Teresa of Avila

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Teresa of Avila by Peter Paul Rubens
Saint Teresa of Avila (known in religion as Teresa de Jesús, baptised as Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada) was a Spanish Roman Catholic mystic and monastic reformer; born at Avila (53 miles north-west of Madrid), Old Castile, March 28, 1515; died at Alba de Tormes October 4, 1582. Her feast day is October 15.
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Detail of the Ecstasy of St Teresa, by Bernini, Cornaro Chapel, Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. One of Bernini's most famous sculptures, this work depicts a scene described in Teresa's mystical writings, in which an angel has pierced her heart with a dart of divine love and withdrawn it.

The deeply pious and ascetic ideal after the example of saints and martyrs was early instilled in her by her father, the knight Alonso Sánchez de Cloister Cepeda, and especially by her mother, Beatriz d'Ávila y Ahumada. Their family were Jewish converts. Teresa was fascinated by accounts of the lives of the saints, and ran away from home several times as a girl to find martyrdom. Leaving her parental home secretly one morning in 1534, she entered the monastery of the Incarnation of the Carmelite nuns at Avila.

In the cloister, she suffered much from illness. Early in her sickness, she experienced periods of spiritual ecstasy through the use of the devotional book, Abecedario espiritual, commonly known as the "third" or the "spiritual alphabet" (published, six parts, 1537-1554). This work, following the example of similar writings of the medieval mystics, consisted of directions for tests of conscience and for spiritual self concentration and inner contemplation, known in mystical nomenclature as oratio recollectionis or oratio mentalis. Besides this, she employed other mystical ascetic works; such as the Tractatus de oratione et meditatione of Peter of Alcantara, and perhaps many of those upon which Ignatius Loyola based his Exercitia, and not improbably this Exercitia itself.

She professed, in her illness, to rise from the lowest stage, "recollection", to the "devotions of peace" or even to the "devotions of union", which was one of perfect ecstasy. With this was frequently joined a rich "blessing of tears". As the merely outer and void Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin dawned upon her, she came upon the secret of the awful terror of sinful iniquity, and the inherent nature of original sin. With this was correlated the consciousness of utter natural impotence and the necessity of absolute subjection to God.

The intimation on the part of various of her friends (c. 1556) of a diabolical, not divine, element in her supernatural experiences led her to the most horrible self-inflicted tortures and mortifications, far in excess of her ordinary asceticism, until Francis Borgia, to whom she had made confession, reassured her. On St. Peter's Day of 1559 she became firmly convinced that Christ was present to her in bodily form, though invisible. This vision lasted almost uninterruptedly for more than two years. In another vision, a seraphim drove the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly through her heart, causing an unexampled, as it were, spiritual-bodily pain. The memory of this episode served as an inspiration in determining her long struggle of love and suffering, from which emanated her life-long passion for conformation to the life and endurance of Jesus, to be epitomized in the cry usually inscribed as a motto upon her images: "Lord, either let me suffer or let me die."


Activities as Reformer

The incentive to give outward practical expression to her inward motive was inspired in Teresa by Peter of Alcantara. Incidentally, he became acquainted with as Founder her early in 1560, and became her spiritual guide and counselor. She now resolved to found a Carmelite monastery for nuns, and to reform the laxity which she had found in the Cloister of the Incarnation and others. Guimara de Ullon, a woman of wealth and a friend, supplied the funds.

The absolute poverty of the new monastery, established in 1562 and named St. Joseph's, at first excited a scandal among the citizens and authorities of Avila, and the little house with its chapel was in peril of suppression; but powerful patrons like the bishop himself, as well as the impression of well-secured subsistence and prosperity, turned animosity into applause.

In March of 1563, when Teresa removed to the new cloister, she received the papal sanction to her prime principle of absolute poverty and renunciation of property, which she proceeded to formulate into a "Constitution." Her plan was the revival of the earlier stricter rules, supplemented by new regulations like the three disciplines of ceremonial flagellation prescribed for the divine service every week, and the discalceation of the none, or the substitution of leather or wooden sandals for shoes. For the first five years, Theresa remained in pious seclusion, engaged in writing.

In 1567, she received a patent from the Carmelite general, Rubeo de Ravenna, to establish new houses of her order, and in this effort and later visitations she made long journeys through nearly all the provinces of Spain. Of these she gives a description in her Libro de las Fundaciones (a late ed., Madrid, 1880; Eng. transl., Book of the Foundations, London, 1871). Between 1567 and 1571, reform convents were established at Medina del Campo, Malagon, Valladolid, Toledo, Pastrana, Salamanca, and Alba de Tormes.

After her sprit and example, a similar movement for men was begun by Juan de la Cruz. Another friend, Geronimo Grecian, Carmelite visitator of the older observance of Andalusia and apostolic commissioner, and later provincial of the Teresian reforms, gave her powerful support in founding convents at Segovia (1571), Vegas de Segura (1574), Seville (1575), and Caravaca in Murcia (1576), while the deeply mystical Juan, by his power as teacher and preacher, promoted the inner life of the movement.

In 1576 began a series of persecutions 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 condemned her to voluntary retirement to one of her institutions. She obeyed and chose St. Joseph's at Toledo. Her friends and subordinates were subjected to greater trials.

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, Grecián, and others were dropped, and the extension of the reform was at least negatively permuted. A brief of Pope Gregory XIII allowed a special provincial for the younger branch of the discalceate nuns, and a royal rescript created a protective board of four assessors for the reform.

During the last three years of her life Theresa founded convents at Villanueva de la Jara in northern Andalusia (1580), Palencia (1580), Soria (1581), Burgos, and at Granada (1582). In all seventeen nunneries, all but one founded by her, and as many men's cloisters were due to her reform activity of twenty years. Her final illness overtook her on one of her journeys from Burgos to Alba de Tormes.

Anecdotally, she died the night from 4th of October to the 15th of October of 1582, while Spain and the Catholic world switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Forty years after her death, she was canonized, and her church reveres her as the "seraphic virgin". The Cortes exalted her to patroness of Spain in 1814, and the university previously conferred the title Doctor ecclesiae with a diploma. The title is Latin for Doctor of the Church, but is distinct from the honor of Doctor of the Church conferred posthumously by the Holy See, which she received in 1970. The mysticism in her works exerted a formative influence upon many theologians of the following centuries, such as Francis of Sales, Fénelon, and the Port-Royalists.

Her Mysticism

The kernel of Theresa's mystical thought throughout all her writings is the ascent of the soul in four stages ("Autobiography," chap. x.-xxii.). The first, or "heart's devotion", is that of devout contemplation or concentration, the withdrawal of the soul from without and specially the devout observance of the passion of Christ and penitence.

The second is the "devotion of peace", in which at least the human will is lost in that of God by virtue of a charismatic, supernatural state given of God, while the other faculties, as memory, reason, and imagination, are not yet secure from worldly distraction. While a partial distraction is due to outer performances such as repetition of prayers and writing down spiritual things, yet the prevailing state is one of quietude.

The "devotion of union" is not only a supernatural but an essentially ecstatic state. Here there is also an absorption of the reason in God, and only the memory and imagination are left to ramble. This state is characterized by a blissful peace, a sweet slumber of at least the higher soul faculties, a conscious rapture in the love of God.

The fourth is the "devotion of ecstasy or rapture", a passive state, in which the consciousness of being in the body disappears (II Cor. xii. 2-3). Sense activity ceases; memory and imagination are also absorbed in God or intoxicated. Body and spirit are in the throes of a sweet, happy pain, alternating between a fearful fiery glow, a complete impotence and unconsciousness, and a spell of strangulation, intermitted sometimes by such an ecstatic flight that the body is literally lifted into space. This after half an hour is followed by a reactionary relaxation of a few hours in a swoon-like weakness, attended by a negation of all the faculties in the union with God. From this the subject awakens in tears; it is the climax of mystical experience, productive of the trance.


Theresa's writings, produced for didactic purposes, stand among the most remarkable in the mystical literature of the Roman Catholic Church:

  • The "Autobiography", written before 1567, under the direction of her confessor, Pedro Ibanez (La Vida de la Santa Madre Teresa de Jesús, Madrid, 1882; Eng. transl., The Life of S. Teresa of Jesus, London, 1888);
  • Camino de Perfección, written also before 1567, at the direction of her confessor (Salamanca, 1589; Eng. transl., The Way of Perfection., London, 1852);
  • El Castillo Interior, written in 1577 (Eng. transl., The Interior Castle, London, 1852), comparing the contemplative soul to a castle with seven successive interior courts, or chambers, analogous to the seven heavens;
  • Relaciones, an extension of the autobiography giving her inner and outer experiences in epistolary form.

Two smaller works are Conceptos del Amor and Exclamaciones. Besides, there are the Cartas (Saragossa, 1671), or correspondence, of which there are 342 letters and 87 fragments of others. Theresa's prose is marked by an unaffected grace, an ornate neatness, and charming power of expression, together placing her in the front rank of Spanish prose writers; and her rare poems (Todas las poesías, Munster, 1854) are distinguished for tenderness of feeling and rhythm of thought.


One of the most beautiful paintings of a young Teresa is "St.Theresa", painted in 1819-20 by François Gérard, a french neoclassical painter.

Saint Teresa was the inspiration for one of Bernini's most famous works, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

She is also a principal character of the opera Four Saints in Three Acts by composer Virgil Thomson and librettist Gertrude Stein.

External links

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This article was originally based on the text in the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religion.

de:Theresa von Avila es:Santa Teresa de Jesús eo:Terezo el Avila fr:Thérčse d'Avila ia:Santa Teresa de Ávila nl:Theresia van Avila pl:Teresa z Avila sv:Teresa av Ávila


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