Saint Theresa

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St. Theresa

The Spanish nun St. Theresa (1515-1582) was the reformer of the Carmelite order and one of the most important mystical writers of all times.

St. Theresa, originally Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, was born on March 28, 1515, to a gentry family of Ávila. After some local schooling she entered the Á vila Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in 1536. In those days the rule of Carmel was no longer the primitive one of 1248. In the Ávila convent even the mitigated version was not strictly observed, and a number of disciplinary problems existed. About 1556 Theresa was converted to a more ardent spiritual life and started making plans for the foundation of a convent under the primitive rule. After a great deal of opposition she succeeded, and in 1562 the new Ávila Convent of St. Joseph was opened.

The Reformer

The reform movement of the Discalced Carmelites expanded rapidly, and within 9 years Theresa had founded 11 new convents. Theresa herself wrote down the epic of her travels and trials in The Book of the Foundations. Meanwhile she had also started reforming the monasteries for men. The first friar to follow her in this venture was Juan de Yepes, later known as St. John of the Cross. When, in 1571, Theresa returned as prioress to her old Convent of the Incarnation, she brought him with her as her spiritual assistant and as confessor of the nuns.

After 3 years Theresa returned to St. Joseph's. The following period was marked by incredible hardship mainly resulting from the opposition of the unreformed, or Calced, Carmelites. Their resistance reached a climax after the appointment of Fray Gracian as apostolic visitor of the Calced in Andalusia. Gracian's tactless manner led to the closure of all Discalced houses in Andalusia. During this period John was twice abducted and imprisoned in an unreformed house. The Discalced were completely reintegrated with the Calced, and the reform was virtually abolished. Only the intervention of the King revived the movement, and finally, in 1580, Pope Gregory XIII erected the Discalced monasteries into a new province. Fray Gracian was elected provincial.

After Theresa's death at Alba on Oct. 15, 1582, her new order passed through an equally difficult period of internal trouble during which the new provincial, Doria, even attempted to abolish her constitutions. Theresa was canonized in 1622 and pronounced a Doctor of the Church in 1970.

Her Writings

In spite of this constant turmoil Theresa had steadily developed her spiritual life. The mystical graces which she had received early in her active career never left her. Her written works have a strongly autobiographical character. They are for the most part written in a nontechnical, vivid language. Although they all describe the soul's progress in the mystical life, it is not easy to obtain a coherent picture out of the various descriptions written at different periods in her life. Her first work, which is also the best to introduce a reader to her thought, is her spiritual autobiography, her Life. It covers only the first 50 years of her life, and the first draft of it was written while she was still at the Convent of the Incarnation in Ávila. The Book of the Foundations continues this biography throughout the various journeys which she made to found new monasteries.

Between the Life and the final chapters of the Foundations lie all of Theresa's other works, most important of which is The Mansions of the Interior Castle (1577). In this book the soul is compared to an interior castle that contains many mansions. The spiritual movement goes from the outside to the inner apartment, in which God himself lives. The mystical state begins at the fourth mansion, described as a passive recollection in which the soul abandons all mental activity in prayer. The next three mansions all describe the unitive life of prayer. Also important for the study of spiritual development are The Way of Perfection (1565-1566) and Conceptions of the Love of God (1571-1574).

Further Reading

E. Allison Peers translated The Complete Works of St. Teresa of Jesus (3 vols., 1946); the Letters of St. Teresa was translated by the Benedictines of Stanbrook (4 vols., 1919-1924). Two modern biographies stand out: E. Allison Peers, Mother of Carmel (1946), and, strongly psychological, Marcelle Auclair, Teresa of Avila, translated by Kathleen Pond (1953). For interpretations of St. Theresa's work consult E. Allison Peers, Studies in the Spanish Mystics (3 vols., 1927-1960), and E. W. Trueman Dicken, The Crucible of Love (1963). □

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Saint Theresa (Theresa of Ávila) (both: tĬrē´sə, –zə), 1515–82, Spanish Carmelite nun, Doctor of the Church, one of the principal saints of the Roman Catholic Church, one of the greatest mystics, and a leading figure in the Counter Reformation.


Her original name was Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, and her chosen name as a nun was Theresa of Jesus. She came of a well-to-do noble family. She entered the Carmelite order (possibly in 1536). Much later she underwent (c.1555) a "second conversion," after which she experienced mystic visions. She had entertained a desire to found a house of reformed Carmelites (the Discalced, or Barefoot, Carmelites, living in strict observance of the rule) long before she had the opportunity in 1562 to found the Convent of St. Joseph in Ávila. Other foundations were made, and in the busy years that followed she traveled much to the various houses. She also founded convents of friars, having as her collaborator another great mystic, St. John of the Cross.

St. Theresa combined intense practicality with the most rarefied spirituality. She was an excellent and tireless manager, waging a long and ultimately successful struggle with other branches of the clergy to have the Discalced Carmelites separated from the older order and eventually founding 17 convents. The reawakening of religious fervor that she brought about in Spain was astonishing. Soon after her death the movement spread beyond Spain and across Christendom, having a profound effect on the Counter Reformation. She brought mysticism and its fruits to the common person. She was canonized in 1622. Feast: Oct. 15.

Literary Works

The writings of St. Theresa have gained a steadily widening audience from the 16th cent. to the present. In 1970 Pope Paul VI named St. Theresa a Doctor of the Church; she was the first woman so honored. The Castilian in which St. Theresa wrote stems from common speech, and the imagery is rich but simple. Candor and overflowing spiritual strength lend a greater beauty to the sometimes terse, sometimes discursive expressions. Her works were dominated by love of God and characterized by humor, intelligence, and common sense.

The Life (written 1562–65) is a spiritual autobiography written for her confessors and containing not only the record of her progress in mysticism but also short treatises on prayer and vision; editions usually include the supplementary Relations, short pieces written for the same purpose as the Life. Her Way of Perfection was written after 1565 to supply her nuns worthy instruction on prayer; it is still found very useful by the religious and by layreaders. In Interior Castle (written in 1577) she gives a glowing and powerful picture of the contemplative life. The Foundations (written 1573–82) is an account of the launching of her order.

Her letters—brisk, vigorous, full of wisdom and humor—are much loved. She also wrote shorter pieces—Exclamations of the Soul to God (1569), rhapsodic meditations; a commentary on the mystic significance of the Song of Solomon; the Constitutions, for the Discalced Carmelite nuns; and Method for the Visitation of Convents of Discalced Nuns. There have been several translations of her writings, including E. Allison Peers (3 vol., 1957).


See biographies by H. A. Hatzfeld (1969), E. A. Peers (1945, repr. 1973), and C. Medwick (1999); studies by E. W. T. Dickens (1963) and R. T. Petersson (1970).