after-life. She had a picture in her room of Jesus talking at the well with the woman of Samaria, and Teresa would sit for hours gazing at it, thinking over it until she longed so much for the “living water” promised to that poor woman, that she would say over and over again, “Lord, give me this water.” At other times she would go alone to say the rosary, which she always loved very much, and which she had been taught to use very early.
Her favourite amusement when she was with other children was to make convents and pretend to be nuns; yet, although she liked to play at being a nun, it had not nearly such a charm for her as the thought of a martyr or hermit. But although her earliest years were filled with these holy, happy thoughts, Teresa, at nine years old, was beginning to get farther away from God. She loved reading, but the histories of saints pleased her less now than before, and it is sad to think that she began to amuse herself with exciting, foolish tales of fancy, which did her soul great harm. Thoughts about her appearance and her dress came creeping into the little heart which had once been only full of the desire to suffer and die for Jesus, and thus her love of prayer was not so strong. In all this Teresa did not mean to offend God; the desire to please Him, though not as great, was still there; it was this craving after new and exciting books which was hurting her so much, and she spent hours of every day in poring over them.
At twelve years of age Teresa had her first great sorrow, in the death of her good mother; but it shows us how much piety was still in her heart, when, at the news being told her, she ran sobbing to the feet of an image of Mary, begging of her to fill the place of the mother she had just lost. No one ever has, nor ever will, make such a prayer in vain, and the Blessed Virgin must, indeed, have watched tenderly over the motherless girl, or she would never have grown up so holy. Yet even then Teresa was not weary of the vanity and foolishness which had gained a place in her heart, and it was some time before she yielded herself to the sweet voice of the Holy Spirit, which had been calling her from her infancy to live wholly for God.
She had begun to make companions and form friendships which could only cause her to become giddy and worldly, when fortunately an elder sister saw her danger and persuaded their father to place Teresa under the care of some nuns of Saint Augustine.
At first, the stillness of the convent made her miserable, but, afterwards, she began to love the house, and liked also to talk to the sisters, asking them to pray to God for her. Very soon her conscience was aroused to see the faults she had been committing and the danger which had surrounded her soul, and her heart was full of gratitude to God for bringing her out of temptation to the safety of the quiet convent; all her love for prayer returned, once more she began again her spiritual reading and the long-neglected rosary, and sought grace, by receiving frequently the holy Sacraments.
However, Teresa had not yet any desire to become a nun – it seemed, in her eyes, a hard &nd cheerless life; still she begged that the religious would pray God to show her in what way He wished her to serve Him. A severe illness befell her next, in the year 1533, so that she was obliged to go home to her father’s house until she partly recovered, after which he visited an uncle, whose piety made a great impression on her mind, and thence she went to spend a time with her elder sister, Dofta Maria, whom she loved very much. After her return home, Teresa had a knowledge that God was calling her to give herself entirely to Him in religion, and, at the same time, the devil tempted her in every way possible to hold back from this grace. Resolving to obey the good inspiration, Teresa asked, her father’s leave to enter a Carmelite convent, but all that he could be persuaded to say was, that after his death she might do as she pleased. The convent on which she had fixed her choice was just outside the city of Avila, and it was strange that an unknown person had visited the place, and said, as he gazed at the walls, “A saint, of the name of Teresa, will come and dwell in this house when told of it, she laughed, exclaiming to a nun of the same name, “I wonder which of us two it will be.”
When once she was sure of the Will of God, Teresa was afraid to remain in the world lest her resolution should fail her, so she arranged to leave her father’s house without delay. We may be sure that she must have prayed very earnestly to God to guide her before she formed this plan, and begged the nuns of the convent to prepare to admit her.
One of Teresa’s brothers was about to consecrate himself also to God, and, under his care, she left home very early in the morning of the day before the festival of All Saints, when she was about two and twenty years of age. The sorrow it caused her to go from her father like this was very great, but the love of God was stronger than the love of home, and she had no sooner reached the convent than the suffering ended, and peace came into her heart. Now that he was sure God called her to religion, Teresa’s father gave his full consent to her receiving the Carmelite habit, and her new life was most sweet and peaceful to her. No matter how lowly the office given her, she did it with gladness, even if it was but to fold up the nun’s cloaks, or light them to their cells, or to attend upon most painful cases of sickness. But God sends trials to all whom He loves most, and Teresa came first in the way of all kinds of pains and sufferings of body and of mind, and then followed a long course of little jealousies and persecutions from some of the other sisters, which was so hard to bear, because she had always been loved and admired at home amongst her friends.
Teresa often felt as if she could not live in the midst of coldness and contempt, but God gave her grace to see that He sent her these troubles to bring her nearer to Him, and so she learned first to bear them patiently, and at last, gladly, for His sake, knowing it to be so much better to suffer there with her Lord than to have all the joys and love of the world without Him.
As soon as she had made her vows as a nun, Teresa became dangerously ill, and, for some days, lay apparently dead. She would certainly have been buried alive, if her father had not refused to allow it, and then, at the end of the fourth day, she awoke from this strange sort of sleep, and gazed with surprise at the friends who were weeping and praying round her. In that time, God had revealed many secret things to her, and she told her confessor that she had seen what heaven and hell were like.
Although restored to life, Teresa suffered very much for three more years, and then she suddenly grew stronger through the intercession of her chosen patron, Saint Joseph. The next few years saw the Saint grow rapidly in holiness and in the love of prayer, and the more she knew of God the more humble she grew, deploring every fault with bitter tears. Many wonderful visions were sent to her, many temptations beset her, many judged her harshly and untruly, but nothing turned her aside in her way to heaven; neither happiness nor sorrow, praise nor blame, took one thought away from God.
In a miraculous vision which occurred to her, it seemed as if a bright angel pierced her heart several times with a golden dart, which caused her to be filled with an unspeakable love to God; it gave her great pain and yet made her very happy, because, ever after, she seemed burning with devotion to her Lord. After her death, the wound was seen in her heart, which appeared to have been burnt. From the time she received this great favour from God, Teresa had still stronger proofs of His love, and He made known to her the special work she was to do for Him in rousing the religious in the different Carmelite monasteries and convents to a stricter way of life. From place to place she journeyed, drawing many souls to love God who had before forgotten Him, leading others, who had begun to serve Him, to be more courageous in their sufferings, and more fervent in their devotion.
It was often said of her that “Teresa could do everything,” but it was by the Holy Spirit dwelling within her that she succeeded in her difficult duties. Those priests who took care of her soul for many years, say, that she was never once guilty of a mortal sin, that every day of her life she grew more and more like her Master, Jesus Christ, and that no suffering or persecution ever lessened the strength of the love with which she offered even the smallest actions of the day to God.
Although she had suffered so much weakness and pain of body, Teresa lived to the age of sixty-eight. Eight years before she died, God revealed to her the exact date upon which her soul would be called away, and she put a mark to it in her Breviary. As the time began to draw near, she visited most of her convents, taking a tender leave of the nuns there, and urging them to live in the presence of God, seeking to grow continually in virtue and holiness. Teresa wished to die at Avila, so, as her weakness increased, she began her journey there, but she was stopped on the way by the desire of the Duchess of Alva to see her and receive her advice in some great trial, and she was then too exhausted to move again.
The religious in the convent of Alva, where she died, had seen strange bright lights before she arrived in the cell which she was taken to, and they judged from this that the time of her death was come. Three days before she expired, the Saint sent for a confessor, to strengthen and prepare her for the end, and then she lay peacefully,her face shining with such a heavenly beauty that those near her could scarcely gaze at its brightness. She was constantly praying with the greatest humility that God would pardon her sins, and the words which seemed oftenest on her lips were those from the psalm, “Miserere,” “Cor contritum et humiliatum Deus non despicies ” At the moment of her death, the religious heard sounds as if many persons were entering the cell and coming round her bed, and it is believed that these heavenly visitors were martyrs who, in one of her visions, had promised to take her pure soul to heaven. Lying in death, the face of Teresa looked as fresh and beautiful as it had been in her childhood, whilst a sweet fragrance came from her body which filled the whole convent, and after her burial many miracles were worked at her tomb.
Thus ended the life of the little child who had once longed to die as a martyr for Jesus Christ. God willed, instead, that she should work long years for Him in the world, that her courage should strengthen those who were weaker, that her prayers and labours should bring such a glory and blessing upon the order of Mount Carmel. And if we want to know how she won her Saint’s crown in heaven, we need but look at the words she once wrote in her Breviary, which show us that all her hope and trust were in God, all her heart was given to Him.
“Let nothing disturb thee,
Let nothing affright thee,
All passeth away,
God only will stay,
Patience wins all.
Who hath God needeth nothing:
For God is his all.”
– from , by Mary F Seymour