October 15 is the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila. Although saints' days are superseded by Sunday, her day will be observed this Sunday in some Carmelite houses.
The short biographies that I write are usually about half the size of this one. It is longer for several reasons, the most obvious ones being that she is my favorite saint and my namesake. In addition to those, I had more that I wanted to say because of recent biographies that overemphasize her feminism and minimize the massive support that she had from many men during her lifetime. Another is a news report about a movie being made that overemphasizes her sex appeal, suggesting that the men who helped her were responding to her sexuality. Hopefully, in responding to those characterizations of her life, I have not overcompensated by overemphasizing something else. In any event, it is my view of my favorite saint.
Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda was born on March 28, 1515 in Avila, Castile, Spain. Her mother was from the Spanish nobility. Her father’s father had been a Jewish textile merchant and had converted to Catholicism to marry her father’s mother. His "pure blood" status was once upheld by a court, in an era of prejudice, probably because of his popularity among the nobility and because his conversion to Catholicism had been real. Teresa's father was a devout Catholic with a preference for the Dominican clergy and for the Dominican theologians who had a seminary in Avila.
Her mother had a devotion to the rosary and a love for reading books about chivalry and romance. She taught Teresa to read, and Teresa soon shared her mother’s love for books, beautiful clothing and jewelry. Teresa was her father’s fifth child, with seven younger siblings. Six of the younger ones were boys. She was 13 years old when her mother died giving birth to her only younger sister. Her only older sister, Juana, married in 1531, leaving the single father alone to care for the younger children. At 15, she formed a friendship with a female cousin she later remembered as a bad influence, lost part of her childhood faith, and had a brief romance with a boy cousin that was probably innocuous by today’s standards. Her scrupulous father knew only a little about it, but sensed that something was wrong.
All of Avila was planning for great festivities that year, when the future King Phillip II was expected to arrive for the celebration of the day when he would leave his baby clothes to take on the attire of a young boy. The feast had already begun, two weeks before the imperial procession was to arrive, when Teresa’s father moved her into the convent of St. Mary of Grace, a strict, Augustinian house in Avila with 40 nuns and room for 10 girls living as borders. The girls were taught reading, writing, needlework, and music, watched over by Mother Maria de Briceño, a mystic with a devotion to the Eucharist. Mother Maria de Briceño was known for having once held back from the Eucharist when she did not think herself worthy, only to have the host miraculously fly from the ciborium into her mouth. Teresa was at first outraged by the penances forced on her, but later delighted in Mother de Briceño’s talk about God. Teresa lived there 18 months before a serious illness required her to return home. Along the way, she visited her father’s brother, who introduced her to the Letters of St. Jerome. Later, the same uncle, a widower living alone, introduced her to the Third Spiritual Alphabet by Spanish mystic Francisco de Osuna.
In 1535, then 20 years old, Teresa wanted to become a Carmelite nun at the monastery where her friend Juana Suarez lived, but it was largely because her fear of hell outweighed her desire for marriage. Her father forbade it. She persuaded one of her brothers, who would eventually become a Dominican, to help her. On November 2, 1535, they slipped out of their father’s house one morning at sunrise and walked down the hill to Our Lady of the Incarnation. Her father accepted her choice only after the fact.
The Incarnation was then home to 150 nuns as well as boarders and domestic servants living under a Carmelite rule that had been relaxed, or "mitigated", since the order's original founding. A lively social life could be had there, and the sisters could entertain friends and family in the parlor. However, Teresa’s illness and emotional turmoil plagued her early years at the Incarnation. For several months in 1538, she left to seek treatment elsewhere, and at one point was near death. When she returned to the Incarnation, she still lingered in the infirmary, nearly paralyzed, for the next few years. Frustrated, she sought healing from St. Joseph. She was freed and able to walk again. Nonetheless, she continued to suffer from poor health for the rest of her life.
Her father having provided for her, Doña Teresa (as she was still known) could have had a relatively comfortable apartment. Still, the Incarnation as a whole was impoverished, depending upon resources from the city of Avila, whose 10,000 people were a source of limited donations for many local convents and churches. Nuns were encouraged to spend time with their families outside of the monastery. Some of them also spent time living in houses of the wealthy nobility, who believed that they would be rewarded in heaven for taking care of a needy nun. Teresa’s younger sister moved into the Incarnation and grew up there with Teresa, who still was involved in meeting family obligations as the oldest single daughter. Her bubbly personality soon made her a welcome house guest of the nobility of Spain’s Golden Age, and she formed a close friendship with an affluent woman who later helped her.
She remained an avid reader, and some spiritual books were available in the Spanish vernacular that she could read. She read St. Augustine's Confessions at least two times. Her devotion to St. John Cassian's Conferences was mentioned by Petronila Bautista in her beatification process, and it is possible that she read from his work each day as St. Thomas Aquinas is said to have done, following St. Benedict's recommendation of the work in The Rule. Some of her writings suggest the influence of Dominican thinking of her day. Her father's confessor, and one of her brothers, were Dominicans, and she once had the Dominican theologian Domingo de Yanguas as her confessor. She must have discussed her ideas with them. Yet, in an environment in which women were not taught to read Latin, and Scripture was only legally available in Latin, she often downplayed the extent of her own knowledge in her writings.
In 1545, Teresa began to have mystical experiences. In 1554, a sense of the wounded Christ transformed her motivation into love for Christ that surpassed the fear that had been her earlier motivation. In 1555, she had her first great ecstasy. Her first real vision occurred on June 29, 1559. In 1560, she had her first levitation, the transverberation of her heart, and a terrifying vision of hell. In 1561, she miraculously restored her sister’s little boy to life, her first miracle. Despite that, as soon as one of her ecstasies ended, she went back to being an ordinary, humble Carmelite nun who was very friendly, extroverted, and yet who loved to pray. Talk of her experiences spread, some people beginning to regard her as a saint while others wondered if she was an impostor or a person under demonic deception.
These mystical experiences caused great concern among the clergy who knew her. In the early 16th century, a mystical movement of illuminism had developed in Spain including mental prayer, with a belief in the free access of the entire population to the Scriptures. A self-proclaimed prophetess and fraudulent visionary, Magdalena de la Cruz, had drawn much public support. The reaction of the Inquisition, while the Reformation was spreading through France, Germany and England, was often severe. In 1559, the former priest of Charles V was burned with 110 accused heretics. The same year, more than 700 books were burned on the pretext that writings in the Spanish vernacular might contain heretical ideas. The archbishop of Toledo was imprisoned. No one could feel secure. At times, even priests who were her supporters cautioned her to stop, in fear for their own safety as well as for hers. Suggestions that Teresa’s opponents were merely male misogynists, or that her efforts were essentially a feminist movement, disregard the true position of both men and women in that era of Spanish history.
By 1558, Teresa was suspected of demonic illusions. Even clergy she admired were concerned about the source of her mystical experiences. However, she had both men and women who supported her efforts in what was, indeed, an age of reform through much of Europe. By the age of 45, she was already known as “the Madre” throughout Spain. That year, she began to write her first work, The Spiritual Testimonies. In 1561, as a few friends and family members encouraged her to form a new, smaller monastery committed to a more ascetic Carmelite life of prayer, a priest asked her to write the story of her life and mystical experiences. After a vision of St. Clare on August 12, 1561, she wrote the first rule of the Discalced Carmelite order that she wanted to found.
In 1562, she was sent to Toledo, to the home of the wealthy Luisa de La Cerda for six months, a plan that some thought would end her plans for a new monastery. There, she completed the first draft of her autobiography ("The Life") and met with Fray Garcia de Toledo, who asked her to rewrite it. Whenever Scripture or the Church, or those in authority over her, told her to do something different from what she had believed God was asking her to do, she always took the guidance of Scripture and the Church as more powerful evidence of God's will than were her feelings and mystical experiences. She regularly made the changes that those in authority over her asked her to make. She did not finish the final draft until 1565.
Meanwhile, an ascetic widow, Maria de Yepes, found her in Toledo and told her by memory the primitive rule of Carmel, which further inspired her reform. Maria had become a Carmelite and had left the order because of its laxity. She reported that she had had gone to Rome, speaking favorably about the planned reform of Carmel, and that she had obtained from Pope Pius IV a brief authorizing the reform. While in Italy, Maria had spent time in an Italian Carmelite monastery that had already begun to follow the more severe primitive rule.
The provincial father then authorized Teresa’s return to Avila. While Teresa had her opponents within Castile, Pope Pius IV was seeking to reform those monastic orders that had been living under a relaxed rule. It was part of an effort to counteract the Lutheran Evangelical movement. Orders other than the Carmelites had already undergone reforms. On February 6, 1562, Pope Pius IV indeed had authorized the founding of her reformed monastery, although his brief was not accepted by opponents who believed that the Pope did not have accurate information about the Madre. She then won the approval of St. Peter of Alcantara not long before his death. On August 24, the Monastery of San Jose of Avila was begun amid much opposition. On December 5, 1562, a second papal brief authorized Teresa, by name, to found a monastery in strict poverty. Not until the following year would Teresa be allowed to leave the Incarnation and join the nuns at San Jose. That year, she also wrote the first draft of The Way of Perfection, a book of her teaching and counsel for the nuns at the new Carmel.
In February 1567, Teresa received a visit from Father Juan Bautista Rossi, known as Rubeo de Ravenna, the Carmelite prior general who had just arrived from Rome. King Phillip II had invited him to Spain. The king shared the Pope’s interest in reforming the relaxed orders. Father Rubeo’s mission was the reform of the Carmelite order, but the mitigated Carmelite monasteries of Spain had no interest in his plans. After visiting the monastery of San Jose, he instructed Teresa to found more monasteries for women and, soon afterward, authorized her to reform two monasteries for men.
That year, Antonio de Heredia, the former prior of the Carmelite monasteries in Avila, became the prior general of Carmel in Medina del Campo and soon surprised Teresa by telling her that he wanted to be the prior of her first Discalced Carmelite foundation for men! She thought he was too old and too accustomed to comfort and beautiful art. Yet he, together with St. John of the Cross and two others, formed the first Discalced Carmelite house for men. It drew much attention in that day as a house for men whose formation was attributed to a woman. On her part, Teresa believed that she had found in St. John of the Cross asceticism coupled with great theological knowledge and expertise as a Latinist: the sort of priest who she hoped would lead the Carmelite friars. Father Antonio became the first prior on the provincial’s order. While the nuns’ houses were established as cloistered houses of contemplation, in poverty, the friars were free to leave their house, and they served as priests to nearby parishes in need of clergy. For all of them, Teresa insisted that the spirit of Carmel must be the spirit of love, a life of joy and not of suffering.
Teresa was increasingly considered to be a saint. Her mystical graces continued. She began to draw unwanted crowds when she entered towns. She sometimes traveled by wagons, together with other nuns who created a sort of cloister inside a wagon for the journey. When required by the treacherous road conditions, she was sometimes on mule-back or horseback. She twice took carriages offered by the nobility. Her health always a concern, her preferred mode of transportation beginning in 1570 was a tartana, a covered wagon drawn by one mule. Sometimes traveling through snowfall, often entering towns during the night to avoid the attention of those who opposed her foundations, and several times in danger of life in precarious roads and weather conditions, she continued to found new houses when invited by someone with the financial means to establish a new monastery.
Her opponents continued their efforts. In 1571, she was ordered to return to Avila and to take the role of prioress of the Incarnation – a matter that did not sit well with her or with the nuns there who opposed her reforms. She remained prioress for 3 years, bringing John of the Cross to be chaplain in 1572. In 1573, she began to write the book of her Foundations, the history of her founding the houses other than San Jose, a book that she completed in 1582.
Inevitably, part of the opposition to her foundations was financial. Cities were always concerned about the financial burden of another monastery. Other monasteries that were already drawing from the alms given by city residents were concerned that they would have too little financial support to survive if the celebrated nun founded a monastery in competition for those donations. A wife or heir of a property owner could oppose the sale or rental of a house to a monastery because, once it was consecrated as a chapel and the Blessed Sacrament was in place, it could not readily revert to its use as a family home. Teresa quickly gained an expertise in the real estate market, shrewdness in negotiation, and experience in dealing with lawyers and courts involved in a series of lawsuits.
Another source of conflict was a struggle between Phillip II, who supported Pius IV’s desire for monastic austerity and reform, and the Carmelite general who wanted to protect the casual, relaxed rule that had been the norm for Carmel. At the end of 1574, Phillip II succeeded in having the Pope appoint Father Jeronimo Gracian and two Dominicans as reformers of Castile and Andalusia. In April, 1575, Father Gracian met Teresa and soon became her closest confidant and ally.
Then, after leaving the Incarnation for the second time, a crisis erupted when Teresa founded a monastery in Seville, outside of the area where she was authorized to found new houses. At the time, the Inquisition was looking for her autobiography to investigate her for possible heresy.
She was ordered to stop making foundations and to settle in the monastery of her choice. She chose Toledo, as the persecutions against the Discalced intensified to a new level. In 1577, while The Life was in the hands of the Inquisition, she wrote The Interior Castle at Father Gracian’s suggestion. On December 4, 1577, St. John of the Cross was captured by mitigated Carmelites and imprisoned in Toledo, as the persecution against the Discalced Carmelites intensified. The Discalced Carmelites were placed under the jurisdiction of the mitigated. In March, 1578, Father Gracian went into hiding and lived as a hermit in a grotto.
However, one year later, the king appointed four assessors who removed the Discalced from the jurisdiction of the mitigated Carmelites. Shortly afterward, the king’s assessors supported the creation of a separate Discalced Carmelite province, a plan that would become official in 1580.
Her foundations continued until 1582. Still traveling, Teresa arrived at the monastery at Alba de Tormes on September 21, 1582. She died there on October 4. She was buried the next day for fear that the people of Avila would come to claim her. A later reform of the calendar moved the date of her death to October 15, 1582.
Her death drew much public attention. The nuns noticed a fragrance coming from the grave, the same fragrance that they said had been noticeable around her during the last days of her life and around her body after her death. On July 4, 1583, her coffin was opened. Although the coffin lid had rotted and smelled of mildew, her body was found to be as incorrupt as it was the day she was buried. The nuns washed her and prepared to dress her in a new habit. Father Gracian cut off her left hand, which he took to Avila. From it, he kept one finger, which he wore around his neck for the rest of his life. In 1585, Father Gracian and another man opened her grave again cut off what remained of her left arm, finding it still incorrupt, bleeding from the cut, with the fragrance. They took her body back to Avila. On the Pope’s order, her body was returned to Avila the following year. Her body was exhumed again, and her transverberated heart, right arm, right foot, a piece of her jaw, and bits of flesh were taken as relics at various times. Most of her remains are now in Alba.
Teresa of Jesus was beatified in 1614 and canonized in 1622. In 1970, Pope Paul VI proclaimed her a Doctor of the Church.
Teresa of Avila, The Life and The Foundations are her two primary autobiographical books.
Antier, Jean-Jacques, Thérèse d'Avila: De la crainte à l'amour. This book is now available in English translation under the title God Alone Suffices, published by the Daughters of St. Paul. I strongly recommend this book in preference over the other two biographies cited in this bibliography. It places the emphasis on her spiritual development -- prayer, her relationship with God, and the spiritual motivation for her new foundations. Some of the other biographies on the market today compromise historic fact in order to serve a feminist agenda, overlooking those things that Teresa herself would have seen as central to her life and mission. Antier has an interest in mysticism and adventure, sets her mystical life in its historic context, and writes beautifully.
Du Boulay, Shirley, Teresa of Avila: An Extraordinary Life.
Photo: Statue of St. Teresa of Avila from the Carmelite Monastery in San Diego, California. Photo by me.