Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was born in 1515 in Ávila, Spain. The woman who we usually call Teresa of Avila lost her mother when she was only eleven. It was an incredibly painful time in her life, but out of that pain, Teresa became a very different person. After her mother’s death, she was sent to attend school with the nuns in Avila. It opened up her heart to what God was about to do in her life.
As a girl, and even as a young woman, Teresa was fascinated by the influencers and power brokers of the world around her. In the year 1515, this meant she had a love for stories of knights and kings and castles. She dreamed of knights in shining armor with devoted women in beautiful dresses at their sides. Teresa was enamored by the strength of these powerful figures. In fact, even there in the monastery, the power brokers of Avila made appearances. Every day, the nuns would receive visitors from the area, including those with socio-economic and political power. Teresa listened to the stories of the wealthy and politically powerful, living in their castles, and thought she was in heaven.
But as she grew older, and wiser, she deepened in her study of Scripture. She read of the humility of Solomon, asking for wisdom instead of riches. And of his father, David. Psalm 51 tells the story of David the king, once proud and powerful, confessing his sins before God. His sin with Bathsheba had broken him, and he stood before God contrite and humble:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love….
For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me….
Purge me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
From these lessons in humility, Teresa learned the practice of confession. She learned what it meant to humble herself before God. David, the king and most powerful man in the land had learned to do so. Perhaps she could, too. Before long, Teresa began to push back against the practices of the monastery. Instead of falling all over themselves to impress the knights and courtiers who came to visit them, they should be spending their days in prayer, in contemplation, in confession. Instead of focusing on the outward appearances, they should be focused on the inward work of faith. Instead of learning the values of the world and the powers that be, they should be learning the values of God.
Before long, Teresa’s reforms began to stick. She led them in the work of humility and confession. She is considered one of the most influential Christian mystics – her mystical experiences with Christ brought her to a place of complete submission and confession. And she began writing of these experiences, sharing her mystical experience of Christ for all to know.
One of the most well-known passages from Teresa is her description of the “interior castle.” Instead of a center of power and violence, filled with knights and courtiers, the castle became a metaphor for her inward journey toward God. She described what it was like to walk through each room, step by step getting closer to God in the center hold of the castle:
“The door by which we enter this castle is prayer. It is absurd to think that we can ever enter heaven without first entering into this castle and finding out our own sinfulness and how much we owe to God for our redemption. For our works have no value unless they are united with faith, and our faith has no value until it is united with works. May God grant us the ability to see how much we cost him, to see that the servant is not greater than the Master, to see that we must work if we would enjoy his glory.”
This Ash Wednesday evening, let us enter this castle with Teresa. As we begin Lent together tonight, we are reminded by our own brokenness, by our own sin, by our own finitude. And like Teresa, we pause in our chasing after the things the world loves, and enter the castle of prayer to find the things that God loves. Tonight, let us confess in our hearts and begin again the season of humility, of honesty, and of confession.