Contemplative Profiles: Teresa of Avila

Teresa of Avila (1515 to 1582) is remembered as a practical mystic whose combination of contemplation and service make her a particularly friendly guide for Protestants seeking an introduction to contemplative practices. Her writings on spirituality, the soul, and spiritual direction are viewed as classics, and she used her considerable leadership abilities to found 14 Carmelite convents–a point that made her less than popular among the defensive men leading the church throughout Spain during her lifetime.

While we would do well to remember the writings of Teresa, another aspect of her legacy may provide particular encouragement. Her first 20 years in a convent were largely unproductive as she wavered with her commitment and struggled with sin. It took a dramatic spiritual encounter with Christ to finally propel her into deeper spiritual practices.

How many of us have worried about missing opportunities to draw near to God or struggling with sins for years? Teresa reminds us that there is always hope.

The Interior Castle is one of her best-known books on prayer, but this brief profile in Christian History offers a helpful introduction:


“Whoever has not begun the practice of prayer, I beg for the love of the Lord not to go without so great a good. There is nothing here to fear but only something to desire.”


The Interior Castle describes the soul as a “castle made entirely of diamond or of a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms.” Some are above, some below, some to the sides, “and in the very center and middle is the main dwelling place where the very secret exchanges between God and the soul take place.” Teresa wanted to teach her readers how to enter this castle, that is, how to pray, so that they might commune more intimately with God.


For Teresa true suffering comes from being in the world and serving others. Spiritual progress is measured neither by self-imposed penance nor by the sweetest pleasures of mystical experiences but by growth in constant love for others and an increasing desire within for the will of God.


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For Reflection

How have your attempts at prayer been stifled by fear?