Saint Teresa was born in Avila, Spain, March 28, 1515. She died in Alba, October 4, 1582, at the age of 67, which was quite long in that day. Her family origins have been traced to Toledo and Olmedo. Her father, Alonso de Cepeda, was a son of a Toledan merchant, Juan Sanchez de Toledo and Ines de Cepeda, originally from Tordesillas. Juan transferred his business to Avila, where he succeeded in having his children marry into families of the nobility. In 1505 Alonso married Catalina del Peso, who bore him two children and died in 1507. Two years later Alonso married the 15-year-old Beatriz de Ahumada of whom Teresa was born.
Early Life. In 1528, when
Teresa was 15, her mother died, leaving behind 10 children. Teresa was the "most
beloved of them all." She was of medium height, large rather than small, and
generally well proportioned. In her youth she had the reputation of being quite beautiful,
and she retained her fine appearance until her last years (Maria de S. Jose, Libro de
recreaciones, 8). Her personality was extroverted, her manner affectionately buoyant, and
she had the ability to adapt herself easily to all kinds of persons and circumstances. She
was skillful in the use of the pen, in needlework, and in household duties. Her courage
and enthusiasm were readily kindled, an early example of which trait occurred when at the
age of 7 she left home with her brother Rodrigo with the intention of going to Moorish
territory to be beheaded for Christ, but they were frustrated by their uncle, who met the
children as they were leaving the city and brought them home (Ephrem de la Madre de Dios,
Tiempo y Vida de Sta. Teresa--hereafter abbrev. TV--142-143).
Vocation. The influence
of Dona Maria de Brinceno, who was in charge of the lay students at the convent school,
helped Teresa to recover her piety. She began to wonder whether she had a vocation to be a
nun. Toward the end of the year 1532 she returned home to regain her health and stayed
with her sister, who lived in Castellanos. Reading the letters of St. Jerome led her to
the decision to enter a convent, but her father refused to give his consent. Her brother
and confidant, Rodrigo, had just set sail for the war on the Rio de la Plata. She decided
to run away from home and persuaded another brother to flee with her in order that both
might receive the religious habit. On Nov. 2, 1535, she entered the Carmelite Monastery of
the Incarnation at Avila, where she had a friend, Juana Suarez; and her father resigned
himself to this development. The following year she received the habit and began
wholeheartedly to give herself to prayer and penance. Shortly after her profession she
became seriously ill and failed to respond to medical treatment. As a last resort her
father took her to Becedas, a small village, to seek the help of a woman healer famous
throughout Castile, but Teresa's health did not improve. Leaving Becedas in the fall of
1538, she stayed in Hortigosa at the home of her uncle Pedro de Cepeda, who gave her the
"The Spiritual Alphabet" by Francis of Osuna to read.
Instead of regaining her
health, Teresa grew even more ill, and her father brought her back to Avila in July 1539.
On August 15 she fell into a coma so profound that she was thought to be dead. After 4
days she revived, but she remained paralyzed in her legs for 3 years. After her cure,
which she attributed to St. Joseph (V. 6.6-8), she entered a period of mediocrity in her
spiritual life, but she did not at any time give up praying. Her trouble came of not
understanding that the use of the imagination could be dispensed with and that her soul
could give itself directly to contemplation. During this stage, which lasted 18 years, she
had transitory mystical experiences. She was held back by a strong desire to be
appreciated by others, but this finally left her in an experience of conversion in the
presence of an image of "the sorely wounded Christ" (V 9.2). This conversion
dislodged the egoism that had hindered her spiritual development. Thus, at the age of 39,
she began to enjoy a vivid experience of God's presence within her.
Reformer. Her great work
of reform began with herself. She made a vow always to follow the more perfect course, and
resolved to keep the rule as perfectly as she could (V 32.9). However, the atmosphere
prevailing at the Incarnation monastery was less than favorable to the more perfect type
of life to which Teresa aspired. A group assembled in her cell one September evening in
1560, taking their inspiration from the primitive tradition of Carmel and the discalced
reform of St. Peter of Alcantara, proposed the foundation of a monastery of an eremitical
type. At first her confessor, the provincial of the Carmelites, and other advisers
encouraged her in the plan (TV 478-482); but when the proposal became known among the
townsfolk, there was a great outcry against it. The provincial changed his mind, her
confessor dissociated himself from the project, and her advisers ranged themselves with
the opposition. Six months later, however, when there was a change of rectors at the
Jesuit college, her confessor, Father Alvarez, gave his approval. Without delay Teresa had
her sister Juana and her husband Juan de Ovalle buy a house in Avila and occupy it as
though it were for themselves (V 33.11). This stratagem was necessary to obviate
difficulties with nuns at the Incarnation while the building was being adapted and made
ready to serve as a convent. At Toledo, where she was sent by the Carmelite provincial at
the importunate request of a wealthy and noble lady, she received a visit from St. Peter
of Alcantara, who offered to act as mediator in obtaining from Rome the permissions needed
for the foundation. While there she also received a visit from the holy Carmelite Maria de
Yepes, who had just returned from Rome with permission to establish a reformed convent and
who provided Teresa with a new light on the question of the type of poverty to be adopted
by her own community. At Toledo she also completed in reluctant obedience to her confessor
the first version of her Vida.
Foundations. In April 1567 the Carmelite general, Giovanni Battista Rossi (Rubeo), made a visitation, approved Teresa's work, and commanded her to establish other convents with some of the nuns from the convent of the Incarnation at Avila. He also gave her permission to establish two houses for men who wished to adopt the reform. The extension of Teresa's work began with the foundation of a convent at Medina del Campo, Aug. 15, 1567. Then followed other foundations: at Malagon in 1568; at Valladolid (Rio de Olinos) in 1568; at Toledo and at Pastrana in 1569; at Salamanca in 1570; and at Alba de Tormes in 1571. As she journeyed to Toledo in 1569 she passed through Duruelo, where John of the Cross and Anthony of Jesus had established the first convent of Discalced Brethren in November 1568, and in July 1569 she established the second monastery of Discalced Brethren in Pastrana.
I will inject here how St.
John became a co-founder with St. Teresa of the Discalced Carmelite monasteries for the
monks and friars.
Complete studies can be found in
"The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross," Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh,
O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., ICS Publication, Institute of Carmelite
Studies, Washington, D.C.
Between the Calced and Discalced. The entry of the Discalced Brethren into Andalusia
was forbidden by Rossi, the general of the order, who opposed Teresa and Jerome Gratian in
this matter. The general chapter at Piacenza in 1575 ordered the Discalced Brethren to
withdraw from Andalusia, and Teresa herself was ordered to retire to a convent. The
general put Jerome Tostado at the head of the Discalced Brethren. While the conflict raged
between the Calced and Discalced Brethren, Teresa wrote the Visitation of the Discalced
Nuns, a part of The Foundations, and her greatest book, The Interior Castle. The nuncio
Nicholas Ormaneto, a defender of the Discalced Brethren, died June 18, 1578, and his
successor, Felipe Sega, was less favorably disposed toward them. John of the Cross was
imprisoned in Toledo. Against Teresa's will the Discalced Brethren held a chapter in
Almodovar on Oct. 9, 1578. The nuncio annulled the chapter and by a decree put the
Discalced Brethren under the authority of the Calced provincials who subjected them to
some harassment. The King intervened, and four were named to advise the nuncio, among them
Pedro Fernandez, OP. Angel de Salazar was made vicar-general of the Discalced Brethren
while negotiations were afoot for the separation of the Discalced from the Calced Brethren
and the erection of a Discalced province.
Spiritual Doctrine. Among the writings of St. Teresa, three can be indicated as the depositories of her spiritual teaching: her Autobiography, the Way of Perfection, and the Interior Castle. Readers must exercise some caution, however, and resist the temptation to hastily synthesize the doctrine in these books, because St. Teresa wrote from her personal experience at different stages of the spiritual life. For example, the doctrine of prayer found in the autobiography is not identical with that in the Interior Castle; more than a decade had elapsed between their composition, and Teresa had meanwhile attained a higher degree of spiritual maturity with its simultaneous expansion of experience. The autobiography, written primarily as a manifestation of her spiritual state for her directors, was later enlarged in scope and in audience. Chapters 11 to 22 inclusive--a later addition--are devoted exclusively to the discussion of prayer, although additional comments and examples are scattered throughout the remaining 28 chapters. Teresa depicts different stages of the life of prayer in metaphorical terms taken from the manner of securing water to irrigate a garden. The "first water" is laboriously obtained from a well and carried in a bucket to the garden; this is in reference to beginners who, liberated from the more flagrant mortal sins, apply themselves to discursive prayer of meditation, although they experience fatigue and aridity from time to time. After speaking at length of meditation in its stricter meaning, Teresa made a brief reference to "acquired" contemplation before beginning her discussion of the "second water." In this second stage, the gardener secures water through use of a windlass and bucket; here Teresa refers to the "prayer of quiet, a gift of God through which the individual begins to have a passive experience of prayer. The third method of irrigation is the employment of water from a stream or river; the application made by Teresa is to the "sleep of the faculties." Although Teresa considered this an important stage in the evolution of prayer when she wrote her autobiography, she later relegated it to a simple intensification of the "prayer of quiet" in the Interior Castle. The fourth method of irrigation is God given: the rain; Teresa employs this metaphor to describe a state of union in prayer in which the soul is apparently passive.
Her Way of Perfection Teresa addressed to her nuns, teaching them therein the major virtues that demand their solicitude, casting further light on the practice of prayer, and using the Pater Noster as a vehicle for teaching prayer at greater depth. This book is sometimes referred to as the apex of Teresa's ascetical doctrine. The Interior Castle is the principal source of mature Teresian thought on the spiritual life in its integrity. Chief emphasis is laid on the life of prayer, but other elements (the apostolate, for example) are also treated. The interior castle is the soul, in the center of which dwells the Trinity. Growth in prayer enables the individual to enter into deeper intimacy with God--signified by a progressive journey through the apartments (or mansions) of the castle from the outermost to the luminous center. When a man has attained union with God in the degree permitted to him in this world, he is "at the center" of himself; in other words, he has integrity as a child of God and as a human being. Each of the apartments of the castle is distinguished by a different stage in the evolution of prayer, with its consequent effects upon every other phase of the life of the individual.
The information on this page was
created by the Province of the Teresian Carmel of Austria, Europe
[ St. Therese of Lisieux the "Little
Flower" I St.
Teresa of Avila I St. John of the Cross