Born 500 years ago today, St. Teresa of Avila


“Estasi di Santa Teresa”, Rome*

St. Teresa of Jesus, also known as St. Teresa of Avila, was born on March 28, 1515 to Don Alfonso Sanchez de Capeda and Dona Beatriz Davila y Ahumada in Avila, Spain.  As a child she was fascinated with saints and attempted to run off with her brother to be martyred in Africa only to be caught by an uncle. Teresa’s imagination turned to becoming a hermit, instead, keeping her closer to home and out of trouble.

At 14, she lost her mother, which devastated her, but she sought refuge in the Blessed Mother:

“As soon as I began to understand how great a loss I had sustained by losing her, I was very much afflicted; and so I went before an image of our Blessed Lady and besought her with many tears that she would vouchsafe to be my mother.”

After that, she lost herself in books about chivalry. She explains in her autobiography, written near the end of her life:

“These tales did not fail to cool my good desires, and were the cause of my falling insensibly into other defects. I was so enchanted that I could not be happy without some new tale in my hands. I began to imitate the fashions, to enjoy being well dressed, to take great care of my hands, to use perfumes, and wear all the vain ornaments which my position in the world allowed.”

Her father, seeing the change in his daughter, sent her off to a boarding school at a convent where she says the dangers of where she was headed became apparent to her.  She suffered from what was believed to be malaria, not two years later, but recovered despite dire expectations.

Teresa became concerned with being pushed into marriage and a pious uncle got her thinking about religious life.  Influenced by the writings of St. Jerome, she decided to pursue that course, but her father would not consent, telling her she could do as she wanted after his death.  But she was resolved and went outside of Avila to join the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation.  She wrote of that experience:

“I remember . . . while I was going out of my father’s house—the sharpness of sense will not be greater, I believe, in the very instant of agony of my death, than it was then. It seemed as if all the bones in my body were wrenched asunder…. There was no such love of God in me then as was able to quench the love I felt for my father and my friends.”

During another bout of illness, in which her father had her removed from the convent, that same pious uncle gave her the book, Third Spiritual Alphabet by Francisco de Osuna**. It was here that Teresa began to learn about mental prayer and the prayer of quiet.

In 1562, in her 40’s, Teresa founded a new community of Carmelites, reforming the rule of life, and ultimately limiting each Carmel cloister to 21. In all, she founded 17 communities of Carmelites that would become known as “discalced.”  (See an explanation here about the different branches of Carmel).

The Wikipedia for Teresa of Avila page nicely wraps up her elevation to sainthood and status as doctor of the Church:

In 1622, forty years after her death, she was canonized by Pope Gregory XV. The Cortes exalted her to patroness of Spain in 1617, and the University of Salamanca previously conferred the title Doctor ecclesiae with a diploma. The title is Latin for Doctor of the Church, but is distinct from the papal honor of Doctor of the Church, which is always conferred posthumously and was finally bestowed upon her by Pope Paul VI in December 27, 1970 along with Saint Catherine of Siena making them the first women to be awarded the distinction.[5] Teresa is revered as the Doctor of Prayer. The mysticism in her works exerted a formative influence upon many theologians of the following centuries, such as Francis of SalesFénelon, and the Port-Royalists.

The writings most quoted from by Teresa of Avila include the Way of Perfection, the Interior Castle, and the Book of her Life.   The latter can be found in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 1**; the former, which is an excellent book to start with, is in the Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila Vol.2**.  The Book of Her Foundations is also very good and is, found in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol 3**.   

Many of Teresa’s writings are online, as well.  These will be different translations, but readily available by searching using the title. One place to find them collected is at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Fr. Jordan Auman, O.P., whose book on Spiritual Theology is well known, summarizes what he calls the grades of prayer given to us by Teresa of Avila, whom Pope Paul VI named a Teacher of Prayer upon conferring the status of, Doctor of the church. He writes:

By collating all the material contained in the works of St. Teresa and taking into account the contributions by later authors on the practice of prayer, we can offer the following schema of the grades of prayer:

Vocal Prayer, with attention to what one is saying or reading and God, whom one is addressing.

Discursive Meditation: consideration of a spiritual truth; application to oneself, and resolve to do something about it.

Affective Mental Prayer: one turns to “other,” namely, God, and prayer becomes “the language of love.”

Acquired Recollection: also called prayer of simplicity, prayer of simple regard, acquired contemplation, the loving awareness of God.

Infused Recollection: the first degree of infused, mystical contemplation.

Prayer of Quiet: the will is totally captivated by divine love; sometimes all the faculties are likewise captivated (sleep or ecstasy).

Prayer of Simple Union: both the intellect and the will are absorbed in God.

Prayer of Ecstatic Union: this is the “mystical espousal” or “conforming union.”

Prayer of Transforming Union: also called the “mystical marriage” because it is the most intimate union of the soul with God that is possible in this life.

Further reading:

*Photo at top: “Estasi di Santa Teresa” by [1]Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

** Kindle versions can be found for linked books in this post, but may require a separate search within Amazon.

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