Today We Celebrate the Life and Witness of St. Teresa of Avila

An excerpt from “Love Poems From God” by Daniel Ladinsky,

(Penguin Compass, London: 2002)

(1515-1582)  “Teresa was born in Avila, a beautiful high mountain village of Spain.  She was one of thirteen children, three girls and ten boys, in a wealthy family.  The Spain in which Teresa grew up was permeated with 700 years of Arabian culture; the eradication of Arab power was followed by one of Spain’s darkest periods, the insanity of the Inquisitions, which, in the fourteenth century, along with other grievous deeds, forced mass conversions of Jews to Christianity.”

“Teresa was her father’s favourite child, and the most spirited.  Her mother died during childbirth when Teresa was thirteen, after which she had little supervision.  It is believed she had a lover at the age of fifteen, which caused her father to send her to a convent boarding school, only to see her return home two years later because of poor health.  When she was twenty-one, Teresa ran away from home to join a convent.  At that time many convents were more like hotels for women, allowing them a great deal more independence than they would be allowed at home, though after two years at the convent Teresa had a near-death experience that changed her life.  A spiritual awakening began in which she cultivated a system of meditation that sought quieting the mind to such an extent that God could then be heard speaking.  Over the next twenty years she experienced many mystical states but not until she was fifty did she begin the most far-reaching aspects of her life’s work.”

St. Teresa of Avila “had a great desire for learning and when the Inquisition, in 1559, forbade women to read, Teresa turned to God and asked God to teach her soul about divine love.  She then began to write completely out of her own experience.  Many of her poems are, in fact, intimate accounts of her communion with God. 

The Church’s persecution of Teresa had not waned when she passed away and was buried in Alba de Tormes in 1582.  A year after her death some of her disciples, feeling that she might have wished to be buried in Avila, had her body exhumed.  When her body was found to be perfectly intact and emitting a wonderful fragrance, her sainthood was formally decreed, allowing the publication and preservation of some of her works.

Most of what we see today of Teresa’s work is probably reined way back, for her writings fell into the hands and under the control of the very forces that had so opposed her throughout her life.”

“Teresa of Avila is undoubtedly the most influential saint in the Western world, and she has made great contributions to spiritual literature and poetry.  She was a woman of tremendous courage who is rightfully credited with the remarkable political and religious reform achieved against the strongest—and most insidious—chauvinistic forces.”

“A realistic picture of Teresa’s life did not even reach the English-reading general public until the 1960s.  She was known to have had a remarkable quick wit and a stunning, even provocative, sense of humour, as well as a great physical beauty.  Her complete works include seven books, four hundred and fifty letters, and assorted poetry.  Her writings are considered masterpieces of mystical prose and verse. She personally founded seventeen Carmelite convents and two monasteries, despite enormous opposition from the Church and other men in power.”

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