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Meeting Teresa

Colleen Carroll Campbell

The story of Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada begins in the early sixteenth century, with a pious Spanish childhood saturated by God's presence. Willful, bright, and passionate, little Teresa dreamed of sainthood and even convinced her younger brother to run away from home with her so they could fight the Moors and die as martyrs. Their plan was foiled by a vigilant uncle, who spotted the pair leaving the city. So the aspiring contemplatives settled for building homemade hermitages instead, where they prayed and read stories of the saints together.

As Teresa grew into adolescence, her beauty and vivacious personality blossomed, but her religious zeal withered. She lost her mother in her early teens and started spending more time with cousins whose superficiality fanned the flames of her vanity. A party girl with the gift of gab and no shortage of male admirers, Teresa became preoccupied by beauty regimens, romance novels, fashion, and gossip.

Her devout father noticed the change in his daughter and sent her away to a convent boarding school, where her faith began to flourish again. Although she initially felt little attraction to religious life, the idea of becoming a nun gradually grew on Teresa and she resolved to pursue it despite her father's objections. After returning home and enduring a debilitating, life-threatening illness for the remainder of her teen years, Teresa recovered and ran away from home again – this time to join a Carmelite convent.

The preoccupations with vanity, praise, and flirtations that had characterized Teresa's teen years resurfaced after she became a nun. Life in the convent was soft; sisters there freely mingled with men and women from the town, and the wealthier sisters enjoyed many of the same material comforts and perks they had known at home – from plush suites to in-room pets. Hailing from an aristocratic family and possessed of a keen ability to charm others, Sister Teresa of Jesus followed the relaxed rules of her order but focused her energy on winning honor from other people rather than honoring God. "I was fond of everything to do with the religious life," she writes in her autobiography, "but I could not bear anything which seemed to make me ridiculous. I delighted in being thought well of."

Teresa paid little attention to avoiding sin aside from the most obvious offenses, happy to take the advice of lax confessors who told her not to sweat her faults. She performed external acts of devotion "with more vanity than spirituality," she writes, "for I always wanted things to be done very meticulously and well." Her prayer life soon withered. As she recounts:

“I began, then, to indulge in one pastime after another, in one vanity after another and in one occasion of sin after another. Into so many and such grave occasions of sin did I fall, and so far was my soul led astray by all these vanities, that I was ashamed to return to God and to approach Him in the intimate friendship which comes from prayer. This shame was increased by the fact that, as my sins grew in number, I began to lose the pleasure and joy which I had been deriving from virtuous things. I saw very clearly, my Lord, that this was failing me because I was failing Thee.”

After suffering a series of illnesses and the death of her father, Teresa encountered a devout Dominican priest who convinced her to resume her prayers and pay closer attention to her sins. She did the former, though not the latter, and the result was a torturous feeling of living in two worlds: "My life became full of trials, because by means of prayer I learned more and more about my faults. On the one hand, God was calling me. On the other, I was following the world. All the things of God gave me great pleasure, yet I was tied and bound to those of the world. . . . I spent many years in this way, and now I am amazed that a person could have gone on for so long without giving up either the one or the other."

Teresa spent nearly two decades locked in this dual existence, yearning for God yet clinging to the worldly pleasures, people-pleasing habits, and shallow conversations that kept him at a distance. A profound and frustrating emptiness gradually engulfed her as she grew weary of vacillating between her competing desires. She was living, she writes, "one of the most grievous kinds of life which I think can be imagined, for I had neither any joy in God nor any pleasure in the world. When I was in the midst of worldly pleasures, I was distressed by the remembrance of what I owed to God; when I was with God, I grew restless because of worldly affections."

A breakthrough finally came when Teresa was thirty-nine. She walked into the chapel one day and came face-to-face with a statue of the suffering Christ, bloodied and bound as he awaited his Crucifixion. The image startled Teresa. She found herself overcome with regret for the years she had wasted serving herself instead of God. "I felt as if my heart were breaking," Teresa recalls, "and I threw myself down beside him, shedding floods of tears and begging him to give me strength once for all so that I might not offend him." Although she had shed repentant tears before, this time was different "because I had and was placing all my confidence in God." Teresa told Jesus that she would not get up from the floor until he had given her the help she needed. "And I feel sure that this did me good," she writes, "for from that time onward I began to improve."

Teresa's prayer life began to deepen, and her desire to spend time with God intensified. Around the same time, someone passed her a copy of Saint Augustine's Confessions. The spiritual autobiography of this fourth-century playboy-turned-saint who spent years struggling with sensuality and sinful habits resonated with her. She was particularly moved when she came upon Augustine's account of his spiritual turning point in the garden, where he heard a child's voice inviting him to "take and read" a nearby Bible. Augustine opened the book and read the first lines he saw, from Saint Paul's Letter to the Romans: "Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh." (Rom. 13:13-14)

Augustine did not need to read any further; he knew God intended those words for him. Reading his story, Teresa felt the same way. She writes, "It seemed as if the Lord were speaking in that way to me," welcoming her into the freedom from sin and intimate relationship with him that had eluded her for so long.

Teresa began to make swifter progress on her spiritual journey. Her prayer life grew richer and more rewarding, and her attachment to pleasure seeking and winning the admiration of others steadily declined. Her ascent to holiness did not happen overnight: The road to her famed prayer experiences, like her decades-long spiritual awakening itself, was paved with struggle. In the early years of her prayer life, Teresa writes, "I was more occupied in wishing my hour of prayer were over, and in listening whenever the clock struck, than in thinking of things that were good." She found that the times she persevered in prayer despite her natural inclination to do otherwise were those that left her with "more tranquility and happiness than at certain other times when I had prayed because I had wanted to."

Through her struggles, Teresa discovered the wisdom of the Catholic teaching that our bodies, and what we do with them, matter. She came to understand that while God wants us to treat our bodies with respect, excessive focus on perfecting our bodies or indulging their insatiable desires – including the desire to busy ourselves with good works to avoid the discomfort of solitude and silence – distances us from God. The same goes for social status, popularity, and professional achievement, things that are not evil in themselves but that can wreak spiritual havoc when we value them more than we value God.

Once Teresa broke free of such idols, she redirected to God the passion she had frittered away on the quest for material pleasures and social approval. Her intense love for Jesus and profound prayer life gave her the strength to launch a historic reform of her religious order, endure severe persecution from civil and religious authorities who resisted her efforts, and pen several classics of contemplative spirituality. Battling critics both inside and outside her order, Teresa refused to back down in her quest to transform her Carmelite convents from havens for spoiled socialites to places of genuine simplicity and prayer. She adhered faithfully to her religious vow of obedience, however, forgiving her detractors and attracting followers inspired by her to live for God alone.

By the time of her death, Teresa had established dozens of Discalced Carmelite convents, sparking a renewal of religious life that rippled across the Catholic Church and helped revitalize it in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. She became one of the church's greatest saints and mystics, a trailblazer in faith as well as works. In 1970, Pope Paul VI named her a Doctor of the Church, an honor previously granted only to men. The distracted, vain woman who spent the first four decades of her life obsessed with looking good in the eyes of others evolved into a spiritual powerhouse who heroically lived the words of her famous poem:

“Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.”


Excerpted from chapter 1 , "Party Girl"  of "My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir" by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Copyright © 2012 by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Image Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Topics: Faith , Personal Growth , Saints , Writings of the Saints

Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, journalist, television host of EWTNs "Faith & Culture" and former presidential speechwriter whose latest book is My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir. Her website is www.colleen-campbell.com.


View all articles by Colleen Carroll Campbell

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