Saint Teresa of Avila, Virgin and Doctor

St Teresa of Jesus (of Avila), Virgin and Doctor (Memorial)

Teresa was born on 28 March, 1515 of a noble Castilian family at Avila, in central Spain. As a child, Teresa showed piety beyond her years. On one occasion she ran away from home with a younger brother with the intention of going to Morocco and dying as martyrs. Their uncle spoiled their plan when he spotted the two children outside the city walls.

Following the custom of her social class, she was educated at home up to the death of her mother, which happened 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 but three years later, returned to the convent.

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, Mary Magdalen and Augustine. His Confessions had a deep influence on her. She had both Dominicans and Jesuits as spiritual directors.

On the feast of St Peter 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 Loyola would have similar experiences. However, up to 1560 she received support and encouragement from Peter of Alcantara.

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. These were supplemented by new regulations such as the use of the ‘discipline’ (a small whip) to be used three times a week, and ‘discalceation’ of the Sisters, that is, the substitution of leather or wooden sandals for shoes. 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 diet that totally excluded meat. Teresa, though the superior, took her turn at sweeping, spinning and other household chores. The convents were small and poor yet built in such a way that the personal needs of the community could be met.

Teresa was no mere idealist but a very down to earth person. Her combination of common sense, prudence and trust in God’s Providence together with a great capacity for work and organisation overcame the many obstacles she had to face. In choosing candidates for this challenging way of life, she emphasised 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.

During the late 1560s, Teresa was also active in the reform of the Carmelite friars in association with John of the Cross. This reform, as in the case of her own convents, met with much opposition from the Calced (unreformed) Carmelites. Eventually the reformed (or Discalced) Carmelites were recognised as a separate structure from the unreformed. In Teresa’s lifetime and later, the Discalced friars would prove invaluable as spiritual directors of the Sisters.

In her teaching on prayer, Teresa’s work would be complemented by the more theological approach of John of the Cross. Her own writings, though in a more colloquial style and written under obedience, emphasise various kinds of prayer which can endure over a long period but can be the stepping stones to true mystical prayer. Her books include her own life story, Libro de las Fundaciones (the story of her Foundations), The Way of Perfection (written for nuns) and The Interior Castle.

In 1582, she made her last foundation at Burgos but died on her way back to Avila at Alba de Tormes on 4 October of that year. She was 67 years old. Her body was buried and still rests there.

Forty years after her death, in 1622, she was canonised and she is revered as the “Seraphic Virgin”. The Spanish Cortes made her patroness of Spain in 1617, and the University of Salamanca had earlier conferred the title Doctor ecclesiae (Doctor of the Church) to be distinguished from the Holy See’s ‘Doctor of the Church’ given in 1970, the first woman to be so honoured. The mysticism in her works exerted an influence on many theologians of the following centuries, such as Francis of Sales, Fénelon, and the Port-Royalist.

A contemporary portrait, painted in 1570 by Fray Juan de la Miseria, survives at Avila. Her usual emblems are a fiery arrow or a dove above her head.

The ideals and way of life established by her survive in the numerous small communities of Carmelite Sisters, who witness to the importance of contemplation in our modern world. Her written works are spiritual classics read by Christians of all kinds.

Although she died on 4 October, her feast is on 15 October because in 1582, on the very day after her death, the Gregorian reform of the calendar was adopted and ten days were permanently omitted from the month of October.

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