Teresa of Avila: Mystic, Visionary or Flourishing Woman?

Source: DepositPhotos/VIA Institute

By special guest blogger:
Claudia Morales Cueto

On this feast day of St. Teresa of Avila (October 15), I am reminded of when I first started reading her work during a very stressful time of my life. I wanted to learn how to pray and to find serenity. At that time, I was an executive editor for four monthly magazines and my son and daughter were coming-of-age, approaching new challenges in their teen years. This was a time of transformation. The writings of St Teresa, the 16th century mystic, not only showed me how to embrace change and pray at these difficult times, but also how to live fully. In other words, St. Teresa taught me how to flourish!

I was particularly inspired by how St. Teresa was a down to earth woman and embraced her best strengths with authenticity. This has contributed to the well-being of many people throughout the centuries (to the present day) and has had a distinct impact on contributing to the greater good.

I have studied St. Teresa of Avila (also known as St. Teresa of Jesus, especially in Spanish-speaking countries) for nearly two decades and have authored four books on this inspiring saint. When I was writing my first book, Vida que transforma vidas (A Life that Transforms Lives), which is a guide on how to read Teresa’s book called Life, I became especially curious about something:

How could St. Teresa have endured the extensive mockery and rejection of her mystical experiences, as well as being told repeatedly by her most trusted confessors that her personal and powerful experiences were demonic? What character strengths would have helped her endure this and to then thrive?

I decided to use my knowledge of her life, personality, and writings to take the VIA Survey from her vantage point. I figured this would reveal her core character strengths and help me understand the source of her resilience. If a woman can rise up over and over again, and thrive along the way – despite numerous obstacles – then they must be a woman who is using her character strengths strongly.

This is true of St. Teresa.

Let me start by naming her strengths. Using this tactic with the VIA Survey, the highest strengths – signature strengths of St. Teresa of Avila – were bravery, love, fairness, forgiveness, gratitude, honesty, and hope. I will focus on three of these signature strengths as she used them in her life: bravery, love, and hope.

A woman of courage

Bravery means to not shrink from threat or difficulties and to speak up for what’s right even if there is opposition. Bravery can be physical, psychological, and moral. St. Teresa of Avila fought many battles, both interior and exterior.  Her bravery, combined with significant honesty, encouraged her to subject her mystical experiences to various theologians. These experts, one after another, doubted her merit and even forbade her to pray and to be alone for months, attributing her divine experiences to evil forces.

She was brave enough to obey, but also had the courage to continue looking for other advisors at a time when the Inquisition was relentless. Her natural tendency was a wish to be liked, but she had to fight with this desire in order to be free to fulfill her purpose: a life devoted to prayer and love. It was this purpose that sparked her personal transformation to later inspire her desire to found a monastery in 1562 and some years later launched her to the roads of Castille, Spain to found many others. In 1575, her reform was forbidden and she was ordered by her superiors (the General Chapter of the Carmelites) to not leave her convent, which acted as a type of prison.

Nevertheless, St. Teresa fought back. She demonstrated moral courage to fight for what she believed was right. Despite not leaving her convent, she wrote an abundance of letters to monasteries, allies, friends, family, and advisors to keep the “spark” of reform aflame. Her actions were not offensive or aggressive, but she exercised forgiveness, social intelligence, and an active defence of her ideals.  She explained: “If God had not given us the good friends that he did, all would have been to no avail.”

A woman of transcendent love

St. Teresa of Avila is the founder the Discalced Carmelite Orders (nuns, founded in 1562) and inspired many spiritual communities in which contemplative prayer is practiced. She was the first woman recognized as a Doctor of the Church (1970) because her writings have valuable lessons for the faithful on how to pray and love. For St. Teresa, prayer is not self-absorption or personal complacency, but a loving relationship with God who allows us to come out of ourselves by means of service and self-giving. St. Teresa teaches that prayer is a way of perfecting love, and that the practice of love contributes to the depth of prayer. 

St. Teresa affirms that the “business” of prayer is not in thought, in intellectual capacity or in academic knowledge. Instead, she emphasized that just as all souls are capable of love, all are capable of prayer. Since it is a personal relationship with God, prayer is defined by mutuality, and not by ideas or reasoning. As an expert on human nature, St. Teresa points out that if it bothers us to pass from prayer to the service of others, it is because we seek more our own satisfaction or because in solitude there are fewer occasions of offending God. However, no one can be certain of their own virtues if these have not been put to the test. She added, “doing so makes us realize who we are and the degree of virtue we have.”  In solitude, self-deception is easy; in common living we realize the truth about ourselves.

A woman full of trusting hope

How can a nun that has no money or social stance establish 17 monasteries for nuns and two convents for friars, in only 20 years?

In her book, Life, St. Teresa wrote: “Love is always stirring and thinking about what it will do.”

It was clear, St. Teresa’s heart overflowed with love. She desired to share her experience of prayer and to create communities with a way of life focused on love, humility, and freedom. St. Teresa lived with hope, a strength that is cognitive, emotional, and motivational in its open direction toward the future. It is not an illusory fantasy because hope is founded on the notion that good events will be more probable if one does everything one can. In this way, St. Teresa combined her strength of perseverance (her 8th highest strength) with her signature strength of hope as she accomplished each of her 19 foundations of a spiritual life, and as a prolific writer of letters and books. She disposed herself with all her being to God and her community, and expressed strong agency.

She believed that what stops God from showing us his marvellous and great works is our lack of determination. Thus, perseverance and hope are crucial. Her hope was encouraged by trusting in God, and relying on her own determination and on the divine words given to her when she was working to establish her first foundation: “enter as you can.” To her, this phrase closely related to her determination to reach her goals, while at the same time, being flexible to adjust her path as needed.

Conclusion

Decades ago, it was common to have pen pals – friendships that are maintained from afar by writing letters. I recall having several pen pals as a child. With Teresa, however, I have developed a friendship through her books. In closely examining her writings, I have travelled back in time and walked with her on the roads of 16th century Castille. She has become present for me and impacted me deeply here in the 21st century, as a guide and spiritual mother.

Most important, she teaches me that the flowers of virtue need to be watered, the weeds need to be plucked, and that the flourishing life is one of authenticity and goodness based on the embodiment of strengths.

References

Kavanaugh, K., Rodriguez, O. (1987). The collected works of St. Teresa of Avila. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications.

Morales Cueto, C. (2010) Vida que transforma vidas. Mexico: Editorial Santa Teresa.

Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Boston: Hogrefe Publishing.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish. New York: Free Press.

Tarragona, M. (2012). Positive identities: Narrative practices and positive psychology. Oregon: Positive Acorn Publications.

Source: Claudia Morales Cueto

About Claudia Morales Cueto

Claudia Morales Cueto is a former pupil in a Teresian school, a wife and a mother, she has a B.A in Communication from Universidad Iberoamericana (Mexico City), a Diploma in Positive Psychology from the same institution and has a Master’s degree in Positive Leadership from Universidad Tecmilenio (Mexico). She is author of four books that serve as guides to understand Saint Teresa of Jesus writings. As a writer, editor and teacher, her professional practice joins her interests in Communication, Positive Psychology and Spirituality. She is a trained MBSP (Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice) instructor and guides these courses in Mexico.

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