Today is the Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila, also called Saint Teresa of Jesus. Teresa was a Carmelite nun, writer of the Counter Reformation, and theologian of contemplative life through. She was a reformer of the Carmelite Order and is considered to be a founder of the Discalced Carmelites along with her protege, St. John of the Cross.
Teresa is one of the three great 16th century Spanish mystics (along with St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. John of the Cross). These great saints lived during troubled times of corruption in the Church, laxity in discipline and the reformation. The deep prayer life of these great Saints, combined with the influence they had in the reform of the Church, have lasting effects which are still felt today. Her books, which include her autobiography (The Life of Teresa of Jesus) and her seminal work El Castillo Interior (trans.: The Interior Castle) are an integral part of Spanish Renaissance literature as well as Christian mysticism and Christian meditation practices as she entails in her other important work, Camino de Perfección (trans.: The Way of Perfection).
Teresa was born on March 28, 1515 and baptized as Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada. Following the custom that was expected of her upper class upbringing, she was educated at home up to the death of her mother, which occurred when Teresa was just 14. She then developed the usual teenage interests of romantic affairs and fashionable clothes. Her father then sent her to be educated by Augustinian Sisters in Avila. About 18 months later she became ill and spent her convalescence reading the letters of St. Jerome. This resulted in her desire to become a nun. Her father was at first opposed to the idea but then consented and Teresa, then 20, entered the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation in Avila. However, she soon became ill again from malaria. She was sent home to her family for medical treatment. She returned to the convent three years later.
At this time the convent had a large community of about 140 nuns and had become somewhat lax in its following of the Carmelite rule. The convent parlour was often visited by the gentry of the town and the nuns were even allowed to leave the enclosure of the convent. In this rather easygoing atmosphere, with not much time given to solitude or the observance of religious poverty, Teresa at first tried to live a life of prayer, then abandoned it, only, following her father’s death, taking it up again for the rest of her life. Teresa’s charm, cheerfulness, prudence and care for others were greatly admired, not least by those who came to visit the convent. Her own spiritual life was deepened by her prayer life. In 1555 she experienced an inner conversion when she identified herself with two famous penitents, St. Mary Magdalen and St. Augustine. His Confessions had a deep influence on her. She had both Dominicans and Jesuits as spiritual directors.
In 1559, Teresa became firmly convinced that Christ was present to her in bodily form, though invisible. This vision lasted almost uninterrupted for more than two years. In another vision, an angel drove the point of a golden arrow repeatedly through her heart, causing an indescribable happiness and pain. (Dramatically represented in the famous sculpture of Bernini, Ecstasy of St Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.) The memory of this experience would inspire her for the rest of her life and was the motivation behind her lifelong desire to identify with the sufferings of Jesus, expressed in her prayer: “Lord, either let me suffer or let me die.”
Unfortunately her mystical experiences, including visions, became known and she was subjected to ridicule and even persecution. It was a time when such experiences subjected one to the investigations of the Inquisition. St Ignatius of Loyola would have similar experiences.
After 25 years of Carmelite life, which she felt was not living up to the ideals of the Order, she desired to set up a community where the original rule would be strictly observed. Her proposal met with strong opposition from both church and civil authorities. But she went ahead and set up the community of St. Joseph in Avila in 1562. Here 13 nuns lived in conditions of strict poverty and enclosed solitude. On moving to the new convent, Teresa got papal approval of her commitment to absolute poverty and renunciation of all property. Her plan was a revival of earlier, stricter rules. For the first five years of the new foundation, Teresa remained in prayerful seclusion, engaged mostly in writing.
The Avila convent would be the first of 16 similar convents set up during Teresa’s lifetime. It would also inspire the setting up of other reformed communities in other countries and in the generations that followed. The characteristics of this life were material simplicity, signified by the coarse brown wool habit and leather sandals. The lifestyle of manual work, supplemented by alms, provided the income for this way of life, which included a vegetarian diet.
In choosing candidates for this challenging way of life, she emphasized piety, intelligence and good judgement (“God preserve us from stupid nuns!”). It was her conviction that intelligent people can better be aware of their faults and, at the same time, see the need to be guided. This, she felt, would not be the case with the less able and narrow-minded who could become complacent and see no need for change.
In 1576 a series of persecutions began on the part of the older observant Carmelite order against Teresa, her friends, and her reforms. Pursuant to a body of resolutions adopted at the general chapter at Piacenza, the “definitors” of the order forbade all further founding of convents. The general chapter condemned her to voluntary retirement to one of her institutions. She obeyed and chose St. Joseph’s at Toledo.
Teresa died on October 4, 1582 at the age of 67. She was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. In 1970, Pope Paul VI proclaimed her as the first woman Doctor of the Church. Her usual emblems are a fiery arrow or a dove above her head.