Saint Teresa of Avila
Avila (Spain) on March 28, 1515
Alba de Tormes, Salamanca (Spain) on October 4, 1582
She was beatified in 1614 by Pope Paul V.
She was canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622.
Doctor of the Church
She was proclaimed doctor of the Church by Paul VI in 1970. Saint Teresa was the first woman to receive the title of doctor of the Church.
St. Teresa was born in Avila, Spain, on March 28, 1515. Her parents were Don Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda and Doña Beatriz Dávila de Ahumada. She had ten siblings and two step-siblings from her father’s first marriage.
From a young age she was very attracted to reading the lives of saints and novels of chivalry. When she was six-years-old she ran away from home with her brother Rodrigo because they wanted to be martyrs in Moorish lands, but their uncle caught them before they left the city. Since their martyrdom plan was ruined, they decided to live as hermits, and built a little cabin in their yard.
She lost her mother when she was 13 years old. At that moment, she asked the Virgin Mary to be her mother. Despite her interior attraction towards God and towards Our Lady, Teresa was fascinated by the vanities of the world, just like any young girl her age. Because she was exposed to many dangers, when she was 16 years old, her father decided to send her to a boarding school called Holy Mary of Grace directed by Augustinian nuns. While studying there, she felt the call to the religious life in 1535, and entered the Carmel of the Incarnation in Avila, despite her father’s opposition.
She made her first vows two years later, in 1537. Soon after she fell gravely ill, and her father took her out of the convent to put her under the care of a healer. The remedies employed worsened her condition until she fell unconscious for four days. She was taken to be dead. However, she was cured by the intercession of St. Joseph and returned to the Incarnation convent, although she would continue to suffer from the consequences of the illness for the rest of her life.
Due to her slow recovery, for several years she needed constant assistance in her daily life. She began to learn how to enter into the prayer of recollection thanks to books about mysticism like the Third Alphabet of Osuna. Teresa felt a growing intimate calling to solitude and silence in order to seek God interiorly. At the same time, those years were full of personal struggle against her weaknesses and her sins.
During the Lenten season of 1554, while she prayed before an image of a wounded Christ, she was moved to tears, and begged Him to give her strength so as never to offend Him. The experience left an unforgettable mark in her soul and, soon after, her mystical life of visions and supernatural experiences began. All of this produced in her a longing to surrender herself totally to the search for a state of perfection, living out her vocation with rigor. This desire inspired her efforts to reform the Carmel.
In her convent, the religious life was lived in a very relaxed way. The 200 nuns who lived in the monastery were free to leave the monastery and to receive visits in the parlor. Their cells were spacious, comfortable, and well supplied. Teresa dedicated herself to the reform in order to return to the Carmel its original austerity and rigor. She shared her restlessness with her confessor and after a period of proceedings and difficulties, in 1562 she was able to found the Convent of St. Joseph in Avila. She moved there with other Carmelites who shared her ideal.
Her intense activity as a Foundress began in 1562 and continued until her death. At the same time, she wrote the majority of her works. She founded a total of 17 convents in the following Spanish provinces: Ávila, Valladolid (Valladolid y Medina del Campo), Ciudad Real (Malagón), Toledo, Guadalajara (Pastrana), Salamanca (Salamanca y Alba de Tormes), Segovia, Jaén (Beas del Segura), Sevilla, Murcia (Caravaca de la Cruz), Cuenca (Villanueva de la Jara), Palencia, Soria, Granada y Burgos.
St. Teresa also convinced St. John of the Cross, a Carmelite brother, to join her reform, which was the beginning of the reform of the masculine branch of the Carmelites.
On her way back from the foundation of a convent in Burgos, St. Teresa travelled to Alba de Tormes, Salamanca, where she passed away on the night of October 15, 1582.
She was beatified by Paul V in 1614, and in 1622 Gregory XV canonized her. In 1970, Pope Paul VI proclaimed her Doctor of the Universal Church; she was the first woman to be granted this title.
St. Teresa had a great love for the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. Soon after the foundations of the new convents, one of her priorities was to make sure that, as soon as possible, Jesus would be present in the Tabernacle of the convent. She herself affirmed that if Jesus in the Sacrament could be adored in a new foundation, it was worth the trouble of founding.
In her writings, she constantly makes reference to the Most Holy Sacrament. In this excerpt of the Way of Perfection, St. Teresa asks her Carmelite daughters to accustom themselves to speaking with Jesus when they receive Him in the Eucharist. She explains that the moment in which we receive communion is the perfect moment for “great bargains” with the Lord.
“Are you grieved at not seeing Him with your bodily eyes? That would not be expedient for us here. It would be a different matter, now that He is glorified, from what it was when He lived in the world. Human nature would be too weak to bear it. The world would exist no longer and no one would remain in it, for when men had once seen eternal Truth they would perceive that all we value on earth is but a lie and a mockery. And if His sublime glory could be seen, how could such a sinful wretch as I am, dare to draw thus near to Him after my many offenses? Beneath the accidents of bread, He is accessible— if the King disguises Himself, there does not seem to be the same need for ceremonies and court etiquette; indeed He appears to have waived His claim to them by appearing incognito. Who otherwise would venture to approach Him thus tepidly, unworthily, and laden with imperfections?
Oh, we know not what we ask! But He in His wisdom understands far better than we do. When He sees that it would profit a soul, He reveals Himself to it; although unseen by the bodily eyes, He manifests Himself to it by vivid interior intuitions and by other means. Be with Him willingly; don’t loose so good an occasion for conversing with Him as is the hour after having received Communion. If obedience should command something, Sisters, strive to leave your soul with the Lord. If you immediately turn your thoughts to other things, if you pay no attention and take no account of the fact that He is within you, how will He be able to reveal Himself to you? This, then, is a good time for our Master to teach us, and for us to listen to Him, kiss His feet because He wanted to teach us, and beg Him not to leave.
If you have to pray to Him by looking at His picture, it would seem foolish to me. You would be leaving the Person Himself in order to look at a picture of Him. Wouldn’t it be silly if a person we love very much and of whom we have a portrait came to see us and we stopped speaking with him so as to carry on a conversation with the portrait? DO you want to know when it is very good to have a picture of Christ and when it is a thing in which I find much delight? When He himself is absent, or when by means of a great dryness He wants to make us feel He is absent, it is then a wonderful comfort to see an image of One whom we have so much reason to love. Wherever I turn my eyes, I would want to see His image. With what better or more pleasing thing can our eyes be occupied than with One who loves so much and who has in Himself all goods? Unfortunate are those heretics who through their own fault have lost this consolation among others.
But after having received the Lord, since you have the Person Himself present, strive to close the eyes of the body and open those of the soul and look into your own heart. For I tell you, and tell you again, and would like to tell you many times that you should acquire the habit of doing this every time you receive Communion and strive to have such a conscience that you will be allowed to enjoy this blessing frequently. Though He comes disguised, the disguise, as I have said, does not prevent Him from being recognized in many ways, in conformity with the desire we have to see Him. And you can desire to see Him so much that He will reveal Himself to you entirely.
On the other hand, if we pay no attention to Him but after receiving Him leave Him and go seeking after other base things, what is there for Him to do? Must He force us to see Him, since He wants to reveal Himself to us? No, for they didn’t treat Him so well when He let Himself be seen openly by all and told them clearly who He was; very few were those who believed Him. So His Majesty is being merciful enough to all of us who love Him, by letting us know that it is He who is present in the most Blessed Sacrament. He doesn’t want to show Himself openly, communicate His grandeurs, and give His treasures except to those whom He knows desire Him greatly; these are His true friends. (Way of Perfection, chapter 34).
Since the foundation of the Order, the Carmelite vocation has been characterized by a love towards the Virgin Mary. St. Teresa, as a good Carmelite, cultivated a tender love towards the Virgin Mother. Her own mother passed away when she was only 13 years old, and since that moment she commended herself to Our Lady’s protection. She explains it herself:
“When I began to understand my loss, I went in my affliction to an image of our Lady, and with many tears implored her to be my mother. I did this in my simplicity, and I believe that it was of help to me; for I have by experience found the royal Virgin whenever I entrusted myself to her; and at last she has brought me back to herself.” (The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, chapter 1)
She always encouraged her daughters to live as worthy daughters of Mary:
“May Our Lord grant, my sisters, that we may lead lives worthy of true daughters of Our Lady, and so observe the Rules of our Profession, that our Lord may bestow upon us the favor He has promised.” (The Book of Foundations, chapter XV)
When St. Teresa was named Prioress of the Convent of the Incarnation in 1571, she placed an image of Our Lady in the seat of the Prioress. She wanted the Sisters to know that the true Prioress of the convent was the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Teresa was very conscious that the new foundations were “new dove-cots of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady” and she lived the moments of foundation very close to Our Lady:
“We were glad to be able in any way to serve our Mother, and Lady, and Patroness. […] And thus many things are done there now redounding to the honor and glory of this glorious Virgin and her Son” (The Book of Foundations, chapter XXVIII).
The main pilgrimage sites of St. Teresa are Avila and Alba de Tormes (Salamanca), in Spain.
In Avila, we can visit the Monastery of the Incarnation, where St. Teresa entered as a Carmelite and lived for many years. There is a museum with numerous relics of the saint, like the image of Ecce Homo, or Jesus with many wounds, as the Saint called it. She received an immense grace of conversion before that image. St. Teresa’s cell has also been conserved, along with other items from her time.
Within the city of Avila we can also see the Convent of St. Joseph, where the first discalced Carmelites lived St. Teresa’s reform. There is also a museum with more objects and relics of the saint, like the first image of the Child Jesus and the reliquary where her collarbone is conserved. The house in which she was born can be visited in the convent of the male branch of the discalced Carmelites in Avila.
St. Teresa passed away in Alba de Tormes (Salamanca). In the Monastery of the Incarnation, a monastery founded by the saint, the parlor, the refectory, the stairs, the choir loft, and the garden are preserved just as they were in the times of St. Teresa, along with the cell in which she fell sick and died. The incorrupt body of St. Teresa can be found in the chapel of the monastery, along with two of the most important relics: her heart and her left arm. There is also a Teresian museum with other relics and historical objects. From a window in the chapel, the cell where she died can be seen. The interior of the monastery cannot be visited because it is cloister.
There are also other monasteries founded by St. Teresa in Castilla-León, Castilla-La Mancha, Andalucia, and Murcia. Many of these monasteries contain relics of St. Teresa. Other relics of her body can be found outside of Spain, such as her right foot, which is conserved in the church Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, Italy.
From the Saint:
St. Teresa has left behind many written works thanks to her obedience to her superiors and confessors; she considered herself incapable of writing anything. The writings of the saint, beyond the spiritual treasure they transmit, are also of great literary value. The principle writings of St. Teresa are:
-Life of St. Teresa of Jesus
-The Way of Perfection
-The Book of Foundations
-The Interior Castle
Along with these great writings, she also wrote numerous smaller works, such as the Meditations on the Song of Songs, the Constitutions, On Making the Visitation, a Satirical Critique, Response to a Spiritual Challenge, and many poems.
The works of St. Teresa have been published through many editorials and can be found in religious bookstores. They can also be downloaded for free in different formats.
From the Popes:
- Message of the Holy Father Benedict XVI to the Bishop of Avila on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the foundation of the Monastery of St. Joseph in Avila and the beginning of the Reform of the Carmel, July 16, 2012.
- Catechism of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI about St. Teresa of Jesus on February 2, 2011.
From other authors:
-“Saint Teresa of Avila”, by Marcelle Auclair (Publisher: Fordham University Press).
-“St. Teresa of Avila”, by F. A. Forbes (Publisher: Saint Benedict Press, LLC).