Teresa of Avila: Carmelite Reformer
Quote: “So great was my distress when I thought how ill I had repaid Him for those wounds that I felt as if my heart was breaking, and I threw myself down beside him.” (Teresa of Avila)
Catholic Spain in the sixteenth century specialized in spirituality. Religion out-ranked all other facets of life. For Teresa, the Christian faith was as natural as breathing. Growing up in good times, she was a lively and fun-loving Spanish damsel. A daughter of privilege, she enjoyed dancing, horseback riding, chess, and especially romance novels of chivalry. But she also fanaticized about dying as a martyr preaching to the Turks in Palestine. In fact, at age seven she had run away with her brother to seek martyrdom, only to be spotted by an uncle and brought back home.
Teresa’s teen years were marked by the trauma of her mother’s death and her own illness, which prevented her from finishing her education with nearby Augustinian nuns. She strived for piety, floundering until she read a copy of Jerome’s Letters , a volume that affirmed women in monasticism. Determined to keep that tradition alive, she left home at twenty to join a local Carmelite convent. Poor health continued to plague her, however, and during her first decade as a nun she was filled with doubts: “I went through a life of the greatest conflict. On the one hand, God called me; on the other, I followed the world.” Following the world, in her mind, was failure to live up to the strictest standards of asceticism. She lamented Carmelite slackness, determined to demonstrate her own devotion to God. She refused to see visitors and reportedly lashed herself “until the walls of her cell dripped with gore.”
Her “conversion” came at age forty. One day while participating in the liturgy, she suddenly comprehended for the first time the suffering Jesus, wounded and dying. “So great was my distress when I thought how ill I had repaid Him for those wounds that I felt as if my heart was breaking, and I threw myself down beside him.”
In the following years she continued to struggle with poor health. At the same time, however, she experienced ecstatic visions. The raptures occurred with more frequency, and some feared that she has gone mad or is demon possessed. In fact, she wondered if the ecstasies were the result of a “troublesome disease.” But she was eager that others find this same mystical union with God by following her meditation program — four stages described as tranquility, union, ecstasy, and spiritual marriage.
For Teresa, love consisted in justice, fortitude, and humility, ideals which corresponded with her determination to reform Carmelite houses and to establish new ones throughout Spain. No more laxity and easy living for the nuns. Aided by her strong will and charismatic personality, she gained a following; and in less than twenty years she establishes fifteen new houses.
But her success was met with suspicion. A papal thug sent to investigate concluded that she was not acting properly for her gender. Teresa feared she will be imprisoned, but the pope ruled in her favor and she was permitted to continue her itinerant work of reforming convents. The pope was particularly impressed with her work in reclaiming Protestants to the Catholic faith. She regarded the Protestant Reformation as a grave threat to true religion: “Had I a thousand lives,” she vowed, “I would give them all to save a single one of the many souls which were going to perdition.”
Teresa’s legacy involved more than her active public ministry. In 1562 she published her Life, a spiritual autobiography; and three years later, The Way of Perfection, written primarily for her nuns encouraging them to continue their struggle against the Protestant heresy. Her most important work, The Interior Castle, was not published until a few years before her death in 1582. The castle is the soul, and there are seven apartments representing seven stages of growth through prayer, the final and innermost apartment culminating in complete union with God.
Despite having to face the Inquisition and accusations of mental instability, Teresa’s reputation was secure at the time of her death, and just four decades later she was canonized. Five years earlier she had been named Patroness of Spain. In 1970 Pope Paul VI bestowed upon her (with Catherine of Siena) the title Doctor of the Church, the first women to be so named. She was specifically honored as the Doctor of Prayer.