st.Teresa of Avila
Mystic and authority on mystical prayer,
founder of the Discalced Carmelite Order,
the first woman declared a Doctor of the Church
Patronage: against headaches; heart attack sufferers
Name meaning: “Reaper”
Also known as: Teresa de Jesus; Spouse of Christ
Teresa of Avila was born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada to a noble family on March 28, 1515, in or near Avila in Castile. As a child she exhibited an interest in saints and martyrs, and in the monastic life. Her mother died when she was 14, which upset her so much that her father sent her at age 15 to an Augustinian convent in Avila. She decided she wanted to become a nun, but her father forbade it as long as he was living. At about age 20 or 21, she left home secretly and entered the Incarnation of the Carmelite nuns in Avila. Her father dropped his opposition. In 1538, soon after taking the habit, Teresa began to suffer from ill health, which she attributed to the change in her life and diet. It was through her chronic and severe afflictions that Teresa discovered the power of prayer, which enabled her to heal herself, and which then became the focus of her spiritual life and her writings.
During her first year in the convent, she suffered increasingly frequent fainting fits and heart pains so severe that others became alarmed. She was often semi-conscious or unconscious altogether. She opined that these problems were sent by God, who was offended at her innate “wickedness.” It is thought she may have suffered from malaria. Her father sent her to Becedas, a town that had a great healing reputation. There she stayed for nearly a year, but failed to improve. She was given experimental cures by a woman healer that only worsened her condition and reduced her to misery. The trip to this healing center was fortuitous, however, because en route Teresa visited an uncle, who gave her a book entitled the Third Spiritual Alphabet, which contained lessons in the prayer of recollection (introspection).
Teresa began to use it as her guide in prayer, and it served as her primary guide for the next 20 years. When she failed to improve at Becedas, her father brought her home. There she deteriorated badly over several months, and finally she fell into a death-like coma for three days. The sacrament of Extreme Unction was given to her in expectation of her imminent death. For a day and a half, a grave was left open for her at her convent, and rites for the dead were performed at a Carmelite friary nearby. Teresa made a complete confession, but instead of dying, she began to recover. For eight months Teresa lay paralyzed in great pain. Gradually, the paralysis improved she began to crawl around on her hands and knees but it continued in some form for three years. Teresa said that her sole anxiety was to get well so that she could pray in solitude. Through daily mental prayers, she healed herself over a long and slow recovery. She attributed her return to health to St. Joseph, who became her patron saint.
It took her three years to recover the ability to walk. She was 40 when the principal symptoms of her illness finally disappeared. During the early years of slow recovery, Teresa struggled with her spiritual life and described her prayer life as unpleasant. She neglected her prayer because she felt unworthy to talk to God, but after her father died, she returned to regular prayer practice, and stayed with it for the rest of her life. Teresa felt a kinship with two other great penitents, SS. Mary Magdalen and Augustine. She resigned herself to God’s will.
Her prayer life became punctuated with mystical experiences. She spent long periods alone in the prayer of quiet and the prayer of union, during which she often fell into a trance, and at times entered into mystical flights in which she felt as though her soul were lifted out of her body. She likened ecstasy to a “delectable death,” saying that the soul becomes awake to God as never before when the faculties and senses are “dead.” Once she complained to God in prayer about her sufferings. His answer came to her: “Teresa, so do I treat my friends!” She understood it to mean that there was purification in her suffering, but she nonetheless had the pluck to retort, “That’s why you have so few [friends]!” Teresa exhorted others to prayer, and especially to passive, mental prayer, though she continued to do both vocal and mental prayer throughout the rest of her life.
She believed that vocal prayer required mental prayer in order to be effective. Prayer, she said, was the door to “those very great favors” that God then conferred on her, in the form of intellectual visions (formless, neither external or internal), raptures, ecstasies, levitation, being engulfed in the presence of God, and most important union. Teresa likened prayer to the cultivation of a garden. She outlined four steps for the watering of the garden so that it would produce fruits and flowers, which are the measure of the progress in love of the one who prays. The first, and simplest, step is meditation, which is like drawing water from a deep well by hand, in that it is slow and laborious.
The second step is through quiet, in which the senses are stilled and the soul can then receive some guidance; thus, the one who prays gets more water for the energy expended. The soul begins to lose its desire for earthly things. The third step is through the prayer of union, in which there is contact between the praying one and God, and there is no stress. The garden seems to be self-watered as though from a spring or a little stream running through it. Teresa confessed that she had little understanding herself of this step.
The senses and mental faculties, she said, could occupy themselves only and wholly with God. The fourth step is done by God himself, raining water upon the garden drop by drop. The one who prays is in a state of perfect receptivity, loving trust and passive contemplation. Physically, he or she faints away into a kind of swoon, Teresa said; her description resembles the trance states described by many mystics of many faiths. Teresa often came out of deep prayer states to find herself drenched in tears. These were tears of joy, she attested. She made such rapid progress in her prayer that she was concerned that she was being deceived by the devil, because she could not resist the favors when they came, nor could she summon them they came spontaneously. Also, she considered herself to be a weak and wicked person.
Nonetheless, she was granted many prayers of silence and union, some of which lasted for long periods of time. To allay her fears, Teresa sought out spiritual counsel. Some of her advisers, including a respected priest named Dr. Daza, could not believe that such favors could be experienced by a weak woman, and fueled her fears of devilish interference. One more objective adviser told her to put the matter before God by reciting the Veni Creator Spiritus hymn as a prayer. This she did for the better part of a day, at which point a rapture came over her that was so strong it nearly carried her away. She said, “This was the first time that the Lord had granted me this grace of ecstasy, and I heard these words: ‘I want you to converse now not with men but with angels.’ This absolutely amazed me, for my soul was greatly moved and these words were spoken to me in the depths of the spirit.
They made me afraid therefore, though on the other hand they brought me much comfort, after the fear which seems to have been caused by the novelty of the experience had departed.” In 1559 Teresa had her most remarkable experience involving an angel who pierced her heart with an arrow of love. Swept into a rapture, she beheld a short, beautiful angel whose face was aflame. The sight of the angel was unusual in itself, for she usually perceived angels through intellectual vision. She was given to understand that the angel was of the highest rank, closest to God, a cherub. She said in her autobiography: In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron point there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails.
When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed with the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God. This is not a physical, but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it even a considerable share. So gentle is this wooing which takes place between God and the soul that if anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God, in His goodness, to grant him some experience of it. Teresa thus was inspired to do everything in a manner that would be perfect and pleasing to God. The sculptor Giovanni Bernini immortalized this experience in his statue, “The Transverberation of St. Teresa of Avila,” housed in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.
Transverberation is the spiritual wounding of the heart. In 1562, despite tremendous opposition, Teresa received permission from Rome to found an unendowed convent in Avila with stricter rules than those that prevailed at Carmelite convents, many of which had become little more than relaxed social havens. She established a small community that would follow the Carmelite contemplative life, in particular unceasing prayer. Her rules were strict. The nuns wore coarse habits, sandals instead of shoes (hence their name “Discalced Carmelites”), and lived in near-perpetual silence and committed to perpetual abstinence. The extreme poverty and austerity found favor, however, and by 1567 Teresa was permitted to establish other convents. She went on to found 16 others, and dedicated herself to reforming the Carmelite order.
Her discipline impressed others, and she was named prioress of the convent of the Incarnation in Avila in order to correct its laxity. There she was greeted with insults and hatred. She won over the nuns by placing an image of Our Lady of Mercy in the prioress’s seat, and sitting at the feet of it. She credited Mary with her eventual acceptance at the convent. One evening during choir, Teresa had a vision in which Mary, with a multitude of angels, descended to the prioress’s seat and sat in it herself. She told Teresa she had done well. At age 53, she met the 25-year-old John de Yepes y Alvarez (later known as St. John of the Cross), who worked to reform the male Carmelite monasteries. After a period of turbulence within the Carmelites from 1575 to 1580, the Discalced Reform was recognized as separate from the original Carmelite order. During this period, Teresa suffered much opposition and persecution, and was on occasion comforted by Mary. By 1582, Teresa had founded her 17th monastery, at Burgos.
Her health was broken and she decided to return to Avila. The rough journey proved to be too much; food was scarce and at one point Teresa fainted on the road. Upon arriving at the convent, Teresa went straight to her deathbed. Three days later, on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, 1582, she died. The next day, the Gregorian calendar went into effect, dropping 10 days and changing her death date to October 14. She was buried in Alba de Tormes and later was moved to Avila. During Teresa’s travels throughout Spain on her reform mission, she wrote a number of books, some of which have become spiritual classics.
The first of those was Life, her autobiography, written in 1565. On November 18, 1572, Teresa experienced a spiritual marriage with Christ as bridegroom to the soul. One of the fruits of that marriage was The Way of Perfection (1573), about the life of prayer, and The Interior Castle (1577), her best-known work, in which she presents a spiritual doctrine using a castle as the symbol of the interior life. The latter book was revealed to her in a vision on the eve of Trinity Sunday, 1577, in which she saw a crystal globe like a castle, which had seven rooms; the seventh, in the center, held the King of Glory. One approached the center, which represents the Union with God, by going through the other rooms of Humility, Practice of Prayer, Meditation, Quiet, Illumination and Dark Night.
She often referred to Christ as the “heavenly bridegroom,” but her later visions became less erotic and more religious in character. There is a timelessness to Teresa’s writings, and elements of feminist spirituality. Her words continue to inspire modern audiences. As she once said to her followers, “I will give you a living book.” Besides her raptures, levitations and mystical experiences, Teresa also is credited with other saintly miracles. For workmen repairing one of her nunneries on a hot day, she multiplied wine for them, and gave God the credit. Like many saints, she seemed to give off a sweet fragrance. Her face often radiated a glow of light, which on at least one occasion was quite brilliant: The saint sat bathed in rays of brilliant gold while writing at her desk in her cell. Once while holding the cross of her rosary, Teresa had a vision of God taking it from her and replacing it with a bejewelled cross of exquisite workmanship, bearing four large stones, which she described as “much more precious than diamonds.” The cross showed the five wounds of Christ.
God told her that only she would be able to see these things. She did see, every time she looked at the rosary for the remainder of her life, but no one else ever saw the jewels or the wounds. The crucifix was preserved by the Carmelites, but was lost during religious persecutions in 1835. Teresa banished lice from her convent of San Jose. The lice infested the horsecloth garments of the nuns.
One night Teresa performed a ritual for the extermination of the lice, which then vanished. After her death, her body gave off a heavenly perfume that permeated her tomb. Nine months later, her body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt, though the coffin lid was smashed, rotted and full of mildew. Pieces of her body were amputated for relics. Her left hand strangely exuded oil, and was sealed in a casket at Avila. Her left arm was given to a convent at Alba de Tormes. Three years later, her body was examined again and was still incorrupt and sweet-smelling, despite having never been embalmed. Her left shoulder socket exuded an odd moisture and gave off a perfume. Teresa’s symbols are a heart, arrow and book.