Teresa of Avila: A Much-Needed Guide for New Graduates

Laurel MathewsonBy Laurel Mathewson10 Minutes

Graduating from college is often one of the most gratifying and exciting thresholds in life. If this is a milestone we’ve already marked, we remember well those final days on campus for a reason: there’s a feeling of unlimited opportunities, new adventures, and the exhilaration of finally stepping into adulthood.

Yet all of those changes can also cause anxiety, the unspoken background fog of “I’ve graduated – now what?” The methods and emotional/mental habits needed to survive and thrive as a student are not necessarily the same ones needed after leaving those hallowed halls. I still remember the disorienting and difficult social shifts of post-college life, too, when built-in communities of dorms and classrooms suddenly evaporated. The world can be a pretty scary and often lonely place for newly minted adults; to whom can graduates turn for advice, inspiration, and counsel?

Of course, the most common sources for wisdom on living life outside the classroom are those with whom we are in direct relationship: family, friends, mentors, maybe new co-workers and neighbors. Sometimes we are inspired and shaped by figures in literature or on our favorite shows. All of these voices and images can be extremely helpful. But what about questions of ultimate meaning? Our deepest desires to be known, loved, and engaged in life-giving and meaningful work? Sometimes conversations that probe the depths of these longings are difficult, even within our closest relationships.

The truth is, our spiritual lives need to expand and grow as young adults, too. There are so many essential and pressing existential questions begging to be explored. And for that journey, I suggest not just looking around, but also looking back in time, toward the many holy men and women who walked before us in the faith.

Who to approach? There’s the ever-popular St. Francis, who turns our eyes with gratitude and wonder to the natural world. Or St. Vincent de Paul, who turns our eyes to those who are most in need. These are just two popular options. There might be another saint who already intrigues you, and it’s hard to go wrong. But personally? I suggest graduates get to know Teresa of Avila, who turns our eyes to God’s presence in our very selves, and who teaches us to pray, so that we might meet Christ there and then be strengthened for loving and reforming action in the world. This Spanish nun managed to — with God’s help, of course —  transform the faith and adult life of this Protestant girl from Eastern Oregon, and for that I give thanks.

Maybe you’ve heard of St. Teresa, as I vaguely had, and know that she was a “mystic,” or someone that had unusual experiences in prayer. Maybe you’ve even tried to read some of her work, as I did in college, but gave up, convinced that this saint’s words were too old-school and convoluted to help you much. Maybe you’ve never heard of this remarkable woman, but you’re looking to engage or re-engage with the Christian faith, post-graduation, on terms that feel solid, ancient and profound in the best ways. No matter how you’re approaching her life and work, there are gifts of insight and inspiration waiting, food for the journey of faith. When you pick up a book by Teresa, or one focused on her insights, here’s a bit of what you can expect to find: 

  • Practical and theoretical supports for prayer

Teresa wrote specifically as a teacher and a mentor for her fellow Carmelite sisters, nuns like her who were devoted to a life of prayer but found prayer difficult — as most people do. Thus her work is full of both the basic theory that helps one begin to pray and practical tips for continuing on when it gets challenging. For example, she says one of the most common mistakes is forgetting that God is not far off, but near, very near: within! As for all those distracting thoughts that make you think you’re “bad” at praying? Teresa had them too, and offers helpful advice for not getting caught up in the natural and ongoing clacking of our windmills.

  • A framework for understanding growth and change in faith

So often, faith is described simplistically: you have it or you don’t. You’re mature or you aren’t. While Teresa’s more complex framework is not without its own problems (the kind that plague any schematic), it offers scaffolding for a more nuanced reflection about our spiritual journey. The seven dwelling places of her Interior Castle each have certain characteristics, challenges, and opportunities for growth. We recognize this complexity in so many other dimensions of our lives; Teresa invites us to extend such nuance and the challenge of ongoing maturation to our spiritual lives, too.

  • Inspiration for those who have given up on praying:

If you’re reading this and thinking, well, I don’t really pray, or “I don’t pray like I used to,” don’t be so quick to assume her work is not for you. Teresa herself gave up on prayer for many years in her late twenties and early thirties, while she was a Carmelite nun! She later deeply regretted it, and urges her readers not to follow in her footsteps … but at the same time, the reader can always know that this revered saint was holy but not perfect. God was gracious to her, anyway. 

  • Direction and footholds when the trail gets a bit wild.

God’s graciousness to Teresa, or the somewhat unusual gifts she experienced in prayer, make her a valuable guide for the places on the Christian journey where it might seem at first glance like companions are sparse. Teresa acknowledges quite candidly that there are lots of books about what we can do to pray, or pray better: she wants to address the fact that there aren’t very many books about what God does in prayer, and how we might best respond when given these good gifts of divine loving action and presence. How do we know if words we hear are really from God? What do we make of, or do with, such wondrous experiences? Here, Teresa shines brightest. She is always practical and grounded, and yet always insistent that such gifts are real, and potentially very helpful.

  • Grounding in the purpose of contemplation

Whether or not our prayers have ever included dramatic experiences of God’s love and presence, Teresa says it doesn’t really matter: God leads different people by different paths, depending on what’s best for them. And the purpose of all prayer is the same: to grow in our capacity for loving — really loving — in word and deed. Our Christian aim is to cleave our lives as closely as possible to “love God, love your neighbor,” and she never loses sight of this simplicity, even as she helps her readers navigate extremely complex social and spiritual challenges. When we are given extraordinary gifts, it is so we might have strength for the journey. When we are not, we give thanks for the many other ways we are strengthened to love.

I’ve been strengthened to love God and neighbor more fully by Teresa’s teachings: her voice, advice, and personal story. I hope you’ll get to know her for yourself, mostly so that your trust might be deepened in the ultimate companion and counselor who dwells within you as you navigate this brave new post-college world. We do not walk alone. Voices like Teresa’s help this teaching of faith move from our heads to our hearts, which is the movement we most need when everything else is shifting, too.