By Lisa Rosenlund,
Saint Brendan Parish Manager
Each week, we summarize a specific style, form, or approach to prayer, using the highly-acclaimed book by Robert J. Wicks, Prayer in the Catholic Tradition: A Handbook of Practical Approaches (Franciscan Media 2006). In this article, you’ll learn more about prayer in the tradition of Saint Teresa of Ávila.
We learned in a prior bulletin article on Carmelite prayer that three Carmelites are both saints and Doctors of the Universal Church: Saint Teresa of Ávila, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. In this article we spotlight Saint Teresa. The next two articles will focus on Saint John and Saint Thérèse.
Saint Teresa lived during the latter part of the Middle Ages (1515-1582) in Ávila, Spain. Over the objection of her father, Teresa and her mother were avid readers of chivalric romance books similar to today’s Harlequin romance novels. This genre of fantasies was popular in the aristocratic circles of late Medieval Europe and narrated tales of heroic wandering knights on a quest, slaying dragons and rescuing damsels in distress.
Teresa’s paternal grandfather was a Jewish convert who temporarily reverted to Judaism, for which he performed public penance in primarily Catholic Spain. Despite the lapse of her grandfather, Teresa’s father was a devout Catholic and prayer was a regular practice in her home. Teresa wrote later that before sleeping she always made the sign of the cross and pondered Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane (326). This formed the beginning of her style of contemplative prayer.
Saint Teresa’s voracious appetite for reading extended to spiritual books and ultimately led to her becoming the first female Doctor of the Church. She said of herself: “My fondness for good books was my salvation” (323). The ideas she developed about prayer swept not only through Spain but all of Europe. In 1577, Teresa wrote The Interior Castle, her guide to spiritual development through service and prayer, which became a classic.
Although Teresa outgrew her attraction to romantic literature as it fell out of fashion, the impact of her early “education” is evident in her later writing. Her gift for storytelling and distinctive use of romantic imagery in her spiritual works delights readers even now. Her books are appealing because they are simple, relatable, and uplifting.
We may think that to be a saint and a Doctor of the Church, you must be perfect. Writing these articles has taught me that isn’t true. As Oscar Wilde said, “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” The papal nuncio Felipe Sega famously described Saint Teresa as a “vagabond of a woman, disobedient and contumacious.” Many years later, Saint John Paul II would retort that Teresa was “God’s vagabond” (325).
As an “Experienced Navigator,” I am heartened that I am writing about Saint Teresa’s seminal book on prayer in 2018, over 400 years after she wrote it at the age of 62. It’s never too late for prayer to lead you to make a difference in the world.