Signup for our Newsletter today for Catholic content
In the Autobiography which she completed towards the end of her life, Saint Teresa of Avila gives us a description of her parents, along with a disparaging estimate of her own character. “The possession of virtuous parents who lived in the fear of God, together with those favors which I received from his Divine Majesty, might have made me good, if I had not been so very wicked.” A heavy consciousness of sin was prevalent in sixteenth-century Spain, and we can readily discount this avowal of guilt. What we are told of Teresa’s early life does not sound in the least wicked, but it is plain that she was an unusually active, imaginative, and sensitive child. Her parents, Don Alfonso Sanchez de Capeda and Dona Beatriz Davila y Ahumada, his second wife, were people of position in Avila, a city of Old Castile, where Teresa was born on March 28, 1515. There were nine children of this marriage, of whom Teresa was the third, and three children of her father’s first marriage.
Piously reared as she was, Teresa became completely fascinated by stories of the saints and martyrs, as was her brother Roderigo, who was near her own age and her partner in youthful adventures. Once, when Teresa was seven, they made a plan to run away to Africa, where they might be beheaded by the infidel Moors and so achieve martyrdom. They set out secretly, expecting to beg their way like the poor friars, but had gone only a short distance from home when they were met by an uncle and brought back to their anxious mother, who had sent servants into the streets to search for them. She and her brother now thought they would like to become hermits, and tried to build themselves little cells from stones they found in the garden. Thus we see that religious thoughts and influences dominated the mind of the future saint in childhood.
Teresa was only fourteen when her mother died, and she later wrote of her sorrow in these words: “As soon as I began to understand how great a loss I had sustained by losing her, I was very much afflicted; and so I went before an image of our Blessed Lady and besought her with many tears that she would vouchsafe to be my mother.” Visits from a girl cousin were most welcome at this time, but they had the effect of stimulating her interest in superficial things. Reading tales of chivalry was one of their diversions, and Teresa even tried to write romantic stories. “These tales,” she says in her Autobiography, “did not fail to cool my good desires, and were the cause of my falling insensibly into other defects. I was so enchanted that I could not be happy without some new tale in my hands. I began to imitate the fashions, to enjoy being well dressed, to take great care of my hands, to use perfumes, and wear all the vain ornaments which my position in the world allowed.” Noting this sudden change in his daughter’s personality, Teresa’s father decided to place her in a convent of Augustinian nuns in Avila, where other young women of her class were being educated. This action made Teresa aware that her danger had been greater than she knew. After a year and a half in the convent she fell ill with what seems to have been a malignant type of malaria, and Don Alfonso brought her home. After recovering, she went to stay with her eldest sister, who had married and gone to live in the country. Then she visited an uncle, Peter Sanchez de Capeda, a very sober and pious man. At home once more, and fearing that an uncongenial marriage would be forced upon her, she began to deliberate whether or not she should undertake the religious life. Reading the <Letters of St. Jerome>, helped her to reach a decision. St. Jerome’s realism and ardor were akin to her own Castilian spirit, with its mixture of the practical and the idealistic. She now announced to her father her desire to become a nun, but he withheld consent, saying that after his death she might do as she pleased
This reaction caused a new conflict, for Teresa loved her father devotedly. Feeling that delay might weaken her resolve, she went secretly to the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation outside the town of Avila, where her dear friend Sister Jane Suarez was living, and applied for admission. Of this painful step, she wrote: “I remember . . . while I was going out of my father’s house—the sharpness of sense will not be greater, I believe, in the very instant of agony of my death, than it was then. It seemed as if all the bones in my body were wrenched asunder…. There was no such love of God in me then as was able to quench the love I felt for my father and my friends.” A year later Teresa made her profession, but when there was a recurrence of her illness, Don Alfonso had her removed from the convent, as the rule of enclosure was not then in effect. After a period of intense suffering, during which, on one occasion, at least, her life was despaired of, she gradually began to improve. She was helped by certain prayers she had begun to use. Her devout Uncle Peter had given her a little book called the <Third Spiritual Alphabet>, by Father Francis de Osuna, which dealt with “prayers of recollection and quiet.” Taking this book as her guide, she began to concentrate on mental prayer, and progressed towards the “prayer of quiet,” with the soul resting in divine contemplation, all earthly things forgotten. Occasionally, for brief moments, she attained the “prayer of union,” in which all the powers of the soul are absorbed in God. She persuaded her father to apply himself to this form of prayer.
After three years Teresa went back to the convent. Her intelligence, warmth, and charm made her a favorite, and she found pleasure in being with people. It was the custom in Spain in those days for the young nuns to receive their acquaintances in the convent parlor, and Teresa spent much time there, chatting with friends. She was attracted to one of the visitors whose company was disturbing to her, although she told herself that there could be no question of sin, since she was only doing what so many others, better than she, were doing. During this relaxed period, she gave up her habit of mental prayer, using as a pretext the poor state of her health. “This excuse of bodily weakness,” she wrote afterwards, “was not a sufficient reason why I should abandon so good a thing, which required no physical strength, but only love and habit. In the midst of sickness the best prayer may be offered, and it is a mistake to think it can only be offered in solitude.” She returned to the practice of mental prayer and never again abandoned it, although she had not yet the courage to follow God completely, or to stop wasting her time and talents. But during these years of apparent wavering, her spirit was being forged. When depressed by her own unworthiness, she turned to those two great penitents, St. Mary Magdalen and St. Augustine, and through them came experiences that helped to steady her will. One was the reading of St. Augustine’s <Confessions>; another was an overpowering impulse to penitence before a picture of the suffering Lord, in which, she writes, “I felt Mary Magdalen come to my assistance…. From that day I have gone on improving in my spiritual life.”
When finally Teresa withdrew from the pleasures of social intercourse, she found herself able once more to pray the “prayer of quiet,” and also the “prayer of union.” She began to have intellectual visions of divine things and to hear inner voices. Though she was persuaded these manifestations came from God, she was at times fearful and troubled. She consulted many persons, binding all to secrecy, but her perplexities nevertheless were spread abroad, to her great mortification. Among those she talked to was Father Gaspar Daza, a learned priest, who, after listening, reported that she was deluded, for such divine favors were not consistent with a life as full of imperfections as hers was, as she herself admitted. A friend, Don Francis de Salsedo, suggested that she talk to a priest of the newly formed Society of Jesus. To one of them, accordingly, she made a general Confession, recounting her manner of prayer and extraordinary visions. He assured her that she experienced divine graces, but warned her that she had failed to lay the foundations of a true spiritual life by practices of mortification. He advised her to try to resist the visions and voices for two months; resistance proved useless. Francis Borgia, commissary-general of the Society in Spain, then advised her not to resist further, but also not to seek such experiences.
Another Jesuit, Father Balthasar Alvarez, who now became her director, pointed out certain traits that were incompatible with perfect grace. He told her that she would do well to beg God to direct her to what was most pleasing to Him, and to recite daily the hymn of St. Gregory the Great, “<Veni Creator Spiritus>!” One day, as she repeated the stanzas, she was seized with a rapture in which she heard the words, “I will not have you hold conversation with men, but with angels.” For three years, while Father Balthasar was her director, she suffered from the disapproval of those around her; and for two years, from extreme desolation of soul. She was censured for her austerities and ridiculed as a victim of delusion or a hypocrite. A confessor to whom she went during Father Balthasar’s absence said that her very prayer was an illusion, and commanded her, when she saw any vision, to make the sign of the cross and repel it as if it were an evil spirit. But Teresa tells us that the visions now brought with them their own evidence of ,authenticity, so that it was impossible to doubt they were from God. Nevertheless, she obeyed this order of her confessor. Pope Gregory XV, in his bull of canonization, commends her obedience in these words: “She was wont to say that she might be deceived in discerning visions and revelations, but could not be in obeying superiors.”
In 1557 Peter of Alcantara, a Franciscan of the Observance, came to Avila. Few saints have been more experienced in the inner life, and he found in Teresa unmistakable evidence of the Holy Spirit. He openly expressed compassion for what she endured from slander and predicted that she was not at the end of her tribulations. However, as her mystical experiences continued, the greatness and goodness of God, the sweetness of His service, became more and more manifest to her. She was sometimes lifted from the ground, an experience other saints have known. “God,” she says, “seems not content with drawing the soul to Himself, but he must needs draw up the very body too, even while it is mortal and compounded of so unclean a clay as we have made it by our sins.”
It was at this time, she tells us, that her most singular experience took place, her mystical marriage to Christ, and the piercing of her heart. Of the latter she writes: “I saw an angel very near me, towards my left side, in bodily form, which is not usual with me; for though angels are often represented to me, it is only in my mental vision. This angel appeared rather small than large, and very beautiful. His face was so shining that he seemed to be one of those highest angels called seraphs, who look as if all on fire with divine love. He had in his hands a long golden dart; at the end of the point methought there was a little fire. And I felt him thrust it several times through my heart in such a way that it passed through my very bowels. And when he drew it out, methought it pulled them out with it and left me wholly on fire with a great love of God.” The pain in her soul spread to her body, but it was accompanied by great delight too; she was like one transported, caring neither to see nor to speak but only to be consumed with the mingled pain and happiness.
Teresa’s longing to die that she might be united with God was tempered by her desire to suffer for Him on earth. The account which the <Autobiography> gives of her revelations is marked by sincerity, genuine simplicity of style, and scrupulous precision. An unlettered woman, she wrote in the Castilian vernacular, setting down her experiences reluctantly, out of obedience to her confessor, and submitting everything to his judgment and that of the Church, merely complaining that the task kept her from spinning. Teresa wrote of herself without self-love or pride. Towards her persecutors she was respectful, representing them as honest servants of God.
Teresa’s other literary works came later, during the fifteen years when she was actively engaged in founding new convents of reformed Carmelite nuns. They are proof of her industry and her power of memory, as well as of a real talent for expression. <The Way of Perfection> she composed for the special guidance of her nuns, and the <Foundations> for their further edification. <The Interior Castle> was perhaps meant for all Catholics; in it she writes with authority on the spiritual life. One admiring critic says: “She lays bare in her writings the most impenetrable secrets of true wisdom in what we call mystical theology, of which God has given the key to a small number of his favored servants. This thought may somewhat lessen our surprise that an unlearned woman should have expounded what the greatest doctors never attained, for God employs in His works what instruments He wills.”
We have seen how undisciplined the Carmelite nuns had become, how the convent parlor at Avila was a social gathering place, and how easily nuns might leave their enclosure. Any woman, in fact, who wanted a sheltered life without much responsibility could find it in a convent in sixteenth-century Spain. The religious themselves, for the most part, were not even aware of how far they fell short of what their profession demanded. So when one of the nuns at the House of the Incarnation began talking of the possibility of founding a new and stricter community, the idea struck Teresa as an inspiration from Heaven. She determined to undertake its establishment herself and received a promise of help from a wealthy widow, Dona Guiomar de Ulloa. The project was approved by Peter of Alcantara and Father Angelo de Salazar, provincial of the Carmelite Order. The latter was soon compelled to withdraw his permission, for Teresa’s fellow nuns, the local nobility, the magistrates, and others united to thwart the project. Father Ibanez, a Dominican, secretly encouraged Teresa and urged Dona Guiomar to continue to lend her support. One of Teresa’s married sisters began with her husband to erect a small convent at Avila in 1561 to shelter the new establishment; outsiders took it for a house intended for the use of her family.
An episode famous in Teresa’s life occurred at this time. Her little nephew was crushed by a wall of the new structure which fell on him as he was playing, and he was carried, apparently lifeless, to Teresa. She held the child in her arms and prayed. After some minutes she restored him alive and sound to his mother. The miracle was presented at the process for Teresa’s canonization. Another seemingly solid wall of the convent collapsed during the night. Teresa’s brother-in-law was going to refuse to pay the masons, but Teresa assured him that it was all the work of evil spirits and insisted that the men be paid.
A wealthy woman of Toledo, Countess Louise de la Cerda, happened at the time to be mourning the recent death of her husband, and asked the Carmelite provincial to order Teresa, whose goodness she had heard praised, to come to her. Teresa was accordingly sent to the woman, and stayed with her for six months, using a part of the time, at the request of Father Ibanez, to write, and to develop further her ideas for the convent. While at Toledo she met Maria of Jesus, of the Carmelite convent at Granada, who had had revelations concerning a reform of the order, and this meeting strengthened Teresa’s own desires. Back in Avila, on the very evening of her arrival, the Pope’s letter authorizing the new reformed convent was brought to her. Teresa’s adherents now persuaded the bishop of Avila to concur, and the convent, dedicated to St. Joseph, was quietly opened. On St. Bartholomew’s day, 1562 the Blessed Sacrament was placed in the little chapel, and four novices took the habit.
The news soon spread in the town and opposition flared into the open. The prioress of the Incarnation convent sent for Teresa, who was required to explain her conduct. Detained almost as a prisoner, Teresa did not lose her poise. The prioress was joined in her disapproval by the mayor and magistrates, always fearful that an unendowed convent would be a burden on the townspeople. Some were for demolishing the building forthwith. Meanwhile Don Francis sent a priest to Madrid, to plead for the new establishment before the King’s Council. Teresa was allowed to go back to her convent and shortly afterward the bishop officially appointed her prioress. The hubbub now quickly subsided. Teresa was hence. forth known simply as Teresa of Jesus, mother of the reform of Carmel. The nuns were strictly cloistered, under a rule of poverty and almost complete silence; the constant chatter of women’s voices was one of the things that Teresa had most deplored at the Incarnation. They were poor, without regular revenues; they wore habits of coarse serge and sandals instead of shoes, and for this reason were called the “discalced” or shoeless Carmelites. Although the prioress was now in her late forties, and frail, her great achievement still lay in the future.
Convinced that too many women under one roof made for relaxation of discipline, Teresa limited the number of nuns to thirteen; later, when houses were being founded with endowments and hence were not wholly dependent on alms, the number was increased to twenty-one. The prior general of the Carmelites, John Baptist Rubeo of Ravenna, visiting Avila in 1567, carried away a fine impression of Teresa’s sincerity and prudent rule. He gave her full authority to found other convents on the same plan, in spite of the fact that St. Joseph’s had been established without his knowledge.
Five peaceful years were spent with the thirteen nuns in the little convent of St. Joseph. Teresa trained the sisters in every kind of useful work and in all religious observances, but whether at spinning or at prayer, she herself was always first and most diligent. In August, 1567, she founded a second convent at Medina del Campo. The Countess de la Cerda was anxious to found a similar house in her native town of Malagon, and Teresa went to advise her about it. When this third community had been launched, the intrepid nun moved on to Valladolid, and there founded a fourth; then a fifth at Toledo. On beginning this work, she had no more than four or five ducats (approximately ten dollars), but she said, “Teresa and this money are nothing; but God, Teresa, and these ducats suffice.” At Medina del Campo she encountered two friars who had heard of her reform and wished to adopt it: Antony de Heredia, prior of the Carmelite monastery there, and John of the Cross. With their aid, in 1568, and the authority given her by the prior general, she established a reformed house for men at Durelo, and in 1569 a second one at Pastrana, both on a pattern of extreme poverty and austerity. She left to John of the Cross, who at this time was in his late twenties, the direction of these and other reformed communities that might be started for men. Refusing to obey the order of his provincial to return to Medina, he was imprisoned at Toledo for nine months. After his escape he became vicar-general of Andalusia, and strove for papal recognition of the order. John, later to attain fame as a poet, mystic confessor, and finally saint, became Teresa’s friend; a close spiritual bond developed between the young friar and the aging prioress, and he was made director and confessor in the mother house at Avila.
The hardships and dangers involved in Teresa’s labors are indicated by a little episode of the founding of a new convent at Salamanca. She and another nun took over a house which had been occupied by students. It was a large, dirty, desolate place, without furnishings, and when night came the two nuns lay down on their piles of straw, for, Teresa tells us, “the first furniture I provided wherever I founded convents was straw, for, having that, I reckoned I had beds.” On this occasion, the other nun seemed very nervous, and Teresa asked her the reason. “I was wondering,” was the reply, “what you would do alone with a corpse if I were to die here now.” Teresa was startled, but only said, “I shall think of that when it happens, Sister. For the present, let us go to sleep.”
At about this time Pope Pius V appointed a number of apostolic visitors to inquire into the relaxations of discipline in religious orders everywhere. The visitor to the Carmelites of Castile found great fault with the Incarnation convent and sent for Teresa, bidding her to assume its direction and remedy the abuses there. It was hard to be separated from her own daughters, and even more distasteful to be brought in as head of the old house which had long opposed her with bitterness and jealousy. The nuns at first refused to obey her; some of them fell into hysterics at the very idea. She told them that she came not to coerce or instruct but to serve and to learn from the least among them. By gentleness and tact she won the affection of the community, and was able to reestablish discipline. Frequent callers were forbidden, the finances of the house were set in order, and a more truly religious spirit reigned. At the end of three years, although the nuns wished to keep her longer, she was directed to return to her own convent.
Teresa organized a nunnery at Veas and while there met Father Jerome Gratian, a reformed Carmelite, and was persuaded by him to extend her work to Seville. With the exception of her first convent, none proved so hard to establish as this. Among her problems there was a disgruntled novice, who reported the nuns to the Inquisition, charging them with being Illuminati.
The Italian Carmelite friars had meanwhile been growing alarmed at the progress of the reform in Spain, lest, as one of their number said, they might one day be compelled to set about reforming themselves, a fear shared by their still unreformed Spanish brothers. At a general chapter at Piacenza several decrees were passed restricting the reform. The new apostolic nuncio dismissed Father Gratian from his office as visitor to the reformed Carmelites. Teresa was told to choose one of her convents and retire to it, and abstain from founding others. At this point she turned to her friends in the world, who were able to interest King Philip II in her behalf, and he personally espoused her cause. He summoned the nuncio to rebuke him for his severity towards the discalced friars and nuns. In 1580 came an order from Rome exempting the reformed from the jurisdiction of the unreformed Carmelites, and giving each party its own provincial. Father Gratian was elected provincial of the reformed branch. The separation, although painful to many, brought an end to dissension.
Teresa was a person of great natural gifts. Her ardor and lively wit was balanced by her sound judgment and psychological insight. It was no mere flight of fancy when the English Catholic poet, Richard Crashaw, called her “the eagle” and “the dove.” She could stand up boldly and bravely for what she thought was right; she could also be severe with a prioress who by excessive austerity had made herself unfit for her duties. Yet she could be gentle as a dove, as when she writes to an erring, irresponsible nephew, “God’s mercy is great in that you have been enabled to make so good a choice and marry so soon, for you began to be dissipated when you were so young that we might have had much sorrow on your account.” Love, with Teresa, meant constructive action, and she had the young man’s daughter, born out of wedlock, brought to the convent, and took charge of her upbringing and that of his young sister.
One of Teresa’s charms was a sense of humor. In the early years, when an indiscreet male visitor to the convent once praised the beauty of her bare feet, she laughed and told him to take a good look at them for he would never see them again-implying that in the future he would not be admitted. Her method of selecting novices was characteristic. The first requirement, even before piety, was intelligence. A woman could attain to piety, but scarcely to intelligence, by which she meant common sense as well as brains. “An intelligent mind,” she wrote, “is simple and teachable; it sees its faults and allows itself to be guided. A mind that is dull and narrow never sees its faults even when shown them. It is always pleased with itself and never learns to do right.” Pretentiousness and pride annoyed her. Once a young woman of high reputation for virtue asked to be admitted to a convent in Teresa’s charge, and added, as if to emphasize her intellect, “I shall bring my Bible with me.” “What,” exclaimed Teresa, “your Bible? Do not come to us. We are only poor women who know nothing but how to spin and do as we are told.”
In spite of a naturally sturdy constitution, Teresa continued throughout her life to suffer from ailments which physicians found baffling. It would seem that sheer will power kept her alive. At the time of the definitive division of the Carmelite Order she had reached the age of sixty-five and was broken in health. Yet during the last two years of her life she somehow found strength to establish three more convents. They were at Granada, in the far south, at Burgos, in the north, and at Soria, in Portugal. The total was now sixteen. What an astounding achievement this was for one small, enfeebled woman may be better appreciated if we recall the hardships of travel. Most of this extensive journeying was done in a curtained carriage or cart drawn by mules over the extremely poor roads; her trips took her from the northern provinces down to the Mediterranean, and west into Portugal, across mountains, rivers, and arid plateaus. She and the nun who accompanied her endured all the rigors of a harsh climate as well as the steady discomfort of rude lodgings and scanty food.
In the autumn of 1582, Teresa, although ill, set out for Alva de Tormez, where an old friend was expecting a visit from her. Her companion of later years, Anne-of-St. Bartholomew, describes the journey. Teresa grew worse on the road, along which there were few habitations. They could get no food save figs, and when they arrived at the convent, Teresa went to bed in a state of exhaustion. She never recovered, and three days later, she remarked to Anne, “At last, my daughter, I have reached the house of death,” a reference to her book, <The Seven Mansions>. Extreme Unction was administered by Father Antony de Heredia, a friar of the Reform, and when he asked her where she wished to be buried. she plaintively replied, “Will they deny me a little ground for my body here?” She sat up as she received the Sacrament, exclaiming, “O my Lord, now is the time that we shall see each other! ” and died in Anne’s arms. It was the evening of October 4. The next day, as it happened, the Gregorian calendar came into use. The readjustment made it necessary to drop ten days, so that October 5 was counted as October 15, and this latter date became Teresa’s feast day. She was buried at Alva; three years later, following the decree of a. provincial chapter of Reformed Carmelites, the body was secretly removed to Avila. The next year the Duke of Alva procured an order from Rome to return it to Alva de Tormez, and there it has remained.
Teresa was canonized in 1662. Shortly after her death, Philip II, keenly aware of the Carmelite nun’s contribution to Catholicism, had her manuscripts collected and brought to his great palace of the Escorial, and there placed in a rich case, the key of which he carried on his person. These writings were edited for publication by two Dominican scholars and brought out in 1587. Subsequently her works have appeared in uncounted Spanish editions, and have been translated into many languages. An ever-spreading circle of readers through the centuries have found understanding and courage in the life and works of this nun of Castile, who is one of the glories of Spain and of the Church. Teresa’s emblems are a heart, an arrow, and a book.
Support Our Christian Mission TodayPatreon
Become a Patron!
Buy Me a Coffee