I have always been interested in learning more about the Saints of the Church, and more specifically the
women who have made Saint status in the Catholic Church. I have wanted to hear their stories, study their lives, listen to their words, and wonder at the cultural, religious, and societal barriers
(Photo credit: twinsfisch)
they were able to overcome. Of all the Saints, I have been especially drawn to Saint Teresa of Avila. Teresa was a dearly loved Saint who struggled with her identity, her health, her religious superiors, and her doubt.
She broke the mold of the typical roles reserved for women in countless ways. She is “the only woman in the history of the Church to have founded monastic orders for both women and men.” She is the first of two women in the history of the Church to make it on the list of Doctors of the Church. Her writings include well-known works such as her autobiography entitled Life, and spiritual and mystical writings entitled The Way of Perfection, Foundations, and The Interior Castle. All of which have stood the test of time and continue to speak into the lives of both Catholics and Protestants throughout the world today.
The Forming of Teresa
Teresa was born in Avila, Spain in the year 1515. Columbus had reached the New World under the flag of the Spanish King and Queen a mere thirteen years before, and signs of the Reformation were beginning to rumble to life. She came from a mixed religious background at a time when anyone who was not Catholic was considered an outsider. Her grandfather was a Jew who had been forced to convert to Catholicism by the Inquisition and flee his native Toledo to Avila. Her grandmother, on the other hand, was a Christian.
Driven by fear that her sins would send her to hell, at the age of 20, she joined the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation just outside her city of Avila. She began to have fainting fits, which became so severe she had to leave the convent to go stay with a friend, where she suffered greatly from remedies the doctors gave her. It was during this time that she visited her uncle who gave her a book called The Third Alphabet by a Spanish Franciscan named Francisca de Osuna.
Francisca de Osuna taught her the practice of the prayer of quiet, a form of contemplative prayer where one is able to sit in silence and experience being in God’s presence without words. This was her first introduction into contemplative practice and became a vital part of her prayer life. The Third Alphabet meant so much to her she wrote about its impact on her in her book Life, where she said:
I did not know how to practice prayer or how to recollect myself. So I was delighted with this book, and decided to follow its instructions with all my strength. Since the Lord had already given me the gift of tears and I liked reading, I began to spend time in solitude, to confess frequently, and to start on the way of prayer, with this book as my guide.
Teresa incorporated the prayer of quiet into her prayer life until her father died in 1543. She spoke of how the Lord would meet her in this contemplative practice and described moments of feeling as though she was physically being raised up into union with God although she did not know exactly what was going on at the time nor did she realize what a special and unique moment it was that she was experiencing.
As Teresa spent more time in prayer, oftentimes she would be reprimanded for spending too much time in solitude. There were also times she was caught crying over her sins and those within her order assumed she was unhappy. A well-known instance of her supernatural experiences is documented in her book, Life, where “in prayer, she would be lifted up into the air, to her own consternation and to the alarm of those sisters who were praying beside her in the choir.” Many of her mystical experiences were condemned by her spiritual advisors. For example, a Jesuit named Friar Juan Suarez, opposed the “prayer of silence” and told her she must stop practicing it.
At one point, one of the nuns in her order became very sick and died, Teresa prayed that the Lord would make her sick as well. Two years later, He answered her prayer and she began to experience many painful ailments such as vomiting, heart-spasms, cramps, and partial paralysis. These ailments would last for another two decades until she went through what she called her ‘second conversion.’
After reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, Teresa felt as though someone finally understood her spiritual experiences. Her prayers for a spiritual advisor who understood her were answered and she was propelled into a “more disciplined life of contemplation and mystical prayer,” encouraged by her Jesuit confessors.
Teresa and Her Jesuit Confessors
Friar Diego de Centina
At the age of 30, in 1555, Teresa began meeting with Friar Diego de Centina, the first of a long line of Jesuit confessors. She decided she would be open and honest with him and she shared her need for help with a new phenomenon she was experiencing in her prayer life, which had to do with the deep mystical experiences she was having during her practice of the prayer of silence. Friar Centina encouraged her and “assured her that what was happening to her was clearly the work of the spirit of God,” and that she ought not resist the working of the Holy Spirit.
Friar Centina taught her about humility, instructing her to focus on the humanity of Jesus, which shaped her views on self-knowledge throughout the rest of her life. The Interior Castle shares some insights into some of these teachings, where she says, “As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God,” and, “Self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I would like you never to relax your cultivation of it; so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more to us than humility.” She also wrote about the importance of self-knowledge in her book Life, where she said, “Self-knowledge will issue a self-condemnation–it gives the soul power to behold its own wretchedness.”
When it came time for Friar Centina to leave her, he sent her to meet with Saint Francis of Borgia. As she confessed to him how she had been navigating her encounters with God through prayer, he encouraged her and told her how Friar Centina had counseled her well and “that she ought no longer resist what seemed to her was the spirit of God, and that she should let herself be taken over by His Majesty, not looking for it on her own.”
Friar Juan de Pradanos
Teresa’s next Jesuit confessor was Friar Juan de Pradanos, who “began to guide her toward a greater perfection.” Friar Pradanos realized the difficulty Teresa was having in letting go of some relationships and encouraged her to “ask the Holy Spirit for light in order to see what was better, commending herself to Him with the recitation of the ‘Veni Creator’.” It was during one of those moments of prayer when Teresa heard the words, “I no longer want that you hold conversation with men, but with angels.” Thus, she recorded herself as saying, “It was from that day on, I had the courage to leave all things to God, who in one moment–and it seems to me but a moment–was pleased to change His handmaid into another person.”
Saint Teresa of Avila was still meeting with Friar Pradanos when St. Francis Borgia came through Avila again. She was having difficulty with the interconnection between contemplation and action and wanted some council. After their meeting, Teresa understood that when one is unable to separate contemplation and action it is, “a great gift to whom the Lord grants it, for it unites the active life with the contemplative.”
Friar Baltasar Alvarez
Teresa’s third Jesuit confessor, Friar Baltasar Alvarez, stayed with her for six years. This time in Teresa’s life could arguably be called the most difficult and trying years of her life. It was during this time when she had her famous mystical experiences known as the“vision of the Risen Christ”, “the transverberation of her heart,” and “the vision of hell.” It was after her experience with “the vision of hell,” when she decided to embark on the reform of the Carmelite order.”
Due to the growing Lutheran movement in France, Teresa felt compelled to make a change to her order. She was deeply troubled by the havoc they were reeking upon the Catholic Church and she feared souls were being lost to the “sect”. She saw Lutherans as “close allies to the devil” and she would often protest “that if her experience taught her one thing and the Church another, she was on the side of authority.” This may very well have been what convinced Pius IV to give her permission to start a Reformed Carmelite order.
In her book, Life, Teresa tells of her interaction with God regarding her call to reform her order:
One day, after Communion, the Lord earnestly commanded me to pursue this aim with all my strength. He made great promises; that the house would not fail to be established, that great service would be done Him there, that its name should be St. Joseph’s; that he would watch over us at one of its doors and Our Lady at the other; that Christ would be with us; that the convent would be a star, and that it would shed the most brilliant light.
In 1560, Teresa received permission to begin her project. Despite having been backed by the Pope himself, she faced great opposition from people who thought she was possessed by the devil, for “women in 16th century Spain were systematically disempowered in Church and society to a degree that hardly needed reinforcement by exhortations from men that they should abase themselves even more.” It was during this time that Friar Alvarez put her through many challenges in order to test to see if what she was doing was of God or of the devil.
While many were hungering for learning more about Teresa’s contemplative practices, the Inquisitors were looking for heretics in order to root out heresy. Converts – remember Teresa’s grandfather was a convert from Judaism – and “visionary women were objects of special attention,” making Teresa especially closely watched. Teresa wrote about these experiences in her book, Life:
One needs to be careful – women especially so, since we are very weak, and may come to great harm if we are told in so many words that we are being deluded by the devil. The matter should be very carefully considered and women protected from all possible dangers. They should be advised to keep their experiences very secret and it is very well that their advisors should observe secrecy too. I speak of this from knowledge.
Upon listening to Teresa, the Provincial of the Carmelites gave his consent. In 1563, she wrote the Constitutions for the first convent of the Reform that were later approved by Pius IV in 1565. In the end, “what is striking about Teresa is not the opposition she faced, but the fact that she continually resisted, working within a corrupt ecclesial context to try to reform it and defying social norms for women in her time.” She did not directly “confront Church authority–she complied with it to the extent necessary to achieve her aims.”
Teresa’s Reformed Carmelite Order
The home Teresa established was small, poor, and without income, and she explained her reasoning in her book, The Way of Perfection:
It seems very wrong, my daughters, that great houses should be built with the money of the poor; may God forbid that this should be done; let our houses be small and poor in every way. Let us to some extent resemble our King, Who had no house save the porch in Bethlehem where He was born and the Cross on which He died. These were houses where little comfort could be found.
Being warned in a vision not to place the convent under the fathers of the Carmelite Order, she placed it under the care of the Bishop. She presented the Constitutions to the General of the Order and to the Provincial in 1567 and they were not only approved, but they were given the approval to be placed over all new convents founded by Teresa of Avila.
Once establishing her first Reformed Carmelite convent, Teresa continued to be called by more visions to start other convents throughout Spain. The nuns under this new order gained the nickname “Discalced,” which stuck, due to their practice of wearing sandals rather than shoes. It was during this time when she met Juan de Yepes (also known as Saint John of the Cross), and due to his short stature, she is recorded as saying, “Lord, I asked you for a monk and you sent me half of one.” Due to their friendship and Saint John of the Cross’s desire to follow Teresa, a male branch of the Discalced Carmelite order was born.
Despite the support of Rome and the Court, the Reformed Carmelites were met with great opposition from the unreformed Carmelites. When Saint John of the Cross became the spiritual director of Teresa’s new convent, Saint Joseph’s in 1572, his Unreformed brothers threw him into prison for fourteen years. Teresa has also threatened the same fate on several occasions but was able to appeal to Philip II and avoid imprisonment.
Beginning in 1567, Teresa began her ministry as a “monja andariega” or a “wayfarer nun”, where she would go on touring the roads of Spain from monastery to monastery until her death in 1582 at Alba De Tormes. She started more than 16 convents of contemplative nuns by the time of her death. Teresa was canonized as a saint only forty-five years after her death, in 1622, and then in 1814, Spain made her their national saint.
Teresa was a dearly loved Saint who struggled with her identity, her health, her religious superiors, and her doubt. She was able to overcome the persecutions that came her way and create places for men and women to discover and experience the mysteries of God through the practices of mysticism and contemplation through her unique vulnerability and honesty.
Teresa of Avila truly did overcome cultural, religious, and societal barriers within the Catholic Church in order to form the Carmelite Reformed orders. She made a place for herself within the Catholic church in a time and culture where women were not allowed to have the kind of influence within the church she was given. She lived during the Reformation, a time when Lutheranism was splitting the Catholic Church.. She lived in a time when the Catholic religion had become dry and mundane and she found life and a deep connection with God through mysticism and contemplative practices and wrote and taught about her experiences, leading others to experience deeper connections with God.
Teresa of Avila was a woman way ahead of her time. She was a theologian who “loved God with an intense passion” and “despite a lack of deep formal education, Teresa was an energetic writer whose work reflects a sound and original understanding of the psychology and theology of the life of prayer.” She believed that “self-knowledge is the essence of humility” because it gives the soul “power to behold its own wretchedness.” She was a “fierce mystic, tireless traveler, religious reformer, superb writer, and worthy model of all who thirst for the pearl of great price.”
Cunningham, L. (1982). The Passionate Saint Teresa. The Christian Century, 99(13), 436-437.
Fullam, L. (2014). Teresa of Avila's liberative humility. Journal of Moral Theology, 3(1), 175-198.
González, J. L. (2010). The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the present day (1st ed. Vol. II). San Francisco: HarperOne.
Harris, Jan. (2003). Quiet in His Presence: Experiencing God's Love through Silent Prayer. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Ruiz Jurado, M. (2017). SAINT TERESA AND THE JESUITS. Landas, 31(2), 117-133.
Teresa. (1957). The life of Saint Teresa of Avila by herself. London: Penguin Books.
Teresa, & Peers, E. A. (2012). The Way of Perfection (Dover ed.). Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications.
Teresa, & Starr, M. (2003). The interior castle. New York: Riverhead Books.