Saint Teresa of Avila is an individual who is quite inspiring to me for her dedication to her ideals, especially to the idea that poverty among the religious Christians was essential. Teresa’s life, like those of most saintly figures in history, was a fascinating and complex epic of ideas and attitudes within the Catholic Church, and Europe as a whole. From her early days being educated in the Augustinian tradition, to her founding of the Discalced Carmelites alongside St. John of the Cross, and her expansion of Christian Mysticism; St. Teresa epitomizes the nature of Christian belief during the Renaissance.
Teresa of Avila was born Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada in 1515 to minor Spanish nobles of Jewish descent. Her life spanned the period during which the Protestant Reformation was at its height, and she was a major player in the Catholic “Counter-Reformation” through her works in Christian mysticism and meditation. Teresa was very religious from a young age, even attempting to go to Moorish Africa as a child in order to die a martyr. The death of her mother when Teresa was only 14 years old spurred her to a devotion to her faith far deeper than the norm, even for the time. Teresa also struggled personally to reconcile what she saw as “vanity” and “immodesty” in her lifestyle with her faith, most likely owing this way of thinking to the strict religious devotion of her father after the death of her mother.
After her mother died, Teresa was sent to a convent of Augustinian nuns to be educated, quite a common practice of the time among the nobility who wished to see their daughters educated. While living with the Augustinians, Teresa became very sick, possibly with a severe case of malaria, enduring her suffering only with the help of mystic spiritual texts about meditation such as “Tercer abecedario espiritual,” and “Tractatus de oratione et meditatione” by the Franciscan mystics Francisco de Osuna and Saint Peter of Alcantara. These writings, among others, almost certainly guided her later work in similar areas of mysticism and spirituality. Teresa experienced religious ecstasy, despite her pain, through the use of the spiritual methods and teachings of these earlier mystics, and she believed she had reached a perfect union with God through a series of steps. She also though that the nature of sin had become clear to her through her ecstasies.
Teresa worked with matters of spiritual growth throughout her life, writing several books about her experiences, the most famous being “The Interior Castle” which was inspired by one of her many mystical visions. Her writings dealt with the ascent of the soul through four stages of development: mental prayer, prayer of quiet, devotion of union, and ecstasy of union. These are the states she claimed to have passed through during her illness as a girl. Through this ascent, Teresa claimed to gain a keener understanding of sin and the relation of people to God. She established several important techniques for teaching this, namely the idea of spiritual growth as “watering a garden.”
Perhaps more important than her religious experience, St. Teresa’s reforms in the Church formed the basis for the return of many orders to poverty during a period in which monetary gain had become more important than spiritual advancement for the religious orders, and they established further, lasting reforms within the church. In 1535, Teresa entered a monastery of Carmelites at Avila, and she found that the nuns had been ignoring their duties of monasticism, instead paying attention to a stream of wealthy visitors and important supporters. Teresa’s work at reforming the Carmelite order began here where she resolved to found a reformed convent of Carmelites where the Order’s rule was kept in full.
Teresa emphasized a much stricter form of religious life which revolved around the original vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but added more severe rules such as ceremonial flagellation and discalceation, or removal of the shoes. Her first convent was founded in 1562, originally being received poorly for it’s extreme nature. She struggled with secular and religious leaders to sow the seeds of a reformed order. With the help of several powerful patrons, by 1563 she had moved to an even stricter convent and established the rules of absolute poverty and flagellation with the Papal sanction. It was in 1567 that Teresa received the right from the Carmelite general to establish new male monasteries in her new tradition and extend her rule to both men and women. With the help of SS. John of the Cross and Anthony of Jesus, Teresa established houses of the Discalced Carmelite Brethren.
In 1576, the larger Carmelite order began a campaign of persecution against the Discalced Carmelites with the help of the Inquisition. She needed to enlist the help of the King of Spain, Phillip II, in order to the deflect the accusations made by the larger and more corrupt order of Carmelites. The order eventually survived, and it still exists today. St. Teresa died in 1582, and she was canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1662. For her work in the areas of Christian Mysticism and meditation, Pope Paul VI named her a Doctor of the Church in 1970. She was the first woman to be given that title.
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