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St Teresa of Avila

Feast day: 15 October

Last year was the 500th anniversary of the birth of St Teresa of Avila. She could be described as a character. She was a reformer and a mystic whose writings on prayer, while deeply spiritual, are often pratical and full of common sense.

She was born in 1515, one of nine children. Her father was Alonso de Cepeda and her mother Beatriz de Ahumada y Cuevas. She was a pious woman and through her example Teresa became fascinated by the lives of the saints. When she was seven she ran away with her brother to seek martyrdom among the Moors. They were spotted by an uncle and brought home. Her mother died when Teresa was fourteen. In her grief she turned to Our Lady as her mother. It seems to me that Teresa was a typical teenager, who would be better understood nowadays but in sixteenth century Spain the term had not been invented. Teresa regarded her high spirits as very sinful and had a great sense of guilt. Like St Ignatius she devoured the chivalric romances of the day, which her mother had secretely read. She talks of these in her autobiography:

I was so enchanted I could not be happy without some new tale to take 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 to wear all the vain ornaments which my position in the world allowed.

Her strict father, alarmed at her behaviour sent her to Augustinian nuns at Avila. She liked the convent because it was less confining than home but she developed malaria and had to leave. She began to think about her future and whether she should marry. However she looked back at the married life of her mother and realised that she did not want to run the risk of being forced into an uncongenial union. At the same same she was not greatly attracted to religious life. However she visited a pious uncle who gave her the letters of St Jerome to read. This influenced her to enter the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation outside Avila. She faced great opposition from her father.

Life in the Carmelite convent which Teresa joined was fairly relaxed. Often the choice facing young women in the sixteenth century was marriage or the cloister. Many of the nuns probably did not have a vocation. They were allowed to receive visitors in the parlour and the place seems to have been a centre of social gathering. Teresa was popular because she was outgoing and had an attractive personality; however she began to feel the friendships interfered with her relationship with God. She became ill and since there was no rule of enclosure she left the convent and went to stay with a sister and the pious uncle gave her The Third Spiritual Alphabet which had been written in 1527 and was a book on the prayer of recollection.

Teresa spent about twenty years struggling with prayer, "the prayer of quiet", and in her autobiography she describes how hard she found this. Gradually she moved into a mystical encounter with God which she describes in detail in her autobiography. She seems to have had numerous confessors, some of whom were helpful and some were not. She seems to have a particular regard for the newly-formed Company of Jesus. The third general, St Francis Borgia, was her confessor briefly as was the Franciscan St Peter of Alacantra and the Dominican Father Dominic Banaz. She had a overwhelming sense of herself as a sinner and was constantly deferring to her male confessors. Sometimes her writings show her as neurotic. She obviously had a vivid imagination and appears to have experienced an inordinate number of visions of various kinds, some of Our Lord and some of the saints. Often she went into a state which she calls "rapture". On one occasion she felt she was being pierced through by an angel with a golden spear. She was also tormented by devils and she went through periods of great suffering exacerbated by her ill health and her self-doubt. What is clear is that her prayer was marked by a very deep love of Our Lord and of some particular saints. Though her prayer was frequently coloured by self-abnegation she would sometimes have witty exchanges with Jesus. "This is how I treat my friends," he told her when she complained of her suffering. "No wonder you have so few!" was her response.

Eventually Teresa discerned that what she wanted was to found a house which would be stricter and would return to the more ascetic practices of the Carmelites in earlier times. She also wanted the house to be without endowment and to depend on alms. The small convent of St Joseph (to whom she had a very great devotion) was founded in 1562. She faced great opposition from the town of Avila but won enough support to have it established and she herself moved there in 1563. Her reformed Carmelites were called "discalced", which meant they wore sandals as a sign of their reform, the Spanish for barefoot being "descalzo".

The sixteenth century was a time of great religious revival following a period of stagnation and then the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. New religious orders were founded and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) brought in widespread reform. Teresa became part of this spiritual ferment as she travelled long distances across Spain founding new houses, including two for men with the support of her confessor Gracian and St John of the Cross. She showed great courage in resisting opposition from the unreformed Carmelites who did not welcome what she was doing. Teresa persisted and even wrote to King Philip II himself to enlist his help. Her letters show her more practical and more confident self.

Perhaps her greatest written work, apart from her autobiography, is Interior Castle, written in 1577. She had a vision of a crystal globe in the shape of a castle, which contained seven mansions. In the innermost one sat the King of Glory. It is a description, based on her own experience, of a soul's mystical journey towards union with God where everything else becomes unimportant and all movement becomes entirely dependent on him.

St Teresa suffered her last illness on one of her journeys and she died in 1582. One of her most striking statements on prayer is as follows,

Prayer is an act of love. Words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.

She was canonised in 1522 with two saints of the order that she had found so helpful, Ignatius and Francis Xavier; also canonised the Spanish farmer Isadore. One Roman wag declared,  "Four Spaniards and a saint were canonised today. " (The saint was the Roman St Philip Neri)

King Philip II who had been a great admirer of Teresa, collected up her writings and housed them in the Escorial. She was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

St Teresa of Avila, pray for us.


Further reading:

  • Autobiography of Teresa of Avila (Dover Publications)
  • Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle (Dover Publications)
  • Ruth Burrows, Interior Castle Explored (Hidden Spring)