On 15 October we celebrate the solemnity of St Teresa of Jesus (of Avila), Doctor of the Church, the great 16thCentury Carmelite reformer and the founder of our way of life as Discalced Carmelite nuns.
Teresa lived from 1515 to 1582, a time of great social, political and religious upheaval both in her native Spain and beyond its borders. The turmoil she lived through makes her very relevant for our own times. Teresa saw a suffering and divided Church, a Church in crisis, under attack from various quarters. She worried that some priests were tempted by a materialistic lifestyle or simply lacking in fervour. She was concerned that many people were turning away from Christ, while others were denied the opportunity of knowing him. She saw a society preoccupied with wealth, success and status, gradually becoming detached from any sense of relationship with God. The wealth entering Spain from the Latin Conquest emphasised an unjust and widening gap between rich and poor. Teresa’s response was to do the ‘little in her power’ which, with God’s grace, turned out to be a great deal.
Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada was born in 1515 in Avila, in the Castille region of central Spain into a large and wealthy family of the merchant class. Teresa’s mother, her father’s second wife, died when Teresa was about 14 years old. Obviously, this loss affected Teresa greatly and she had a difficult adolescence. Her father became concerned and placed her in a convent boarding school run by Augustinian nuns. Teresa was happy there and began to be attracted to a life of prayer, inspired by the example of the nuns.
She entered the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation in Avila in 1535. It was a large convent of over 150 nuns which was poorly managed. There simply was not enough food to go around. The social conventions of the time meant that the nuns lived according to their social class, so some had suites of rooms with their own servants while others went hungry. Enclosure was not observed so the nuns could spend a great deal of time away from the convent as well as having friends and relatives visit them in their own quarters. None of this was unusual for its time but Teresa came to realise that these conditions were not conducive to a life of prayer.
One day in the late 1550s she and some cousins were talking about a new venture of some Franciscans in Spain, who were trying to return more authentically to the original way of life St Francis and St Clare. This community called themselves ‘discalced’, meaning barefoot. Teresa and her friends were inspired and wondered if something similar could be done for the Carmelites. In prayer, Teresa felt that Christ was calling her to do just this and she received assurance that the project would be successful. Her vision was to return to the simplicity of the original Carmelite Rule, which was written for hermits living on Mount Carmel in Palestine. They lived in caves, spending their time in solitary prayer and work, but they would come together for Mass and the Divine Office, and for meetings where they would discuss their spiritual life. Teresa wanted to found a smaller community, based on the original Carmelite inspiration of the hermit life within the support of a loving community of Sisters, who would live as equals regardless of their social standing. In 1562 after overcoming many obstacles she did found a smaller monastery in Avila dedicated to St Joseph. After some years she went on to found another 13 monasteries in Spain personally. There are now over 800 discalced Carmelite monasteries throughout the world. Teresa also reformed the male branch of the Carmelite order, with the permission of the Prior General Fr John Baptist Rossi and with St John of the Cross as one of the first friars to embrace the reform.
Teresa is a well known mystic and teacher of prayer. She wrote at a time when it was not only unusual but dangerous for a woman to teach. She was well aware that anything she wrote about prayer would come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition. However, won over by her natural charm and obvious humility, many theologians and bishops came to accept the authenticity of her mystical experiences and to support her in her work of reform.
Teresa did not teach a single way of prayer but emphasised that God leads each person by a different path. For those who have difficulty finding their path, she always pointed to Christ, who will show the way. She had a great devotion to the humanity of Christ and saw prayer as “an intimate sharing between friends.” Teresa was also deeply practical, and stressed that a life of prayer is meaningless if it does not flow out into caring for others.
St Teresa wrote four major books: Her own autobiography, known as the Life is one of the earliest known books written in the modern Spanish vernacular. The Way of Perfection is a book on prayer written for Teresa’s own nuns, which also sets out the purpose and spirituality of her reform. It contains a beautiful commentary on the Our Father and much important teaching on prayer. The Interior Castle which was written some ten years later is considered her masterpiece on prayer. The Book of the Foundations recounts Teresa’s work of reform. It is probably the least read and least well known of her major writings but it gives us the best glimpse of her personality and of the day-to-day problems she faced and overcame through her great trust in God.
Teresa was also a prolific letter writer and thankfully we have a lot of surviving letters which demonstrate her great capacity for friendship, loving concern for others, practicality, wisdom and a wonderful sense of humour.
Teresa was beatified in 1614 and canonised in 1622. In 1970, Pope St Paul VI proclaimed her a Doctor of the Church. Along with St Catherine of Siena, Teresa was one of the first women to be given this title.
More about St Teresa of Avila: