Teresa of Avila - Carmelite Nun, Saint, Spanish Mystic, Doctor of the Church
Saint Teresa of Avila ~
Teresa of Avila ~
Saint Teresa of Avila was a Spanish mystic, theologian, author, Carmelite nun, and was given the papal honor of Doctor of the Church after her death. She was born in Gotarrendura, in the province of Avila, Spain in 1515. Her baptismal name was given as Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada.
During the Catholic Reformation of the 16th century in Spain, Teresa was a major figure. With John of the Cross she founded sixteen Carmelite monasteries and convents. Her determination and goal was to reform the Carmelite Order and revive the early strict rules that had gone lax over the years. The result was the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites religious order.
Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda and Beatriz de Ahumada y Cuevas were Teresa's parents. They were both pious Catholics and each in their own way inspired Teresa to a life of prayer. Alonso was very strict and Beatriz was encouraging and gentle.
As a child, Teresa was very intrigued with the saints. Their lives fascinated the young girl. The martyrdom of some of the saints gave Teresa the romantic desire to become a martyr and die at the hands of the Moors. Her brave journey to death was halted when her uncle saw Teresa and her brother outside the walls of town on their way to the mountains where the Moors were. He immediately took them back home.
St. Teresa ~
Teresa's mother ~
Teresa and her mother were very close. With the warmth and caring Beatriz provided to her daughter it gave Teresa a sense of balance to the strictness from her father. To raise Teresa as a devoted Christian was the aim of both parents, one stern and demanding, the other gentle and loving.
Beatriz died when Teresa was a young teen, which left a great void in Teresa's life. Gone was the one who gave her a sense of self-worth, reverence and courage. In despair, Teresa did the only thing she knew would give her the courage to go on. Her natural instincts lead her to the Holy Virgin, her Spiritual Mother.
I threw myself down in despair before an image of the Mother of God. With many tears, I implored the Holy Virgin to become my mother now. Uttered with the simplicity of a child, this prayer was heard. From that hour on, I never prayed to the Virgin in vain.— Saint Teresa Avila
Virgin Mary ~
There was a short time after the death of her mother and turning to the Mother of God for consolation when Teresa went through a period of distancing herself from her earlier religious enthusiasm. She was charming and had a great personality which made it easy to make friends. She enjoyed the camaraderie, attention and compliments from others.
Even though she enjoyed her social life, Teresa soon realized she no longer had inner peace. In contemplation she felt she was a miserable sinner. When she was sixteen her father sent her to the Augustinian Convent in Avila for education - it was the best thing he could have done for her.
Life in the convent ~
Living in the convent gave Teresa the confirmation that she had done the right thing to return to her religious path and embrace her spirituality. She made the decision to become a Carmelite nun.
The convent was overcrowded and Teresa had difficulty in finding the alone time she needed for contemplation and reflection. She made the decision to become a Carmelite nun and devote her life to prayer and God.
Not long after she was initiated as a nun Teresa came down with malaria and was seriously ill. She suffered great pain and there were times the nuns feared Teresa would not make it. As she suffered with intense pain she began to have divine visions and an inner peace which helped her rise above and go beyond the bodily pain.
I bore these sufferings with great composure, in fact with joy, except at first when the pain was too severe. What followed seemed to hurt less. I was completely surrendered to the will of God even if He intended to burden me like this forever….. The other sisters wondered at my God-given patience. Without Him I truly could not have borne so much with so much joy.— Saint Teresa Avila
Divine ecstasy and rapture ~
Teresa overcame the illness and returned to her prayers with renewed energy, yet the effects of malaria left her in frail health the rest of her life.. Her visions became stronger, but when she related these spiritual experiences to others she was told by clergy the devil caused delusions within her. This dampened her confidence to continue with prayer. For several years Teresa was uncertain about her spiritual path.
At the age of 41 Teresa returned to praying when she met a Priest who encouraged her to continue on. Her previous passion was lacking at times yet it did return and her unity with God grew stronger. In her biography she wrote there were times when in deep divine contemplation her whole body would levitate. She did not want public notice of this happening and asked other nuns to hold her down when in that state.
Teresa was admired for her quiet and serene demeanor plus her natural charm. Yet many did criticize and looked upon her with suspicion. She had to be careful about expressing her joy with her visions and ecstasies because she lived during the time of the strict observation of the Spanish Inquisition and very few could either not understand her unions with God or did not want to admit they did.
Teresa's divine ecstasies and rapture occurred when she was entranced and unconscious of the material world. Her contemplation in prayer led her to Union with God and an exalted consciousness when in the state of being one with the Absolute.
Author Evelyn Underhill (December 1875 - June 1941), English Anglo-Catholic writer and pacifist known for her numerous works on religion and spiritual practice, wrote extensively on Christian mysticism.
All mystics agree in regarding such ecstasy as an exceptionally favourable state; the one in which man’s spirit is caught up to the most immediate union with the divine.— Evelyn Underhill
Ecstasy of St Teresa ~
Divine vision ~
The sculpture above was inspired by Teresa's own description of a Divine vision she had on St. Peter's Day in 1559. She firmly stated that Jesus Christ appeared to her in Spirit:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it...— St. Teresa Avila
Discalced Carmelites ~
During the Catholic Reformation of the 16th century in Spain, Teresa was a major figure. With John of the Cross seventeen Carmelite convents were set up, all but one founded by Teresa.
Teresa had become more and more unhappy with the relaxed atmosphere of the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila. Each day outside visitors would come in with concerns of no value or purpose and sit around in conversations that disrupted the solitude that was so essential to the reason nuns were living there, mainly contemplative prayer.
She felt in her heart that something must be done to change this disturbing atmosphere in a place that was for provided for the strengthening of spirit and daily prayer. These thoughts were so strong on her mind that she felt the need to find expression. In early 1560 she met Peter of Alcantara, a Franciscan priest, who became her spiritual guide and counselor.
Saint Peter inspired Teresa to put her thoughts into action. This was the beginning of her determination and goal to reform the Carmelite Order and revive the early strict rules that had gone lax over many years. The result was the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites religious order. She also set up several houses for men who wished to learn and adapt to the reforms. John of the Cross established the inner life of the men's houses.
The first monastery Teresa and John set up was St. Joseph's. They opened it in 1562 and Teresa moved into the little house the following year. At first the community grumbled about the drastic change to absolute poverty, the strict rules on visitation and total release of the material world which the new order adhered to. However, some powerful patrons, the bishop among them, gave Teresa and John the support they needed.
For the first five years at the monastery, Teresa lived in seclusion and devoted her time to writing.
Saint John of the Cross ~
Saint Teresa of Avila ~
Eternal Life ~
Teresa's health had been frail since her early illness with malaria. Still she dedicated the rest of her life to establishing new convents throughout Spain. At times living conditions for her were very poor and it was a difficult task, yet she carried on with unwavering devotion.
St. Teresa died October 4, 1582. She died at a convent she founded in the town of Alba de Tormes in western Spain.
Pope Gregory XV canonized Theresa in 1622. Pope Paul VI gave Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Catherine of Siena the honored title of Doctor of the Church in December of 1970 for their contributions to the Church. They are the first two women to have received this papal honor.
It is love alone that gives worth to all things.— St. Teresa Avila
The writings of Saint Teresa, which include "The Way of Perfection" and "Interior Castle" are of major importance and legacy to Christian mysticism.
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