Benedict XVI - General Audiences
On St. Teresa of Avila
"She Presents Prayer as an Intimate Friendship with Christ"
H.H. Benedict XVI
February 2, 2011
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In the course of the catecheses that I dedicated to the fathers of the
Church and to great figures of theologians and of women of the Middle
Ages, I was able to reflect also on some men and women saints who have
been proclaimed doctors of the Church for their eminent doctrine. Today
I would like to initiate a brief series of meetings to complete this
presentation of the doctors of the Church. And I begin with a saint who
represents one of the highest examples of Christian spirituality of all
times: St. Teresa of Avila (of Jesus).
Born in Avila, Spain, in 1515 with the name Teresa de Ahumada, in her
autobiography she herself mentions some particulars of her childhood:
birth from "virtuous and God-fearing parents" in a numerous family, with
nine brothers and three sisters. While still a child, less than 9 years
old, she read the lives of some martyrs that inspired her with the
desire for martyrdom, so much so that she improvised a brief flight from
home to die a martyr and go to heaven (cf. "Life," 1, 4): "I want to see
God," said the little girl to her parents. Some years later, Teresa
would speak of her childhood readings and affirmed that she discovered
the truth, which she summarized in two fundamental principles: on one
hand, "the fact that all that belongs to this word passes," on the
other, that only God is "for ever, ever, ever" -- a theme that returns
in the very famous poem "Let nothing disturb you / nothing affright you;
/ all things are passing . God is unchanging; / patience obtains
everything; / he who possesses God / lacks nothing / God alone
suffices!" Remaining orphaned of her mother at 12 years old, she asked
the Virgin Most Holy to be her mother (cf. "Life," 1, 7).
If in her adolescence the reading of profane books led her to the
distractions of a worldly life, her experience as a pupil of Augustinian
nuns of St. Mary of Graces of Avila and the frequentation of spiritual
books, especially classics of Franciscan spirituality, taught her
recollection and prayer. At the age of 20, she entered the Carmelite
convent of the Incarnation, still in Avila; in religious life she
assumed the name Teresa of Jesus. Three years later, she became
seriously ill, so much so that she was in a coma for four days,
seemingly dead (cf. "Life," 5, 9). In the struggle against her illnesses
the saint also saw the fight against weaknesses and resistance to God's
call: "I wanted to live," she wrote, "because I understood well that I
was not living, but I was fighting with a shadow of death, and I had no
one to give me life, nor could I give it to myself, and he who could
give it to me was right not to help me, given that so many times he had
turned me toward him and I abandoned him" ("Life," 8, 2).
In 1543 she lost the closeness of relatives: her father died and all her
brothers emigrated one after the other to America. In Lent of 1554, at
39 years of age, Teresa reached the culmination of her struggle against
her weaknesses. The fortuitous discovery of the statue of "a very
wounded Christ" marked her life profoundly (cf. "Life," 9). The saint,
who in that period found profound consonance with the St. Augustine of
the Confessions, describes in this way the decisive day of her mystical
experience: "It happened ... that all of a sudden I had a sense of the
presence of God, which in no way could I doubt was within me or that I
was all absorbed in him" ("Life," 10, 1).
In a parallel manner to the maturation of her interiority, the saint
began to develop concretely the ideal of the reform of the Carmelite
Order: In 1562 she founded in Avila, with the support of the bishop of
the city, Father Alvaro de Mendoza, the first reformed Carmel, and
shortly after she also received the approval of the superior-general of
the Order, Giovanni Battista Rossi. In subsequent years she continued
the foundation of new Carmels, 17 in total. Her meeting with St. John of
the Cross was essential; with him in 1568 she constituted the first
convent of Discalced Carmelites in Duruelo, near Avila. In 1580 she
obtained from Rome the establishment of an autonomous province for her
reformed Carmelites, the starting point of the Religious Order of
Teresa finished her earthly life precisely while she was committed in
the activity of foundation. In 1582, in fact, after having constituted
the Carmel of Burgos and while she was on her way back to Avila, she
died on the night of Oct. 15 in Alba de Tormes, repeating humbly two
expressions: "In the end, I die a daughter of the Church" and "It is
time now, my Spouse, that we see you." An existence consumed within
Spain but often for the whole Church.
Beatified by Pope Paul V in 1614 and canonized in 1622 by Gregory XV,
she was proclaimed a doctor of the Church by the Servant of God Paul VI
Teresa of Jesus did not have an academic formation, but she always
treasured the teachings of theologians, men of letters and spiritual
teachers. As a writer, she always held to what she had personally lived
or seen in the experience of others (cf. Prologue to "The Way of
Perfection"), namely, from experience. Teresa was able to enjoy
relationships of friendship with many saints, in particular with St.
John of the Cross. At the same time, she was nourished by reading the
fathers of the Church, St. Jerome, St. Gregory the Great, St. Augustine.
Among her major works, the most notable is her autobiography, titled
"Book of Life," which she called "Book of the Mercies of the Lord."
Composed in the Carmel of Avila in 1565, it reviews her biographical and
spiritual history, written, as Teresa herself affirms, to submit her
soul to the discernment of St. John of Avila, "Teacher of the
spiritual." The purpose was to point out the presence and the action of
the merciful God in her life: Because of this, the work often returns to
the dialogue of prayer with the Lord. It is fascinating reading because
the saint not only recounts, but shows that she relives the profound
experience of her relationship with God. In 1566, Teresa wrote "The Way
of Perfection," which she called "Admonitions and Counsels that Teresa
of Jesus Gives to her Nuns." The recipients were the 12 novices of the
Carmel of St. Joseph of Avila. Teresa proposed to them an intense
program of contemplative life at the service of the Church, the basis of
which were the evangelical virtues and prayer. Among the most precious
passages is the commentary on the Our Father, model of prayer.
The most famous mystical work of St. Teresa is "The Interior Castle,"
written in 1577, in her full maturity. It is a re-reading of her own
spiritual journey and, at the same time, a codification of the possible
development of Christian life toward its fullness, holiness, under the
action of the Holy Spirit. Teresa refers to the structure of a castle
with seven rooms, as an image of man's interiority, introducing, at the
same time, the symbol of the silkworm that is reborn as a butterfly, to
express the passage from the natural to the supernatural. The saint is
inspired by sacred Scriptures, in particular the Canticle of Canticles,
for the final symbol of "two Spouses," which allows us to describe, in
the seventh room, the culmination of the Christian life in its four
aspects: Trinitarian, Christological, anthropological and ecclesial.
Teresa dedicated the "Book of Foundations," written between 1573 and
1582, to her activity as founder of reformed Carmels, in which she
speaks of the life of the nascent religious group. As in the
autobiography, the account is intended to point out above all God's
action in the work of the foundation of new convents.
It is not easy to summarize in a few words the profound and complex
Teresian spirituality. I would like to mention some essential points. In
the first place, St. Teresa proposes the evangelical virtues as the
basis of all Christian and human life -- in particular, detachment from
goods or evangelical poverty (and this concerns all of us); love for one
another as the essential element of community and social life; humility
as love of the truth; determination as fruit of Christian audacity;
theological hope, which she describes as thirst for living water --
without forgetting the human virtues: affability, veracity, modesty,
courtesy, joy, culture. In the second place, St. Teresa proposes a
profound harmony with the great biblical personalities and intense
listening to the Word of God. She felt in consonance above all with the
bride of the Canticle of Canticles and with the Apostle Paul, as well as
with the Christ of the passion and with the Eucharistic Jesus.
The saint stressed how essential prayer is; to pray, she said, "means to
frequent with friendship, because we frequent him whom we know loves us"
("Life," 8, 5). St. Teresa's idea coincides with the definition that St.
Thomas Aquinas gives of theological charity, as "amicitia quaedam
hominis ad Deum," a type of friendship of man with God, who first
offered his friendship to man; the initiative comes from God (cf. Summa
Theologiae II-II, 23, 1). Prayer is life and it develops gradually at
the same pace with the growth of the Christian life: It begins with
vocal prayer, passes to interiorization through meditation and
recollection, until it attains union of love with Christ and with the
Most Holy Trinity. Obviously, it is not a development in which going up
to the higher steps means leaving behind the preceding type of prayer,
but is rather a gradual deepening of the relationship with God, which
envelops our whole life. More than a pedagogy of prayer, St. Teresa's is
a true "mystagogy": She teaches the reader of her works to pray while
praying herself with him; frequently, in fact, she interrupts the
account or exposition to burst out in a prayer.
Another topic dear to the saint is the centrality of the humanity of
Christ. In fact, for Teresa, the Christian life is a personal
relationship with Jesus, which culminates in union with him through
grace, love and imitation. Hence the importance that she attributes to
meditation on the passion and the Eucharist, as presence of Christ, in
the Church, for the life of every believer and as heart of the liturgy.
St. Teresa lived an unconditional love for the Church: She manifested an
intense "sensus Ecclesiae" in face of incidents of division and conflict
in the Church of her time. She reformed the Carmelite Order with the
intention of serving and defending better the "Holy Roman Catholic
Church," and she was prepared to give her life for it (cf. "Life," 33,
A final essential aspect of Teresian doctrine that I would like to
underscore is perfection, as the aspiration of the whole Christian life
and the final end of it. The saint had a very clear idea of "fullness"
in Christ, relived by the Christian. At the end of the course of "The
Interior Castle," in the last "stanza" Teresa describes this fullness,
realized in the indwelling of the Trinity, in union with Christ through
the mystery of his humanity.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Our catechesis today deals with Saint Teresa of Avila, the great
sixteenth-century Carmelite reformer proclaimed a Doctor of the Church
by Pope Paul VI. Teresa entered the Carmel of Avila at the age of
twenty. Maturing in the spiritual life, she embraced the ideal of a
renewal of her Order and with the support of Saint John of the Cross she
founded a chain of reformed Carmels throughout Spain. Her highly
influential writings, which include the Autobiography, The Way of
Perfection and The Interior Castle, reveal her profound christocentric
spirituality, and her breadth of human experience. Teresa considered the
evangelical and human virtues the basis of an authentic Christian life.
She identified deeply with Christ in his humanity and stressed the
importance of contemplation of his Passion and of his real presence in
the Eucharist. She presents prayer as an intimate friendship with Christ
leading to an ever greater union of love with the Blessed Trinity. In
her life and in her death Teresa embodied an unconditional love for the
Church. May the example and prayers of Saint Teresa of Avila inspire us
to greater fidelity to prayer and, through prayer, to greater love for
the Lord and his Church, and more perfect charity towards our brothers
I am pleased to greet the groups who have come from England, Norway,
Nigeria and the United States of America. Upon all the English-speaking
pilgrims and visitors present at today's Audience I cordially invoke
God's abundant blessings.
© Copyright 2011 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
[In Italian, he added the following greetings:]
I wish to greet affectionately the men and women religious and all
consecrated persons on this day that is dedicated in a special way to
consecrated life and to the liturgical feast of the Presentation of
Jesus in the Temple. Dear brothers and sisters, I bless each one of you
from my heart and your journey in the Church.
I address, finally young people, the sick and newlyweds. The day before
yesterday we celebrated the memorial of St. John Bosco, priest and
educator. Look to him, dear young people, as a genuine teacher of life
and holiness. You, dear sick, learn from his spiritual experience to
trust Christ Crucified in every circumstance. And you, dear newlyweds,
take recourse to his intercession so that he will help you to assume
with generosity your mission as spouses.
[Translation by ZENIT]
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