St. Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Church
October 15 is the feast of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), virgin and Doctor of the Church. She helped reform the Carmelite order and founded seventeen monasteries.
Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda was born in Avila, Castile, Spain, on March 28, 1515. Her family was prominent, as her father was a wealthy merchant. Teresa was the “most beloved” among her nine brothers and sisters. From her youth, she showed great zeal and piety, as well as courage. However, the one trait of Teresa that stood out the most was her strong will. When she was seven years old, St. Teresa ran away with her brother to the land occupied by the Moors in hopes of attaining the crown of martyrdom. However, they only made it a few miles down the road.
Teresa was considered by all those around her to be exceptionally beautiful. She also had an irresistible charm, a sharp wit, a kind nature, and was lively and animated. She was extroverted and sociable. Everyone loved to be around her. She was skilled in embroidery, wonderful at housekeeping, and an excellent writer. Around the age of twelve, Teresa’s piety which she had possessed from her youth, began to wane as her interests turned towards her abilities, conversation, books of chivalry, and spending time with others, especially her cousins. When Teresa was 15, her mother died. Seeing that she needed guidance and better companionship, her father placed Teresa in the care of the Augustinians at Santa Maria de Gracia.
It was during her time with the Augustinians that Teresa recovered her faith. Teresa was determined not to become worldly, but she did not know whether she had a vocation to the religious life. Teresa decided she would enter a convent, but her father would not allow it. As a result of the stress and despair Teresa felt, she became extremely ill. She returned home to become well. In 1535, at the age of 20, she ran away from home and entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation. Her father, realizing it must be God’s will, finally consented to Teresa’s vocation, and became a benefactor of the monastery. A year later, Teresa was professed, and she began to practice harsh penances and mortifications. Soon she became quite ill again, and left the convent in search of a cure for her mysterious illness. She eventually went back home to Avila and her father’s house. Here she fell into a coma for 4 days, and all thought that she had died. She eventually came out of the coma, but was paralyzed and bedridden for 3 years. When she was finally cured, she attributed her cure to St. Joseph.
The convent of the Incarnation was very lax in its observances. Because of Teresa’s charm, many of the nobility and important people of Castile would come to the convent and Teresa would entertain them in the parlor. It was also a common practice to go to spend time at the homes of these important people. Soon Teresa had fallen into her old ways of conversation and worldliness. Her spiritual mediocrity lasted for 17 years.
She was held back by her attachments to worldly things, as well as her attachments to others. Eventually, with much struggle she overcame her attachments and her pride, and around the age of forty, she experienced a conversion and began to conform her life to God. Her faithfulness to living the Gospel deepened her spiritual life. She began to experience extraordinary favors from God.
Teresa realized that the life she lived at the convent of the Incarnation was not the way the Carmelite Fathers had originally intended the Carmelite life to be. She vowed that she herself would follow the rule perfectly and “without mitigation.” Her sisters at the Incarnation caused her much pain because they did not approve of her aspirations. However, she soon won a few other sisters over to her side, and despite opposition from her sisters and from the townsfolk, she established the convent of St. Joseph on August 24, 1562. She endured much, including a lawsuit, but eventually the resistance subsided, and Teresa enjoyed several years of peace at her convent of St. Joseph. It was during this time that she wrote her Way of Perfection.
It became clear to Teresa that it was the will of God to establish more foundations than just her convent of St. Joseph. She began traveling around establishing convents, relying on the providence and direction of God. She met Friar John Yepes in Medina del Campo, where her second foundation was established. He became her ally in the reform. John Yepes became John of the Cross, and along with Anthony of Jesus, established the first monastery for men at Duruelo. Until the end of her life, Teresa was founding convents and monasteries. She experienced every kind of opposition, persecution, and poverty; yet her foundations thrived. Soon, Teresa was being asked by bishops to reform the already existing Carmelite monasteries. This caused much ill will between her reformed Carmelites and those that followed the Mitigated Rule. For years there was a bitter struggle, and Teresa was turned against on all sides. Finally the matter was settled when in 1580 Pope Gregory XIII recognized the reformed convents and monasteries as a separate province. The reform was now known as the Discalced (shoeless) Carmelites, and Teresa was finally freed of restrictions.
Teresa is also known for her incomparable writings, which were produced during these busy and turbulent times. Her most famous works are her Autobiography, Way of Perfection, and Interior Castle. Teresa was a woman of deep spirituality and complete detachment from the world, yet she never lost her charm or her sense of humor.
Teresa died on October 4, 1582 (October 14 by the Gregorian calendar, which we use today) at Alba, just months after establishing her last foundation. She was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, and in 1970 she was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI-the first woman ever to be given that great honor by the Church.
Excerpts from Interior Castle:
“This body has one fault, that the more people pamper it, the more its wants are made known. It is strange how much it likes to be indulged. How well it finds some good pretext to deceive the poor soul! . . . Oh, you who are free from the great troubles of the world, learn to suffer a little for the love of God without everyone’s knowing it! . . . “
“Sometimes the Devil proposes to us great desires, so that we shall not put our hand to what we have to do, and serve our Lord in possible things, but stay content with having desired impossible ones. Granting that you can help much by prayer, don’t try to benefit all the world, but those who are in your company, and so the work will be better for you are much bounden to them….”
A LOVE SONG by Saint Teresa of Avila
Majestic sovereign, timeless wisdom, your kindness melts my hard, cold soul.
Handsome lover, selfless giver, your beauty fills my dull, sad eyes.
I am yours, you made me.
I am yours, you called me.
I am yours, you saved me.
I am yours, you loved me.
I will never leave your presence.
Give me death, give me life.
Give me sickness, give me health.
Give me honor, give me shame.
Give me weakness, give me strength.
I will have whatever you give. Amen.
St. Teresa’s Bookmark
Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing; God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.
~ St. Teresa of Avila
Top Twenty Quotes from St. Teresa of Avila