Saint Teresa was born in Avila, Spain, March 28, 1515. She died in Alba, October 4, 1582, at the age of 67, which was quite long in that day. Her family origins have been traced to Toledo and Olmedo. Her father, Alonso de Cepeda, was a son of a Toledan merchant, Juan Sanchez de Toledo and Ines de Cepeda, originally from Tordesillas. Juan transferred his business to Avila, where he succeeded in having his children marry into families of the nobility. In 1505 Alonso married Catalina del Peso, who bore him two children and died in 1507. Two years later Alonso married the 15-year-old Beatriz de Ahumada of whom Teresa was born.
Early Life. In 1528, when Teresa was 15, her mother died, leaving behind 10 children. Teresa was the “most beloved of them all.” She was of medium height, large rather than small, and generally well proportioned. In her youth she had the reputation of being quite beautiful, and she retained her fine appearance until her last years (Maria de S. Jose, Libro de recreaciones, 8). Her personality was extroverted, her manner affectionately buoyant, and she had the ability to adapt herself easily to all kinds of persons and circumstances. She was skillful in the use of the pen, in needlework, and in household duties. Her courage and enthusiasm were readily kindled, an early example of which trait occurred when at the age of 7 she left home with her brother Rodrigo with the intention of going to Moorish territory to be beheaded for Christ, but they were frustrated by their uncle, who met the children as they were leaving the city and brought them home (Ephrem de la Madre de Dios, Tiempo y Vida de Sta. Teresa–hereafter abbrev. TV–142-143).
At about 12 the fervor of her piety waned somewhat. She began to take an interest in the development of her natural attractions and in books of chivalry. Her affections were directed especially to her cousins, the Mejias, children of her aunt Dona Elvira, and she gave some thought to marriage. Her father was disturbed by these fancies and opposed them. While she was in this crisis, her mother died. Afflicted and lonely, Teresa appealed to the Blessed Virgin to be her mother. Seeing his daughter’s need of prudent guidance, her father entrusted her to the Augustinian nuns at Santa Maria de Gracia in 1531.
Vocation. The influence of Dona Maria de Brinceno, who was in charge of the lay students at the convent school, helped Teresa to recover her piety. She began to wonder whether she had a vocation to be a nun. Toward the end of the year 1532 she returned home to regain her health and stayed with her sister, who lived in Castellanos. Reading the letters of St. Jerome led her to the decision to enter a convent, but her father refused to give his consent. Her brother and confidant, Rodrigo, had just set sail for the war on the Rio de la Plata. She decided to run away from home and persuaded another brother to flee with her in order that both might receive the religious habit. On Nov. 2, 1535, she entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation at Avila, where she had a friend, Juana Suarez; and her father resigned himself to this development. The following year she received the habit and began wholeheartedly to give herself to prayer and penance. Shortly after her profession she became seriously ill and failed to respond to medical treatment. As a last resort her father took her to Becedas, a small village, to seek the help of a woman healer famous throughout Castile, but Teresa’s health did not improve. Leaving Becedas in the fall of 1538, she stayed in Hortigosa at the home of her uncle Pedro de Cepeda, who gave her the “The Spiritual Alphabet” by Francis of Osuna to read.
“I did not know,” she said, “how to proceed in prayer or how to become recollected, and so I took much pleasure in it and decided to follow that path with all my strength” (Libro de la Vida, the autobiography of St. Teresa–hereafter abbrev. V–4.6).
Instead of regaining her health, Teresa grew even more ill, and her father brought her back to Avila in July 1539. On August 15 she fell into a coma so profound that she was thought to be dead. After 4 days she revived, but she remained paralyzed in her legs for 3 years. After her cure, which she attributed to St. Joseph (V. 6.6-8), she entered a period of mediocrity in her spiritual life, but she did not at any time give up praying. Her trouble came of not understanding that the use of the imagination could be dispensed with and that her soul could give itself directly to contemplation. During this stage, which lasted 18 years, she had transitory mystical experiences. She was held back by a strong desire to be appreciated by others, but this finally left her in an experience of conversion in the presence of an image of “the sorely wounded Christ” (V 9.2). This conversion dislodged the egoism that had hindered her spiritual development. Thus, at the age of 39, she began to enjoy a vivid experience of God’s presence within her.
However, the contrast between these favors and her conduct, which was more relaxed than was thought proper according to the ascetical standards of the time, caused some misunderstanding. Some of her friends, such as Francisco de Salcedo and Gaspar Daza, thought her favors were the work of the devil (V 23.14). Diego de Cetina, SJ, brought her comfort by encouraging her to continue in mental prayer and to think upon the humanity of Christ. Francis Borgia in 1555 heard her confession and told her that the spirit of God was working in her, that she should concentrate upon Christ’s Passion and not resist the ecstatic experience that came to her in prayer. Nevertheless she had to endure the distrust even of her friends as the divine favors increased. When Pradanos left Avila in 1558 his place as Teresa’s director was taken by Baltasar Alvarez, SJ, who, either from caution or with the intention of probing her spirit, caused her great distress by telling her that others were convinced that her raptures and visions were the work of the devil and that she should not communicate so often (V 25.4). Another priest acting temporarily as her confessor, on hearing her report of a vision she had repeatedly had of Christ, told her it was clearly the devil and commanded her to make the sign of the cross and laugh at the vision (V 29.5). But God did not fail to comfort her, and she received the favor of the transverberation (V 29.13-14). In August 1560 St. Peter of Alcantara counseled her: “Keep on as you are doing, daughter; we all suffer such trials.”
Reformer. Her great work of reform began with herself. She made a vow always to follow the more perfect course, and resolved to keep the rule as perfectly as she could (V 32.9). However, the atmosphere prevailing at the Incarnation monastery was less than favorable to the more perfect type of life to which Teresa aspired. A group assembled in her cell one September evening in 1560, taking their inspiration from the primitive tradition of Carmel and the discalced reform of St. Peter of Alcantara, proposed the foundation of a monastery of an eremitical type. At first her confessor, the provincial of the Carmelites, and other advisers encouraged her in the plan (TV 478-482); but when the proposal became known among the townsfolk, there was a great outcry against it. The provincial changed his mind, her confessor dissociated himself from the project, and her advisers ranged themselves with the opposition. Six months later, however, when there was a change of rectors at the Jesuit college, her confessor, Father Alvarez, gave his approval. Without delay Teresa had her sister Juana and her husband Juan de Ovalle buy a house in Avila and occupy it as though it were for themselves (V 33.11). This stratagem was necessary to obviate difficulties with nuns at the Incarnation while the building was being adapted and made ready to serve as a convent. At Toledo, where she was sent by the Carmelite provincial at the importunate request of a wealthy and noble lady, she received a visit from St. Peter of Alcantara, who offered to act as mediator in obtaining from Rome the permissions needed for the foundation. While there she also received a visit from the holy Carmelite Maria de Yepes, who had just returned from Rome with permission to establish a reformed convent and who provided Teresa with a new light on the question of the type of poverty to be adopted by her own community. At Toledo she also completed in reluctant obedience to her confessor the first version of her Vida.
She returned to Avila at the end of June 1562 (TV 506-507), and shortly thereafter the apostolic rescript, dated Feb. 7, 1562, for the foundation of the new convent arrived. The following August 24 the new monastery dedicated to S. Jose was founded; Maestro Daza, the bishop’s delegate, officiated at the ceremony. Four novices received the habit of the Discalced Carmelites. There was strong opposition among the townspeople and at the Incarnation. The prioress at the Incarnation summoned Teresa back to her monastery, where the Carmelite provincial Angel de Salazar, indignant at her having put her new establishment under the jurisdiction of the bishop, rebuked her, but after hearing her account of things, was mollified and even promised to help quiet the popular disturbance and to give her permission to return to St. Jose when calm had been restored. On August 25 the council at Avila met to discuss the matter of the new foundation, and on August 30 a great assembly of the leading townspeople gathered. The only one in the assembly to raise his voice against the popular indignation was Domingo Banez, OP. A lawsuit followed in the royal court, but before the end of 1562 the foundress, as Teresa of Jesus, was authorized by the provincial to return to the new convent. There followed the 5 most peaceful years of her life, during which she wrote the Way of Perfection and the Meditations on the Canticle.
Foundations. In April 1567 the Carmelite general, Giovanni Battista Rossi (Rubeo), made a visitation, approved Teresa’s work, and commanded her to establish other convents with some of the nuns from the convent of the Incarnation at Avila. He also gave her permission to establish two houses for men who wished to adopt the reform. The extension of Teresa’s work began with the foundation of a convent at Medina del Campo, Aug. 15, 1567. Then followed other foundations: at Malagon in 1568; at Valladolid (Rio de Olinos) in 1568; at Toledo and at Pastrana in 1569; at Salamanca in 1570; and at Alba de Tormes in 1571. As she journeyed to Toledo in 1569 she passed through Duruelo, where John of the Cross and Anthony of Jesus had established the first convent of Discalced Brethren in November 1568, and in July 1569 she established the second monastery of Discalced Brethren in Pastrana.
I will inject here how St. John became a co-founder with St. Teresa of the Discalced Carmelite monasteries for the monks and friars. “In 1567 his visit to Medina was the occasion for his fateful meeting with Madre Teresa of Jesus, who was in the city arranging the final details of her second foundation of a community of nuns professing the Carmelite life in the reform which she had begun. She was at the time considering the extension of her strict Reform to the friars. When a young student from the University of Salamanca suggested Fray John as a possible prospect to help her in this new field of endeavor, she immediately arranged for an interview with him. She was fifty-two at this time, and he was twenty-five. Fray Juan told her in confidence about his longing to transfer to the Carthusian Order for the sake of embracing a life of deeper solitude and prayer. The holy Madre pointed out to him him that he could find this without leaving ‘Our Lady’s Order,” and spoke of her plan to restore the Primitive Rule for the friars of the Mitigation. Showing interest, Fray John promised to adopt this life within the Order, but only on the condition that he would not have too long a wait. The following summer, after finishing his studies in theology, he was appointed assistant professor at the Monastery of Santa Ana in Medina. By that time Madre Teresa had returned to the city and was able to tell him about the small farmhouse in Duruelo which had been offered her and which might prove adequate for the first monastery of the Reform among the friars. Fray John had long interviews with Madre Teresa to learn about the new form of life he had decided to take up. In order that he familiarize himself further with details of the Reform by observing firsthand the daily routine of the nuns, it was decided that he accompany Madre Teresa to the new foundation in Valladolid as confessor and chaplain to the the new community. He remained in Valladolid from August 10 until October 1, when Madre Teresa, fully satisfied with the training of her novice, sent him to Duruelo to adapt the farmhouse according to her plan and direction. Fray John made the journey to Duruelo with a young man aspiring to be a lay brother in the new Reform. By the end of November they had converted this little house with its porch, main room, alcove, and small kitchen into the first monastery of the friars of the Reform. Besides Fray John and the prospective lay brother, three others decided to embrace this new mode of life within the Carmelite Order; one of these was sixty-six-years-old Fray Antonio de Heredia, the former Prior of the monastery of Medina. On the first Sunday of Advent, November 28,1568, the Father Provincial said Mass and then received the renunciation of the Mitigated Rule from the little community and their profession of the Primitive Rule. Fray Juan de Santo Matia at the time changed his name to Fray John of the Cross.”
Complete studies can be found in “The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross,” Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., ICS Publication, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C.
These foundations were followed by an interval during which Teresa served as prioress at the Incarnation monastery in Avila, an office to which she was appointed by the apostolic visitator, Pedro Fernandez, OP. This duty she was loath to assume, and she had much opposition to face on the part of the community. However, with the help of St. John of the Cross, who served as a confessor for the nuns, she was able to bring about a great improvement in the spiritual condition of the community. On Nov. 18, 1572, while receiving Communion from the hands of John of the Cross, she received the favor of the “spiritual marriage.” At the request of the Duchess of Alba she spent the first days of 1573 in Alba, and then went to Salamanca to put things in order at the foundation there. At the command of Jerome Ripalda, SJ, she started her Book of the Foundations the following August. On March 19, 1574, she established a foundation at Segovia, where the Pastrana nuns had been transferred because of conflicts with the Princess of Eboli. This marked the beginning of a second series of foundations. The next was made at Beas de Segura in February 1575. There Teresa met Jerome Gratian, apostolic visitator of the order in Andalucia, who ordered a foundation in Seville. The bishop objected, however, and Teresa sent Ana de S. Alberto to Caravaca to make a foundation there in her name on Jan. 1, 1576, and that of the Seville convent was delayed until June 3 of the same year.
Crisis Between the Calced and Discalced. The entry of the Discalced Brethren into Andalusia was forbidden by Rossi, the general of the order, who opposed Teresa and Jerome Gratian in this matter. The general chapter at Piacenza in 1575 ordered the Discalced Brethren to withdraw from Andalusia, and Teresa herself was ordered to retire to a convent. The general put Jerome Tostado at the head of the Discalced Brethren. While the conflict raged between the Calced and Discalced Brethren, Teresa wrote the Visitation of the Discalced Nuns, a part of The Foundations, and her greatest book, The Interior Castle. The nuncio Nicholas Ormaneto, a defender of the Discalced Brethren, died June 18, 1578, and his successor, Felipe Sega, was less favorably disposed toward them. John of the Cross was imprisoned in Toledo. Against Teresa’s will the Discalced Brethren held a chapter in Almodovar on Oct. 9, 1578. The nuncio annulled the chapter and by a decree put the Discalced Brethren under the authority of the Calced provincials who subjected them to some harassment. The King intervened, and four were named to advise the nuncio, among them Pedro Fernandez, OP. Angel de Salazar was made vicar-general of the Discalced Brethren while negotiations were afoot for the separation of the Discalced from the Calced Brethren and the erection of a Discalced province. Teresa then turned to visiting her convents and resumed the founding of new ones. On Feb. 25, 1580, she gave the habit to foundresses of the convent in Villaneuva de la Jara. The brief Pia consideratione, dated June 22, 1580, ordered the erection of a distinct province for the Discalced. On March 3, 1581, the chapter of the Discalced was held in Alcala, and Jerome Gratian, who was favored by Teresa, was elected the first provincial. Teresa’s last foundations were: at Palencia and Soria in 1581, at Burgos in 1582; the most difficult of all, Granada (1582), was entrusted to the Venerable Anne of Jesus.
Teresa’s body was interred in Alba. Paul V declared her a blessed April 24, 1614, and in 1617 the Spanish parliament proclaimed her the Patroness of Spain. Gregory XV canonized her in 1622 together with SS. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Isidore, and Philip Neri.
Spiritual Doctrine. Among the writings of St. Teresa, three can be indicated as the depositories of her spiritual teaching: her Autobiography, the Way of Perfection, and the Interior Castle. Readers must exercise some caution, however, and resist the temptation to hastily synthesize the doctrine in these books, because St. Teresa wrote from her personal experience at different stages of the spiritual life. For example, the doctrine of prayer found in the autobiography is not identical with that in the Interior Castle; more than a decade had elapsed between their composition, and Teresa had meanwhile attained a higher degree of spiritual maturity with its simultaneous expansion of experience. The autobiography, written primarily as a manifestation of her spiritual state for her directors, was later enlarged in scope and in audience. Chapters 11 to 22 inclusive–a later addition–are devoted exclusively to the discussion of prayer, although additional comments and examples are scattered throughout the remaining 28 chapters. Teresa depicts different stages of the life of prayer in metaphorical terms taken from the manner of securing water to irrigate a garden. The “first water” is laboriously obtained from a well and carried in a bucket to the garden; this is in reference to beginners who, liberated from the more flagrant mortal sins, apply themselves to discursive prayer of meditation, although they experience fatigue and aridity from time to time. After speaking at length of meditation in its stricter meaning, Teresa made a brief reference to “acquired” contemplation before beginning her discussion of the “second water.” In this second stage, the gardener secures water through use of a windlass and bucket; here Teresa refers to the “prayer of quiet, a gift of God through which the individual begins to have a passive experience of prayer. The third method of irrigation is the employment of water from a stream or river; the application made by Teresa is to the “sleep of the faculties.” Although Teresa considered this an important stage in the evolution of prayer when she wrote her autobiography, she later relegated it to a simple intensification of the “prayer of quiet” in the Interior Castle. The fourth method of irrigation is God given: the rain; Teresa employs this metaphor to describe a state of union in prayer in which the soul is apparently passive.
Her Way of Perfection Teresa addressed to her nuns, teaching them therein the major virtues that demand their solicitude, casting further light on the practice of prayer, and using the Pater Noster as a vehicle for teaching prayer at greater depth. This book is sometimes referred to as the apex of Teresa’s ascetical doctrine. The Interior Castle is the principal source of mature Teresian thought on the spiritual life in its integrity. Chief emphasis is laid on the life of prayer, but other elements (the apostolate, for example) are also treated. The interior castle is the soul, in the center of which dwells the Trinity. Growth in prayer enables the individual to enter into deeper intimacy with God–signified by a progressive journey through the apartments (or mansions) of the castle from the outermost to the luminous center. When a man has attained union with God in the degree permitted to him in this world, he is “at the center” of himself; in other words, he has integrity as a child of God and as a human being. Each of the apartments of the castle is distinguished by a different stage in the evolution of prayer, with its consequent effects upon every other phase of the life of the individual.
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Complete studies can be found in “The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila,” Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C.