Prologue:

Teresa’s paternal grandfather was a converso, a person of the Jewish faith who, during the Inquisition, converted to Christianity under the pressure from the Spanish courts and the Catholic church. Spain at that time had an obsession with pure blood lines and pure race. Many of these conversos continued to secretly practice Judaism in their homes, an extremely dangerous activity.

In 1485 the Tribunal of the Inquisition offered a pardon to all those who confessed to their judaizing. That year her grandfather and his sons (one, Alonso, would become Teresa’s father) were “reconciled” to the church in an auto-da-fe that required them to go barefoot through the streets of Toledo wearing infamous yellow sambenitos. Afterwards the sambenitos inscribed with the disgraced family names were hung in the parish churches. (p.8, Teresa of Avila: The Rhetoric of Feminity, Alison Weber, 1990)

Some Spanish Jews fled to Italy. My own genetic memory as an Italian Jew joins my internal narrative.

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In 1491, only 24 years before Teresa’s birth, at one of the central market places, a group of Toledan Jews had to confess under torture to the gruesome murder of a Christian child. They were burned at the stake.



Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), by Juan de la Miseria

1515-1582

Teresa of Avila was one of the greatest mystics and reformers of the Catholic Church during 16th century Spain. Her writings are valued as major contributions to mystical and devotional literature and as masterpieces of Spanish prose.

Teresa was born in Castille, Spain, in 1515. She came from a well known and well respected family who were in the commerce business. As with Clare and Hildegard, the families of wealth and prestige had a close relationship with the church, each supporting the other’s efforts for political and economic survival.

At 13, after her mother died and her sister had married, her father decided to send Teresa for her education to the Augustinian nuns at Avila. However because of serious illness she left at the end of eighteen months. She was home for a few years and remained with her father and occasionally with other relatives.

This is where she found herself. She could marry and have many children as her mother did (nine in all before she died at thirty three), or she could enter a cloistered convent with her own large dowry, and have a social life within the convent. Perhaps she could lead a reform for prayer, silence, penitence. You can guess which route she chose.

She visited and lived with various relatives whose libraries were filled with books of particular importance to her. She became acquainted with the Letters of St. Jerome, and these greatly influenced her decision to lead a religious life. She begged her father to let her enter the convent.

In 1535, at 21, unable to obtain her father’s consent, Teresa secretly left his house to enter the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation at Avila, which had about 140 nuns. Teresa described this unapproved separation from her family as causing her considerable pain throughout her lifetime.

Contrast this with the life of choices of Teresa’s brothers and his friends who were encouraged and free to travel to the Indies, as conquistadores, “fighting for the glory of the faith” and coming home with wealth and power. (p.24, Medwick.)

Her father gave in to Teresa’s determination to join the convent and provided a dowry that was expected. He supplied the convent with a year of grains, bedding, books and gifts for the other nuns, and fine linens and woolens. Teresa got two black habits, three underskirts, a sheepskin cloak, veils, underwear and shoes. After a year she would be able to keep her title of Dona Teresa, and would be given a suite of her own on two levels with a connecting staircase, guest room and private oratory. (p.24, Medwick)

During this time, and often at other times in her life, she described and felt herself to be a difficult case. In a culture that made a virtue of self-punishment, it was not a question of whether she should castigate herself but of how much. She wore a painful hair shirt and tied nettles to her wrists. At that time in her life, she wanted to experience illness and pain as a way to be worthy of God.

In 1554 or -55, when she was 40, she had already been seriously ill and she was practicing increasingly rigorous religious exercises. One day she was praying in the cloister oratory and experienced a profound awakening. She reported a remarkable vision known as the “transverberation of her heart,” involving visions of Jesus Christ, hell, angels, and demons; at times she felt such sharp pains that she said were caused by the tip of an angel’s lance piercing her heart. This event profoundly affected her life and she moved into a new relationship with God.

There were many occasions when Teresa experienced an ecstasy, or rapture, which mystics describe as an eruption of the sacred into everyday life. Sometimes she dropped to the floor and was frozen in position for hours, unable to speak. Other times she conversed directly with God. (Medwick 1X)

Growing increasingly disillusioned with her own Carmelite order, Teresa felt compelled to launch a reform movement with Carmelite nuns who would follow a more austere rule. Her plans met with stiff resistance from a number of sources, including the city of Avila.

Finally, she found support from the Jesuits, particularly her father confessor. Through papal intervention on her behalf, she overcame the bitter opposition of her immediate ecclesiastical superiors and in 1562 succeeded in founding at Ávila the Convent of St. Joseph, a new branch of the Carmelite Order, the Reformed or Discalced Carmelite nuns.


Teresa’s walled city of Avila

“Discalced” comes from the Latin word meaning “unshod.” They were so called because the most distinctive thing about their appearance was the fact that, because of their more austere way of life, they wore the rope sandals of the poor in place of leather shoes.

Teresa enforced strict observance of the original, severe Carmelite rules at the convent. Her reforms won the approval of the head of the order, and in 1567 she was authorized to establish similar religious houses for men as well.

A reformer’s life is not easy. Teresa experienced extreme opposition as a reformer. Her reform was a break with the traditional system that bounded religious orders to ruling elites through a system of endowed champlaincies (1. an ecclesiastic associated with the chapel of a royal court, college, or military unit. 2. a person who says the prayer, invocation, for an organization or at an assembly.).

The wealthiest families paid for religious festivals, which were frequent. This won them social and political prestige and a chance at eternal bliss. Masses were sometimes said by the sisters around the clock for those who died. These were the kinds of demands placed on the nuns. Teresa often had to deal with the wealthy and many of them were her friends.

But she insisted on founding her own convents in poverty, that is without an endowment, in order to give the nuns detachment from the demands of the secular elite and, in particular, the freedom to practice contemplative prayer as opposed to vocal prayers chanted for the souls of the benefactors. (p.124, Alison Weber)

There was a general suspicion of contemplative prayer, and of founding convents where women would be encouraged in this practice. There was, at one point, division between Teresa’s own order and rivalry with others. In 1576, the leader of the Carmelites turned against the Discalced convents and for about four years, her work was stopped and she was virtually a prisoner at the convent in Toledo.

Teresa was almost fifty when she began to write her first book, La Vida, The Book of Her Life. She had been experiencing a steady flow of mystical grace for about ten years and she was obliged to put into writing her unusual and sometimes disconcerting experiences and to submit it to the church authorities. She was not well received at first. Her confessors were not prepared to deal with her experiences. They insisted that she go from one person to another, both Jesuit and Dominican. Then they asked for more and more of her details in writing. (Kavanagh, p.35) They questioned whether her thoughts and visions were from God or the devil.

Teresa’s visions placed her life in jeopardy. The writing of her first book, La Vida, terrified her. The Spanish Inquisition was in full swing when word of her raptures were becoming known. In her writing she had to show that her visions were from God and not the devil. In 1546, the Inquisition instigated an investigation of Magdalena de La Cruz, another nun, known widely for her prophesies and stigmata. Magdalena de la Cruz (1487-1560) was a Franciscan nun of Córdoba in Spain, who for many years was honored as a saint. Falling dangerously ill in 1543, Magdalena, whether in a state of delirium or not, confessed to hypocrisy, ascribing most of the marvels to the action of demons by which she was possessed, but maintaining their reality. She was sentenced by the Inquisition, in an auto-da-fé at Córdoba in 1546, to perpetual imprisonment in an abbey of her order. Another book says that she was burned at the stake. Into which category would Teresa’s mystical experiences and writings be placed? With God or the devil?

In 1560, she wrote about her spiritual state and manner of prayer. “My present procedure in prayer is as follows: I am seldom able while in prayer to use my intellect in a discursive way, for my soul immediately begins to grow recollected; and it remains in quiet or rapture to the extent that I cannot make any use of the senses. This recollection reaches such a point that if it were not for hearing—and this hearing does not include understanding—none of the senses would be of any avail.” (The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D, 1995)

(Auto-da-fé: a public announcement of the sentences imposed by the Inquisition. And the the public execution of those sentences by secular authorities, especially by burning at the stake.)

Finally, Teresa sought and found approval from Pope Paul IV. Her convent was to be small, with about thirteen women. And in 1562, the resolute nun founded the convent of Discalced (“barefoot”) Carmelite Nuns. She was over time encouraged in her work and given permission to form other houses of the Discalced Carmelites, not only for nuns, but for monks as well.

It was not easy as a woman to have visions and to have God speak to her, especially during the Inquisition, when everything and everyone was suspect and many were put to death. Finally, with the backing of Philip II, she managed to escape the Inquisition, and spent the remainder of her life establishing new convents all over Spain. She wrote La Vida because she was required to explain her experiences to her confessor and the church. However, at one point the Inquisition appropriated her book.

We can imagine her in a covered donkey cart with wooden wheels, staying at dirty inns, and forced to rely on guides along the way whom she did not know. Incredibly Teresa founded 17 Carmelite orders which were scattered across the length of Spain, and these were separated by steep mountains with very rugged and irregular roads.

In her autobiography it must have taken her much courage to write, “without doubt I fear those who have such great fear of the devil, more than I do the devil himself.” (Life 25.22) (p.157, Enduring Grace, Carol Lee Flinders)

In the second book, The Way of Perfection, written after 1565, she had the problem of writing for two audiences, the Church and her sisters. The church had already confiscated La Vida. She had done many revisions of her writing. Some sections were crossed out by the church and others were of her own editing.

Fifteen years later, after her first two books, when she was 62, she wrote The Interior Castle (1577). The Interior Castle had few revisions compared with the other two books perhaps because of the many internal struggles at the convent and her own illnesses. It is a beautiful and eloquent description of the contemplative life which was more formal than the other two, and The Foundations (1573-82), an account of the origins of the 16 Discalced convents. English translations of her writings appeared finally in 1946. And like the Clare I worked with, it was always Teresa’s conviction that contemplation should lead to action, not lethargy.

“Consider our soul to be like a castle made entirely out of a diamond or a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms.” Flinders 187

There is no doubt that she used many writing strategies to deal with these various mazes through which she was moving. She wrote about the profound personal experience of prayer, and how to help her sisters go about this. She wrote about her grasp of prayer and the journey inward, and the stages of contemplative prayer. It came under close scrutiny because she was teaching about private prayer, as opposed to communal prayer.

And as Clare did, Teresa wrote her own rule called the Constitutions, and it had the same respect for her sisters and their vocation as Clare of Assisi’s rule did.

“The important thing is not to think much but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you in love.” Interior Castle 4-1.7

In addition, she wrote many letters, poems and ballads, and co-authored a novel. (p.123, Teresa of Avila, Alison Weber.)

The last fifteen years of her life, despite illness, she traveled continuously and with opposition from both civic and ecclesiastic authorities. Her poor health kept declining over the years. When she was 62, her physician wrote that she had rheumatoid arthritis, a weak heart, terrible stomach problems and quatan fever—a form of malaria. Also, she had to have reset a broken shoulder poorly set, done again, throat cancer and an uncomfortable flowing sensation in her head. (p.175, Flinders, Enduring Grace)

In spite of a frail body beset by continuing bouts of illness, the ailing Teresa at 67 had traveled to a convent at the request and insistence of one of her patrons, the duchess of Alba, whose daughter-in-law was to give birth. The event was enhanced by Teresa’s presence but her sisters there knew that she was mortally ill. Teresa died in 1582 at 67 in Alba de Tormes.

It has been recorded by others that at her death an inexplicably sweet scent permeated the convent—and a beautiful light filled the room and someone saw a dove fly up from her bedside. And like my pear tree in Astra’s story, a leafless tree within the cloister burst into bloom. (Prologue: Medwick)

When she died she was widely venerated as a saint.

She was canonized and declared a saint in 1622 Gregory XV in 1622 and in 1970 was the first woman Doctor of the Church.

Post Script:

During her day, Teresa was called a mujecilla, or little woman, because among other things, she “taught others, against the commands of St. Paul.” That is she engaged in theological discourse at a time when this was a proscribed activity for women. (p.18, Alison Weber)

Here is Paul’s justification for the exclusion of women from any apostolic role:

“Let your women be silent in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home; for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” (p.18, Alison Weber—1 cor, 14:34-37)

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In France, during the 17th century, Teresa’s reforms had taken root because of the efforts of her many followers. To the shock of her followers, Martin de Charcot, director of a mental hospital for women in Paris, theorized that women who manifested extreme religious responses—ecstasies and stigmata as well as physical illnesses—were suffering from delusions! Hysteria, he maintained, was a disease originating in the womb and often manifested itself as religious excitement. He photographed the women he had treated for hysteria in poses he labeled Ecstatic State, Beautitude, and Crucifixion. His purpose was to pinpoint the moment at which pathology dovetailed with religious fervor!

Then we can thank Sigmund Freud’s friend Josef Breuer who labeled Teresa “the patron saint of hysteria!,” though he was willing to say of her that she was “a woman of genius with great practical capacity!” (Medwick xv)

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Doctor Of The Church

The requisite conditions in order to be a Doctor of the Church.

1. eminent learning
2. a high degree of sanctity
3. and proclamation by the Church.

The decree is issued by the Congregation of Sacred Rites and approved by the pope, after a careful examination of the saint’s writings.

In 1970 Paul VI added St. Teresa of Avila. There are thirty-three Doctors of the Church.


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“In conjuring up the richness of medieval liturgy with its sumptuous ceremonial, we must also beware of romanticizing: the medieval Chruch had its share of politics, power, greed, scandal, superstition, and disease, let alone such basic human failings as incompetence and sloth. But its stature, influence, and importance were indisputable. It was after all the only centrally organized, multinational corporation in the medieval world, with a substantial portion of the literate population of Western Europe in its service.” —The Forms and Orders of Western Liturgy from the Tenth to the Eighteenth Century by John Harper


The following books were used to compile this information on Teresa of Avila’s life and are recommended for further reading:

The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus of the Order of Our Lady of Carmel, Written by Herself. Translated from the Spanish by David Lewis, Thomas Baker, 1932

The Way of Perfection, Teresa of Avila. Edited by Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., Paraclete Press, 2000

Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle. Translation by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., Paulist Press, 1979

The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Translation by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., One Spirit, 1995

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