Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582)

views updated May 23 2018

TERESA OF ÁVILA (15151582)

TERESA OF ÁVILA (15151582), founder of the Discalced Carmelites and a patron saint of Spain. Teresa of Ávila was born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada in Ávila, Spain, to Beatriz de Ahumada and Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda. Her mother came from an Old Christian family with a small estate in Gotarrendura, a village near Ávila. Her paternal grandfather, once a prosperous textile merchant in Toledo, moved to Ávila after the Inquisition convicted him of Judaizing, or practicing the Jewish religion or customs after having converted to Christianity, and sentenced him to a humiliating public ritual of penitence that usually resulted in loss of social reputation and business failure. In Ávila, Teresa's grandfather and his sons employed legal and financial routes to establish their right to the privileges of gentlemen, including a tacit agreement to overlook their genealogy. Teresa's contemporaries would have known of her converso heritage, but it was not publicly acknowledged until 1946. Teresa was the third child and first daughter born to Alonso and Beatriz, whose ten children joined two surviving offspring from Alonso's first marriage.

Teresa came to her career as a religious reformer relatively late in life. She joined the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation just outside Ávila in 1535 and took vows in 1536 as Teresa of Jesus. In the Book of Her Life (15621565) she wrote that she withheld her wholehearted consent to the vocation until 1556, when she had two spiritual experiences that definitively turned her away from secular life. For these twenty years of irresolution, during which she suffered serious illnesses and experienced frightening visions that some confessors attributed to the devil, Teresa blamed the mitigated or relaxed rule in Carmelite convents, which among other liberties permitted nuns to come and go freely and to receive unlimited visitors. In condemning such lapses in monastic enclosure, Teresa participated in sixteenth-century movements to reform the Roman Catholic Church from within, or the Counter-Reformation. In 1560 Philip II (ruled 15561598) called on Spanish monasteries to contribute to his war against the Protestant Reformation by intensifying religious discipline.

On 24 August 1562 a house in Ávila was consecrated as the Convent of Saint Joseph under a constitution Teresa based on the 1247 formulation of Carmelite rule requiring strict asceticism and complete poverty. For the austere dress Teresa designedhabits of coarse fabrics and straw sandalsinitiates were labeled Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites. The new convent faced immediate threats to its existence. Some church officials considered that Teresa, known to practice a spirituality based on contemplation, might lead her nuns to abandon vocal prayer for mental prayer, which threatened both ecclesiastical authority and ecclesiastical income. Municipal officials of Ávila brought a lawsuit that was probably motivated by concern that a convent without an endowment could become dependent on civic financial resources.

Teresa's project of religious reform brought her allies as well as enemies in the church, monastic orders, and aristocracy. Giovanni Battista Rossi (15071578), the Carmelite prior general from Rome, found Saint Joseph's so impressive on his 1567 supervisory visit that he gave Teresa permission to found monasteries throughout Spain, with the explicit exception of Andalusia. Having secured this credential, Teresa began her travels around Spain in horse-drawn wagons. She eventually founded fifteen convents and monasteries herself and authorized other Discalced Carmelites to found two more. Teresa garnered much of her financial support and numerous recruits from converso families, who found most monastic orders, including the Carmelites after 1566, closed to them.

Teresa also continued to provoke controversy. Rossi eventually had to reprimand her for making foundations in Andalusia at Beas and Seville. By late 1575 the Inquisition was investigating her on several charges, and Carmelite officials had divested her of all leadership roles and had ordered her to stay in a Castilian convent. She probably owed permission to make more foundations, which came with the 1580 recognition of the Discalced as a separate province, to aristocratic friends holding high church and state positions.

Around 1562, Teresa began writing prolifically, both at the command of confessors and for her own purposes: first, the autobiographical Book of Her Life (composed 15621565; published 1588), followed by the devotional instruction in Way of Perfection (composed 15661569; published 1588), descriptions of her mystical experiences in The Interior Castle (composed 1577; published 1588), a chronicle of the origins of the Discalced Carmelites in The Foundations (composed 1582; published 1610), and several short works and numerous letters.

Teresa probably would be remembered only as a charismatic reformer but for reports that her body, when exhumed nine months after her death, had not deteriorated. Stories of other miracles accumulated, and in 1591 the bishop of Salamanca initiated the process that in 1622 made her a saint. In 1970 she became the first female doctor of the church.

See also Catholic Spirituality and Mysticism ; Conversos ; Reformation, Catholic ; Religious Orders .


Primary Sources

Teresa, of Ávila, Saint. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Ávila. Edited and translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. 3 vols. Washington, D.C., 19761985.

. The Complete Works of Teresa of Jesus. Edited and translated by E. Allison Peers. 3 vols. London, 19441946.

. Santa Teresa de Jesús: Obras completas. Edited by Efrén de la Madre de Dios and Otger Steggink. Madrid, 19511959.

Secondary Sources

Bilinkoff, Jodi. The Ávila of Saint Teresa: Religious Reform in a Sixteenth-Century City. Ithaca, N.Y., 1989.

Efrén de la Madre de Dios and Otger Steggink. Tiempo y vida de Santa Teresa. 2nd ed. Madrid, 1977.

Slade, Carole. St. Teresa of Ávila: Author of a Heroic Life. Berkeley, 1995.

Weber, Alison. Teresa of Ávila and the Rhetoric of Femininity. Princeton, 1990.

Carole Slade

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

Spanish mystic and monastic reformer, influential writer on spirituality, founder of the Discalced Carmelite order of Roman Catholic nuns, and canonized saint, who was the first woman to be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. Name variations: Teresa de Jesús; Santa Teresa; Teresa of Jesus; Teresa of Ávila; Theresa de Jesus des Carmes-Dechausses; Santa Teresa de Avila. Pronunciation: teh-REH-sah of AH-beelah. Born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada on March 28, 1515, at Avila, Spain; died on October 4, 1582, at Alba de Tormes, Spain; daughter of Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda and Beatriz de Ahumada; never married; no children.

Professed as a Carmelite sister (1537); experienced the Transverberation (1559); founded reformed convent of St. Joseph at Avila (1562); founded 16 additional reformed convents in other Spanish cities (1567–82); beatified (1614); canonized (1622); proclaimed Doctor of the Church (1970).


El camino de la perfección (The Way of Perfection); El libro de su vida (autobiography); Las moradas, o el castillo interior (The Dwelling Places, or the Interior Castle); El libro de las fundaciones (The Foundations); Cuentas de conciencia (Spiritual Testimonies).

The woman whom Roman Catholics the world over would one day venerate as St. Teresa of Avila was born on March 28, 1515, the daughter of Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda and his second wife Beatriz de Ahumada . Traditionally, Teresa's birthplace is given as Avila, a walled city high on Spain's central plateau to the northwest of Madrid, but there is evidence that it was really the nearby village of Gotarrendura, location of the Ahumada family estate. In any case, it was in Avila that Teresa grew to womanhood and it was there that she spent most of her life, although during her later years she traveled extensively throughout Spain directing the work of her religious reform movement.

Founded in the 11th century, Avila was originally a fortress on the frontier between the Christian-controlled northern part of the Iberian peninsula and the Muslim-controlled southern part. As such, it played an important role in the Reconquista, the centuries-long war to restore all of Spain to Christian rule. The city's imposing system of defensive walls stands today as a reminder of its former strategic importance, but long before Teresa's time Avila was already in decline as a military center. By 1300, most of the south had been reconquered and incorporated into the two major Christian kingdoms, Castile and Aragon. The marriage in 1469 of Isabella I , queen of Castile (r. 1474–1504), and Ferdinand II, king of Aragon (r. 1479–1516), known to history as the Catholic Monarchs, opened the way to the eventual political unification of Spain. Unification promised an era of internal peace, as did the completion in 1492 of the process of territorial consolidation when Ferdinand and Isabella captured the last remaining Muslim stronghold at Granada.

By the early 16th century, Avila's importance was no longer military but economic. The city's location in a principal sheep-raising area assured it a major role in the rapidly expanding woolens industry. Once a sleepy provincial town, Avila quickly emerged as a bustling center of trade and manufacture, attracting newcomers from less prosperous regions of the country. Many of these immigrant artisans and merchants were known at the time as conversos, or New Christians, meaning that they were former Jews who had converted to Christianity. Frequently, such conversions were made only for reasons of convenience, especially after 1492 when the Catholic Monarchs ordered the expulsion of Spain's Jewish population. Many conversos were sincerely devoted to their adoptive faith, but many more continued to practice Judaism in the privacy of their homes. All New Christians were subject to prejudice and legal disabilities, and all were vulnerable to accusations of apostasy, an offense which lay under the jurisdiction of the Spanish Inquisition, established in 1478 to impose religious unity on Spain's diverse population of Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

I look down upon the world as from above and care very little what people say or what is known about me.

—Teresa of Avila

One of the industrious New Christians attracted to Avila during the woolens boom was Teresa's father, Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda, who relocated from Toledo following a humiliating episode in 1485 when he and his father were convicted as secret Jews by the Inquisition and sentenced to perform a public penance. Sánchez de Cepeda was financially well off, but being a converso put him at a social and political disadvantage, even in the relatively forgiving atmosphere of worldly Avila. Many privileges in society, such as the holding of public office and entry into religious orders, were legally open only to Old Christians, whose blood was supposedly free of the "impurity" of Jewish or Muslim descent. Money had the power to cleanse, however, and, like many other wealthy conversos, Teresa's father purchased his way to acceptance and respectability. Recruiting witnesses to testify on his behalf, Sánchez de Cepeda won a suit to have himself declared a hidalgo, or noble, a legal status which entitled him to exemption from taxation and to be addressed by the honorific title "don." Also, by supplying generous dowries he took two wives in succession from noble Old Christian families, first Catalina del Peso , then after her death her cousin Beatriz de Ahumada, who became Teresa's mother.

The story of Teresa's Jewish ancestry has been known for some time. Traditional Catholic writers generally omit it, but it is important to any understanding of this remarkable woman, who, although endowed with great talent and intelligence, was born into a world in which she was doubly marginal. Teresa was a female in a male-dominated society, but she was also a social upstart in a city whose civil and ecclesiastical establishments were still dominated by an Old Christian aristocracy which traced its origin to the early days of the Reconquista. Her father's money and connections guaranteed Teresa access to the prestigious circles of Avila's high society, but as a young woman she must always have been aware of the precarious nature of her claim to social standing. Later, a rejection of snobbery and aristocratic pretense would become a central feature of Teresa's monastic reform program.

As a girl, Teresa was bright, impetuous, and strong-willed, and she was much influenced by tales of chivalry and the lives of saints, both of which were in her day common intellectual fare in conventional households. In her autobiography, Teresa tells us that the stories of holy martyrs so captivated her that, at the age of seven, she and her favorite brother Rodrigo dreamed of running away from home to invite beheading at the hands of imaginary Muslims in some unspecified neighboring province. According to some accounts, the children did actually depart on their gruesome errand but were intercepted on the road out of Avila by a relative, who returned them safely to the care of their parents.

In 1528, when Teresa was 13, Beatriz de Ahumada died, leaving her husband with ten children from two different marriages. In her autobiography, Teresa describes the loss of her mother with great emotion, telling us that she fell to her knees before an image of Mary the Virgin to beseech the Mother of God to become her mother as well. Teresa is candid in her admission that this was no more than a routine response to personal tragedy, in keeping with the pious conventions of the day. In fact, as she matured into womanhood, the spiritual life was the furthest thing from her mind. By all accounts attractive and flirtatious, Teresa enjoyed the worldly company of other young people, especially some cousins of hers who lived nearby. At the age of 16, she began a clandestine romance with a man whose identity we do not know. Some writers state that during this period she lost her virginity, but the evidence is inconclusive. Teresa herself deals with the episode so circumspectly that it is clear only that her behavior, had it become public knowledge, would have been an embarrassment to her and her family.

Moving decisively to contain the scandal, Don Alonso placed his lively daughter in the care of some Augustinian sisters who boarded the female children of noble families in their convent of Nuestra Señora de la Gracia just outside the city walls. Although Teresa tells us frankly that "at that time I had the greatest possible aversion from being a nun," she eventually settled into the monastic routine, remaining in the cloister for some 18 months until she became ill and was forced to return home for treatment. It is not clear at what point Teresa began to consider taking the religious state for life. Certainly her experience among the Augustinians had some influence, but it is also possible that becoming a nun seemed to her simply a fate preferable to spinsterhood, or to marriage to the kind of husband her father's money would be able to buy. With both her ancestry and her virginity open to question, and herself at 18 already past the customary age of matrimony, Teresa's stock would not have been high on Avila's marriage market.

Because her father initially opposed the idea, Teresa delayed taking the veil for some years, but in 1536 she finally became a novice at Avila's Carmelite convent of La Encarnación, where she made her final vows the following year. Rather typical of its time, La Encarnación was a loosely run community of approximately 100 sisters, most of whom were of aristocratic birth. The nuns were not cloistered and they were not expected to keep the rule of poverty, so they were free to come and go as they pleased and to enjoy private incomes and luxurious personal belongings. Rather than a genuine spiritual community, such a convent was in reality a genteel place of retirement for unmarried women of a certain social class and economic standing. Membership required not only an acceptable family tree, if only a partially fictive one as in Teresa's case, but also a dowry to provide for the new sister's maintenance. Religious life in the convent was limited largely to group vocal prayer for the souls of noble benefactors. These aristocrats provided generous endowments in return for the perpetuation of their proud family names through privileged places of burial in the convent chapel, ostentatious displays of their likenesses and armorial bearings, and the regular repetition of masses in their memory.

The Carmelite convent of La Encarnación was, in fact, a worldly, comfortable, and undemanding place to live. At first, Teresa appeared to thrive there. Known at this time as Doña

Teresa de Ahumada, because the aristocratic nuns she lived among preferred to retain their secular titles and identities rather than adopt religious names, she had a large, well-furnished apartment, and she enjoyed the company of a number of her female friends and relatives who were also sisters at La Encarnación. Allowing for frequent absences for various reasons, Teresa resided at the Carmelite convent off and on for about 20 years. During this period, however, she became increasingly dissatisfied with her surroundings. The mid-life transformation of Doña Teresa, contented aristocratic nun, into Teresa of Avila, gifted mystic and driven religious reformer, was not a sudden occurrence. Rather, it took place over a number of years and was marked by several crucial events, encounters, and conversion experiences.

In 1538, during a prolonged absence from the convent due to illness, Teresa received from a devout relative a copy of Francis of Osuna's Abecedario espiritual (Spiritual Alphabet, 1527). This book provided her introduction to the so-called Devotio Moderna, a movement for spiritual renewal within the Church which had its roots in Christian humanism. Associated with the figures of Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471) and Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), and, more radically, with Martin Luther (1483–1546), the new devotional style was particularly strong in Northern Europe, but in Teresa's time it also enjoyed widespread acceptance in Spain. Advocates of the Devotio Moderna criticized the empty formality of ritual observances, such as rote vocal prayer, which were the staple of Western religious life. Instead, they urged private reflection and mental prayer with the purpose of achieving a mystical union between the individual worshiper and God.

Impressed by her discovery, in the years that followed Teresa read heavily in the classics of Christian spiritual literature, but the atmosphere at La Encarnación was not congenial to her new interests. The other nuns were preoccupied with mundane daily concerns, and Teresa found it difficult to resist being caught up in them herself. What was worse, attempts to discuss her own spiritual growth with her confessors met with neither understanding nor sympathy. Teresa's sense of personal frustration must have been overwhelming. Sometime in the 1540s, she began to experience visions which she took at first to be divine revelations, although they sometimes frightened her, causing her to question whether they might not be the work of the devil instead. About 1555, these disquieting doubts led Teresa to entrust her spiritual welfare to two well-respected Avila clerics, Fathers Gaspar Daza and Francisco Salcedo, the latter of whom was related to her family by marriage.

Initially convinced that the troubled nun's case was indeed one of demonic possession, Daza and Salcedo turned for guidance to the fathers of the Society of Jesus, a decision which proved crucial for Teresa's future career. Founded in 1540 by the Spaniard Ignatius de Loyola (1491–1556), himself an enthusiast of the Devotio Moderna, the Jesuit order was a major force for spiritual renewal and reform within the Church. In Jesuit confessors such as Diego de Cetina and Baltasar Alvarez, Teresa at last found spiritual directors who were capable of helping her. Not only did they assure her that her gifts were of God, rather than of the devil, but also they encouraged her to continue her exploration of the life of the soul. Through them she was able to meet like-minded individuals, including two reformist clerics who became her defenders, the Franciscan Peter of Alcántara (1499–1562, canonized 1669) and the Jesuit Francis Borgia (1510–1572, canonized 1671).

Reassured by her new advisors, Teresa no longer resisted her mystical experiences. Recurring now more frequently, they were also increasingly dramatic, culminating about 1559 in the famous Transverberation, a powerful vision in which Teresa believed that an angel had pierced her through the heart with a fiery arrow. This episode is the subject of the most celebrated depiction of Teresa, Lorenzo Bernini's masterpiece in Rome's church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, in which the baroque sculptor blurs the distinction between erotic and religious experience.

In 1560 or 1561, Teresa became convinced that God was calling her to undertake a divine mission which transcended her own individual spiritual development. The result was her movement to reform the Carmelite order, which began in 1562 when she withdrew from La Encarnación with four young followers to found a separate house in Avila, that came to be known as the convent of San José, or St. Joseph. Teresa's monastic reform was part of the broader historical process known as the Counter Reformation, or Catholic Reformation, which was inspired by the contemporary spread of Protestantism in northern Europe. Convinced that the impoverishment of the individual soul in Catholic Europe had weakened the Church in the face of the Protestant threat, Teresa hoped to refortify the faithful spiritually, while at the same time contributing prayer in support of Rome's struggle for ascendancy over Western Christendom.

What Teresa disliked about aristocratic convents such as La Encarnación was the lax atmosphere which she traced to the abandonment in the late Middle Ages of the original ideals and rules of the Carmelite order. At San José, therefore, she sought to return to a purer and more primitive regime, which she modeled on Peter of Alcántara's so-called discalced (or barefoot) reform movement in the Franciscan order. Teresa's Discalced Carmelites did not literally go barefoot, but, as a sign of humility, they wore sandals without stockings. Their lives were to be devoted to silent prayer and spiritual discipline and growth, as well as to the performance of the daily menial chores necessary to sustain the community. Unlike the traditional, unreformed convents, there would be no servants or slaves for this purpose. Also, in order to ensure the community's freedom from worldly distractions and control by powerful patrons, Teresa insisted upon founding her new convent in complete poverty, that is, without an endowment. The nuns of the reform would live off the alms they collected from the general populace. No dowry would be required from entering novices and there would be no genealogical test for admission. Applicants would be judged on their aptitude for the rigorous spiritual life of the community, rather than on the economic status, nobility, or purity of blood of their families.

The Discalced Carmelite reform begun by Teresa had some powerful supporters, including Spain's King Philip II (1556–1598), but it also encountered a good deal of opposition. For example, the municipal authorities of Avila filed a lawsuit in an unsuccessful attempt to block the founding of San José without an endowment, because they feared that a convent which lacked its own independent financial base would become too great a burden on public charity. Other complaints came from Carmelite and other ecclesiastical authorities who feared the reform's implications for their own jurisdiction and prerogatives, from social conservatives who were alarmed by the movement's anti-aristocratic nature and by the enthusiasm shown for it by New Christians, and from theological conservatives who suspected affinities between Teresa's teachings and those of the Protestants, which shared common roots in the Devotio Moderna.

But Teresa of Jesus, as she now called herself, was neither a rebel nor a heretic. Always careful to proclaim her obedience and her orthodoxy, she was as opposed to Protestantism as were her conservative detractors. Through the force of her own strong personality, and taking advantage of her considerable rhetorical skills as well as the support of powerful friends, Teresa gradually won over or outmaneuvered the skeptics who tried to block her reform. In 1567, she won authorization to found more discalced convents in Spain and, between that year and her death in 1582, she would establish an additional 16, mostly in significant urban centers which had the population and the economic vitality to support communities of nuns who depended upon alms for their livelihood. During the same period, Teresa was active in promoting her reform in the male branch of the Carmelites as well. The first monastery of discalced friars was established in 1568 at Duruelo, and during Teresa's lifetime 13 more such houses would be founded. Teresa's collaborator in this effort was the renowned mystic and ascetic John of the Cross (Juan de Yepes, 1542–1591), who became her spiritual director and who, like Teresa, would be canonized after his death.

The rapid spread of reformed convents and monasteries is a tribute to Teresa of Avila's considerable gifts of leadership and organization. She was also a talented writer and, during her career, she found time to produce a number of works which have become classics of Western spiritual literature. The most important source on her own life and spiritual development, up to the establishment of the first discalced convent, is the Libro de su vida, or autobiography, composed at Avila between 1562 and 1565. Teresa's El camino de la perfección (The Way of Perfection), begun in 1565, was a practical manual of spiritual development through self-denial and prayer intended initially for the sisters at her new convent of San José. A work which occupied much of the rest of her life, being finished only shortly before her death in 1582, was the Libro de las fundaciones (Book of Foundations), in which Teresa recounted the history of the discalced reform.

By most accounts, Teresa of Avila's masterpiece is Las moradas (The Dwelling Places), also called El castillo interior (The Interior Castle). Begun in Toledo in 1577 at the order of her current confessor Jerónimo Gracián, Las moradas was intended to present a systematic exposition of Teresa's method of spiritual development through disciplined prayer. The book's title comes from the author's brilliant central metaphor, in which spiritual progress is conceived of as a series of seven rooms, or dwelling places, arrayed in concentric circles. Each room represents a different degree of prayer, and the goal of all prayer, union with God, lies at the center.

In 1580, Teresa's monastic reform, which had always enjoyed papal support, became fully institutionalized when Pope Gregory XIII decreed the formal separation of the Calced and Discalced Carmelite provinces in Spain. By this time, the years of work and struggle were beginning to show their effect on Teresa, a frail woman who had suffered poor health throughout her life, but who had stubbornly recovered from one serious illness after another. The same year as Pope Gregory's decree, Teresa, now 65 years of age, survived a severe bout with influenza, despite the fact that those around her had given her up for dead. Two years later, while on the road at Burgos, she fell ill again, but this time there would be no recovery. Refusing to abandon her travels on behalf of the order, she continued on to the discalced convent at Alba de Tormes and it was there, on October 4, 1582, that death overcame her.

By the time of her death, Teresa of Avila had developed a large popular following throughout Spain, and there was immediate talk of her being proposed for sainthood. Despite the stringent new requirements for canonization established recently by the Council of Trent, Teresa's case was rushed through the process. Beatified in 1614, she was declared a saint in 1622, only eight years later. More recently, in 1970, Pope Paul VI added another posthumous distinction to those already awarded to Teresa by Rome when he recognized her officially as a Doctor of the Church, a title reserved for saints of distinguished learning, whose ideas and writings have been particularly influential in the teaching of the faith. Teresa is the first female saint to be so honored. The tardiness of her formal acceptance, despite the power and appeal of her writings, is a reminder of the marginal role of women in the Church. Although for years Catholics referred to Teresa unofficially as a "doctor," Church authorities once held that she was unsuited to the dignity on grounds of gender, because the status of Doctor of the Church seemed closely related to the priesthood, which was open exclusively to males.

In the years since Teresa's time, there has been so much distortion of the facts of her life and career for both political and religious reasons that it is now difficult to discern the real woman behind the saint. Even so, her record of achievement as a reformer, builder, thinker, and teacher establishes her as one of the outstanding personalities of her time, and as a major presence in the history both of Spain and of Roman Catholicism.


Bilinkoff, Jodi. The Avila of St. Teresa: Religious Reform in a Sixteenth-Century City. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Lincoln, Victoria. Teresa: A Woman: A Biography of Teresa of Avila. Ed. by Elias Rivers and Antonio T. de Nicolás. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984.

Peers, E. Allison. Mother of Carmel: A Portrait of St. Teresa of Jesus. Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1944.

Teresa of Ávila. The Life of Teresa of Jesus: The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Trans. and ed. by E. Allison Peers. Image Books ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.

suggested reading:

Clissold, Stephen. St. Teresa of Avila. London: Sheldon Press, 1979.

Luti, J. Mary. Teresa of Avila's Way. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991.

Medwick, Cathleen. Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul. NY: Knopf, 1999.

Teresa of Avila. Teresa of Avila: The Interior Castle. Trans. by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodríguez. NY: Paulist Press, 1979.

Weber, Alison. Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Williams, Rowan. Teresa of Avila. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1991.

Stephen Webre , Professor of History, Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, Louisiana

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), Catholic nun and reformer.

The Protestant Reformation of the early and mid-16th century provoked a crisis for those Christians who remained loyal to the Catholic Church. Aware that it was in many ways corrupt and that spiritual life had become diluted by secular concerns, Catholic reformers tried to recover the integrity of primitive Christianity without violating Catholic tradition and the religious authorities. The effort at an internal Catholic reformation was particularly intense in Spain, where Saint Ignatius Loyola, Saint John of the Cross, and an influential group of Christian humanists created new religious orders and a new form of spirituality. None of these Catholic reformers was more successful than Saint Teresa of Avila, creator of the Discalced Carmelites and an influential spiritual writer.

Spain in the 16th century was an aristocratic society obsessed by the idea of blood purity (limpieza de sangre) which in our eyes seems no better than a form of fanatical racism. Recently reunited by the "Catholic Kings"—Ferdinand and Isabella—after a long era of fragmentation and partial Muslim occupation, Spain had a large population of Moors and Jews who had converted to Christianity under threat of expulsion or death. The Spanish Inquisition, doubting the sincerity of some of these conversions, launched periodic investigations of conversos; among them, in 1485, was Juan Sanchez, a rich textile trader of Jewish descent and Teresa's grandfather. After a hearing where he confessed to "many grave crimes and offences against our Holy Catholic Faith," he was publicly humiliated in the Inquisition's auto de fe, a procession of backsliders bearing extinguished candles in the streets of Toledo (to show that the light of salvation had gone out in their souls). Despite his confession, his "crimes" cannot have been very grave or he would have been put to death.

Surviving the ordeal and working to expunge its memory by dynastic alliances with older Catholic families, Juan Sanchez moved to the nearby city of Avila in Castile; there, his son Alonso, a taxgatherer and financier, lived an ostentatious life, fathering Teresa de Ahumada by his second wife. Teresa grew up in the protected environment of an honor-conscious society and faced the prospect of either marriage or taking the veil; no other alternatives presented themselves to high-born women of her age. As a child, she enjoyed romantic fiction, of the kind which Cervantes later lampooned in Don Quixote, and she seems to have had a brief flirtation with a young man connected with her family. They responded by placing her in a nunnery, where—after an early shock at this comparatively spartan life—she came to believe that she had a lifetime's vocation.

The convent of the Incarnation in Avila was centrally placed in the city and, although the nuns were supposed to be cloistered, there was in fact a good deal of contact between the nuns and the other citizens of the town. The Carmelite nuns had for two centuries deviated from the austere ideals of their founders, and within the convent, social distinctions from the outside were still observed. Wealthier nuns, such as Teresa herself, had to bring a "dowry" to the convent, just as they would have had to take one to a husband; by this means, and by promises of payment from novices' parents, the convent was sure of a steady income. The more privileged and high-born nuns had private rooms rather than sleeping in the dormitory shared by poor nuns; they had their own servants (even slaves in a few cases); and they continued to enjoy the honorific name "Doña" inside the convent just as they had outside.

A custom had also developed that if a woman in one of the major families in Avila needed a female companion in times of bereavement or stress she could summon one from the convent to spend time with her; on several occasions, Teresa was thus called away from the Incarnation for periods of months at a time. Thus, she spent two years with Doña Guiomar de Ulloa, an influential widow who became one of Teresa's principal benefactors in her later experiments in reforming the Carmelite order. In the same way, she would return to her family in times of sickness. During one such sickness, when she was in her early 20s, Teresa was so near death that her family had dropped wax onto her eyes, a local custom with the dead, before she surprised them by reviving. The episodic nature of convent life, along with the free access of outsiders to the residents, made the Carmelite existence a relatively relaxed affair in Teresa's youth.

Teresa Experiences Revelations, Visions. Without ever complaining about the convent life, she began to draw attention to herself by an exceptional form of spirituality. Sometimes while praying, she would receive messages from Christ, usually in the form of sudden convictions sown in her mind as she meditated. As her life continued, they became more intense and insistent, giving her at times the radiant assurance that she was in direct contact with God. Fearing nevertheless that she might somehow be under the influence of the devil, like some recently denounced spiritual charlatans, she treated her own revelations guardedly and consulted a succession of confessors about how to proceed. Most of them, similarly afraid of a demonic visitation, and responding to the defensive Spanish religious mood of the times which regarded any novelty as a possible sign of "Lutheranism," discouraged her. But then a meeting at Doña Guiomar de Ulloa's house with Peter of Alcantara, a reformer who believed in reviving the early Christian life of heroic austerity, led her to recover confidence. Peter of Alcantara assured her that her visions came from God and that she should heed them.

Her religious development continued through her 20s and 30s and became progressively more intense; at times, she would enter a trancelike state, which local people sought to oversee out of fascination. Particularly embarrassing to her were episodes of involuntary levitation during prayer, which had induced weightlessness, widely reported and seemingly well authenticated at the time.

Whatever our judgment of Teresa's reports of divine visitation it is certain that she was a woman of courage, integrity, and resolve. In response to one confessor's request, she wrote her life history, which now constitutes our best source of information about her experiences; written in a form influenced by Saint Augustine's Confessions, which she had read and admired, it speaks of her as a dreadful sinner and attributes all her merits to God.

She Works to Reform Convent. As she advanced into middle age at the Incarnation convent, her sense of dissatisfaction with life there, coupled with the promoting of her visions, led her to attempt a reform of the convent; in this project several of her relatives, also young nuns, were eager to cooperate. Hoping to revive the old simplicity of Carmelite life, she arranged to acquire a house in another part of Avila and to live there with a handful of like-minded disciples. It seemed to her that the only way she as a woman could help to prevent the spread of heresy throughout Europe was to pray more fervently and to live a more devout life, and in its way she saw her reform as a missionary activity, even though it did not require leaving home ground.

The experiment faced many obstacles. First, Teresa wanted to live without the financial security which was enjoyed by the other monastic houses of Avila, but to trust entirely to alms, like Jesus. She would accept "dowries" if they were offered but would not make them a condition of admission; a novice's character alone would be decisive. She would make no distinction between the rich and poor, noble and plebeian, within the house; all titles would be dropped and the nuns would call one another "sister." It may be that as the descendant of conversos, even rich ones, she remained sensitive to the disadvantages of those without the coveted degrees of blood purity. In her book The Way of Perfection, Teresa explained that this dramatic contrast with the outside world was a way of reminding the sisters that "it is the Lord who provides for all in common" and that they were freed from trying to please their relatives outside the walls.

The city authorities, the local bishop, and many noble families protested against the plan, on the grounds that it would disrupt a convenient way of life (in which convent and city interacted to the convenience of the city) and that it would deny their daughters the honors and dignity they had previously preserved as nuns. Besides, with the way things stood, the twice-yearly payments the families made to a convent guaranteed its continued association with, even dependence on, them, a dependence which was now threatened. They also feared that a convent without regular means of support could easily become a burden on the finances of the city. As the gilt was already peeling off the facade of Spain's "golden age," in the form of bad harvests, inflation, and urban discontent, these were grave matters.

Teresa had sufficient supporters among the clergy and lay nobility, however, that she was able to persist, and she was steadied by a vision of Peter of Alcantara, recently deceased, who urged her not to falter. On the day that her convent opened, it was surrounded by a chanting mob of angry townsmen who tried to break down the door. Teresa's diplomatic gifts, and her capacity to win over once-intractable opponents, ultimately secured for her the right of the Convent of St. Joseph to exist in Avila and a law suit against it was resolved. The small but well-educated and influential religious reform party in Avila was pleased to see this example of discipline and religious humility in the heart of the city as a form of living sermon to the other residents. For Teresa, the simple life of this new convent was much superior to the luxuries of the old; most of her supporters, many of them cousins, agreed, but a few were unable to endure it and returned to the Incarnation with her consent. Sleeping on straw mattresses, without servants, wearing harsh sackcloth robes, the sisters at St. Joseph were soon afflicted by a plague of lice in their clothes and hair, but after intercessory prayers by Teresa she reported that the lice departed once and for all.

She called her reformed sisterhood the "Discalced Carmelites." Discalced means that they did not wear shoes but went barefoot, again in tribute to Jesus' simplicity and suffering.

When St. Joseph's was established, Teresa, again prompted by divine visitation, moved to establish another convent, at the market town of Medina del Campo. This and her other houses were usually in market centers (including Toledo, Segovia, and Seville) because urban centers alone seemed likely to be able to provide the money in occasional benefactions which her new rule specified. Later, when rural houses were established, some kind of regular financing became imperative or they would have foundered quickly. The cities also possessed large converso populations, and the merchants and professionals who sympathized with the new spirituality of Catholic reform, rather than the older legalistic form of faith, looked more favorably on Teresa's reforms.

Teresa Establishes More Convents. Despite recurrent illnesses, Teresa lived into her late 60s, the last year being the most active, as she moved from place to place in Spain establishing new convents of the Discalced Carmelites—a total of 17 in her last 20 years. Inspired by her example, Carmelite friars as well as nuns began to organize reforms, the most distinguished of whom was Friar (ultimately Saint) John of the Cross, who for a time was Teresa's confessor. He was many years her junior and admired her greatly but could still rebuke her when necessary. "When you make your confession, Mother," he told her on one occasion, "you have a way of finding the prettiest excuses." Around him gathered many stories of supernatural events and stern dealings with demonic interventions; one of the nuns of St. Joseph's was "lifted bodily from her feet and left suspended upside down in the air until ordered back to her stall by St. John of the Cross" while another was "glued so firmly to the ground that no one could make her budge until she was released by a mere glance from the friar."

As the Discalced Carmelites established themselves, however, the older "Calced" branch became increasingly suspicious and resentful; they used their influence with the authorities to prevent new houses—even when guaranteed an income by wealthy enthusiasts—from being established, so that some of Teresa's long and difficult journeys across Spain were made in vain. They also arranged for the imprisonment of John of the Cross in Toledo where he was flogged and ordered to abandon the Reformers; although he steadfastly refused.

John of the Cross's sufferings ended after eight months when he managed to escape, but he was so sick that Teresa thought he would die in any case.

A papal nuncio to whom Teresa appealed that the Calced and Discalced Carmelites might be officially divided into two separate congregations (the only way she could see to end the conflict) was not at first disposed to listen sympathetically. His attack in turn, however, aroused Teresa's growing body of friends and supporters within Spain who sent reassuring messages to Rome about her good qualities (and those of John of the Cross). Finally, in June 1580, she managed to get a brief from the Pope officially dividing the Carmelites into two distinct provinces and settling most of the points of conflict between the branches.

Teresa traveled extensively right up to the end of her life and endured a long coach ride during her final illness. Neither did death bring an end to her peregrinations. The nuns who attended her in her final illness reported that her sickroom was filled with a delicious aroma, and those who laid her to rest discovered that her body was immune to decay, another sign, in their view, of her exceptional sanctity. Far from decomposing, her body emitted a sweet aroma ("the odor of sanctity") not only at first but for years thereafter as it was repeatedly dug up and examined. Not only was it inspected; the body was also moved from place to place as rival convents and cities vied to get their hands on what was now a holy relic. And with each exhumation parts of the miraculously preserved body were hacked off to be used as relics: first a finger, next an arm, later the heart (which was said to bear signs of the angels piercing spear) until by the next century the incorruptible body was scarcely more than a fragment. Forty years after her death, in 1622, Teresa of Jesus was named a saint while the order she had founded continued to endure, though it had been forced early to accept permanent endowments as the only viable way of surviving the economic austerities of a Spain which was now entering a long period of decline and senescence.


Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Teresa of Avila (15151582)

A nun and patron saint of Spain, and an author of important religious and autobiographical works, Saint Teresa was born in Avila, Spain, as Teresa Sanchez Cepeda Davila y Ahumada. She was the daughter of Beatriz de Ahumada and Alonso de Cepeda, a wealthy converso, or converted Jew. Believing his daughter had few prospects for a successful marriage, he sent her to the Convent of Saint Mary of Grace for her studies. She joined the Monastery of the Incarnation but after falling ill traveled to several towns to visit faith healers. Her sickness worsened in 1539, when she began experiencing hallucinations and paralysis. Eventually she recovered, believing that prayer and the saints had been responsible for her survival. Visions and the conversations with phantoms continued, putting her at the center of a controversy, in which some believed her a witch and others to be directly inspired by God. Vowing to lead a life of prayer and self-denial, she left the monastery, where the wealthier nuns were free to lead a comfortable life and enjoy material possessions and socialize with men.

Believing the order had grown too worldly and needed reform, Teresa established a more austere branch of the Carmelites in 1560 and then the new Convent of Saint Joseph in 1562. This Order of Discalced (barefoot) Sisters, isolated itself from the community and established strict rules of poverty, silence, prayer, simple living, and the most simple clothing (including a ban on footwear, outside of the simple sandals Teresa designed for them). King Philip II of Spain saw such reforms as vital to the task of combating the Protestant movement, and called on the monasteries of his kingdom to lead the way.

Teresa described her visions and her youth in an autobiography, The Life, and the philosophy of her new order in The Way of Perfection. In 1567, the head of the Carmelite order, Giovanni Rossi, asked her to establish new reformed convents, and for the next decade she traveled through Spain with a companion, Saint John of the Cross, and gained renown throughout the kingdom for her austere spirituality. Male orders of barefoot friars who followed her precepts were also established, and new Discalced Carmelite monasteries were established in foreign countries. In 1571 Teresa returned to the Convent of the Incarnation in Avila as the prioress, and reformed the main order's rules. She then wrote The Foundations, a book of instruction for members of the order, and The Interior Castle, a book about the process of mental prayer, which Teresa believed to be a road to direct communication with God. Her strict rules for the unreformed Carmelites raised opposition by some leaders of the Catholic Church, some of whom saw silent prayer as a less devout practice than vocal prior. She lost her position as prioress at the Convent of the Incarnation, and for a time was even under investigation by the Spanish Inquisition. In 1578, however, the pope of the church officially recognized her order, which was declared separate twelve years after her death in 1594. Teresa was declared the patroness of Spain by the Cortes (Spanish parliament) in 1617, and in 1622 she was canonized as a saint by Pope Gregory XV; in 1970 she became the first woman to be named Doctor of the Church. Her writings and philosophy grew in importance among Catholics throughout Europe and Teresa was eventually accepted as one of the major figures of the Counter-Reformation, in which the church returned to its spiritual roots in order to better contend with the rising popularity of the Protestant sects of northern Europe.

See Also: Catholicism

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

views updated May 17 2018

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

Spanish mystic and religious reformer. Name variations: Teresa de Jesús; Santa Teresa; Teresa of Jesus; Teresa of Ávila; Theresa de Jesus des Carmes-Dechausses; Santa Teresa de Avila. Born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, Mar 28, 1515, at Avila, Spain; died Oct 4, 1582, at Alba de Tormes, Spain; dau. of Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda (converso, or New Christians, meaning a former Jew who had converted to Christianity) and Beatriz de Ahumada (died 1528); never married; no children.

Mystic and monastic reformer, influential writer on spirituality, founder of the Discalced Carmelite order of Roman Catholic nuns, and canonized saint, who was the 1st woman to be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church; professed as a Carmelite sister at Avila's convent of La Encarnación (1537); during a prolonged absence from the convent due to illness (1538), read Francis of Osuna's Abecedario espiritual (Spiritual Alphabet, 1527), which provided her introduction to the so-called Devotio Moderna, a movement for spiritual renewal within the Church which had its roots in Christian humanism; in the years that followed, read heavily in the classics of Christian spiritual literature; resided at Carmelite convent off and on for about 20 years, but became increasingly dissatisfied with her surroundings; began to experience visions (1540s); experienced the famous Transverberation, a powerful vision in which she believed that an angel had pierced her through the heart with a fiery arrow (1559); withdrew from La Encarnación with 4 young followers to found reformed convent of St. Joseph at Avila (1562); sought to return to a purer and more primitive regime, which she modeled on Peter of Alcántara's so-called discalced (or barefoot) reform movement in the Franciscan order, where lives were to be devoted to silent prayer and spiritual discipline and growth, and applicants would be judged on their aptitude for the rigorous spiritual life, rather than on the economic status; founded 16 additional reformed convents in other Spanish cities (1567–82); traveled extensively throughout Spain directing the work of her religious reform movement; beatified (1614); canonized (1622); proclaimed Doctor of the Church (1970); a talented writer, found time to produce a number of works which have become classics of Western spiritual literature, including El camino de la perfección (The Way of Perfection), El libro de su vida (autobiography), Las moradas, o el castillo interior (The Dwelling Places, or the Interior Castle), El libro de las fundaciones (The Foundations) and Cuentas de conciencia (Spiritual Testimonies); was one of the outstanding personalities of her time, and a major presence in the history both of Spain and of Roman Catholicism.

See also The Life of Teresa of Jesus: The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila (trans. by E. Allison Peers, Doubleday, 1960); Jodi Bilinkoff, The Avila of St. Teresa: Religious Reform in a Sixteenth-Century City (Cornell U. Press, 1989); Victoria Lincoln, Teresa (ed. by Rivers and de Nicolás, State U. of New York Press, 1984); E. Allison Peers, Mother of Carmel: A Portrait of St. Teresa of Jesus (Morehouse-Barlow, 1944); Stephen Clissold, St. Teresa of Avila (Sheldon, 1979); Cathleen Medwick, Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul (Knopf, 1999); Alison Weber, Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity (Princeton U. Press, 1990); Rowan Williams, Teresa of Avila (Morehouse, 1991); and Women in World History.

Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582)

Spanish saint


Beginnings. Teresa of Ávila was a Christian saint, mystic, religious reformer, and author of several religious tracts. Teresa de Ahumeda y Cepeda was born in Ávila, in Castile, spain, in 1515. As a child she demonstrated deep spirituality. Attending boarding school in a convent as a teenager, she began to think about becoming a nun. In 1535 she entered the Convent of the Incarnation and remained there for twenty-eight years until she founded her own reformed convent. Life in the Convent of the Incarnation was not particularly difficult or demanding. Reading St. Augustines Confessions (400?) led her to desire a more disciplined, rigorous life; in her intense personal prayer she experienced what she called intellectual visions and locutions.

Founding Convents. Seven years after these visions she left the convent to create a new one. Teresa argued that she had been told to do so in her visions. In her new convent, established with permission of the Pope, she and the other Carmelite nuns kept a much stricter observance. Fasting, silence, and limited contact with outsiders characterized the new order. Now calling herself Teresa of Jesus, she went on to found one convent a year for the next fifteen years, as per the command of the Roman Catholic authorities. Teresa also founded monasteries for Carmelite friars.

Opposition. Despite her fruitful efforts, not everyone was supportive of Teresa. Some Church authorities asserted that her visions might be a sign of witchcraft. As if her spiritual experiences were not sufficiently threatening, the inquisitors were further alarmed by Teresa establishing convents and venturing into the unwomanly financial world. She was threatened with the Inquisition but was never charged.

Legacy. Teresa was also a prolific writer; among her spiritual classics were Camino de perfección (The Way of Perfection), published in 1583, and Libro de la vida (Book of Life), in 1611. Her four major prose works touched upon prayer, the dimensions of spiritual and mystical growth, and founding convents. She also wrote poetry and letters. She died in 1582. Pope Paul V beatified her in 1614; eight years later Gregory XV canonized her. Teresa has been described as a writer of Christian masterpieces and one of historys great authorities on mysticism.


Gillian T. W. Ahlgren, Teresa of Avila and the Politics of Sanctity (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996).