A Saint for All Seasons

Swami Sambuddhananda Saraswati

"Oh what a life!" exclaimed a small wizen woman as she sat on a mule, trudging over the snow capped hills on a bleak winter's day. The stage is set over 400 years ago, at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, where people were accused of heresy, witchcraft and false mysticism. It was a dangerous period to be of the religious cloth, as accusation alone would cast lifelong doubt on you and a trial could cost your life.

This simple and divine woman, from a noble Castillian family had become a nun out of fear of going to hell for her small 'vanities', as she put them. But despite self-enforcement at the beginning of her profession, she became one of the most celebrated saints in the Christian world. She was given the name Sister Teresa of Jesus but is widely known as Saint Teresa of Avila. Avila being the town of her birth.

In the first year or so as a nun, she was beset by many illnesses, having had a weak constitution most of her life. Although she prayed for suffering to emulate and understand what Jesus Christ had gone through, it seems she was given more than a good share. With fainting fits, heart trouble, consumption, 'shrivelled nerves' which wreaked pain in her body day and night, and a "cure" which almost cost her her life, she still preserved faith and progressed in prayer. She had catalepsy and fell into a comatose state for four days, where all but her father were convinced that she was dead. The Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation, where she had taken her vows, had already dug her grave. However, she returned there - not as a corpse- but paralyzed with movement only in one little finger. She was determined to learn patience from this experience, and with a deep desire to serve God better with all faculties intact, she slowly regained movement where she could crawl on her hands and knees. It took fully three years for her to get over her paralysis and for the rest of her life she suffered from ill health, such as involuntarily vomiting morning and evening for the next twenty years, heart pains and many other afflictions.

In this time she began to have experiences in mental prayer which she termed Prayer of the Quiet. Here the will, being united with God (but not wholly) remains calm and quiet, even if the memory or understanding is distracted. She even once experienced Prayer of Union although she didn't realize it at the time. However, for the next twenty years she fought an internal "war" with herself. And although in this time she had many and varied spiritual experiences- including ecstasies and levitation, she still felt imperfect on many accounts. It was only after this period that she fully surrendered herself to God and His will, maybe in the experience of nirvikalpa samadhi.

After this it seems that her mission was realized and discussion began on founding a convent of Discalced or Barefoot Carmelite nuns; that is, nuns living according to a Primitive Rule, by alms only, and leading a contemplative life. This, however, did not mean there would be no work or karma yoga. As these nuns were to be completely enclosed, they had to do all the daily chores of a community, as well as gardening and spinning. This new convent was established in the next few years, as were many more in her lifetime. None of this was done without opposition from many quarters and her life appeared more an active than contemplative one.

She was commanded by her superiors to write her autobiography, as an aid to others travelling the same path. "Way of Perfection" was another book she wrote especially for her own Reform sisters, and it gives much practical advice on perfection. When one is unjustly condemned, she writes: "What does it matter to us if we are blamed by them all, provided we are without blame in the sight of the Lord? Oh my sister we shall never attain perfection unless we think and meditate upon what is real and what is not.......For it is in this way that you begin to gain freedom".

True humility, which may be explained as a truly diminished ego, served as one of the most important aspects of her life. She maintained that three things were necessary to get peace within and without. "One of these is love for each other; the second detachment from all created things; the third, true humility, which though I put it last, is the most important of the three and embraces all the rest." This by no means meant she was servile. If she was opposed in any work, she first consulted God to establish that it was His will and not hers. If she confirmed that it was His will, then nothing could stop her implementing His desires.

She had a freedom and spontaneity which is colourfully illustrated in the inauguration of one convent on a particular saint's day. Time was so short that she and a group of priests and nuns had to run through the streets at midnight, loaded with religious objects and church vestments- looking more like a band of thieves than religious folk - then clean a dilapidated house, where the new convent was to be founded, before early morning Mass. Her humour and discrimination were sufficient to win over swearing mulateers and she is quoted as saying: "Oh Lord, save me from gloomy saints".

Permission had been given to her to form a monastery of Discalced Carmelite Friars, but she found no suitable aspirant until she met St. John of the Cross. This was a meeting of kindred spirits and the beginning of many joyous hours of spiritual communication.

Endowed with true wisdom she could express, in her inimitable style, all matters concerning spiritual evolution. When describing the difference between spiritual and worldly love, she states that one is eternal where the other is just a dream; and loving anything such as these bodies is loving something insubstantial and like a shadow. This love subjects and binds. If we desire anyone's affection, we always seek it because of some interest, profit or pleasure of our own".

The rest of her life was spent travelling by mule, cart and coach, founding new convents of her Reform, based on poverty, of which she says: "Poverty is good and contains within itself all the good things of the world. It is a great domain - I mean that he who cares nothing for the good things of the world has dominion over them all. What do kings and lords matter to me if I have no desire to possess their money, or to please them..."

She was also commanded to write a book on prayer, later called "Interior Castle and Mansions". Here she likens the soul to a castle of a single diamond and within it contains many mansions, the centre being the chief mansion where the most intimate things pass between God and soul. The castle without consists of darkness and vile and hideous things of the world and the entry to the castle is through prayer and meditation. "Enter; enter within yourselves my daughters, and get away from your own trifling good works".

There are seven groups of mansions which pertain to the different stages of prayer and can often be likened to the awakening of the seven yogic chakras. In the first mansion: "All our interest is centred in the rough setting of the diamond and in the outer wall of the castle; that is to say in these bodies of ours". This can be equated with awareness of mooladhara chakra. This carries oil up until the seventh mansion where the soul experiences the Prayer of Perfect Union or complete union with God- Shakti uniting with Shiva in sahasrara. Here she uses the analogy of falling rain from heaven into a river; there the water cannot be separated from that which fell from the rain or that belonging to the river.

At the age of 65 she had a paralytic stroke but several months later, although unwell, she travelled again. Two years later she died on a trip undertaken by obedience from a superior, and her body, to this day, remains incorrupt and fragrant.

".....and so we must not set store by
anything that conies to an end, least of
all by life, since not a day of it
is secure. Who, if he thought that
each hour might be his last, would
not spend it in labour?"