St. Teresa of Ávila, Doctor of the Church, was a great reformer of the Carmelite order in 16th century, as well as a mystic and warrior of the Counter-Reformation.
Yes, she was a recipient of visions, ecstasies, and other unusual graces—but she was also a deeply practical Prioress who made sure that her nuns “got enough sleep” and “took care of their health” and didn’t take on wildly harsh penances.
Her personality was vivid, strong, determined, even sassy—and it was full of good humor. I also hear rumors that she was exceptionally good at playing the castanets during monastic recreation.
Grace and Wisdom in the Letters of St. Teresa of Ávila
Interior Castle is the book that is inseparable from her name.
The collected letters of Teresa of Jesus, however, are not well known.
Of course, these letters don’t contain the same sublime content as that of Interior Castle—they are far more hastily written; mostly containing practical advice, details of travel, encouragement or rebuke to various persons; everyday advice (“Don’t get out of bed in the middle of the night to pray” to a too-zealous woman) and even humorous anecdotes. There is occasional “code language” used for motives of humility, for example—probably to conceal Teresa’s special graces from the prying eyes of the time.
These letters are a fascinating glimpse into history, including descriptions of travel in the 16th century, the everyday conversation of Spanish Catholics in that day, and deeply human concerns.
They also contain gems of wit and wisdom.
Here are twelve of them.
1. “Your imperfections do not shock me, for I see myself with so many.”
St. Teresa wrote this to a layman who—in addition to assisting her work in the outside world, whether with business transactions for new foundations or defending her good name from those who attacked her and her work—had asked for spiritual advice.
It could just as well be written to any of us.
Here we have a saint reminding us that true humility is to have no surprise at our own faults.
Rather than being upset by them, we should give them to God cheerfully, and seek to “do better next time.”
2. “I would not want any other prayer than that which makes the virtues grow in me. If it should be accompanied by great temptations, dyness, and trials leaving me with greater humility, I would consider it a good prayer. That prayer is the best prayer that pleases God the most.”
We human beings have one idea of prayer.
God has another.
Sometimes we need to rethink how we feel about prayer. We can’t avoid because it’s boring, fear it because it’s difficult, torment ourselves because it’s dry, or expect to “feel good about it.”
True prayer makes us grow in virtue, says St. Teresa. If it’s easy—but we’re not growing in virtue—it’s not good prayer.
Of course, joy in prayer is also a reality, and a gift!
But often, when God is drawing us to deeper prayer, or to purification, He will remove consolation and allow us to enter a spiritual desert.
3. “It shouldn’t be thought that he who suffers isn’t praying, for he is offering this to God. And often he is praying much more than the one who is breaking his head in solitude, thinking that if he has squeezed out some tears he is thereby praying.”
More of the same wisdom. Anguish offered to God becomes prayer.
We may be suffering so greatly that words leave us and prayer seems impossible. If we give that to Our Lord, however, it becomes a prayer.
4. “Leave it all to God and leave your interests in His hands. He knows what is fitting for us…”
This is hard, isn’t it?
Fallen human nature struggles to trust God. We doubt that He will supply all our needs. We fear what He might ask of us.
No matter: tell Him honestly, candidly, and ask Him to help you trust Him.
5. “Let us do our part, and God will then do what He wills. This is God’s cause, and all will end well. My hope is in Him; do not be distressed.”
We certainly need to remember this in our present day. Our fears for our Church, country, family, and community are real—and they need to be given to God.
For those of us who love the ancient Liturgy of the Church—and are dismayed by the new motu proprio that suppresses its growth—we need to remember: “This is God’s cause.”
We pray and hope and do what we can, and He will take care of the rest.
6. “God knows how to draw good from evil. And the good is all the greater in the measure that we diligently strive that He not be offended in anything.”
“Drawing good out of good is not so hard,” writes Fr. Jacques Philippe in his book Interior Freedom. “But God alone, in his omnipotence, his love and his wisdom, can draw good from evil.”
He’s echoing the wisdom of the saints.
Still—as Teresa reminds us—let us do what we can to avoid adding to the “evil” that God must work with.
7. “Often the Lord allows a fall so that the soul will be more humble, and when it returns to the right way of acting and grows in self-knowledge, it advances further in the service of our Lord, as we see among many saints.”
Pride is dangerous.
We can fast and pray and tithe—and still be puffed up with pride. Frightening thought, isn’t it?
As the good saint reminds us, God often permits us to fall, to be humbled by our sinfulness, and thus to grow in wisdom and self-knowledge.
8. “I have taken particular care to pray to the Lord for those who think I am angry with them.”
Do you dislike someone? Pray for them.
Are you wondering whether you’ve forgiven someone? Well, if you are able to pray for them, that’s a sign that you truly have forgiven them.
Do certain people dislike you? Or think you hate them?
Pray for them, says Teresa of Ávila.
9. “Courage, courage, my daughters. Remember that God does not give anyone more trials than can be suffered and that His Majesty is with the afflicted. For this is certain, there is no reason to fear but to hope in his mercy. He will reveal the whole truth; and some machinations, which the devil kept hidden so as to create a disturbance, wil be made known.”
C.S. Lewis said that courage is “not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
We need courage to live life to the full, to face suffering, and to tackle challenges.
And of course Holy Mother Teresa is not inventing anything new in this quote of hers regarding courage in suffering. Her words echo St. Paul:
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.1 Corinthians 10:13
10. “Prize being able to help God carry the cross and don’t be clinging to delights, for it is the trait of mercenary soldiers to want their daily pay at once. Serve without charge, as the grandees do their king. The king of heaven be with you.”
I am reminded of a homily I once heard when I read these words of Teresa of Ávila. It was a homily I’ve never forgotten.
In it, the priest reminded the congregation that God is not a “gumball machine” from which we extract the “gumball” of our desires with the “coin” of prayer.
In the same way, true love for God isn’t built on the hope of receiving “good things” or “good feelings”—we love Him in order to love Him. We love Him because He is: because He is God, and because He is good.
11. “It seems to me, my daughter, that everything passes so quickly that we should be thinking more about how to die than how to live.”
Yes, we must live well.
But we must also desire to die well. Death is really a door, and we want to be ready to meet God when that door opens.
Life is short, says Teresa, so let us remember that we will die one day. Memento memori—the wisdom of the saints.
May God grant us the grace to die in His grace!
12. “You should know that as long as I live, I desire to do something in God’s service.”
Oh, St. Teresa, pray for all of us, that we too might have the desire to “do something in God’s service.”
As I mentioned earlier, the collected letters of St. Teresa of Ávila reveal the saint’s humanity. I was surprised—laughed out loud even—when I came across a certain anecdote in one of her letters. I couldn’t resist sharing.
Teresa was writing to Fr. Jerónimo Gracian, a priest as important in her life as St. John of the Cross—in fact, she so respected and trusted Fr. Jerónimo that she made a personal vow of obedience to him.
Think of it: she’s writing to her spiritual father, and what does she do? She tells him a hilarious story (alarming to her) in which a lizard crawls into her habit!
“Oh, mi padre, what a terrible thing happened to me! While we were sitting on a haystack considering ourselves lucky to have found it, next to an inn that we were unable to enter, a large salamander or lizard got in between my tunic and bare arm, and it was the mercy of God that it didn’t get in somewhere else, for I think I would have died, judging from what I felt. But my brother got hold of it at once and when he threw it away, it hit Antonio Ruiz right in the mouth.”St. Teresa of Ávila, writing to Fr. Jerónimo de la Madre de Dios (Gracian)
Whenever you think of St. Teresa of Ávila—or any saint—as being so holy as to seem inhuman, just remember that a hysterical Teresa had to be rescued from a salamander by her brother, who then threw it in someone else’s face.
May this story (and the previous quotes) be a source of inspiration and joy for you.
What is your favorite thing about St. Teresa of Ávila?
How has she interceded on your behalf?
What other saints do you want to hear about?
Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below! We want to hear from you.