Teresa de Ahumada was born in Ávila on March 28, 1515. After the death of his wife and with two children, Alonso de Cepeda, her father, married Beatriz de Ahumada. Teresa was the third of the couple’s ten children. She grew up in a very religious environment, in which she developed a remarkable sensitivity for the transcendent from a very early age. In an illiterate society, her parents precociously instilled in her a devotion to reading.
She lost her mother at thirteen years of age. This blow and the crises typical of adolescence aggravated an affective problem that would pull her painfully toward her definitive conversion. Physically graced and with great social skills, she soon triumphed in “the vanity of the world.” After a fierce interior battle, she made the decision to be a religious while in Our Lady of Grace boarding school. She was of the mind that it was a better state and a surer way to salvation. Besides this, she disliked the conditions in which married women in her milieu lived. She was moved more by fear than by love.
When her father tried to stop her entrance into the Carmel of the Incarnation, Teresa ran away, but with much sorrow. Her brothers were also leaving home, heading to the Americas in search of fortune. She was 20 years old and wanted to be free to conquer her own destiny.
She lived in The Incarnation for 27 years. She made her profession in 1537 and, scarcely a year later, was overcome by a strange sickness. Its severity alarmed her family, who put her under the care of a famous healer. The treatment worsened her condition until she was given up for dead. She recounts that she was healed through the intercession of Saint Joseph, albeit with a series of complaints that would last all her life. She was 27 years old and from then on, illness became her faithful companion.
During the course of her sickness, she came into contact with Franciscan mysticism by reading Osuna’s Third Spiritual Alphabet, of great importance in her spiritual evolution because it introduced her to the prayer of recollection. Once again in the monastery, her interior summons to solitude and prayer was impeded for years. On one hand, the environment was not conducive. About 200 women lived together in the monastery, in which Teresa’s extraordinary personality stood out. Her constant presence in the parlour was obligatory, since she attracted visitors who would leave considerable alms. However, she did not find unpleasant this intense social life which detracted her from prayer; it balanced her boundless affectivity.
Increasingly unsatisfied, urged on by the calling of the Friend who claimed her completely for Himself, she began to confront her inner experiences in search of light. She had many learned confessors to whom she entrusted her soul throughout her life, ever a pilgrim of the truth. Woman, of Jewish convert ancestry, and mystic: a bad start to attain any credit. In the end, science would underwrite her experience.
In 1554, before an image of Jesus “so wounded,” her transformation began. From this moment, she would no longer be moved by fear, but by a profound love of Him who had loved her first. Two years later, her conversion was definitive. The Holy Spirit burst in her soul and healed her, leaving her free of her affective problems. The fruit of her conversion was prolific activity as foundress and writer that lasted until her death.
Saint Teresa of Jesus died on October 4, 1582, in Alba de Tormes. She was beatified by Paul V in 1614, canonized by Gregory XV in 1622, and proclaimed doctor of the Church by Paul VI in 1970. She was the first woman upon whom that title was conferred.
«I didn’t think I could be happy if I didn’t have a new book.» This is how Teresa of Jesus confesses her passion for reading since childhood. She did not have a recognized education, at that time forbidden to women. As it was, knowing how to read and write made her a privileged woman and at the same time, suspect. She acquired a solid theological and spiritual education from her readings and conversations with the most renowned theologians of her time, and this was enriched by her own experience.
The List of Prohibited Books published by the Inquisition in 1559 had a great impact on Teresa. Deprived of her reading materials that had so illuminated her spiritual process, God came to meet her: «Don’t be sad, for I shall give you a living book.» Jesus Christ would become her inner teacher. Teresa felt urgently compelled to communicate that experience-made-wisdom, to «attract souls to so high a blessing.» And so the incorrigible reader became the impassioned writer.
The future doctor of the Church wrote knowing that her works would be revised and approved by an ecclesiastical censor. She was aware that a woman writer would be ill perceived, even more so if she intended to teach. And, as if that were not enough, because her writings were about spiritual matters, the Inquisition could condemn her as a heretic. Those were «times of trouble» that would condition her work and force her to sharpen her ingenuity. To win over the benevolence of the censor, she did not spare words to make him understand that she was the first to be inconvenienced, that she wrote out of obedience, and she recognized herself to be uneducated, a sinner, and inept.
Although she wrote a lot of poetry, today Teresa is an eminent figure in literature principally for her prose. The entire body of her work has an autobiographical character, though it is possible to find in it other literary genres such as didactic, spiritual treatise, or chronicle. The saint of Ávila wrote from her concrete experience, without dogmatisms or abstract theses. This exercise allowed her to relive her experiences and reflect on them. In this arduous internal struggle to express herself, she clarified herself to herself. The words on paper confirmed the reality of what was lived. A rich feedback between the writer and her pen.
The difficulty of expressing her mysticism in a perpetually limited language was truly brain-racking for Teresa. Her expertise and the novelty of the solutions she contributed to the written word have gained her the designation of “creator” of the language. She had the genius to conceive a system and present it in a charmingly simple style. In truth, her pages exude spontaneity and freshness.
Much has been written about Teresa since then. It is always best to read her directly.
The Book of Her Life
The Way of Perfection
The Book of Her Foundations
The Interior Castle
Meditations on the Song of Songs
On Making the Visitation
Response to a Spiritual Challenge
A Satirical Critique
Miscellaneous Writings and Memoranda
Teresa of Jesus recognized a Presence in her life that lovingly encompassed her in her friendship’s quest. After many unsuccessful years battling to «harmonize these two contraries» God and the world, she confidently abandoned herself into the arms of Christ. And, from that moment, God would take the helm of her life and embark her on a fascinating voyage heading for the «seventh dwellings.» Teresian spirituality springs from this experience.
With her life and writings, Teresa wanted to communicate how that God was, who had gone out to encounter her and gifted himself to her without measure. She had seen for herself that He desires nothing else than to give himself to the one who wants to receive him. God invites the person to enter within, where He dwells. Such is the «great beauty and dignity of the soul,» created in the image and likeness of God and capable of establishing friendship with him. God gives himself completely, not because the human being has garnered merits, but because He wants to reveal himself and elicit a response of self-giving. Teresa says that God «gilds faults» and draws the greatest share from the good that is in each one.
Teresa experienced that a person can live dragged along by his instinctual forces and be ignorant of his own identity and destiny. From this starting point, the spiritual process is for her a liberation from everything that dismembers the person interiorly and separates him from his goal: transforming union with Christ, spiritual marriage.
Prayer is the door to enter into this dynamic, which has as its only requirement a «determined determination.» As the fruit of this encounter in friendship, humility grows by the illumination of truths in the soul: who God is, who the person is, the little which the person can do of his own effort and how much he receives. The key to advance along this path is to accept what God offers as one who is poor and to respond to his grace with generous self-surrender.
When divine love caresses a soul, the soul can no longer measure its life according to the completion of precepts and rites, but instead according to the love with which it responds to so many gifts received. For that reason, this experience sets in motion a transformation of the self at its root, in order to accommodate it to a friendship of ever-increasing depth with God and its brethren.
Teresa experienced great desires for beatitude and freedom. She observed that the human being has in his interior an emptiness that nothing and no one can fill, only God. However, he persists in filling it with what leaves him hungrier. Neither things nor people, but the attitude taken towards them, is what entraps life into a spiral of slaveries. The person needs to eviscerate the world’s lie which he carries within, because «everything that comes to an end is nothing» and «God alone suffices.» When the soul has seen the grandeurs of God, it does not feel the weight of any work of detachment that helps it unburden itself in order to fly to him; to «walk in truth» and nakedness in order to be able to be free at last.
Christ is the center of Teresian spirituality. His Humanity healed Teresa affectively and introduced her into the mystery of the Trinitarian God, a communion of love. From the radical choice she made for him sprang the desire to please him in everything. And, since love of God and love of neighbor is the same, service to others is what validates the act of following after the One who «never looked out for himself.» Teresa proposes a journey of faith lived in community: A group of friends of Jesus in which each one is another Christ for the others, out of love becoming a «slave of God and of everyone.» That is, forgetting self and thinking of the good of the other before oneself. Love that infuses the little things of every day, because God does not look upon the greatness of works but upon the love with which they are done.
Teresa of Jesus experienced the way in which the mercy of God transformed her life. Nonetheless, she did not hide herself in an egocentric, sterile intimism. On the contrary, her sensitivity became more acute in the face of the suffering of a world that is «all in flames.» This is why her desire to share what she received from God was so urgent. The fruit of her conversion was prolific activity as foundress and writer that lasted until her death.
Teresa dreamt of a small community that lived the Gospel authentically. A sign in the midst of a society with twisted values and a Church in crisis. A place of prayer and work, silence and fraternity, where she could «do the little that was in my power» to improve reality. In 1562, amidst many difficulties, that dream became a reality with the first Discalced foundation: the convent of Saint Joseph in Ávila.
Teresa’s days flowed by joyfully until the witness of a missionary returning from the recently discovered Americas shook her heart. In view of the affliction of so many creatures, mistreated because of colonial ambition and the failings of those who evangelized, she felt the compelling need to broaden her work. She was 52 years old. From then on, her life was so intensely involved in travel and new convents that the image remaining of her in history is of “the gadabout saint.”
Foundress of nuns and friars, she journeyed over more than six thousand kilometers along 16th century Spanish roads that were in terrible condition. Her convents were established at a prodigios pace: Medina del Campo (1567), Duruelo (1568), Malagón (1568), Valladolid (1568), Toledo (1569), Pastrana (1569), Salamanca (1570), Alba de Tormes (1571), Segovia (1574), Beas de Segura (1575), Seville (1575), Caravaca (1576), Villanueva de la Jara (1580), Soria (1581), Palencia (1581) and Burgos (1582).
Teresa demonstrated her extraordinary personal qualities in negotiating obstacles of all types. Insufficient financial resources were coupled to problems obtaining licenses, the hardship of the trips, the search for and fitting out of the houses, her ill health…. Suspect because she was of Jewish convert ancestry, a woman, and a mystic, she was denounced to the Inquisition on several occasions. In 1575 it opened a process against her and her nuns in Seville from which they were absolved. She found detractors among the nobility and middle class, and also in the Church. Even within her own Order the situation became intolerable, and after a painful process, the Teresian foundations split off from it in 1580. The Discalced Carmel was then born. And in fact Teresa checkmated the values that guided that society.
A woman always engrossed in a thousand conflicts and needs, her astute diplomacy and renowned skilfulness in the world of business were decisive in her success. But the true motivation of her accomplishment was the desire to serve the Friend to whom she remained intimately united. From an unshakable faith and passionate love emerged the courage and strength to overcome all adversity.
For Teresa, each foundation was an authentic epiphany. God was extending his reign whilst new communities were inaugurated. And He did this using the social insignificance of a woman. The spirit of evil opposed this, sowing along the way so many, many setbacks. But the power of God is always stronger. His light and goodness triumphed each time a new Carmel was born.
Teresa used up her health and life in service of God and the Church. She was convinced of the important ecclesial mission that was carried out in her houses of prayer. She understood that prayer, beginning from the transformation of the person herself, reached all corners of the earth like an expansive wave.