St. Theresa

The Spanish nun St. Theresa (1515-1582) was the reformer of the Carmelite order and one of the most important mystical writers of all times.

St. Theresa, originally Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, was born on March 28, 1515, to a gentry family of Ávila. After some local schooling she entered the Á vila Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in 1536. In those days the rule of Carmel was no longer the primitive one of 1248. In the Ávila convent even the mitigated version was not strictly observed, and a number of disciplinary problems existed. About 1556 Theresa was converted to a more ardent spiritual life and started making plans for the foundation of a convent under the primitive rule. After a great deal of opposition she succeeded, and in 1562 the new Ávila Convent of St. Joseph was opened.


The Reformer

The reform movement of the Discalced Carmelites expanded rapidly, and within 9 years Theresa had founded 11 new convents. Theresa herself wrote down the epic of her travels and trials in The Book of the Foundations. Meanwhile she had also started reforming the monasteries for men. The first friar to follow her in this venture was Juan de Yepes, later known as St. John of the Cross. When, in 1571, Theresa returned as prioress to her old Convent of the Incarnation, she brought him with her as her spiritual assistant and as confessor of the nuns.

After 3 years Theresa returned to St. Joseph's. The following period was marked by incredible hardship mainly resulting from the opposition of the unreformed, or Calced, Carmelites. Their resistance reached a climax after the appointment of Fray Gracian as apostolic visitor of the Calced in Andalusia. Gracian's tactless manner led to the closure of all Discalced houses in Andalusia. During this period John was twice abducted and imprisoned in an unreformed house. The Discalced were completely reintegrated with the Calced, and the reform was virtually abolished. Only the intervention of the King revived the movement, and finally, in 1580, Pope Gregory XIII erected the Discalced monasteries into a new province. Fray Gracian was elected provincial.

After Theresa's death at Alba on Oct. 15, 1582, her new order passed through an equally difficult period of internal trouble during which the new provincial, Doria, even attempted to abolish her constitutions. Theresa was canonized in 1622 and pronounced a Doctor of the Church in 1970.


Her Writings

In spite of this constant turmoil Theresa had steadily developed her spiritual life. The mystical graces which she had received early in her active career never left her. Her written works have a strongly autobiographical character. They are for the most part written in a nontechnical, vivid language. Although they all describe the soul's progress in the mystical life, it is not easy to obtain a coherent picture out of the various descriptions written at different periods in her life. Her first work, which is also the best to introduce a reader to her thought, is her spiritual autobiography, her Life. It covers only the first 50 years of her life, and the first draft of it was written while she was still at the Convent of the Incarnation in Ávila. The Book of the Foundations continues this biography throughout the various journeys which she made to found new monasteries.

Between the Life and the final chapters of the Foundations lie all of Theresa's other works, most important of which is The Mansions of the Interior Castle (1577). In this book the soul is compared to an interior castle that contains many mansions. The spiritual movement goes from the outside to the inner apartment, in which God himself lives. The mystical state begins at the fourth mansion, described as a passive recollection in which the soul abandons all mental activity in prayer. The next three mansions all describe the unitive life of prayer. Also important for the study of spiritual development are The Way of Perfection (1565-1566) and Conceptions of the Love of God (1571-1574).


Further Reading on St. Theresa

E. Allison Peers translated The Complete Works of St. Teresa of Jesus (3 vols., 1946); the Letters of St. Teresa was translated by the Benedictines of Stanbrook (4 vols., 1919-1924). Two modern biographies stand out: E. Allison Peers, Mother of Carmel (1946), and, strongly psychological, Marcelle Auclair, Teresa of Avila, translated by Kathleen Pond (1953). For interpretations of St. Theresa's work consult E. Allison Peers, Studies in the Spanish Mystics (3 vols., 1927-1960), and E. W. Trueman Dicken, The Crucible of Love (1963).