Theresa of Avila
St. Teresa of Avila also known as Teresa of Jesus, was born in Avila, Spain (b. 1515, died 1582). Teresa was a woman of prayer, discipline and compassion. Her heart belonged to God. Her own conversion was a lifelong struggle, involving ongoing purification and suffering. She was misunderstood, misjudged, opposed in nearly all her efforts yet she was determined, courageous and faithful to God. Teresa became an energetic reformer. She is the founder of the Discalced Carmelites. Her writings on mystical prayer earned her sainthood and she ultimately became a Doctor of the Church.
Teresa Sanchez Cepeda was the third of 10 children born to father Don Alonso de Cepeda and mother Beatriz de Ahumada. She was raised in a loving environment with a saintly father and pious mother. At age 7, she convinced her brother Rodrigo that they should runaway to the land of Moorish where they would be beheaded for Christ's sake. Her uncle caught up with them before they could leave the city. In her youth, she had the reputation of being quite beautiful. Her personality was extroverted and everyone liked her and she liked to be liked. As a teenager, she cared only about boys and clothes, flirting and rebelling. When Teresa was 15, her mother died. When she was 16, her father decided she was out of control and sent her to a convent of Augustinian nuns at Santa Maria de Gracia in 1531. She was convinced that she was a horrible sinner. At first she hated it but eventually she began to enjoy it. She returned home after 18 months due to illness. At this time, Teresa's uncle gave her letters of St. Jerome. These would lead to her decision to enter a convent even though her father refused to give his consent.
Teresa permanently entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation at Avila. She started to practice and learn mental prayer. Teresa said "tried as hard as I could to keep Jesus Christ present within me....My imagination is so dull that I had no talent for imagining or coming up with great theological thoughts." For eighteen years, she prayed without feeling that she was getting results. She sympathizes with those who have a difficult time in prayer: "All the trials we endure cannot be compared to these interior battles." For a time, discouraged she gave up praying. Teresa fell ill with malaria. She had a seizure and fell into a coma. Everyone thought she was dead. After 4 days, she recovered and learned that a grave was freshly dug for her. Teresa remained paralyzed in her legs for 3 years. Later, she would attributed her cure to St. Joseph.
The Carmelites often invited the public to the convent of 140 nuns to raise money. She met many of her friends there from Avila. Teresa got more involved in flattery, vanity and gossip than spiritual guidance. This was a drain that kept her from God.
At the age of 39, she was moved by the presence of an image of the sorely wounded Christ. This became a conversion which was the start of spiritual development. She began to enjoy a vivid experience of God's presence within her. Teresa started to pray again and God gave her spiritual delights. Prayer of quiet where God's presence overwhelmed her senses. Raptures where God overcame her with glorious foolishness. A prayer of union where she felt the sun of God melt her soul away. She became more relaxed in her conduct. This caused much misunderstanding. Some of her friends thought the devil had overtaken her. People began to talk of her and mock her as crazy. Teresa's director, Diego de Cetina, brought her comfort by encouraging her to continue in mental prayer and to think upon the humanity of Christ. In 1555, Francis Borgia 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. She couldn't avoid complaining about the hostility and gossip that surrounded her. Then Jesus told her, "Teresa, that's how I treat my friends" Teresa responded, "No wonder you have so few friends." Since Christ has so few friends, she felt they should be good ones. That is when she decided to reform her Carmelite order.
Teresa's new director was Baltasar Alvarez. Either from skepticism or with the intention of probing her spirit, he caused her great distress. He told her that others were convinced that her raptures and visions were the work of the devil and that she should not communicate so often. This was very stressful but her strength in God overcame it all. She would later write "Oh, my Lord! How true it is that whoever works for you is paid in troubles! And what a precious price to those who love you if we understand its value."
At the age of 43, she became determined to start a new convent that went back to the basics of a contemplative order: a simple life of poverty devoted to prayer. No one in religious orders wanted Teresa reminding them of the way God said they should live.
When plans leaked out about her first convent, St. Joseph's, she was denounced from the pulpit, told by her sisters she should raise money for the convent she was already in, and threatened with the Inquisition. The town started legal proceedings against her. She moved ahead calmly, as if nothing was wrong, trusting in God. She said "May God protect me from gloomy saints." Teresa's many prayers were answered with the first of many convents. She founded the convent of Discalced Carmelite Nuns of the Primitive Rule of St. Joseph at Avila in 1562.
At St. Joseph's, she was ordered to write a book of her life. Many people questioned her experiences and this book would either clear her or condemn her. Teresa purposely followed a profound thought with the statement, "But what do I know. I'm just a wretched woman." The Inquisition liked what they read and cleared her.
Teresa met the acquaintance of St. John of the Cross and prior of Medina, Antonio de Heredia. In 1568, she established her reform among the friars.
Teresa would address her nuns, teaching them therein the major virtues that demand their solicitude, casting further light on the practice of prayer. Her convents would spread first Medina del Campo (1567), then Malagon and Valladolid (1568), Toledo and Pastrana (1569), Salamanca (1570), Alba de Tormes (1571), Segovia (1574), Veas and Seville (1575), and Caravaca (1576). In the "Book of Foundations", she tells the story of these convents, nearly all of which were established in spite of violent opposition but with manifest assistance from above.
Teresa would write many more books that analyzed and dissects mystical experiences. Some of her greatest works include the Way of Perfection and the Interior Castle. Also her biography, the Life of Teresa of Avila. 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. Different stages are reflected as different rooms within the castle.
Teresa died of illness on October 4, 1582 at the age of 67. After several years, her body was transferred to Avila then later to Alba, where it is still preserved incorrupt. Her heart is also incorrupt, showing the marks of the Transverberation and is exposed there to the veneration of the faithful.
She was beatified in 1614, and canonized in 1622 by Gregory XV.
- "Whatever thou doest, offer it up to God and pray it may be for His honor