Less than twenty years
before Teresa was born in 1515, Columbus opened up the Western Hemisphere to European colonization. Two years after she was
born, Luther started the Protestant Reformation. Out of all of this change came Teresa pointing the way from outer turmoil
to inner peace.
Teresa's father was
rigidly honest and pious, but he may have carried his strictness to extremes. Teresa's mother loved romance novels but because
her husband objected to these fanciful books, she hid the books from him. This put Teresa in the middle -- especially since
she liked the romances too. Her father told her never to lie but her mother told her not to tell her father. Later she said
she was always afraid that no matter what she did she was going to do everything wrong.
When she was five
years old she convinced her older brother that they should, as she says in her Life, "go off to the land of the Moors and
beg them, out of love of God, to cut off our heads there." They got as far as the road from the city before an uncle found
them and brought them back. Some people have used this story as an early example of sanctity, but this author think it's better
used as an early example of her ability to stir up trouble.
After this incident
she led a fairly ordinary life, though she was convinced that she was a horrible sinner. As a teenager, she cared only about
boys and clothes and flirting and rebelling -- like other teenagers throughout the ages. When she was 16, her father decided
she was out of control and sent her to a convent. At first she hated it but eventually she began to enjoy it -- partly because
of her growing love for God, and partly because the convent was a lot less strict than her father.
Still, when the time
came for her to choose between marriage and religious life, she had a tough time making the decision. She'd watched a difficult
marriage ruin her mother. On the other hand being a nun didn't seem like much fun. When she finally chose religious life,
she did so because she though that it was the only safe place for someone as prone to sin as she was.
Once installed at
the Carmelite convent permanently, she started to learn and practice mental prayer, in which she "tried as hard as I could
to keep Jesus Christ present within me....My imagination is so dull that I had no talent for imagining or coming up with great
theological thoughts." Teresa prayed this way off and on for eighteen years without feeling that she was getting results.
Part of the reason for her trouble was that the convent was not the safe place she assumed it would be.
Many women who had
no place else to go wound up at the convent, whether they had vocations or not. They were encouraged to stay away from the
convents for long period of time to cut down on expenses. Nuns would arrange their veils attractively and wear jewelry. Prestige
depended not on piety but on money. There was a steady stream of visitors in the parlor and parties that included young men.
What spiritual life there was involved hysteria, weeping, exaggerated penance, nosebleeds, and self- induced visions.
Teresa suffered the
same problem that Francis of Assisi did -- she was too charming. Everyone liked her and she liked to be liked. She found it
too easy to slip into a worldly life and ignore God. The convent encouraged her to have visitors to whom she would teach mental
prayer because their gifts helped the community economy. But Teresa got more involved in flattery, vanity and gossip than
spiritual guidance. These weren't great sins perhaps but they kept her from God.
Then Teresa fell ill
with malaria. When she had a seizure, people were so sure she was dead that after she woke up four days later she learned
they had dug a grave for her. Afterwards she was paralyzed for three years and was never completely well. Yet instead of helping
her spiritually, her sickness became an excuse to stop her prayer completely: she couldn't be alone enough, she wasn't healthy
enough, and so forth. Later she would say, "Prayer is an act of love, words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from
thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love."
For years she hardly
prayed at all "under the guise of humility." She thought as a wicked sinner she didn't deserve to get favors from God. But
turning away from prayer was like "a baby turning from its mother's breasts, what can be expected but death?"
When she was 41, a
priest convinced her to go back to her prayer, but she still found it difficult. "I was more anxious for the hour of prayer
to be over than I was to remain there. I don't know what heavy penance I would not have gladly undertaken rather than practice
prayer." She was distracted often: "This intellect is so wild that it doesn't seem to be anything else than a frantic madman
no one can tie down." Teresa sympathizes with those who have a difficult time in prayer: "All the trials we endure cannot
be compared to these interior battles."
Yet her experience
gives us wonderful descriptions of mental prayer: "For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing
between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to
think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God
As she started to
pray again, God gave her spiritual delights: the prayer of quiet where God's presence overwhelmed her senses, raptures where
God overcame her with glorious foolishness, prayer of union where she felt the sun of God melt her soul away. Sometimes her
whole body was raised form the ground. If she felt God was going to levitate her body, she stretched out on the floor and
called the nuns to sit on her and hold her down. Far from being excited about these events, she "begged God very much not
to give me any more favors in public."
In her books, she
analyzed and dissects mystical experiences the way a scientist would. She never saw these gifts as rewards from God but the
way he "chastised" her. The more love she felt the harder it was to offend God. She says, "The memory of the favor God has
granted does more to bring such a person back to God than all the infernal punishments imaginable."
Her biggest fault
was her friendships. Though she wasn't sinning, she was very attached to her friends until God told her "No longer do I want
you to converse with human beings but with angels." In an instant he gave her the freedom that she had been unable to achieve
through years of effort. After that God always came first in her life.
Some friends, however,
did not like what was happening to her and got together to discuss some "remedy" for her. Concluding that she had been deluded
by the devil, they sent a Jesuit to analyze her. The Jesuit reassured her that her experiences were from God but soon everyone
knew about her and was making fun of her.