Saint Teresa Of Avila And Her Life Of Mysticism And Reform

(The Ecstasy of St Therese, by Francesco Fontebasso (1707–1769), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Teresa de Capeda y Ahumada, now known at St. Teresa, was born in 1515 within the region of Avila, Spain. Her parents, Don Alfonso Sanchez de Capeda, and his second wife, Dona Beatriz Davila y Ahumada, were from wealthy and powerful families with ties to the old kingdom of Castile. Despite her family’s affluent background, Teresa would go on to lead a reform movement among the Carmelite nuns, calling for a more honest vow of poverty and a harder, more religiously sincere, life of meditation and prayer.

Teresa, the third child of nine siblings, grew up in a time of extreme religious tension. The Spanish Inquisition, brought about in 1478 by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, was still ongoing (and would officially last until 1834). Adding more fuel to the fire, Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation in 1517 with the release of his Ninety-Five Theses. With the Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation all occurring during her lifetime, Teresa’s religious age in the 16th-century was both exciting and complicated.

As a child, Teresa was already heavily inclined to religion. While other girls her age likely dreamed of being princesses or queens, Teresa was said to have imagined becoming an anchoress or a martyr. The events of Teresa’s life began to fall into place around 1529, when Dona Beatriz Davila y Ahumada died, leaving the young saint without a mother at only fourteen years of age. The death of her mother, understandably, caused noticeable changes in Teresa. She began to seek comfort in clothing, jewelry, perfumes and stories of romance. Teresa’s father, Don Alfonso, was shocked by the newfound materialistic tastes that his daughter was developing. His concerns deepened to such a degree that he sent Teresa to be educated in Avila by Augustinian nuns.

This education, however, had more of an effect on his daughter than he wanted. When Teresa was returned into his care because of illness, Don Alfonso learned that his daughter was seriously considering becoming a nun. Teresa’s father did not give her consent to join a convent, but her desire for becoming a nun never wavered. Around 1535, when Teresa was about twenty years old, she quietly left home and joined the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation at Avila without the permission of her father.



  (Teresa of Avila, painted by François Gérard (1770–1837), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


In the first years of her cloistered life, Teresa fell ill with a debilitating illness (probably malaria) that left her largely immobilized for three years. During her long hours of inactivity, the young saint devoted the majority of her time to intense prayer. In this state of constant, focused prayer, Teresa touched the far fringes of the mental mystical realm that she would claim to explore in her later years. Yet, as she recovered from her immobilizing illness, Teresa began to dial back her prayers. By the time she had returned to fair health, Teresa seemed to be no different than any other average nun in the convent.

In her early years as a nun, Teresa put up with, and enjoyed, the questionable qualities in the Carmelite Order that she would later want to reform. Rather than a place of worship, meditation and poverty, the Carmelite Order that Teresa joined often resembled a social club, where friends could gather and relax. Teresa was initially taken in by the lax atmosphere of the convent, but after two decades of contentment, the saint was struck by a sudden drive to reform her order.



  (St. Teresa of Avila, by Benet Mercadé ( –1897), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Around 1555, St. Teresa became serious about restoring the Carmelite Order to purity, and by 1558, she began to put her plan in action. Her first major breakthrough occurred in 1562, when she obtained permission from Pope Pius IV to found the convent of St. Joseph’s. A miracle is attributed to St. Teresa during the time St. Joseph’s was being built. As the story goes, Teresa’s young nephew was playing near the construction site when a section of wall fell on the boy, leading to severe injury or death. When St. Teresa arrived on the scene, she reportedly was able to perform a miracle healing, either mending his injuries or raising him from the dead.


  (Saint Teresa resurrects her nephew, by Luis de Madrazo (1825–1897), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Interestingly, the Prior General of the Carmelite Order—a man named John Baptist Rossi—was not informed about the new Carmelite convent being constructed in Spain. In 1567, he journeyed to Spain to see what Teresa was up to and was ultimately impressed by what he saw. The women, under the direction of Saint Teresa, were held to their vows of poverty and instructed in rigorous prayer and meditation. After completing his tour of the new Carmelite complex, Rossi gave approval for Teresa to found more Carmelite convents. Within the year, she made her next convent at Medina del Campo, and later founded convents for her reformed Carmelite Order at locations such as Malagon, Valladolid and Toledo. She also helped construct monasteries, such as the ones at Durelo (1568) and Pastrana (1569), for Carmelite Monks.

Teresa’s work did not go unnoticed. The unreformed Carmelite nuns and monks obviously had qualms about their way of life being called into question. The need for reformed convents was also criticized and questioned by the clergy, as well as the general Spanish citizenry. Eventually, St. Teresa, herself, also became a target of questioning and skepticism. As her devotion grew, she began to display more and more signs of her mystical side. As her visions and other mystical experiences grew in number, Saint Teresa began to consult with other members of the clergy for advice and direction. Some of the men she consulted truly believed her to be blessed with divine visions, but others merely thought she was insane.



  (Saint Teresa of Avila, by Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Nevertheless, even with critics questioning her convents and her own mental health, Teresa poured all of her energy into spreading her reform movement. Her momentum was only halted when the Prior General of the Carmelites returned to Spain around 1575, after a large dispute had occurred between the different sects of the Carmelite Order. The Prior General forced the saint into early retirement, restricting her from founding any more new convents. The Spanish King Philip II, however, would eventually come to her aid in 1579, and send the saint, once more, out into Spain to reform the Carmelite Order.

It was during her forced retirement, before the king came to her rescue, that Saint Teresa wrote one of her most significant books—Interior Castle. Encouraged by friends among the clergy that believed in the value of her visions, St. Teresa hesitantly began, in 1577, to write a vivid book about the relationship between the God and the human soul. For the main structure and organization of the book, she relied on one of the visions that she had experienced. In the vision, God had shown Teresa a giant crystal castle. The outside of the castle was dull, black and noxious, but as she traversed the labyrinthine layers of rooms leading inside the castle, the structure began to grow increasingly brighter from a blinding light that emanated from the very center of the crystalline labyrinth.

In her book, Interior Castle, St. Teresa transformed that vision into a guidebook on how to unite one’s own soul with God. As the book is read, Teresa guides the reader sequentially through seven mansions in the castle of the human soul, with the end-goal being a complete oneness with God. The first mansion can only be cleared with meditation and a sense of humility. The second requires practice and prayer. Breeching the third mansion can only be done after attaining a genuinely impeccable lifestyle. In the Fourth mansion, the seeker must become detached through meditation as God reaches out to them. In the fifth mansion, a person’s identity of self must be cleared to make way for the presence of God. In the sixth mansion, God and the soul interact, but have not achieved union. Finally, in the seventh mansion, the soul and God become united and the meditator becomes an agent of God’s will, leading to benign works and deeds. Incredibly, St. Teresa’s Interior Castle, was written in under six months, from June through November in 1577.

Despite the book already being largely in completion for years, Interior Castle remained relatively unknown to the rest of the clergy until 1579. That year, Teresa and three fellow nuns were traveling from the convent of Medina del Campo to the other Carmelite convent at St. Joseph’s. During the journey they stayed at an inn in Arévalo, where one of St. Teresa’s male friends, the Hieronymite hermit, Diego de Ypres, happened to be staying. When the nuns arrived, Diego gave them his room, which happened to be the best one in the inn. As it happened, a heavy snowfall kept the band of clergy at the inn for longer than expected. While they loitered, Teresa casually divulged to Diego that she had written a book on the relationship between God and the human soul. As soon as her work was made known, other major members of the church began to review and edit the book. It was finally published in 1588.



  (St Teresa of Avila’s Vision, by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Despite her writing career, and the ongoing editing of her work, Teresa continued to travel the countryside, spreading her reform and founding new convents. She died during her travels near Alba de Tormes in 1582. Many of her notable writings (including Interior Castle) were published posthumously. Her other major achievement, The Way of Perfection, was released in 1583, a year after her death. St. Teresa was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1622, and, in 1970, she received from Pope Paul VI the honor of being the first woman given the title, Doctor of the Church, for her work and influence in theology.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.


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