St Teresa of Avila

St Teresa by Bernini

A Guest Post, kindly written by William Ockham.

Today is the Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila, also called Saint Teresa of Jesus. Teresa was a Carmelite nun, writer of the Counter Reformation, and theologian of contemplative life through. She was a reformer of the Carmelite Order and is considered to be a founder of the Discalced Carmelites along with her protege, St. John of the Cross.

Teresa is one of the three great 16th century Spanish mystics (along with St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. John of the Cross). These great saints lived during troubled times of corruption in the Church, laxity in discipline and the reformation. The deep prayer life of these great Saints, combined with the influence they had in the reform of the Church, have lasting effects which are still felt today. Her books, which include her autobiography (The Life of Teresa of Jesus) and her seminal work El Castillo Interior (trans.: The Interior Castle) are an integral part of Spanish Renaissance literature as well as Christian mysticism and Christian meditation practices as she entails in her other important work, Camino de Perfección (trans.: The Way of Perfection).

Teresa was born on March 28, 1515 and baptized as Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada. Following the custom that was expected of her upper class upbringing, she was educated at home up to the death of her mother, which occurred when Teresa was just 14. She then developed the usual teenage interests of romantic affairs and fashionable clothes. Her father then sent her to be educated by Augustinian Sisters in Avila. About 18 months later she became ill and spent her convalescence reading the letters of St. Jerome. This resulted in her desire to become a nun. Her father was at first opposed to the idea but then consented and Teresa, then 20, entered the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation in Avila. However, she soon became ill again from malaria. She was sent home to her family for medical treatment. She returned to the convent three years later.

At this time the convent had a large community of about 140 nuns and had become somewhat lax in its following of the Carmelite rule. The convent parlour was often visited by the gentry of the town and the nuns were even allowed to leave the enclosure of the convent. In this rather easygoing atmosphere, with not much time given to solitude or the observance of religious poverty, Teresa at first tried to live a life of prayer, then abandoned it, only, following her father’s death, taking it up again for the rest of her life. Teresa’s charm, cheerfulness, prudence and care for others were greatly admired, not least by those who came to visit the convent. Her own spiritual life was deepened by her prayer life. In 1555 she experienced an inner conversion when she identified herself with two famous penitents, St. Mary Magdalen and St. Augustine. His Confessions had a deep influence on her. She had both Dominicans and Jesuits as spiritual directors.

In 1559, Teresa became firmly convinced that Christ was present to her in bodily form, though invisible. This vision lasted almost uninterrupted for more than two years. In another vision, an angel drove the point of a golden arrow repeatedly through her heart, causing an indescribable happiness and pain. (Dramatically represented in the famous sculpture of Bernini, Ecstasy of St Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.) The memory of this experience would inspire her for the rest of her life and was the motivation behind her lifelong desire to identify with the sufferings of Jesus, expressed in her prayer: “Lord, either let me suffer or let me die.”

Unfortunately her mystical experiences, including visions, became known and she was subjected to ridicule and even persecution. It was a time when such experiences subjected one to the investigations of the Inquisition. St Ignatius of Loyola would have similar experiences.

After 25 years of Carmelite life, which she felt was not living up to the ideals of the Order, she desired to set up a community where the original rule would be strictly observed. Her proposal met with strong opposition from both church and civil authorities. But she went ahead and set up the community of St. Joseph in Avila in 1562. Here 13 nuns lived in conditions of strict poverty and enclosed solitude. On moving to the new convent, Teresa got papal approval of her commitment to absolute poverty and renunciation of all property. Her plan was a revival of earlier, stricter rules. For the first five years of the new foundation, Teresa remained in prayerful seclusion, engaged mostly in writing.

The Avila convent would be the first of 16 similar convents set up during Teresa’s lifetime. It would also inspire the setting up of other reformed communities in other countries and in the generations that followed. The characteristics of this life were material simplicity, signified by the coarse brown wool habit and leather sandals. The lifestyle of manual work, supplemented by alms, provided the income for this way of life, which included a vegetarian diet.

In choosing candidates for this challenging way of life, she emphasized piety, intelligence and good judgement (“God preserve us from stupid nuns!”). It was her conviction that intelligent people can better be aware of their faults and, at the same time, see the need to be guided. This, she felt, would not be the case with the less able and narrow-minded who could become complacent and see no need for change.

In 1576 a series of persecutions began on the part of the older observant Carmelite order against Teresa, her friends, and her reforms. Pursuant to a body of resolutions adopted at the general chapter at Piacenza, the “definitors” of the order forbade all further founding of convents. The general chapter condemned her to voluntary retirement to one of her institutions. She obeyed and chose St. Joseph’s at Toledo.

Finally, after several years her pleadings by letter with King Philip II of Spain secured relief. As a result, in 1579, the processes before the inquisition against her, Gracian, and others were dropped, which allowed the reform to continue. A brief of Pope Gregory XIII allowed a special provincial for the younger branch of the discalced nuns, and a royal rescript created a protective board of four assessors for the reform.

Teresa died on October 4, 1582 at the age of 67. She was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. In 1970, Pope Paul VI proclaimed her as the first woman Doctor of the Church. Her usual emblems are a fiery arrow or a dove above her head.


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20 Responses to St Teresa of Avila

  1. johnhenrycn says:

    Read it and profitted from it. Hope you continue to assist the founders with your contributions.


  2. johnhenrycn says:

    …as you can see, past participles are not my forte 😉


  3. Happy to assist. This is a fantastic site.

    This post was easy as I had done it for my blog. Still not sure how to transmit hyperlinks yet via the WordPress comment system. Technology is not my forte 🙂


  4. Frere Rabit says:

    Having been associated twenty years ago with the Community of the Beatitudes in France – steeped in the Jewish roots of Catholic Christianity – and before that having also read the full works of St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila, it was somewhat embarrassing to hear, in a throwaway remark to me on a Catholic forum, that they were both conversos.

    It was a staggering revelation, and I should have known because of the Toledo connection, but never even noticed!

    Since I was alerted to this, I want to re-read St Teresa in the light of her Jewish Catholic mysticism and likewise St John of the Cross. I encourage anyone who begins their first interest in these Carmelite spiritual giants not to overlook the converso background.


  5. johnhenrycn says:

    I remember you telling us that you’re Jewish, FR, although I’m vague on whether it was your mother or father who was of the Chosen. It makes a difference, no? It must have been much more of a break for you than for an ex-Proddie like me to embrace the Faith, unless you too were raised as a Christian.


  6. GC says:

    St Edith Stein was of course also Jewish and a Discalced Carmelite. She apparently read all of St Teresa’s published writings in one sitting, Frere Rabit.


  7. Toadspitttle says:

    Excellent article.

    Splendidly indecent statue.

    St Teresa a Jew? Rather startling news to me, as well.
    No mention whatsoever of that in Avila, as far as I recall.
    St John is also news to me. I suppose neither went around proclaiming it.

    We must hope St Edith had a comfy chair, eh, G?


  8. kathleen says:

    JH @ 21:10 yesterday

    It was Frere Rabit’s mother. He once told us the tragic story of her life on the DT blog, but I will let him retell it here if he so wishes.

    Yes GC, the wonderful saint Edith Stein is a good example of the great wealth of biblical understanding Jewish converts bring to the Faith. I am neither a philosopher nor a phenomenologist (as she was) but I love the clear reasoning and depth of her writings.

    There were many Jewish converts to Catholicism in the sixteenth century, although it is thought that many yet not all of them were sincere, and that in these latter cases ‘conversion’ was simply a means to remain living in Spain. (The Inquisition exiled Jews who did not convert!)


  9. GC says:

    Toad, I think the Saint Edith read it (come to think, of it I think it was only Saint Teresa’s autobiographical material on that occasion- not everything) before entering religion, which was a consequence of her first reading it. Thus she could have draped herself spectacularly over a perfectly commodious plush sofa with lots of plumped-up cushions, dear Toad. Not like the bare bits of joined-up wood that my aunties had to sit on in the convent.

    kathleen, a common impression is that Saint Edith lost interest in her Jewish faith when about fourteen years of age, and then she went off on her long philosophical studies. These lead eventually to her discovering Saint Teresa and the rest after that we have a fairly good idea of. You often see this quote attributed to Saint Edith:

    I had given up practising my Jewish religion when I was a 14-year-old girl and did not begin to feel Jewish again until I had returned to God.

    Still, Edith’s Jewish upbringing must have shaped her through all her life, so cruelly ended.

    This is rather impressive:

    In the heart of Jesus, which was pierced, the kingdom of heaven and the land of earth are bound together. Here is for us the source of life. This heart is the heart of the Triune Divinity, and the center of all human hearts… It draws us to itself with secret power, it conceals us in itself in the Father’s bosom and floods us with the Holy Spirit. This heart, it beats for us in a small tabernacle where it remains mysteriously hidden in that still, white host.

    Which reminds me, I think Toad still owes us a few articles on phenomenology. I recall that Brother Burrito most graciously gave him a commission to do so . . . . oh, ages ago.


  10. Toadspitttle says:

    A few articles on The Phenomenology of Faith would be Toad’s enormous pleasure, G.

    …But not such a pleasure for many others on CP&S, whose feeling must be taken into account.
    So, thanks anyway.
    He is increasingly aware the credibility gap between himself and Catholicism (Christianity, Theism) is widening palpably the more time he spends considering the whole subject.

    Which is a very great deal.

    But he is a guest, and must necessarily mind his manners, and not upset the hosts.
    Or leave the table.


  11. GC says:

    Oh come on, Toad. We’re just teasing, like you are a good part of the time.


  12. Toadspitttle says:

    Well, G – to quote the immortal Saint Fats of Waller – “One never know – do one?”


  13. GC says:

    But then again, think of banana splits and liquorice and you’ll feel fine, Toad.


  14. Toadspitttle says:

    “I had given up practising my Jewish religion when I was a 14-year-old girl and did not begin to feel Jewish again until I had returned to God.”
    …said St Edith (will we have a Saint Chelsee in our lifetimes?).

    If Toad who also gave up his religion about the same age – also feel Jewish if he returned to God? No. But then, he was not Jewish to start with.
    However, he is reminded of the man who was cured of some illness, and asked the doctor;
    ” Will I be able to play the piano now?’
    “Of course!” said the Doc.
    “That’s wonderful, because I couldn’t play it before, ” said the man.


  15. GC says:

    kathleen, another Jewish convert (they say she converted, at long last, a few days before she died at the grand age of 34 in Kent) was the French Simone Weil, of a family of Alsatian Jews.

    I got to know of her by reading Muggeridge in the 70s (I doubt Toad wold approve) and also read her Waiting for God. She is eminently quotable and still researched as a philosopher.

    Charity. To love human beings in so far as they are nothing. That is to love them as God does.

    The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.

    The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like the condemned man who is proud of his large cell.

    Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude.

    It would be great to read something expert about the Catholicism of Jewish converts and their very forthright monotheism. We might get a work like that one day.

    I sometimes think that the strong religious and mystical fervour of the Spanish saints like St Teresa and St John of the Cross could only have arisen where Catholics were historically challenged by the profound piety of Jews and Muslims. It appears to be the case here where the strong religiosity of Muslims helps to keep most of us Catholics devoted to the practice of our own faith.


  16. Toadspitttle says:

    Well, Jews would be monotheists from the get-go, surely, G?
    Not so remarkable?
    It would be equally interesting to read of Catholics who become Jews.
    I have never heard of such a thing. But then, I’m a toad.

    I do personally know a couple of Christians who became Muslims.
    Go figure.
    Out of the frying pan into the pressure cooker.
    I reckon.


  17. Toadspitttle says:

    “The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like the condemned man who is proud of his large cell.”

    Can any of us reasonably imagine a condemned man (or woman) who is the “proud’ of the size of his cell? Would you be, proud of the size of your condemned cell,G?

    If not, what on earth does the woman mean? Is it simply nonsense?
    It sounds all right – rather impressive – until you give it some thought.
    Like a lot of things.


  18. GC says:

    Yes, Toad, quite a few Christians have become Muslims, some of them not undistinguished. I gather that one reason was that some of the various Christian faiths did not give them a strong enough sense of God, as the first of Our Lord’s commandments enjoins. You know, the God thing that Catholicism has sort of historically been keen on. Like meeting God face to face in the sacraments and in devotions.


  19. kathleen says:

    What an amazing and selfless young woman Simone Weil was! I was so surprised to hear she died (so young) in Ashford, Kent, not far from where I grew up. Hmmm…. she might be worthy of a post on CP&S some time! Thanks for the tip GC.

    I’ve just been browsing the internet, and it seems it was St. Teresa’s paternal grandfather who was Jewish. Teresa kept quiet about this owing to the bad press Jewish conversos had at that time in Spain.

    There are certainly many fascinating stories of Jewish converts to Catholicism. Dan Burke of the great blog “Catholic Spiritual Direction” and Register Radio – a deeply spiritual man – is a convert from Judaism. So is Roy Schoeman, who has a programme on EWTN.
    Roy gives a list of ‘conversos’ on his blog:


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