Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582)
TERESA OF ÁVILA (1515–1582)
TERESA OF ÁVILA (1515–1582), 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 (1562–1565) 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 1556–1598) 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 designed—habits of coarse fabrics and straw sandals—initiates 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 (1507–1578), 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 1562–1565; published 1588), followed by the devotional instruction in Way of Perfection (composed 1566–1569; 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 .
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., 1976–1985.
——. The Complete Works of Teresa of Jesus. Edited and translated by E. Allison Peers. 3 vols. London, 1944–1946.
——. Santa Teresa de Jesús: Obras completas. Edited by Efrén de la Madre de Dios and Otger Steggink. Madrid, 1951–1959.
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.
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Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)
Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)
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
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Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582)
Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582)
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. Augustine’s 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 history’s great authorities on mysticism.
Gillian T. W. Ahlgren, Teresa of Avila and the Politics of Sanctity (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996).
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