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Teresa of Avila
Committed to Christ and walking in the Spirit, this faithful servant defied corrupt authorities and pursued God's leading to bring reformation to the Church throughout Spain.

She was born Teresa Sanchez y Cepeda, a name whose aristocratic ring points to her father's vast wealth and social privilege. Rich enough to buy his shirt-cuffs and collars in Paris, he was yet denied admission to the most elite levels of society. For in 16th century Spain, "honour" was everything, and Teresa's grandfather had been Jewish.

In the midst of an unpromising service of rote-worship she beheld Christ wounded for her.

The town of Avila knew Teresa to be beautiful, an able chess-player, an accomplished horsewoman, and a fine dancer. Her teenage days in a convent-school left her thinking that she had been driven into a box that offered no escape. After all, marriage appeared loathsome in that it would entail a wife's servile submission to a tyrant-husband. Convent life, on the other hand, required its own form of submission. Her independent spirit raged at the dilemma. She was helped past it through reading the letters of Jerome, a theologian and spiritual guide from the Patristic era. Her feistiness now tempered by her vocation, she entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation at 21 years old.

To Teresa's surprise she relished convent life, never missing the clutter of former luxuries. Nevertheless, she was puzzled and then disquieted at a contemplative order that belittled protracted private prayer, content as it was to have outer liturgical formalities disguise inner spiritual impoverishment. The priest who had provided spiritual assistance to her dying father urged her to attend Holy Communion at least twice monthly and to persist in concentrated mental prayer. Gradually her inner aridity gave way to a spiritual fecundity that was to become famous the world over.

Helped by Augustine's Confessions, Teresa faced the horror of her sin-corrupted heart. In the midst of an unpromising service of rote-worship she beheld Christ wounded for her. "So great was my distress when I thought how ill I had repaid Him for those wounds," she blurted through her tears, "that I felt as if my heart was breaking, and I threw myself down beside him." At this point she began to undergo mystical visions and raptures. (She was 40 years old.)

Protestants tend to find all of this incomprehensible. But what are we to make of Paul's Damascus Road episode, when the vision and locution arrested and redirected the man whose doctrine Protestants cherish? We forget that his doctrine arose only as a result of his experience.

How can Protestants deny the mysticism of Isaiah's experience in the temple amidst incense-fumes that he saw to be nothing less than the train of God's royal robe? It left him convinced he was going to perish in the collision between his uncleanness and God's purity.

In any era, triflers resent those who have abandoned themselves to God …

What do Protestants make of God's "still, small voice" that Elijah heard more clearly than he heard an earthquake? Of God's lion-roar that caused Amos to roar in turn? And concerning our denominational foreparents, what are we to make of Charles Wesley's mysticism when he writes of being "drowned" in God, "lost" in His oceanic "immensity," "plunged" so deeply into God's depths as never to find his way out (or even want to)?

In any era, triflers resent those who have abandoned themselves to God and who dwell where the uncommitted gain no entry. Not surprisingly, then, the spiritual dabblers, who occupied the pulpits of Avila, reviled Teresa as deluded and dangerous to others. Undeflected, she knew God had summoned her to reform an order long since riddled with frivolity, shallowness, corruption, materialistic preoccupation; in her words, "the great evils that beset the church." She began her momentous task with only four sisters. They found a mud and stone house in Avila, so small and frail, said Teresa wryly, that "it wouldn't make much noise when it fell on Judgement Day."

The reformers proceeded on several fronts: frequent attendance at the Lord's Supper, renewed attention to spiritual direction, immersion in the works of the spiritual masters, discipline to fend off cavalier self-indulgence. Their influence rippled throughout Spain. A Jesuit at Salamanca, famous for a superb university which trained legions of intellectual, political and ecclesiastical leaders, pleaded with Teresa to establish a reformed house there.

As the reform movement spread, embarrassed church authorities scrambled for any pretext to sue, ceaselessly multiplying lawsuits against her for acting outside the authority of the Bishop.

At age 60 she met a Jesuit and brilliant graduate of Alcala University in Spain. Though half her age, he became her soul-mate, ending the isolation that mystical vividness had forced upon her. Undeterred by malicious and slanderous gossip, she continued the friendship; she knew that the deeper the Christian sinks into God, the more urgently a human soul-mate is needed.

The church's persecution reached its worst from 1576-1580. Imprisoned for one year at Toledo and then released, she was welcomed among sisters whom church authorities promptly excommunicated. Only the intervention of King Phillip (the civil authority) fended off the church's injustice and reinstated the nuns. Nothing daunted her. Upon departing a convent where community-life had degenerated into endless idle amusement, she denounced it: "I find a puerility about that house which is intolerable."

Ill-health shortly overtook Teresa. "We can die, but we cannot be conquered," she reminded those who shared her zeal. Two years later she slipped away, having told her readers that discerning God's will and desiring to do it above all else was everything. The prayerbook she was using at her death contained her "bookmark," the outpouring of her own heart:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

As recently as 1969 the Roman Catholic Church pronounced her Doctoris Ecclesiae, a "teacher" whom Catholics and Protestants alike should hear and heed. Her books have been translated into scores of languages. Apart from Cervantes' Don Quixote, her works are the most widely read today of any Spanish author.

Rev. Dr. Victor Shepherd is the minister at Streetsville United Church, Mississauga, Ontario. Author of five books, he is professor and chair of Wesley Studies at Ontario Theological Seminary in Toronto. His web site is This portrait of a Christian giant is one of 50 profiles of faithful servants included in Dr. Shepherd's book Witnesses to the Word, published by Clements Publishing.

Originally published in the Fellowship Magazine, September 1998




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