Dona Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda (1515-1582), better known as St Teresa of Avila, is one of the giants of the Catholic Church. Her descriptions of her relationship to “His Majesty,” as she called Jesus, are so deep and intense, that only those who have achieved great spiritual growth understand them. It was Teresa and her Carmelite contemporary, St John of the Cross, who described their mystical experiences and deepening prayer lives in a way that has not been surpassed in the centuries since. (Another contemporary was St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, and who gave us the Spiritual Exercises still in use today.) Together, their books are required spiritual reading in seminaries.
Teresa wrote her autobiography in snatched moments during the day, in obedience to her confessor’s request. It’s a difficult book to read, as it is a rough draft. It remains, just as she wrote it, wherever her thoughts carried her, repetitive and discursive, filled with wonderful spiritual insights. There are chapters on prayer written for her fellow religious, based upon her own experience. Her book, The Interior Castle, is more focused, dealing with the stages of spiritual progression which she, herself, experienced.
Theresa was born into a very wealthy and prestigious Spanish family during the Inquisition. Her mother, married at the age of fourteen, took on the responsibility of raising two children, by her husband’s first marriage, as well as the management of a large estate. She died, apparently of physical exhaustion, in 1528 when Teresa was just 13, after having given birth to six boys and two girls. Her oldest sister, Maria, from her father’s first marriage, took over the management of the household as well as the responsibility of raising the younger children.
As a child, Teresa burned to be a martyr. In her childish mind, a short painful death was nothing as compared to the joys of eternity. One day, with her favorite brother Rodrigo, who was then just 10 years old, they set out to become martyrs by heading to the area conquered by the Moors. (Muslims from North Africa.) They were found, of course, and returned home in disgrace. Rodrigo placed all the blame on little Teresita, saying “She made me do it.” Teresa was appropriately punished.
After her mother’s death, Teresa became exposed to a wider society and discovered that not only was she a beauty, she was also a favorite of visitors, especially her male cousins. She thoroughly enjoyed these attentions and spent hours on her appearance. Just before Queen Isabella was to visit Avila for the ceremony of her son’s official “changing of clothing” from infant garments to that of a royal prince (he was four years old), Teresa’s father sent her to the Augustinian nuns who ran a sort of “finishing school” for girls from wealthy families. Teresa was 16. I suspect that her father felt she needed more supervision than she was getting at home and knew about Teresa’s romantic attachment for one of her cousins.
It was during her stay with the Augustinians that Teresa became aware of the transitory nature of human affection, beautiful clothing and compliments. She was taught the womanly arts of lace making, how to spin and embroider, manage household affairs and learn a musical instrument. More important, the girls were taught their catechism and to deepen their spiritual lives. (Women who were educated in Latin and Greek were a rarity at this time.) Despite her resentment at being sent to the convent just as the social season was about to begin, she says she adjusted to Conventual life within the first week of her stay, preferring it to the “festivities and frivolities” of the old.
She concluded, at the age of 18, that the external disciplines she experienced at the convent school needed to be internalized; that life is full of choices and one must choose to follow the will of God. Perhaps because she was so strong willed, she chose “determination” as her life principle. Only through determination could she change her behavior, desires and goals. She always thought things through thoroughly before deciding her course of action. When she returned to her father’s house, after an absence of two years, she took over the management of his home and the care of her younger siblings. This she did with great skill.
Under the influence of the very pious nun who was her tutor, her mind began to turn to the religious life and away from marriage, which was not really an attractive option to such a proud and strong-willed person. Marriage meant complete submission to a husband in all things. She could not express her opinion on anything and was expected to bear one child after another until she died in childbirth or of exhaustion. These thoughts turned her mind to religion, the only other alternative for women. She was not attracted, however, to the austerity of the Augustinians. She wanted a less severe, more pleasant life. The Carmelite convent at Avila, The Incarnation, was more to her taste
When Teresa finally entered the convent of the Incarnation, she had to sneak away, accompanied by her younger brother Antonio, as her father had adamantly refused her permission. He did, eventually, relent, and provided the convent with a rich dowry in addition to the clothing and bedding Teresa would need in Conventual life.
She writes that although she had finally made the big decision to change her life so drastically, she entered religious life with all the same faults she had in the world. She was too proud to ask for help learning the prayers; she still had to hold her temper in check when otherwise she would have flown into a rage if she felt she was accused of something unfairly. She was envious of other nuns who seemed able to enter into meditation easily whereas she was always filled with distractions. Her strengths and talents were more suited to the outside world. She was determined to develop the strengths and talents needed to be a good nun.
At the time, class lines predominated in the convent. Sisters from wealthy families who had been endowed with a generous dowry were given two room apartments with kitchens whereas daughters of the poor slept in dormitories and had habits made of coarse of material. They retained their titles.
Teresa visited her uncle (Don Pedro de Cepada) whom she considered her spiritual father. She told him of all her struggles and trials. He asked her about her prayer life and she confessed that all she knew of prayer was vocal prayer and even then she was filled with distractions. Her uncle gave her a book by Fray Francisco de Osuna (a Franciscan friar) called “The Third Spiritual Alphabet.” When she opened the book at random, she knew she had found what she needed. Under the guidance of this book she was able to grow in mental prayer. (During a book purge by the Inquisition, she was made to throw this book in the fire. Anything too spiritual was considered suspect.)
Her health failed rapidly, principally due to the penances she inflicted upon herself in the hope of controlling her faults. Her father brought her home in a seriously weakened condition. She fell into a coma lasting several days. It was so severe they thought she was dead, and a grave was dug for her at the convent. When she finally recovered consciousness, she was still feeble and in great pain.
For three years she lay paralyzed in bed, skin and bone, her muscles contracting her into a fetal position, cared for by her sisters in the convent. She was eventually able to crawl on all fours and one day was able to stand again.
In 1543 her father died. For the next 10 years she vacillated between her desire for worldly company and her desire for God. She attributed her turn from frivolity and back to God when she read the newly translated “Confessions of St Augustine. “ She identified with him and his struggles. Her problem continued to be a lack of spiritual direction. None of the priests, who served the convent as confessor, understood her and what she was going through spiritually.
Catholic religious orders of the time were financially dependent upon the Spanish nobility to survive. In fact, it was the Spanish king who decided in which districts a religious order could practice. Carmelite nuns had to visit the homes of the wealthy to beg for money and food, which required a great deal of their time. While visiting or begging, they were to provide spiritual advice and be a source of entertainment for the nobility. The nuns were selected for visitations depending upon their own social standing, which they did not lose upon entering the convent. In addition to having to go out to homes in the city, they were expected to entertain the wealthy and the nobility who had free access to the convent itself. Dona Teresa was much in demand, as she was a well-liked, witty woman and a good conversationalist. A convent of 180 nuns entertaining visitors was not a quiet place.
Despite the worldliness of the Conventual environment, Dona Teresa continued to grow spiritually. “If I had understood, as I do now, that my soul’s tiny palace contained so great a king, as I do now, I shouldn’t have left him there so often alone, I should have stayed with him from time to time and, moreover, I should have made an effort to keep his house in less dirt and disorder.”
At one of the frequent gatherings in her cell, one of the nuns asked why the Carmelites no longer followed the original rule of the desert fathers who had founded the order. The discussion turned to whether women could follow such an austere rule.
This little group became the nucleus for the reform of the Carmelite Order. They became known as “Discalced Carmelites” or barefooted Carmelites indicating their extreme poverty. They would not beg for food but relied on God to provide whatever they needed. They cloistered themselves from the world and would not entertain nobility. They spent their days in prayer. Each convent would be limited to 20 sisters.
St John of the Cross-was Teresa’s first male disciple who was instrumental in founding the Discalced Carmelite order for men.
Teresa spent the rest of her life founding new convents wherever she was told to do so, despite her growing frailty. When she finally died, she was buried at her first Discalced Convent named for St Joseph, her personal saint. One year later, she was exhumed for reburial. Her body was discovered to be incorrupt. She was named a “Saint” in 1622 and a “Doctor of the Church” in 1970.
Teresa of Avila by Marcelle Aucliar
The Autobiography of St Teresa of Avila translated by R. Allison Peers
Saints for Dummies, John Trigillo and Kenneth Brighenti