St. Teresa of Avila
St. Teresa of Avila
Teresa was the daughter of a merchant in the city of Avila in Spain. Her father was the son of converted Jews, while her mother's family was Old Christian. Old Christians were those who had lived under Islamic rule in medieval Spain. Teresa never had formal schooling but she learned to read and write, practicing both skills voraciously throughout her life. One of ten children, she lost her mother when she was thirteen, and her subsequent misbehavior landed Teresa in a convent school. There she read the letters of St. Jerome and underwent a conversion experience. Despite her father's opposition, she decided to become a nun, entering a Carmelite convent in 1535, and taking her vows two years later. The convent she entered at the time was not a model of religious observance, having a widespread reputation for lax discipline. Inadequate funds forced many of the nuns to spend part of each year visiting their families. To make ends meet, too, the sisters admitted into their orders women from wealthy families in the vicinity, some of whom lacked a sense of vocation. Many of the women in the convent entertained men and indulged a taste for luxurious living. Teresa seems to have initially done the same, but as she grew older she became more serious about her pursuit of the religious life.
Voices and Visions.
Around the time Teresa was forty she became ill and suffered from paralysis. She also began to experience visions and voices from God which told her she would be damned if she did not repent of her worldly ways. Her priests thought these were really demonic spirits and suggested that she be exorcized. One of her confessors suggested that she record her visions and experiences, and through the resulting enormous written record she convinced her detractors that her visions were divine. In the wake of these mystical experiences, Teresa became convinced of the necessity for reforming local women's convents. In 1562, she left her own convent and founded a new one at Avila, to which she drew a group of like-minded nuns. As a sign of their commitment to live an ascetic and disciplined life, the women became Discalced Carmelites, that is, they refused to wear shoes. In addition, Teresa worked to establish a standard of absolute egalitarianism within the order. No woman could presume that she was superior to any other because of birth or wealth. Teresa also admitted converted Jews and others who would have been ignored by the traditional orders. The establishment of the new monastery in Avila offended a significant portion of the local population. Some doubted the divinity of Teresa's visions, and others were reluctant to contribute to the foundation of another religious institution given the glut of monks, nuns, and priests. Gradually, Teresa obtained royal favor and in the final twenty years of her life she founded another seventeen convents. These Discalced Carmelites lived a disciplined life in intense seclusion, and they counted among their numbers many women who gained a reputation for saintliness. In 1580, the pope granted her order official recognition.
Teresa was an important figure in the reform of monasticism and the church in sixteenth-century Spain. Her influence lived on as well in the numerous writings she completed during her career as a religious reformer. Many of these texts were explicitly mystical and showed her reading of texts from the medieval past. They were notable, too, for the ways in which Teresa stressed that a mystic must conform to the teachings of the church. Teresa herself was charged with heresy at least six times in her life, although she was never formally tried before the Inquisition. She knew firsthand how dangerous it could be for a woman to speak her mind. In her writings she adopts complex strategies to present her message so that she can protect herself from long-term prohibitions against women preaching and teaching in the church. The most famous of her works included the Book of Her Life, completed around 1565 but later revised, the Way of Perfection (1566) and The Interior Castle (1577). These form an unprecedented spiritual biography that takes Teresa's readers on a tour of her innermost thoughts, dreams, and aspirations. One task that she set for herself in the years after her visions was to accomplish the re-conversion of Protestants through her prayers. In one of her more vivid visions described in these works, she tells her readers of her ecstasy in 1559. In this mystical event, she saw an angel, who pierced her side with an arrow that was flaming with divine love. The experience left her "aflame with the love of God." During the seventeenth century the Roman architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini immortalized Teresa's ecstasy in a famous work he completed in the Church of Sta. Maria della Vittoria in Rome. By Bernini's time, Teresa was an official saint of the Catholic Church, having been raised to that status in 1622.
J. Bilinkoff, The Avila of St. Teresa: Religious Reform in a Sixteenth-Century City (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989).