SAINT TERESA OF AVILA
Also known as “Teresa of Jesus”
Doctor of the Church
Founder of the Order of Discalced Carmelites
1515 – 1582
Feast Day: October 15
Patron of: Spain, Naples, Spanish “Military Service Corps.”, Catholic Writers, Lace Makers, People in religious orders
Invoked Against: Bodily ills, Fires of Purgatory, Headaches, Heart Ailments
Symbols: Flaming arrow, Book, Crucifix, Receiving a message from a dove
“There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.”
Saint Teresa of Avila
Denounced to the Inquisition, labeled a disobedient gadabout by the Papal Nuncio, and a troublemaker by her superiors in the Carmelite order, Teresa of Avila was one of the most brilliant minds of her generation. In her day, the only other woman to equal her celebrity was Elizabeth I of England, and today, the writings of Saint Teresa continue to influence scholars, political reformers and spiritual teachers of every religion.
Born into a Spain that had only recently expulsed its Muslim and Jewish populations, Teresa de Cepeda y de Ahumada was the granddaughter of a “converso”, a Jew who had been forced to convert to Catholicism to avoid exile or death. After changing his religion, her grandfather bought himself a knighthood and moved from his native Toledo to Avila. His son married a wealthy farmer’s daughter and had nine children, the third one being Teresa. Traumatized by the humiliation his family had suffered at the hands of the Inquisition, Teresa’s father was insistent that his children devote themselves solely to serious studies. Her mother secretly loved romance novels, an addiction she passed on to her lively and charismatic daughter. As a young child, Teresa and one of her brothers were enamored with tales of the early Christian martyrs. They ran away from home, intending to go to North Africa to be sacrificed for their beliefs by the Moors. When an Uncle brought them back, they changed their game, pretending to be hermits living outside the city walls. Teresa enjoyed a happy and indulged childhood until the death of her mother when she was 14 years old. She writes in her autobiography that she frequently lied to her father about her social life and because he loved her so much he believed her. When it became obvious to him that his daughter cared too much for new clothes, secret romances and flirting, he sent her away to live in an Augustinian convent as a boarder. To her surprise, after the initial shock of living away from her family, Teresa found she enjoyed convent life which at that time had an atmosphere far less rigid than the one her father had imposed at home. When Teresa fell ill, she returned to her family to convalesce for 18 months.
By the time she was twenty years old, Teresa realized that she would have to choose between marriage and becoming a nun. Many of her brothers had opted for exciting lives of adventure, becoming conquistadores in the New World. Staying home and tending a household did not present an interesting future for Teresa. When her father refused to consent to her joining a religious order, she ran away to the local Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation.
Life at the Convent of the Incarnation was far from the routine of contemplation and prayer adhered to by the founding hermits of the original Carmelite religious order. These nuns had luxurious suites and wore perfume and jewelry. They traveled freely back and forth to their homes, had parties and entertained liberally in the convent’s parlor. Many had “devotos”, gentlemen callers who visited them to allegedly give spiritual advice. Convents depended on dowries gifted them by their postulants, and those who donated more wealth held more prestige. Many of the nuns had no real religious calling, nor a desire to devote time to spiritual matters. Since a large portion of Spain’s male population had gone to the New World to make their fortunes, a generation of unmarried women were left behind with few other options.
Within a year of her profession, Teresa fell ill again and had to return home for treatment. An uncle gave her a book to pass the time about spiritual exercises of the Middle Ages, Francisco de Osuna’s “Third Spiritual Alphabet”. Teresa was fascinated with it and later wrote that the notion of quiet, interior prayer was a revelation to her, as she suffered from chronic “noise in the head”. At one point in her illness Teresa was declared dead. Though they dug a grave for her, her father forbade anyone to bury her in it. She awoke three days later in a state of paralysis. She credits the intercession of Saint Joseph with her eventual cure from this particular illness.
It took three years for her to recover enough to return to the convent, but due to inadequate medical treatment, she never truly regained her health. Instead of continuing her spiritual exercises of mental prayer, she convinced herself that since hers was an unexamined, frivolous life, she was unworthy to address God with such familiarity. Passing this off as an act of humility, for 18 years she lived a happy social life in the convent. When her father died his confessor warned Teresa that she was on a dangerous spiritual path and strongly advised her to return to quiet meditation. She has said that sitting quietly for one hour was virtually impossible for her, “This intellect is so wild that it doesn’t seem to be anything else than a frantic madman no one can tie down.” She used penitents Mary Magdalen and Saint Augustine of Hippo as her inspiration until she began to welcome her quiet time. Gradually withdrawing from all social interaction, Teresa heard clear interior instructions and began to see visions. Her less devout friends at the convent were suspicious of her self imposed seclusion and fits of rapture, attributing it to demonic possession. A Jesuit priest they called to investigate these phenomena insisted that Teresa’s visions were genuinely from God and advised her to start each day by asking God to direct her to do what was most pleasing to Him. Though such admired religious figures as the mystic Peter Alacantara and Saint Francis Borgia agreed with the holiness of Teresa’s experiences, she was continually the subject of ridicule and gossip from her former friends. When she complained of this situation in one of her inner conversations with Christ, he said to her, “But Teresa, that’s how I treat all of my friends.” She answered back, “No wonder you don’t have many of them.”
In 1557 she experienced her most famous rapture. An angel appeared to her and repeatedly thrust a flaming arrow into her heart. She declared “he left me on fire with a great love of God…” Teresa became inflamed with a desire to truly serve God by leading a pure life. She longed to embrace the original Carmelite Rule of humility, poverty and prayer.
Against incredible opposition she founded a reformed convent consisting of herself, her niece and three other novices. Connection to the outside world was kept at a minimum, silence was maintained throughout the day and the nuns were clothed in habits of rough wool. Because they wore sandals instead of shoes they were known as the Discalced (unshoed) Order of Carmelites.
Officials of the Carmelite Order were appalled at Teresa’s disobedience in appealing to higher church authorities to start her order. She had been a nun for 25 years and had amassed a group of powerful allies, priests and bishops from the Jesuit, Dominican and Franciscan orders. Her fellow sisters in the Convent of the Incarnation accused Teresa of practicing a form of vanity by imposing such a strict atmosphere on the town of Avila. Fearing this little convent without a dowry would drain them for financial support, they wanted the group expelled from the town.
Because of its founder’s wealthy admirers, the new monastery of Saint Joseph’s was allowed to stay. Teresa remained in seclusion for five years, developing a Constitution of reforms that she felt were necessary in order to follow a truly spiritual life. Always surrounded in controversy, Teresa’s confessors felt that they themselves might someday need protection against possible investigations by the Inquisition. They ordered her to write her autobiography and then keep journals on her mystical visions and interior communications. The first of these writings, “Autobiography” was written before 1567. A copy of it was passed around among the nobility. Many wealthy women, responding to the directness and humor in its prose, as well as its honest portrayal of life in the upper classes, identified with its author and clamored to sponsor other reformed monasteries. “The Way of Perfection”, a book she wrote for her own nuns about prayer, introduced her spiritual philosophy to the outside world. When the Father General of the Carmelites inspected her experimental monastery, he so greatly admired what she had achieved that he asked her to start similar houses for men. The great Spanish Saint, John of the Cross, joined her in this venture.
Teresa traveled all over Spain to found more convents and monasteries, braving ice storms, searing sun, filthy inns, thieves and her own ill health. The severest challenge to her work came from inside the church itself. Considering the abuse an outspoken, part Jewish woman with mystical visions could suffer in 16th Century Spain, it is amazing that she never faltered in her mission. She insisted that the love of God had so taken hold of her that He enabled her to continue her work as a reformer. The Discalced Carmelites were formally separated from the Calced Carmelites and given their own constitution in 1580. Her final book, “The Interior Castle”, written in 1577 is her masterpiece. Using the image of a crystal castle of transparent rooms, Teresa guides the soul inward to discover the voice of Christ.
Exhausted, Teresa died of her many ailments on October 4, 1582. Because the reform of the Gregorian calendar was enacted the next day, her official day of death became October 15.
In art, Teresa is frequently shown with a book of her writings, sometimes she is communing with the dove of the Holy Spirit, signifying her divine guidance. The flaming arrow is from her rapture and because it pierced her heart, she is the patron of heart ailments. As a writer and headache sufferer, she is invoked against headaches. In her visions she saw herself in Purgatory so she is invoked against its fires. Carmelite nuns made lace, so she is a patron of lace makers. Because she traveled all over Spain and gave it some of its greatest literature, she is the patron of that country. Her spirit of reform makes her the patron of the Spanish Military Corps.
Prayer to Redeem Lost Time by Saint Teresa of Avila
O my God! Source of all mercy! I acknowledge Your sovereign power.
While recalling the wasted years that are past,
I believe that You, Lord, can in an instant turn this loss to gain.
Miserable as I am, yet I firmly believe that You can do all things.
Please restore to me the time lost, giving me Your grace,
Both now and in the future, that I may appear before You in “wedding garments”.
Excerpted from the book: “Saints: Ancient and Modern” by Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua