Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was a Spanish nun who established the Discalced Carmelites, an order devoted to quiet prayer, poverty and austerity. She is known for her practice of mental prayer and the visions and inner voices she experienced. Teresa's books on spirituality are considered to be classics within the Catholic Church.
Teresa of Avila is best known for her mystical experiences. She believed, however, that her quiet prayer was a superior experience. Throughout her life, Teresa combined a contemplative lifestyle with the activities of daily life.
Teresa of Avila was born Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada on March 28, 1515 in Avila, Spain. Her father, Alonso de Cepeda, had three children from a previous marriage. The family was wealthy, but Alonso de Cepeda's father had been a converso, or secret Jew, during the Inquisition. Therefore, the family lacked the social status of people with racially "pure" backgrounds. Teresa's mother, Beatriz de Ahumada, bore ten children and died in childbirth when Teresa was 13.
Teresa was a very devout child. She was said to be very beautiful, extroverted, and charming. Like many children of the 16th century, Teresa and her brother Rodrigo studied the lives of the saints. When Teresa was seven, the she and Rodrigo ran away from home. They had planned to die for Christ in Moorish territory, but an uncle caught the children and returned them to their home.
At the age of 12, Teresa's piety waned as she became interested in fashion and romance. She was very attractive to men and her biographers suggest she had a romantic experience during her early teens. After the death of her mother, her father had to make a choice for Teresa. She could either be married or enter the convent. Her converso background diminished Teresa's prospects as a bride. Alonso de Cepeda sent her to the Augustinian Convent of St. Mary of Grace at Avila, as a lay boarder.
While studying at the convent, Teresa regained her former piety and began considering the possibility of becoming a nun. After 18 months, she became very sick. While recuperating at her sister's home in Castellanos, Teresa read the letters of St. Jerome. These helped her decide to enter the convent. Her father refused to allow it, saying she could do what she wanted after he died.
On November 2, 1535, at the age of 20, Teresa and her brother ran away from home to pursue religious vocations. Teresa entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation at Avila. Alonso de Cepeda resigned himself to her decision. A year later, Teresa was professed. A short time later, she again became ill. She did not respond to treatment and was released to her family. Teresa's father took her to the small village of Becedas to see a healer, but she did not improve. During the fall of 1538, Teresa stayed at an uncle's house in Hortigosa. He gave her Francisco de Osuna's Third Spiritual Alphabet, a guide to mental prayer. Teresa began practicing mental prayer, in which she opened her soul to God.
Still sick, Teresa returned to Avila in 1539. On August 15, she fell into a coma and was thought to be dead. She revived after four days, but was partially paralyzed. She returned to the convent in 1540 where she remained ill for three years. She attributed her recovery to St. Joseph. Shortly after she recovered, she nursed her father until his death in 1543.
Until about 1555, Teresa spent more time meeting with lay people of the village and less time in mental prayer. At the age of 39, she began having visions and hearing inner voices. Teresa felt that she had become too dependent on people and needed to develop a closer relationship to God.
Mystical experiences were looked on with skepticism by many people in the Church. Some people thought her "favors" were of the devil. Others believed they were a gift from God and encouraged her to be open to them. To Teresa, the visions were an embarrassment because others misunderstood them. They were also dangerous— visionaries sometimes were burned at the stake. Teresa tried to resist the experiences and attempted to keep them a secret, but her resistance was in vain. She became well known for the experiences, many of which she described in her autobiography. Teresa claimed that her "interior speeches" were clearer than conversations with humans.
In her most famous vision, Teresa experienced a piercing of the heart. She said an angel appeared on her left side. His face was burning. "He had in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God." After her death, Teresa's heart was found to bear a scar.
Teresa was drawn to a life of strict poverty and self denial. She vowed to follow "the more perfect course," but the Incarnation monastery was not attuned to that lifestyle. With 180 nuns, it was too large a community and there were too many distractions. At the Carmelite convent, nuns were allowed to retain their property; some of the sisters were quite wealthy. They kept servants and lapdogs, wore jewelry and perfume, entertained gentlemen callers from the village, and traveled throughout the village freely. The poor sisters lived in dormitories. Teresa believed the convent was too large, too wealthy, and lacked spirituality.
Led Carmelite Reform
Reforms had been sweeping through the Spanish church for some time. In 1560, Teresa led a group of nuns who wanted to follow a more primitive Carmelite tradition. They chose to lead a reclusive life of prayer and poverty. Teresa met a lot of opposition from church superiors and the people of Avila, who were opposed to her insistence that the nuns live in poverty and not mix with villagers. After two years, with support from St. Peter of Alcantara, Teresa was granted permission to establish a reformed convent, known as the "discalced" or barefoot Carmelites. The reformed convent was named the Convent of St. Joseph.
The reformed Carmelites were devoted to poverty, austerity, solitude and mental prayer. They lived in almost perpetual silence and perpetual abstinence. They wore habits of coarse serge and no shoes. (Thus, the name discalced.) Teresa limited the number of nuns in her convent to about a dozen.
In June 1562, Teresa began writing her autobiography, Life. The book was written while she knelt on the floor at a window ledge. It described her early life and spiritual experiences. She later added chapters dealing with prayer in which she compared different stages of prayer to different methods of watering a garden. She subsequently wrote Way of Perfection, to guide her nuns in the monastic life and instruct them in prayer.
Teresa described the years between 1562 and 1567 as the five most peaceful years of her life. In 1567, the Carmelite general Giovanni Battista Rossi visited the Convent of St. Joseph and approved of Teresa's work. He commanded her to establish other reformed convents. She spent the next nine years traveling throughout Spain, establishing 12 convents. Teresa faced a lot of opposition and became very well known. She also established two houses for men who wanted to adopt the reformed lifestyle. They became known as Contemplative Carmelites and were led by the mystical poet, St. John of the Cross. Some of Teresa's followers traveled abroad to establish houses in other countries.
Teresa's spiritual life continued to develop during this period and she experienced a mystical union or "spiritual marriage" to God. She had the unusual ability to remain constantly aware of God's presence, and at the same time attend to the activities of her life. She was embarrassed to sometimes experience her visions and raptures in public.
Returned to Avila
In 1571, Teresa received orders from the Carmelite Provincial to return to the Convent of the Incarnations in Avila, as prioress. She did not want to assume this responsibility and the sisters did not want her as their superior. However, Teresa proved to be a popular prioress. She straightened out the convent's finances and tightened up their lax practices. With help from St. John of the Cross, she improved the spiritual condition of the community.
Teresa established four more convents in the mid 1570s. Between 1573 and 1576, Teresa wrote The Foundations, a book of encouragement and prayer instruction for her nuns. Her greatest book, The Interior Castle, was written in 1577. It describes the development of mental prayer and stands out as a source of Teresa's most mature spiritual thoughts. She describes the soul as a castle and a journey to the soul as a series of seven apartments (or mansions) through which one must pass through prayer. Each apartment represents a different stage of the journey.
As her reform gained strength, the unreformed (calced) Carmelites rebelled. The Provincial of the Calced Carmelites tried to prevent Teresa's reelection as prioress. She was forced out, when her supporters were excommunicated. There remained a lot of turmoil between Calced and Discalced Carmelites until 1578, when the Pope finally recognized the Discalced Carmelites as a separate province. The group was declared a separate order in 1594.
Despite her declining health, Teresa continued traveling and founding new convents. In total, she founded 17 convents. Teresa died in Alba de Tormes, Spain, on October 4, 1582. The next day, the Gregorian calendar took effect, changing the date of her death to October 15. The Catholic Church celebrates her feast on that day. She was buried at Alba de Tormes.
Pope Paul V declared Teresa blessed on April 24, 1614. In 1617, the Spanish parliament proclaimed her the Patroness of Spain. She was canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. In 1970, Teresa was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church for her writings, which stand out as some of its outstanding guides to spirituality. Teresa was the first woman in the Church to write systematically and at length about the spiritual life, according to Butler's Lives of the Saints.
Teresa remains popular in Hispanic countries. She is admired for her teachings on prayer and her ability to combine contemplation with other activity in her daily life. She is said to have been holy without ceasing to be human. The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary, describes her as "a powerful personality, pioneer feminist and a literary figure who has made a great contribution to our knowledge of human psychology."
Further Reading on Teresa of Avila
The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary, edited by John Coulson, Hawthorn Books, 1958.
Doyle, Peter, Butler's Lives of the Saints; New Full Edition Liturgical Press, 1996.
New Catholic Encyclopedia, McGraw-Hill, 1967.
Thurston, Herbert J. and Donald Attwateer, Butler's Lives of the Saints, Christian Classics, 1956.
Peers, E. Allison, trans., ed.,"The Life of Saint Teresa of Jesus," http://ccel.wheaton.edu/teresa/life/main.html
Randall, Beth, "Teresa of Avila," http://www.mcs.drexel.edu/~gbrandal/Illum_html/Teresa.html