There are so many beloved saints named Teresa—Mother Teresa, Therese of Lisieux, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—that the first St. Teresa is easy to overlook. But Teresa of Avila is called “the great Teresa” for a reason: This absolutely legendary woman lived with a holiness and bold conviction that blaze brilliantly from the pages of history. Her extraordinary life offers many lessons to teach us today; these are just a few of them.
1First prayer, then action
As a young woman, St. Teresa began to pray in a meditative and contemplative conversation with God, commonly called “mental prayer,” and her friendship with Christ and deep love for Him blossomed accordingly. After a terrible illness, however, she stopped praying in this way, only joining in rote community prayers for over a year, because she convinced herself “that to refrain from prayer was a sign of greater humility,” according to her autobiography.
Not surprisingly, the decision to cease meditative prayer brought her emotional and spiritual suffering. She later called this time “the greatest temptation I had,” and said that “it nearly brought about my ruin.”
Fortunately, she found a holy and learned Dominican priest to be her confessor, and he soon set her aright. She never abandoned mental prayer again, and urged everyone to take up mental prayer as a regular habit. “The blessings possessed by one who practices prayer—I mean mental prayer—have been written of by many saints and good men … And anyone who has not begun to pray, I beg, for love of the Lord, not to miss so great a blessing.”
Her descriptions of mental prayer have become classic definitions of this spiritual practice. She wrote that mental prayer is “nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him Who we know loves us.” This friendship is the source of endless good in a person’s life, and bears great spiritual fruit. She assured her readers, “No one has ever taken [God] for a Friend without being rewarded.”
St. Teresa left a larger-than-life impact through her spiritual reforms, good works, and writings, even becoming the first female doctor of the Church. All of this sprung from the deep well of her profound and intimate friendship with God. Her life, like that of so many great saints, shows that apostolic efforts must always begin with, and be deeply rooted in, prayer. Put prayer and contemplation first, and your vocation and mission will naturally flow from that source.
Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross: A friendship that defies expectations
2Surround yourself with good friends and mentors
A theme that St. Teresa returns to in her autobiography, over and over, is the importance of keeping good and holy company. She speaks of friends and even confessors who came into her life at different times and drew her either closer to or farther away from God. “I have learned what great advantage comes from good companionship,” she wrote, a lesson she learned through hard experience.
She was so keenly aware of the impact friends can have on a person’s spiritual life that she encouraged those pursuing holiness to seek out holy friends to accompany them on the journey—what we might call an “accountability partner” today. She wrote,
I would advise those who practice prayer, especially at first, to cultivate friendship and intercourse with others of similar interests. This is a most important thing, if only because we can help each other by our prayers, and it is all the more so because it may bring us many other benefits.
She found the influence of friends to be such a critical factor that she paused her autobiography to address some advice to the parents of teenagers:
If I had to advise parents, I should tell them to take great care about the people with whom their children associate at such an age. Much harm may result from bad company and we are inclined by nature to follow what is worse rather than what is better.
Teenagers are especially susceptible to peer pressure, owing to their developmental need for social acceptance, but the principle holds true at any age.
3Take life, and yourself, lightly
It’s said that “The angels fly because they take themselves lightly,” and while that statement may be theologically suspect, it’s true that taking yourself lightly is a mark of holiness, because it requires real humility.
St. Teresa had a good sense of humor, especially regarding herself and her follies: She often mentions laughing about one thing or another, and at one point she writes, “Sometimes I laugh at myself and realize what a miserable creature I am.” Her humility is evident when she recounts her youthful indiscretions, or enumerates mistakes she made over the years, with candor and not a hint of self-righteousness.
Taking yourself lightly won’t make you fly, but probably will make you feel cheerful and pleasant. Even more importantly, it’s an attitude that springs from holy meekness, and as Christ told His followers, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land” (Mt 5:5).
Meekness might not be the first thing that comes to mind when the dauntless reformer St. Teresa of Avila is mentioned, but true meekness does not mean timidity or subjection. Rather, it refers to self-possession in the midst of adversity, a quality at which St. Teresa excelled as she faced the many trials of her life.
Without this spiritual director, Teresa of Avila may have never become a saint
These lessons are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the timeless wisdom in the great St. Teresa’s writings. For more, check out these 7 inspiring truths from her life and writings.