Saint Teresa of Avila, by Father Hugh Kelly, SJ

[Saint Teresa of Avila]

The Traveller

Between the years of 1570 and 1582 a certain rather curious caravan must have been seen at one time or other on most of the roads of Spain. At the head of the caravan were a few friars in the brown white habit of the Carmelites, on foot or on mules; then came lumbering along a great wagon or cart on solid wooden wheels with no springs, closed in by a sack-cloth awning, and drawn by mules, with the muleteer walking at the side shouting at his animals. The close-drawn curtains gave no glimpse into the interior of the cart, and probably little view of the outer world to those within. Now and then the animated voices of women might be heard; at intervals a small bell would tinkle and then would come the measured responsive voice of women saying office in choir. There was constant inconvenience, and at times danger, as the great unwieldly thing crossed rickety bridges, or got bogged down in morasses, or came in the way of a troop of bulls bring driven to the bull fights. In summer, in a country “where the sun burns the hand holding the reins” it must have been intolerable within the awning – it was like going into Purgatory, the chief traveller used to say; in winter the cutting wind found entry through every chink. At night the caravan would stop at some miserable in where with luck a room might be got which could be isolated by curtains and would give some seclusion, though prayers and sleep would not be easy with the shouts of muleteers, gypsies, soldiers or tramps. It was not a way of life conducive to spiritual contemplation or to authorship, or to the planning of a far-reaching movement of religious reform; yet it was the way of life of one of the great contemplatives, reformers and writers in the years of her greatness. Everyone knew that in that caravan travelled Mother Teresa of Avila in her work of reforming and founding.

Sixteenth-century Spain was prolific in saints. Saint Ignatius Loyola, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Francis Xavier, Saint Peter of Alcantara, Saint John of Avila, Saint Francis Borgia, Saint Louis Bertrand – these are the greatest of a large company. On any standard of sanctity, saint Teresa would be not the least of that shining company; from certain points of view, she can be considered as the first. Which of the other shas been so great in so many parts – as founder, reformer, writer, contemplative, letter writer? Certainly, as a writer she is easily the first of the group; only the other Carmelite, Saint John of the Cross, can be compared with her in this respect, and though the scientific and theological value of his works are greater, still he has not her place in the history of Spanish literature. And in another way she exercised an influence that was unrivalled. She was one of the best-known people in Spain. None of the saints mentioned had so many friends or exercised so wide and deep a charm on contemporaries. And that charm she still exercises on succeeding ages by her writing, which have preserved not merely her ideas, but, like all great writings, her spirit and personality.


Avila of the Knights has been the scene of events, heroic, splendid, grim, in Spanish history. It was in the kingdom of Old Castile, in the high table-land 4,000 feet above sea level which forms the centre of Spain – in that wind-swept, sun-scorched, dust-choked plateau which is ringed with sharp-edged mountains rising against a hard blue sky. It was a grey, granite little city of `14,000 inhabitants, full of palaces, churches, monasteries, all gathered in tightly within the grip of its high walls; a proverb said it was made of stones and saints. The citizens were well aware that they belonged to no mean city; and it would have surprised them not a little to be told on the morning of 28 March 1513 that they baby girl born to Alonzo de Cepada and his wife, Beatrice de Ahumada, in the old palace near the ramparts, would constitute the chief glory of the city and keep its name alive in the memory of posterity, as Saint Paul has kept alive the name of Tarsus.

Early Life

Alonzo de Cepeda was of a noble family and even had royal blood in his veins; without the least touch of snobbery, his daughter had a true esteem for her qualities of race and blood, and in every company showed the ease and graciousness of her class. The one incident she tells of her childhood shows that her instincts and training were profoundly Catholic. At the age of six, she persuaded her brother, Rodrigo, to fly with her to the country of the Moors to be martyred. That country was not so far away, and without having to cross the sea she might count on meeting Moors with green turbans and shining scimitars, who would have given her her desire. But an uncle who did not share her views on martyrdom met the two little runaways on the bridge outside the town and marched them home. Her mother, Beatrice de Ahumada, is a shadowy figure in her childhood. She died young, after some years of poor health. She was fond of reaading and whiled away the hours of illness by reading the high-flown, interminable romances of chivalry. Sitting beside her mother’s bed in the silent, darkened room, Teresa began to read them also and became passionately fond of them and came to write one herself.

She was fourteen at her mother’s death – a girl with the clear promise of beauty, of exceptional gifts of mind and spirit, vivacious, affectionate, attractive in company. “The Lord had given me grace to please everyone wheresoever I might be,” she tells us. She could not be insensible to the charm she excercised; and she found the world very interesting. For a time certain friendships with some relations of hers were a danger to her. Her father, realizing the risk of allowing an attractive, impulsive girl to grow up in a motherless home, sent her to the convent at Avila, which was conducted by the Augustinian nuns. She soon came to know that God wanted her to enter a convent, but it was only at the end of a sever struggle that she decided to turn back on the world. She had a stall greater struggle in getting her father’s consent. She forced his hand only by running off one morning to the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation. She said that the pain of parting with him was worse then death. This was probably in the 1535.


The beginning of her religious life was marked by a long, mysterious illness, which she describes with great detail in her autobiography. The convent of the Incarnation was a large one, where discipline was rather easy, and there was much of the spirit of the world. The nuns were connected with the best families of the place and kingdom, and the parlours were filled with relatives who gossiped and retailed all the news and scandal. Teresa was no better and no worse than the majority of her sisters. There was no serious disorder in her life; she was always honourable and upright; but there was no true fervour. From time to time there came to her the call of God to a greater observance and especially to greater prayer. On one occasion Our Lord appeared to her and reproved her for her lax life. Her conversion was brought about by the sight of Christ at the pillar of scourging. She was 40 years of age then.

The Mystic

The greatness of Saint Teresa is in her prayer; her achievement as reformer and founder springs from her contemplation. Her writings are for the most part autobiographical and are concerned with these two activities. Her books are a record of the journeyings in the mystic region to which God called her. She has marked the stages and described the landscape of this journey by which she passed from vocal prayer and discursive meditation to the highest and most intimate union with God in extraordinary prayer. Her books are not exactly scientific treatises on the level of those of Saint John of the Cross; they are a record of her own experience. The earliest extant account is her Life, written by herself between 1563 and 1565. In describing her prayer, she compares the soul to a garden which has need of watering if it is to be fruitful. The watering may be done entirely by the toil of the gardener, and that represents ordinary prayer; or it may be done by means of a windlass, or better still by irrigation, or, best of all by the rain. These three represent different stages of mystical prayer. In The Interior Castle she sees the soul as a great crystal sphere containing seven mansions. The first three represent ordinary prayer by the use of reasoning or the affections; the last four represent different kinds of mystical prayer. She distinguishes clearly these three stages by emphasising the distinctive note of each, from which she names them.

There is first of all the Prayer of Recollection, which is such an absorption of the soul with God as could not be the result of the efforts of will or imagination. God simply produces the recollection without any effort of the soul’s natural powers. The realisation of God’s presence is of an ease and intensity which distinguish it from anything the soul can do for itself. It is something that is clearly seen to be simply given by God. This is the first stage in the mystical life.


In the Prayer of Quiet the soul is immersed in a peace which comes from the proximity of God and pervades all the powers of the soul. It is happy in the consciousness of God’s closeness and experiences a great sense of enlargement and of courage which banishes all sense of fear, and also a desire to spend itself for work in God’s interest. There is here felt a stirring towards the activity which is the effect of the highest contemplation.

In the Prayer of Union, God suddenly makes Himself felt in the soul in a manner so clear and compelling as to be beyond the reach of any doubt. That unshakable certainty of God’s presence is the specific note of this state of prayer. So great is the union, so intensely is the soul absorbed in the enjoyment of the Infinite Good so closely apprehended, that the powers of the soul are suspended in their activity for a short time. The effects of this prayer on the soul are great and lasting. It leaves it full of tender love and courage; and of an abiding clear perception of the nothingness of everything that is not God. It is to describe these marvellous effects that Saint Teresa uses the famous image of the lovely butterfly coming from the cocoon of the silk-worm. A like transformation comes upon the soul; it finds itself with a knowledge of God and the Sacred Humanity of Christ which it could not have acquired in a thousand years of study, and which makes it desire only God and to have Him loved.

Wound of Love

The soul that is still advancing now enters on a new stage in which by a series of trials it is prepared for the highest spiritual, mystical grace, the spiritual marriage. It is a stage of subtle, intense, interior suffering, by which the soul is purified to its centre. So great are these trials, Saint Teresa says, that if known beforehand they would daunt even the boldest. Some of these come from the action of others, from misunderstanding, or opposition or antipathy. The more searching ones are interior and come from doubts and scruples that stab it, as it were, to its heart. Among these will be the strange, powerful action of God in the form of sudden raptures and ecstasies in which the soul is lifted and carried off irresistibly by the Divine power. Even the body may feel the effects of this strange violence – alarming fainting fits and even still more alarming levitation. Then may come sudden transports of love of incredible vehemence. The chief of these was experienced by Saint Teresa – the Transverberation – in 1560, when an angel appeared to her holding in his hand a golden dart tipped with fire. He plunged it into her heart inflicting a wound that was at once an intolerable agony and joy.

This transition period is often marked by intellectual visions, in which the object is presented not by the senses of the body or by the imagination or by the powers of the soul, but is directly experienced by its presence, in a kind of intuition. It is not conviction of the presence of the object; there is simply the apprehension of that presence. There may be other visions, presented by the imagination, such as visions of the Humanity of Christ; and these are not necessarily free from illusion. Sometimes also there is given the revelation of secrets or the knowledge of future things, which are distinct and certain.

“My Spouse”

The Spiritual Marriage, the supreme mystical grace to which these stages lead, was granted to Saint Teresa in November 1572, when Our Lord appeared to her and said: “From to-day thou shalt be My spouse; hitherto thou hast not merited it.” With this grace the soul enters into the seventh mansion, into the very centre of its own being, and finds Christ in possession.

This is the stage of transforming union; “a complete transformation into the Beloved,” says Saint John of the Cross describing it, “whereby they surrender each to the other the entire possession of themselves in the perfect union of love, wherein the soul becomes divine and, by participation, God, so far as it is possible in this life.” The first effect of this union is a depth and clearness of vision never granted before; (“He makes the scales fall from the eyes of the soul”); in which the deep things of God are seen, the Unity and the Trinity; and this not in a flash or for a moment, but in a permanent fashion – “for it seems as if these three Divine Persons never leave the soul.” The next effect is something unexpected. The soul seems to find itself divided; a part remains united to God within its own depths, at its very centre, while the other part is driven by a desire to be active in God’s interest. That is to say, the soul combines now the active and the contemplative lives. This stage seems to be that of the great Apostolic workers and seems to be the foundation of their zeal and charity. This experience gives the soul its full range and power. It is now fully possessed by God and invested with His grace and the gifts He needs in those whom He has elected to do and suffer great things for His name’s sake. The soul sees God everywhere and desires only “to love and to serve.”

Spiritual Direction

In her journeyings in these spiritual regions, Saint Teresa depended on the direction of confessors and spiritual persons. When she began to be drawn first into these unknown ways she was terrified, not knowing by what spirit she was being led. She sought direction at every stage and from every quarter. She was insatiable in giving an account of the strange movements that she experienced in her soul, which she did always with complete humility and candour. At first, she suffered much anguish at the hands of timid and ignorant directors – men who had neither personal experience north theological knowledge of mystical ways. As a result of her own experience, she has assigned a great place to the director in the mystical life. As a result of her own experience, she has assigned a great place to the director in the mystical life. It can be said that she got the best assistance that her country, and perhaps her age, could give; that all that was best in theological knowledge and spiritual experience in the Church of Spain at the time was called on for her formation. She got her first solid assurance of the truth and holiness of her experiences from the Jesuits. Saint Francis Borgia was an early friend; but the chief Jesuit influence was the Venerable Balthasar Alvarez, who was her confessor for some of the most critical years of her formation, and for whom she wrote a full account of her spiritual state. To the Domincans, especially to Fray Perdo Ibanez, and more so the famous theologian, Fray Dominic Bannez, she owed the dogmatic exactitude and precision of her mystical theology. Through her close friend, the amazingly ascetic Saint Peter of Alcantara – who, she said, seemed to be made of the roots of trees – she was influenced by the Franciscan spirit; and in Saint John of Avila she came in touch the secular clergy and with the universities. The chief Carmelite influence came through Saint John of the Cross and Father Gracian.


As a result of the spiritual marriage, saint Teresa was now the finished instrument, forged and tempered, of some great work for God. Even before this, she had put her hand to the work. In the early stages of her mystical life, she had begun to desire to live according to the primitive rule, especially according to the vow of poverty. She saw that that could be done only in a new house, founded for that purpose. With the approval of her superiors and the warm encouragement of Saint Peter of Alcantara, she procured a bull from Rome authorising her to take this step. A friend bought, quietly, a small house in another quarter of Avila and got it fitted up as a convent, and on 24 August 1562, Saint Teresa, with a few companions, took possession of it, and thus founded the monastery of Saint Joseph, the head and mother of all the houses of the Carmelite reform. As a result of the uproar caused by some of the community of the monastery of the Incarnation, and still more because of the protests of some of the townspeople, she was recalled at once to her old convent to defend her conduct before the Provincial, which she did successfully. The foundation of Saint Joseph was thus saved; and for five years she lived there with her few companions, in great peace of soul. These years were an invaluable period of preparation for the great work she was to do for God and for the great sufferings that work involved, which were mercifully hidden from her eyes.


A decisive moment came in 1566 when Father Rubeo, the General of the Carmelites, came to Spain for the purpose of putting into execution the reforms enjoined on Religious by the Council of Trent. He was delighted with the fervour and poverty he found at Saint Joseph’s and gave permission to Mother Teresa to found as many convents of nuns as she had hairs on her head. But Mother Teresa was even more interested in the reformation of the priests of the Order and got permission from him to found two monasteries for men, in which the primitive rule would be observed.

In the space of fifteen years she founded and directed seventeen convents of nuns in almost every province of Spain. She founded by her personal exertions two monasteries for reformed friars and was the chief influence in the founding of thirteen others. They were years of great activity, of physical hardships, of most distressing opposition and misunderstandings. Much of that time she spent in the great mule cart, jolting along highways and by-ways, enduring very real privations and hardships. But there were more harrowing difficulties about ways and means. There were the inevitable misunderstandings and disagreements with local authorities, from clerics, civic officials, from workmen, from ordinary people of the world, who had no sympathy with her work.


These difficulties were accidental and incidental; but the most serious trials came from the opposition of the friars themselves to a reform which she was certain was the wish of god. Her first foundations for women excited no hostility; and she began to set about the reformation of the friars. She found that Fray Antonio and Fray John of Saint Mathias, later to be known as Saint John of the Cross, shared her desire. As Fray Antonio was a large, portly man, and Fray John small and insignificant-looking, she said that she had got a friar and a half with which to carry out the work of reform. The opposition began to make itself felt and soon rose to storm point. Deep human interests were at stake; men were asked to make sacrifices which they did not feel obliged to make; and violent passions were aroused and expressed. The history of the reform does not make pleasant reading, but due allowance should be made for the general situation. There was a legitimate difference of opinion and policy between good men; each side believed it had the spirit of God; and each side was prepared to fight for its position with every legitimate weapon. At the beginning almost all human forces seemed to be leagued against Saint Teresa. The situation was complicated by the overlapping of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, as the General of the Carmelites, the Papal Nuncio, several Apostolic Visitors, and the Royal Council were exercising authority at the same time. There was claim and counter-claim; decisions were made and promptly annulled as invalid; ecclesiastical sentences were hurled from one side ot another. At the beginning the Papal Nuncio was ill-informed and spoke harshly of Saint Teresa as “a disobedient, contumacious woman who promulgates pernicious doctrine under the pretence of devotion and leaves her cloister against the order of her superiors and the decrees of the Council of Trent.” For a time it seemed as if the reform would be defeated and Saint Teresa passed one Christmas night in the deepest dejection, without the least glimpse of hope. The accusation of disobedience was most painful to her, as she had always been most docile to authority and had due permission for every step she took. But in such a clash of authorities and jurisdictions she was bound to offend.

Reform Saved

But the storm passed and the true nature of the reform began to be understood. The Apostolic Nuncio came to be better informed. The reform was won chiefly through the virtue of Saint Teresa and of Saint John of the Cross. Their patience, courage, humility, their disinterestedness, their lofty aims, were made manifest in the persecution; and indeed it is these that redeem an incident that has not many other features to recommend it. In all the violent confused struggle Saint Teresa had displayed the truest judgment and if her friends had acted according to her instructions some of the worst faults and excesses would have been avoided. By her faith, good humour and courage she kept up the hopes and spirits of her small party in the darkest hours. In 1580 the Holy See decided the controversy; all the friars and nuns who desired to live according to the primitive rule, that is to say, the party that was for reform, were to constitute one province under their own Provincial; but the province was to be under the rule of the General of the Order.

The reform was saved; and Saint Teresa felt that the great work of her life was done. She was still busy in the work of founding and visiting houses, but with failing strength. In September 1582 she arrived at Alba de Torres. Her weakness increased and she knew that her earthly journeyings were over. She prepared for the final journey. She exhorted the sisters to keep their rule and to be obedient to their superiors; then she begged pardon for the bad example she had given to them. As the priest brought her the Viaticum, she seemed to gather up all the Faith and love of her soul in the words with which she greeted the Sacred Host: “O my Lord, the longed-for hour has come at last. Now we shall see one another.” She died on the evening of 4 October, the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi.

The Writer

Her work as a reformer, with its constant journeyings, its trials, and worries, its mass of business details, would seem to leave time for no other occupation; but yet the years of the reform were the years in which she wrote a considerable body of writings which have made her one of the greatest authorities on the mystical life and one of the classics in her own language. She had the urge to expression and the physical energy which are the first conditions for a writer. As a child she had written a chivalrous romance in the style of those she had read at her mother’s bedside; and as a young nun she had written an account of her soul and spiritual life – her first essay in what was to be her own peculiar province. Her first extant work is the Life written by herself, which she began in 1561, at the request of Fray Ibanez, O.P., and which she recast and brought to its present form in 1565. She gave it to a friend to read with the words: “Remember, it is my soul which I confide to you.” It is one of the great spiritual autobiographies; it has placed her among the small number of canonized saints who have recounted the dealings of God with their souls. With great charm and freshness she tells of her early life as a child at home and at school; of her vocation, of the years of her tepidity in the convent, of her sickness, and of the call of God to fervour and prayer. The narrative is broken by a number of chapters dealing with prayer, which constitute a classic treatise on that subject.

Shortly after finishing the Life, she began The Way of Perfection, which she wrote for the benefit of the nuns of Avila. It is an enthusiastic call to them to strive after holiness; and is a practical treatise on religious asceticism.

The Interior Castle was written in 1577, at the very height of the storm which her efforts at reform had raised. The greater part of this long and difficult book was written in about four weeks, at a time when she could have very little leisure and had great anxieties and absorbing worries. It is a profound book, in which she shows all her powers; it is the final, splendid account of the journeying of her soul in the mystic region.

The Book of the Foundations is, perhaps, the most popular and interesting of her writings; it reveals her character and temperament, her gaiety, courage, her patience and good humour, ore fully than any other. It was written in the scanty intervals of great activity and among great distractions and was finished a few months before her death. It was written was vivacity and charm and much quiet humour. She tells of the incidents, the disappointments, the opposition, the delays which attended the founding of many of her convents. It is full of vivid portraits of people and of accounts of strange vocations. Much of the religious life of Spain of the time is reflected in it.


A good many people think that her Letters are her most valuable work; that they are the most faithful mirror of her mind and soul. She was evidently a born letter writer; one who noticed everything, who forgot nothing and was always overflowing with ideas. Her correspondents were in every class; and included Philip II,and many of the most eminent people of the Church and the Court. The sheets of folded paper, sealed with the monogram of Christ, or a death’s head, covered with the distinctive, firm, masculine writing, and signed “Teresa de Jesus,” found their way into every corner of Spain and to the new world.These letters deal with all the business of life; they contain shrewd advice on purely material and trivial things, and prudence and good sense on business of some moment; they show on every page a full, mellow experience of life, elevated by true, supernatural wisdom. Many of them give sure and firm spiritual direction to individuals on spiritual matters. In charm and value they rank with the letters of Saint Francis de Sales.

An authoritative historian of Spanish literature, Professor Fitzmaurice-Kelly, speaks of her as “perhaps, the greatest woman who ever handled a pen, as the single one of her all her sex who stands beside the world’s great masters.” And he praises the simplicity and concision of “her perfect style.” And even those who are not competent to appreciate her mastery of the Castilian tongue, can find in a translation some of the qualities that have made her a Spanish classic. As a high-born Castilian lady, she spoke her native language with natural, effortless, elegance. Her writing has the ease and quiet distinction of her manners. In her letters, as in all her social relations, she showed the unstudied courtesy of a lady of quality, of a country in which the Faith had refined and elevated the manners of society. Pascal’s description of the natural style – we expect to meet a writer and we find a man – is as applicable to Saint Teresa as to any writer who ever lived. The reader never finds in her the consciousness or pose of the professional author, but always a woman of great sensibility, and common sense, observant, tactful, very distinctly humorous, and extraordinarily kind and sincere. The Letters and The Book of the Foundations are the true mirror of her rich, attractive personality,in which the rarest natural gifts of sinsibility have been elevated and quickened by still rarer gifts of grace.


She was the most unstudied of writers; she never erased a word and seldom had time to re-read what she had written. Her many occupations usually prevented her from writing during the day; it was only at night when the convent was quiet that she could get off that letter she felt was due to take up the unfinished manuscript. She often had no table or chair and wrote kneeling near the window, resting the paper on a small ledge, often writing till three o’clock in the morning with fingers that grew colder and at last lost all sense of feeling. She wrote with extraordinary rapidity, the rush of ideas sending her pen racing along the paper without a pause. She said that she needed two hands to write what she wished to say. She wrote just as she thought, with a perfect control over her medium, her native Castilian.


Her writings have made Saint Teresa as well known to us as is any of her contemporaries and as well known as any saint in the calendar. Like all great writers, in every subject she treats of, she reveals herself. After reading her books, and especially her letters, we feel that we know her as well as if we lived with her. To her own age, she was a rich, interesting personality, and in her writings she has remained the same to each succeeding age.

A great Teresian scholar, the Abbe Rodolphe Hoornaert, has made an exhaustive study of her as a writer. He was indicated the general influence, social, political, intellectual religious, which she underwent. He shows convincingly that she was a full, balanced personality, in whom emotional, active and intellectual elements were blended. He then goes on to discuss whether her mystical states injured her natural endowment. His conclusion is that

“this influence, instead of being harmful to her higher faculties, helped to bring about a wonderful mental synthesis within her. Her sensibility, far from being deadened or made one-sided, became finer, wider, deeper. The intellect of this woman of slight education under the influence of mystical union, reached incredible heights and guided her will unflinchingly along the path of duty. And all these faculties were co-ordinated in a marvellous unity of action.”

But it scarcely needs a subtle analysis of her writing to assure us of this. Her achievement as Reformer, Foundress, and Writer could not have been the work of a visionary or dreamer or dupe. Her life’s work could come only from an extraordinarily rich personality, in which courage, enterprise, judgment, energy, were balanced by tact, humility, and universal kindness and gentleness – the whole natural endowment transformed, and lifted to a higher potentiality and charm, by that most evident, if intangible thing, sanctity. Her most recent English biographer has said: “This visionary was one of the capable women the world has seen.”


The extraordinary attractiveness she exercised over all who met her and which made her the centre of every company in which she found herself, continues still to be felt through her works. Her pages are full of little comparisons and images which bring the life of her time vividly before us. They show abundantly what an observant, experiencing nature she was. A hundred sayings of her bring before us her full distinctive humanity. “May God forgive you, Fray Juan, for what I have to suffer at your hands,” she said to the artist, as she gazed in dismay at what was meant to be her portrait. “I am uncompromising with those I love, because I want them to be perfect,” she said in justification of some severe remarks and of her “terrible letters.” When Our Lord told her He treated His friends with severity she answered. “That is the reason, Lord, you have so few friends.” She kept always her love for beautiful things, for music, green fields, perfumes, and especially for water.

“Child of a dry land, she was peculiarly sensitive to water; a stream, a fountain, or even a well from which water might be drawn by a windlass to refresh the thirsty garden, held for her a lovely and allegorical meaning; the element she said which she loved so much that she studied it more attentively than other things.” – V. Sackville-West, The Eagle and the Dove

On her way to one of her latest foundations, she travelled along the bank of a river and said in a letter: “it was a real travelling companion to me.” Her houses at Alva and Toledo pleased her particularly. “I have a hermitage from which I can see the river; I can also see it from the cell where I sleep.”

Nothing could quench her gaiety, even on journeys where there was great sufferings and even real danger; and when she did not find the same disposition in her companions she would say, “may God deliver us from sullen saints.” There was nothing more attractive in her than her complete sincerity and absence of pretence or sanctimoniousness; she could never play the Pharisee or Jansenist or Puritan. On one occasion when travelling she was entertained by a friend, who served up a partridge at dinner. Mother Teresa was fond of partridge and ate what was placed before her with more than Apostolic acceptance. When the servants were disedified at this indulgence on the part of “the saint,” she said simply: “Rather praise your master’s kindness and learn that when there is partridge, it is time for partridge and when there is penance, it is the time of penance.” The Dominican, Hernandez, said of her: “I was told she was women; but it is not true; she is a man, and more than any man I ever met.” But she was very much of a woman in her tenderness and her desire to love and be loved. She noted that it had been the great fault of her youth that when she knew that any one liked her she must return the affection. She never cured herself of that fault; and at the end of her life she would write to Father Gracian, who was only half her age, with so frank a display of affection as revealed her old depths of tenderness. In a hundred little traits her great sensitiveness is seen – in her love for children, her loneliness when away from her sisters, her love for her own family, her anxiety about those she had left in a new foundation where there was hardship to be met, in a sense of gratitude (“if a person made me a present of only a sardine, I would do anything for him”) – these are haphazard indications of an affectionate and sensitive heart which no experience of life or of grace could blunt.

Towards the End

On her death-bed she repeated: “I am a daughter of the Church.” On that fact she based her confidence for her salvation; and, indeed, the Catholic Faith had penetrated to the inmost fibre of her soul. Her Faith was robust and profound. It lifted her above trivialities and mere religiosity. “May God deliver us from silly devotions,” she would say. Of the depth and intensity of her spiritual life, the only measure is her life’s achievement. Her mystical graces gave to her life its marvellous unity and energy. Her prayer was constant, but it did not lessen her activity. “That is the end of prayer,” she would say; “that is what the spiritual marriage is for – to produce work and more work.” “Obras que no palabras” (“Works and not words”) – that was her motto.

In the closing meditation of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, a Contemplation for obtaining love, the third step in the mounting path of love is to join our human activity to the activity which God exercises in the universe for His divine purpose, that His Kingdom may come. Is Apostolic activity thus the highest form of love? There is a fourth point in this meditation, a still higher step on the road of love – a growing realisation of God as the source of all beauty and goodness, and consequently a growing hunger and thirst to possess the Infinite Good. There would seem to come a moment when the soul can be no longer satisfied even by working and suffering for God; when it can be satisfied by nothing less than God Himself. We see that stage clearly in Saint Teresa. As she grew older, her hunger and thirst for the Infinite Good became a sweet, abiding agony. The sense of God became overpowering, and, inversely, the sense of nothingness of all else but God grew in proportion; “todo pasa; todo nada” (all things pass; all things are nothing). and this sense of futility did not come from disillusionment; it came from a love so great that she said, “I die because I cannot die.” In such a saying and in others like it, “To suffer or to die,” “The will to live to serve Him,” the soul of Saint Teresa is revealed to its depths.

Like Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Ignatius of Loyola, she has always had a great attraction for non-Catholics and in England a regular stream of lives of her have been written by Protestants. Many of the differences which separate a nineteenth or twentieth century English Protestant from a Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century may be bridged by sympathy and admiration; and generous portraits have been written of her by Protestants. But there are certain differences which cannot be bridged, and the Catholic will always feel that certain obvious qualities, the business capacity, the energy, the humour, the common sense, have been emphasised at the expense of the sanctity. Her mystical life is the spring of her activity and a writer who does not appreciate that has destroyed the harmony of her life and omitted that glow that came from within and which is the most significant feature of the portrait. But this attraction felt by Protestants is a testimony to her abiding charm. She is one of those saints in whom every age will be interested.

Abiding Attraction

Some time ago, the sudden world-wide glory of her daughter and namesake of Lisieux seemed to have eclispsed her; but now when twenty years have given a truer perspective her glory burns with a steady and undiminished glow. There could be no opposition between these two glories of Carmel, between the eagle of Avila and the dove of Lisieux; there could be only a contrast which enhances the greatness of each. To the reforming zeal of Saint Teresa the Church owes an incalculable debt of which it will grow only more conscious. The spirit of sould which inspired that reform has been preserved fresh and living in her writings. For four centuries she has been one of the capital influences on the contemplative life, which is one of the supreme activities of the Church, and with the lapse of time that influence can only increase.

– Father Hugh Kelly, SJ

About This eBook

The text of this book is taken from the pamphlet Saint Teresa of Avila by Father Hugh Kelley, SJ, 3rd edition, published by Irish Messenger, Dublin, Ireland. Nihil Obstat by Carolus Doyle, SJ; Imprimi potest by Archbishop John Carol, Archdiocese of Dublin, Ireland on 17 March 1945. A scan of the original document is available online at the Lux Occulta blog at