The world of Teresa of Avila (1515-82) was vastly different from our own.  Conscious of the need for caution as a message crosses time and place,  and aware that her words carried meanings for the people of her day that we, in another age and culture, cannot fully comprehend, we may still benefit greatly from the insights of this intelligent and deeply spiritual woman who shared so generously and frankly her experience, and the wisdom it brought her.

16th century woman speaks to our time

Mutuality in friendship

by Alison Healey

A key element in Spanish social structures and patterns of behaviour in Teresa’s time was the value and practice of honour as related to social status and public dignity, rather than as an interior quality of integrity, which is what we usually have in mind when we call someone ‘honourable’. 

This was an hierarchical society, in which each person was born into a certain social stratum. Being Catholic, male and a member of the nobility took one to the top.  It was possible to buy one’s way into the nobility in certain circumstances, so the system was not entirely inflexible.

This is how Teresa came to be a daughter of a noble family.  Her grandfather had been a Jew who confessed to the Inquisition as an ‘apostate’, did penance and was baptised into the Catholic Church. Thus inserted into the society, he moved from where he was known in Toledo to Avila, where he was a successful businessman and his son, Teresa’s father, accumulated considerable wealth and acquired noble status. But, as the son of a converso, Don Alonso never felt secure in his social position; the family’s hidden Jewish heritage continued as an anxious shadow in their lives. 

With public honour as a core value in the society, each social layer expected certain privileges of status and due deference from those at a lower social level; and any failure in observance of these requirements of status was taken as an affront, an insult, which demanded some form of retribution or compensation.  Offences of this kind could not be overlooked; the established social order depended on maintaining consistency in behaviour patterns. 

The Church was an integral part of Spanish society, so, as well as having its own hierarchical structure, it was shaped also by Spanish cultural norms. There were many ways in which social status and honour were accommodated in the Church generally, and in religious communities. And conversos, or ‘new Christians’, were not accepted at all in most of these communities.

It is easy to imagine how this way of living might feed pride and vanity, deception and fear - as well as humiliate and frustrate those held to be inferior. ‘Teresa saw it as divisive and unChristian’, writes Rowan Williams: Jesus knew no such honour and dignity. Our greatest honour is that God honours us, by loving us unconditionally and dwelling within us.  Teresa’s response was to replace the hierarchical structures and behaviours based in worldly honour with the value of friendship. Equality and mutuality in friendship is an integrating theme in her life.  It is fascinating to see how it permeates so much of what she did and said. 

Patronage and poverty

It was usual for monasteries to be founded and maintained under the patronage of wealthy donors.  The religious houses were, in this way, part of the social system and benefactors customarily demanded special rights in return, eg, a display of their wealth and social position in the ornamentation of the building and the monuments erected for family members buried there; and having their special interests prayed for daily.

Teresa founded 16 monastic communities of women and two for men during 20 years, from 1562 to 1582 when she died. Her foundations embraced radical poverty and were to be founded with no such entailed endowments. She wished these communities to depend on alms and the products of their work.  When this ideal could not be fully achieved in all places, she reluctantly accepted an endowment and its income, but insisted on an uncompromised spirit of poverty in the monastery, nonetheless. 

Equality and friendship in community

Teresa accepted into the monastic communities she founded women who had no dowry, along with women of means.  She also accepted conversos

Within the monasteries, the nuns - wealthy and poor, young and old, Catholics from birth and ‘new Christians’- were to live in loving friendship, as equals.  In the Constitution she wrote for her foundations, she specifies that the prioress should be the first on the sweeping roster. 

The strength of the community lay in the members encouraging one another in lives of prayer and service and in mutual correction whenever this was needed, irrespective of age or office.  Teresa liked to use the Gospel story of Martha and Mary as an image of community life.  She insisted both were necessary:  devoted attentiveness to God in prayer and willing work, whatever the task. 

She reprimanded, on the one hand, the nuns who wanted to do nothing else but pray and, on the other, the more actively inclined members when they complained about those who they believed were over-absorbed in contemplation:

‘Be content with whatever the Lord may want to do with you.  If contemplating, practising mental and vocal prayer, taking care of the sick, helping with the household chores and working even at the lowliest tasks are all ways of serving the Guest who comes to be with us and eat and recreate, what difference does it make whether we serve in the one way or the other?’   (Way 17, 5-6).

God’s gifts do not depend on worldly judgments of status

Teresa put a very high value on ‘learning’. Unlike most women of her day, who were illiterate, she had received some schooling and could read by the time she was six years old, but she knew no Latin, and was always conscious of the limitations in her formal education. She constantly sought guidance from ‘learned men’ and she advocated this to all her nuns. 

However, she also affirmed the capacity of young, illiterate women to be greatly gifted by God through the faithful practice of their monastic way of life; and she urged them to pray for the learned men who had not yet set their feet firmly on the path of prayer. 

In the Way of Perfection which she wrote for her nuns, she gives over several chapters to a phrase-by-phrase reflection on the Lord’s Prayer, applying it to daily life, and at the end, expresses her surprised delight at what she discovered in the course of this: 

‘Now see, Sisters, how the Lord (has given) me  understanding of the great deal we ask for when reciting this evangelical prayer … May He be blessed forever!  Certainly, it had never entered my mind that this prayer contained so many deep secrets; for now you have seen the entire spiritual way contained in it…It is highly beneficial to persons who don’t know how to read.  If they understand this prayer, they can draw a lot of doctrine from it and find consolation there.  [And when books are taken away from us, this “book” cannot be taken away, for it comes from the mouth of Truth itself, who cannot err.]’ (Way 42,5).

Books were, indeed, taken away from them. 

In 1559, Church authorities banned almost all of the spiritual books written in the vernacular.  Teresa writes here with considerable daring. 

The Inquisition was very active, proclaiming its duty to protect the purity of church doctrine and practice from anything that, in its view, might signal a threat to faith and order. Teaching authority lay exclusively with the hierarchy and their theologians.

Yet, Teresa, without any of their formal training in theology or Scripture, dares to expound the meaning of words of Scripture, justifying this with her claim to have been directly and personally enlightened by God.  She also dares to say that illiterate women can discover all that is necessary for their spiritual growth through their access to the ‘mouth of the Master’.

Friendship in prayer

For Teresa, prayer is friendship in action.  In the following excerpts, we hear again echoes of her reflections on Mary and Martha, on prayer and work.

‘Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends… In order that love be true and the friendship endure, the wills of the friends must be in accord...’  (Life 8.5)

‘When one is in the midst of business matters, and in times of persecution and trials when one can’t maintain so much quietude, and in times of dryness, Christ is a very good friend, because we behold Him as human and see Him with weaknesses and trials and he is company for us.  Once we have the habit, it is very easy to find Him present at our side.’  (Life 22,10).

‘Prayer is an exercise of love and it would be incorrect to think that, if there is no time for solitude, there is no prayer at all.  With a little care great blessings can come when, because of our labours, the Lord takes from us the time we had set for prayer.  And so I have found these blessings when I have had a good conscience.’  (Life 7,12).

Spiritual life and relationship with God is open to everyone

One day in prayer, Teresa heard the words, ‘Seek yourself in Me’

She asked her brother to help her probe their meaning and he, in turn, invited a small group of friends to meet for a discussion, which they did in deep seriousness.  Teresa, not in Avila at the time, received their written responses, including one from John of the Cross.  She decided to write a ‘satirical critique’ in reply, based on a custom in Spanish universities at the conferring of a doctoral degree.  On the eve of the formal conferring, there was a comic ceremony, in which the candidate and the dissertation were subjected to mock ridicule from professors and students. 

John of the Cross had expressed the view that seeking union with God required us to mortify ourselves, to ‘die to the world’. Teresa replied:

‘Seeking God would be very costly if we could not do so until we were dead to the world.  The Magdalene was not dead to the world when she found Him, nor was the Samaritan woman, nor the Canaanite woman…God deliver me from people so spiritual that they want to turn everything into perfect contemplation, no matter what.   Nonetheless, we are grateful to him for having explained so well what we did not ask.’  (Satirical Critique, 6-7). 

She is laughing, at ease with her friends, but she is also speaking seriously from the heart.  Rowan Williams, commenting on this reply of Teresa’s, writes that these women in the Gospel (and it is no accident that she chooses women for her examples) ‘were met by Jesus where they are and as they are’. And he adds, ‘God does not turn away those who look for God, whatever the mixture of their motives or the imperfections of their lives.  Human nature does not have to purge itself of impurities before it can become the vehicle of God’s action’.

For Teresa the way to an ever-deepening relationship with God was a path everyone could tread, irrespective of who they were.  Elsewhere, she wrote encouragingly: 

‘The beginning… is the most important part of everything… If a person does no more than take one step, the step will contain in itself so much power that she will not have to fear losing the way’  (Way 20,3)

Such an open, warm, welcoming spirit breathes through her life. She brings to mind the famous question and answer of Meister Eckhart:  ‘Where to begin?  Begin with the heart’.  

Teresa’s personal friendships

Teresa’s writings, including her many letters, show her affection and solicitude for her friends.  She had very close friendships with both men and women throughout her life.  One, described as her closest friend whom she loved dearly, was Jeronimo Gracian, who joined the Carmelite Reform and carried a lot of responsibility for new foundations with her.  Eventually, he was appointed the first Provincial of the Reform monasteries when they were formally separated from the other Carmels.

The mutuality of friendship is a powerful dynamic in Teresa’s spirituality and in her efforts to model an authentic Christian life in her monasteries - friendship with God and human friendship displacing false notions of the rights of status and power.

Pope Paul VI proclaimed Teresa a Doctor of the Church – the first woman to honoured with the title – in 1970.  She was canonised by Pope Gregory XV in 1622.  Her feast day is October 15.

Next week:  Experience as the way to knowing and understanding.

Dr Alison Healey was awarded her doctorate by Sydney University for a  religious, cultural anthropology and historical study: a critical history of 50 years of religious broadcasting on ABC radio. 

She is a member of The Grail, an international spiritual, social and cultural movement of women, founded in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands in 1921 but now in 20 countries and ecumenical in its perspectives and membership. The current Grail Centre in Sydney, named 'Avila' after Teresa, celebrated 50 years of life and work about 18 months ago.



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