Teresa de Ávila, Spanish nun, reformer and author, 1515-1582
by Anne J. Cruz, University of Miami
Teresa of Ávila or Teresa of Jesus, as she is also known, was born in at her mother’s farm in Gotarrendura, in the province of Ávila, Spain. In 1485, her paternal grandfather, Juan Sánchez, along with his children, including Teresa’s future father, Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda, had been accused of secretly Judaizing, and penanced by the Inquisition to walk past the churches in Toledo wearing the sanbenito or penitential garment. Soon afterward, Teresa’s grandfather left Toledo for Ávila, where he lived as a Christian and was assumed to be noble. A widower, Teresa’s father married the young Beatriz de Ahumada, who enjoyed reading books of chivalry secretly to her children. As a child, Teresa tells us, she delighted in reading the lives of the saints, and with her brother Rodrigo, attempted to run away from home to the “land of the Moors” so they would be martyred and become saints themselves. An uncle, however, stopped them as they were leaving the city walls.
Teresa was left motherless at age fourteen; she had always been her father’s favorite, and perhaps to protect the adolescent from the town gossips for what may have been an indiscretion with a male suitor, he boarded her in the Augustinian convent of Nuestra Señora de Gracia [Our Lady of Grace], where she spent nineteen months and first suffered the serious illnesses that would affect her the rest of her life. After pleading to her father to let her enter a convent, she left her father’s house secretly when she was twenty years of age to enter the Carmelite convent of the Encarnación [Incarnation] outside the Ávila walls. She soon became ill again, however, and was forced to abandon the convent. On her return home, she had the opportunity to read Francisco de Osuna’s devotional treatise Tercer Abecedario Espiritual [Third Spiritual Alphabet], which impressed upon her the “prayer of quiet” or mental prayer that fostered a direct religious experience. Teresa treasured the book and would build her library around it. Teresa’s illness became progressively worse, until at home, she was deemed close to death and given the last rites. Returning to the convent, she spent several years there as a convalescent. On her father’s death in 1543, she lived quietly at the Encarnación until, at age forty, she read St. Augustine’s Confessions. Her spiritual conversion changed the quality of her religious life.
Teresa claimed that during her illness, she experienced “devotions of ecstasy,” and became increasingly aware of the benefits of good confessors; moving to her friend, doña Guiomar de Ulloa’s house in Guadalajara, she reached what she called the “grace of raptures.” Her connection at the time with the Jesuits allowed her to experience “locutions,” or auditory hallucinations, which left her confident that they were sent by God. Other times, she was pursued by demons, having asked God to send them to her. Teresa’s visionary period, around the year 1559, happened at the same time that the Inquisition was pursuing heretics; her friends decided that her spiritual graces were sent not by God but by the devil.
On June 29, St. Peter's Day, Teresa experienced her first intellectual vision of Jesus Christ: “Although this vision is imaginary, I never saw it, or any other vision, with the eyes of the body, but only with the eyes of the soul” [Life, Chapter XXVIII]. Six months later, she had a vision of the Risen Christ, for which she was ordered to ward off her visions: “So sure were those whom I told of it that I had a devil that some of them wanted to exorcize me” [Life, Chapter XXIX]. She soon experienced numerous corporal visions of a seraph who drove the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly through her heart, causing an intense pain that she described as spiritual, not physical: “I saw a long gold spear in his hand and there seemed to be a flame at the tip. This he seemed to plunge into my heart repeatedly, until it reached into my very entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he would draw them out with it, and it left me completely afire with a great love for God” [Life, Chapter XXIX].
This vision, known as the Transverberation, was the inspiration for one of Bernini's most famous works, the Ecstasy of St Theresa at Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. After the angel’s visits, she resorted to extreme physical penance for the only time in her life, and experienced arrobamientos, or feelings of enrapture towards God, yet with full awareness of God’s distance.
Teresa’s meeting with Pedro de Alcántara [Peter of Alcántara], a Franciscan reformer whose saintliness inspired her to confide in him as her spiritual guide, soon led her to found a reformed Carmelite convent. Gathering a group of supporters, Teresa endeavored to create a more primitive type of Carmelite, as she considered her original house too lax in its rule. She was ordered, however, to leave Ávila and go to Toledo, to the home of the noblewoman doña Luisa de la Cerda. While at Toledo, she finished her autobiography, El libro de la vida [The Book of Her Life]. The reformed order’s founding would not take place until 1562, when Pope Pius IV granted her a brief to found the convent of San José de Ávila [Saint Joseph of Ávila]. Teresa became prioress of the convent in 1563; when she removed her shoes, her reform became known as “Discalced.” The Reform, written by Teresa as the Constituciones [Constitutions] was confirmed by Pope Pius IV in 1565. Two years later, the General of the Carmelite Order, Father Rubeo de Ravenna, approved Teresa’s El camino de perfección, permitting her to found other Discalced convents. To do so, Teresa made long journeys throughout Spain’s provinces, which she detailed later in her Libro de las Fundaciones [Book of Foundations]. Between 1567 and 1571, she established convents at Medina del Campo, Malagón, Valladolid, Toledo, Pastrana, Salamanca, and Alba de Tormes.
In 1572, she summoned as confessor the saintly Carmelite friar Juan de la Cruz [John of the Cross], who set up reformed houses for men, founding the first convent of Discalced Carmelite Brethren in November 1568 at Duruelo. The Carmelite Jerónimo de la Madre de Dios Gracián gave Teresa strong support in founding convents at Segovia (1571), Beas de Segura (1574), Sevilla (1575), and Caravaca de la Cruz (Murcia, 1576), while Juan de la Cruz, by his power as teacher and preacher, promoted the inner life of the reform movement. Nonetheless, in 1576, the older observant Carmelite order began a series of persecutions against Teresa and the movement. On Juan de la Cruz’s imprisonment by the Calced order, she wrote to King Philip II to intervene on his behalf. The following year, however, the Papal Nuncio ordered all Carmelites to submit to the Calced order and imprisoned Gracián. In 1579, the processes before the Inquisition against her, Gracián, and others were dropped, and the extension of the reform was at least negatively permuted. A brief of Pope Gregory XIII ordered a separate province for the Discalced. During the last three years of her life, Teresa founded convents at Villanueva de la Jara in northern Andalusia (1580), Palencia (1580), Soria (1581), Burgos (1582), and Granada (1582). Ordered to Alba de Tormes by the Duchess of Alba, she fell gravely ill and received the last rites October 3. Because the adoption of the Gregorian calendar required the removal of the days of October 5 through14, Teresa died either before midnight of October 4 or early morning, October 15, which is her feast day.
Despite Teresa’s illnesses, the many persecutions by her enemies, and the harsh life she imposed on herself, she remained always joyful and optimistic, and counseled others to remain likewise. Indeed, one of her most endearing qualities was an irrepressible sense of humor, clearly evident in the ironic commentaries in her writings. Yet it was her indomitable spirit, described as “virile” by many critics, yet at once an ideal portrait of an attractive and shrewdly intelligent woman, that gave her the strength to challenge the oppressive orthodoxy of Spain’s patriarchal church and society. Remarkably, Teresa’s great reform efforts of twenty years resulted in the founding of a total of seventeen convents, all but one founded directly by her, and an equal number of men’s convents. Other European countries were soon brought into the fold: in 1584 in Italy, the order established convents in Genoa, Rome, and Naples. In Belgium, in the course of twelve years, six convents were established for nuns and four for friars. In France, although resistance to the order made foundations difficult, from 1611 until the century’s end, at least one convent was opened every year; and Germany, Austria, Poland, and Lithuania were also opened to Teresa’s disciples.
Teresa of Ávila was canonized in 1622, forty years after her death, by Pope Gregory XV, five years after she was exalted as patroness of Spain in 1617. The University of Salamanca conferred upon her the title of Doctor ecclesiae. The title is Latin for Doctor of the Church, but distinct from the papal honor of the same title, which was conferred posthumously and finally bestowed on her by Pope Paul VI in 1970 along with Saint Catherine of Siena, making them the first women to be awarded the distinction.
- Obras completas. Edición manual, edited by Efrén de la Madre de Dios and Otger Steggink, Madrid: Catolica, 1997.
- The Complete Works of Saint Teresa of Jesus. Trans. E. Allison Peers. 3 vols. London: Sheed, 1946. Rpt. s The Complete Works of St. Teresa of Avila. London: Continuum, 2002.
- The Collected Works. trans. Keiran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodríguez, 3 vols. Washington: Inst. of Carmelite Studies, 1976-87.
- El libro de la vida [The Book of Her Life or Autobiography], written before 1567. It was first translated into English in 1611 as The lyf of the Mother Teresa of Iesus. Its modern translator, J. M. Cohen, considers it the “literary masterpiece that is, after Don Quixote, the most widely read prose classic of Spain” (88); see The Life of Teresa of Ávila by Herself. Trans. J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin, 1988.
- El camino de perfección, written before 1567.
- The Way of Perfection, Trans. E. Allison Peers. New York: Image, 1964.
- El castillo interior, 1577.
- The Interior Castle. Trans. Mirabai Starr. New York: Riverhead, 2003.
AsK April 2011
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