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Saint Teresa of Avila - Life at the Incarnation

Continued from page 1 (Saint Teresa of Avila: Biographical Sketch - The Early Years)

The following selection, a brief biography of St. Teresa of Avila, is taken from The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, volume 1, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, with revisions and introductions by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD. Revised edition, copyright 1987 by the Washington Province of Discalced Carmelite Friars, Inc. Published by ICS Publications, Washington, D.C.

Life at the Incarnation

Recent studies have shown that at the time of Teresa's entry the Incarnation numbered among eleven Carmelite monasteries for nuns in Spain. Its canonical status lay midway between that of the sanctimoniales, those with the obligation to choir office and enclosure, and that of the beaterios, where the life resembled tertiary life. The nuns were required to recite the Divine Office but not to observe enclosure. They engaged in no outside forms of service. Some two hundred persons, including servants and nuns' relatives, were living together at the Incarnation in Teresa's days there.

Contrary to common belief, religious life at the Incarnation was austere. Days each week were set aside for fasting and abstinence; silence was carefully maintained so as to encourage the spirit of continual prayer. With many kinds of detailed, minute rubrics, the Divine Office was celebrated in solemnity and splendor. No time, however, was designated in the legislation for mental prayer -- a deficiency not without its drawbacks in what must have been a crowded monastery. Novices received instructions about the Carmelite order, its eremitical origins, its devotion to the Blessed Virgin and to the prophets Elijah and Elisha. They were also trained in the practice of the intricate ceremonies used in the chanting of the Divine Office.

Oddly enough and irrespective of the Carmelite rule's exhortation to continual prayer, Teresa states that until reading Osuna's Third Spiritual Alphabet, given to her later by her uncle, she didn't know how to go about praying or being recollected. The spiritual books she mentions were by Franciscan not Carmelite authors, and she offers no clear indication of receiving instruction about mental prayer during her novitiate training.

Although Teresa's decision about her vocation had been costly, once she was inside the monastery she threw herself into the life with zest and found that it, in fact, delighted her. But shortly after her profession, which took place two years later, her health gave way once more. Authors can only speculate about the nature of this illness. Teresa herself attributes it to the food and lifestyle at the Incarnation. Some are of the opinion that she suffered a kind of nervous breakdown from the strain and tension brought on by her great hunger to please God on the one hand and the awareness of her own faults and distractions on the other. After the doctors admitted they could find no cure for her sickness, her worried father decided to bring her to Becedas for treatment by a quack, famous there for many cures. The harsh, painful methods of cure, lasting three months, only aggravated Teresa's poor condition; in fact they almost killed her. She was brought back, a pitiful sight, to Avila, where she remained an invalid and paralytic for three years -- until, as she devoutly testifies, through the intercession of her glorious father St. Joseph, she was able to walk again. But, probably as a consequence, she suffered the rest of her life from miserable health, a wide variety of illnesses. Antonio Aguiar, after his medical examination of Teresa when she was sixty-seven and nearing the end of her life, claimed that it was impossible to find the focal cause of her illnesses because her body had become a whole arsenal of ailments.

Able to get about again, Teresa next experienced a protracted period of great difficulty with prayer. She writes: "And very often, for some years, I was more anxious that the hour I had determined to spend in prayer be over than I was to remain there... and so unbearable was the sadness I felt on entering the oratory, that I had to muster up all my courage" (ch. 8, 7). According to Fr. Efrén, her most recent biographer, her difficulties amounted chiefly to a problem of technique. She didn't realize that the mind, or imagination, and feelings can wander, as St. John of the Cross points out, while the soul on a deeper level may remain quiet in a hardly perceptible contemplation. These difficulties with prayer went on for about eighteen years until she experienced before a very devotional image of the wounded Christ and again while reading from the Confessions of St. Augustine some unusually strong and efficacious feelings of compunction. On these two occasions of peak experience she learned to lose completely any trust she had in herself and place it all in His Majesty.

Compunction is a basic sentiment running through the entire Life. To the undiscerning or inexperienced, Teresa's outpourings of compunction might seem like exaggerated guilt feelings. But for Teresa, true sorrow does not disquiet, does not agitate. Her compunction consoled her; permeated with humility, it was a gift -- quiet, gentle, and in the light (ch. 30, 9). The Desert Fathers, in fact, constantly exhorted their disciples to pray for the gift of compunction, the gift of tears. These Fathers felt that when the soul was softened by this interior weeping, God would give the experience of his light; in the shadow of sorrow was to be found the spiritual joy of enlightenment. And so it was with Teresa. In addition, her feelings of compunction later became more intense through the mystical experience she had of God's transcendent majesty, and of the shabbiness of sin beside His boundless outpouring love. Spiritual humiliations preceded her spiritual exaltations. "I don't recall His ever having granted me one of the very notable favors of which I shall speak if not at a time when I was brought to nothing at the sight of my wretchedness" (ch. 22, 12).

Teresa began, then, at the time of this conversion, to experience passively and in a living way the presence of God in the center of her soul. To qualify experiences in prayer that she couldn't acquire through her own efforts but that were experienced passively Teresa often used the term "supernatural." With the onset of the supernatural another, new life began for her. "This is another, new book from here on" (ch. 23, 1).

Unfamiliar, unusual experiences started to occur, and Teresa, not yet enlightened about the stages of prayer, felt the surge of a new fear. "His Majesty began to give me the prayer of quiet very habitually -- and often, of union -- which lasted a long while. Since at that time other women had fallen into serious illusions and deceptions caused by the devil, I began to be afraid" (ch. 23, 2). The fear so increased that, she says, it made her diligently seek spiritual persons for consultations, marking the beginning of her struggles to explain her supernatural experiences. This recourse to spiritual men, and learned ones as well, led ultimately to the writing of her Life.

Continue Reading: Saint Teresa of Avila - In the Context of Her Times

This selection from The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, volume 1 is offered for your personal use as an individual reader only. Please note that this material is copyrighted. It may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information, storage or retrieval system without prior written permission from the publisher.