By Susan A. Muto, Ph.D.
Many and varied are the ways in which one can live a life of dedication to Jesus, of
unswerving service to him, as our Divine Master, and to his Bride, the Church. At the basis of all
that we do must be who we are as women and men committed to the practice of unceasing prayer,
which, in the oft quoted words of Saint Teresa of Avila, “is nothing else than an intimate friendship,
a frequent heart to heart conversation with him whom we know loves us.”
The spirit of Holy Mother lives in the hearts of believers who sense that they have received
the grace of a personal call to follow Christ more humbly and intensely. In 1553, at the age of 38,
Teresa herself had a profound religious experience that jolted her to a renewal of fervor in her
personal life. She put her “adolescent frivolity” behind her and began the work of restoring the
primitive rule of Carmel without the mitigations under which she had lived at the Convent of the
Incarnation. This courageous reformer and daughter/doctor of the Church grew daily in the
conviction that her life should be given wholly to prayer and to the service of his Majesty for the
good of the whole church. This boundless love for the Lord and his “little flock” is central to
Teresian spirituality; it is both the wellspring of her inspiration and the secret of her amazing energy,
resourcefulness, and courage in the stormy events surrounding the reform.
With unfailing good humor and deep humility, she saw the fruits of her efforts during her
own lifetime. When she died at the age of 67 in 1582, she could say in peace, “I served the Lord
with my poor prayers, and I always persuaded the sisters to do the same and to be zealous for the
good of souls and the increase of his Church.”
Teresian spirituality is as formative as it is foundational, spreading the fire of love throughout
religious and secular life around the world. The way she prescribes is not aimless or untrod, for
Christ is the Way. It is he who calls and he who leads; it is to him that we must make the love-gift
of our lives. “Our greatest help and blessing. . . is the most sacred Humanity of Our Lord Jesus
Christ. For the Lord himself says he is the Way; the Lord also says that he is the Light and no one
can come to the Father save by him.” The person of Jesus stands at the beginning and the end of the
contemplative life; union with him is inseparable from an abiding solicitude for his Church and an
habitual desire to imitate him in all our deeds.
We find in the life of this saint the harmonious integration of solitude and solidarity, of
mysticism and ministry. She may have lived in cloistered simplicity behind the walls of Carmel, but
her message of humility, detachment, and charity extends to anyone with ears to hear it. What lies
at the heart of her wisdom?
First of all, she teaches us the true meaning of Christian liberation. It is a paradox we can
never fully fathom, for to find our deepest self we must lose ourselves in Christ. To gain inner
freedom and the joy of being sons and daughters of God, we must renounce all for God’s sake.
Secondly, we see in our model and mentor a perfect blending of the inspirational and the
incarnational, of contemplation and action. We know that from 1560 until shortly before her death
she was active in founding new convents throughout the region. In the midst of all this detailed
organization, she was receiving interior graces so intense that she records for us the exact date on
which the grace of spiritual marriage was given to her, November 18, 1572. Truly Martha and Mary
met in Teresa of Avila. She was the living integration of femininity and functionality; of prayerful
receptivity and active participation in the world; of total abandonment to our Lord Jesus Christ and
of loving service to his Church.
Thirdly, she is a master of mystical theology. In her description of prayer as conversation
with Christ, she assures us that we can tell our Beloved whatever we think and feel. Most of all we
can show him in our prayer utter adoration while voicing the truth that without him we are and can
do nothing. The ground of Christian prayer can be none other than radical humility. We have to
experience, as it were, a kind of “ego desperation”–the failure of plans and projects that are merely
ego-oriented because we have forgotten to listen to God. It is exactly in such moments of human
failure that we may be willing to acknowledge that God alone is our strength. In her words, God
Humility is the sister of detachment, which for her is not an exclusive but an inclusive virtue.
In detachment we cling to our Creator and let go of lesser “gods” of our own making. When we
embrace God totally, we embrace everything in him, not for its own sake but as a manifestation of
God’s goodness. As we live more and more in this attitude of inner detachment, we die to our
egoism and regain our true self made in the image and likeness of God.
The fruits of this embrace show up in the self-giving quality of Christian love–a love marked
by peaceful reconciliation, discretion, patience, and empathy. “In this house,” she wrote, “all must
be friends. . .love each other, be fond of each other and help each other.” These three directives
apply not only to human formation; they also impart in a lively way the wisdom of the Christian
revelation. To love one another is ultimately only possible because God has first loved us (1 John
4:10). To live realistically in detachment leads us from the bondage of the pride-form to the freedom
of the children of God, who lay aside their former way of life and acquire a fresh, spiritual way of
thinking (Ephesians 4:22-32). To walk in the truth of who we are is to imitate Christ, who humbled
himself for our sakes, becoming one of us in all things but sin (Philippians 2:6-7).
Christian spirituality is built on the three pillars of charity, renunciation, and truth, or of love
for one another (chastity), detachment (poverty of spirit), and humility (obedience). Chaste,
respectful loving, letting go of excess, listening to God’s will as disclosed in each situation–these
three foundations reflect the Trinitarian bond between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Lastly, no influence was more fundamental or vital to Teresian spirituality than the Word of
God, pondered in privacy and celebrated in liturgy, word, and sacrament. God’s presence is the
substance and plentitude we prayerful pilgrims seek to find over a lifetime. To follow Saint Teresa
means to immerse ourselves in the scriptures and the writings of the spiritual masters, letting the
Word of God permeate our entire being until we are formed in the mind of Christ himself. “The
sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, must abound in your mouths and hearts; let all you do have
God’s Word for accompaniment.” So says the Rule of Carmel. Only then can our whole person,
body and soul, spirit and heart, mind and will, proclaim with the Apostle Paul, “It is no longer I who
live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Teresa spent her life teaching us how to draw all
things to Jesus until that day when we find our way home, resting eternally in the bosom of the