St. Teresa of Avila

Saint Teresa of Avila, known in religion as ‘Saint Teresa of Jesus’ and baptized as Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, (born March 28, 1515 at Avila, Old Castile, Spain, died October 4, 1582 at Alba de Tormes, Salamanca, Spain) was a prominent Spanish mystic, Carmelite nun, and writer of the Counter Reformation. She was a reformer of the Carmelite Order and is considered to be, along with Saint John of the Cross, a founder of the Discalced Carmelites. She became the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church in 1970 and is one of only three women to be awarded that honor, along with St. Catherine of Siena, made so in 1970 and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, made so in 1997.

“I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see, unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise.” — The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus. “

Leaving her parents’  home secretly one morning in 1534, at the age of 19, Teresa entered the Monastery of the Incarnation of the Carmelite nuns at Avila. In the cloister, she suffered greatly 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 in six parts from 1537-1554). This work, following the example of similar writings of medieval mystics, consisted of directions for tests of conscience and for spiritual self-concentration and inner contemplation (known in mystical nomenclature).  She also employed other mystical ascetic works such as the Tractatus de oratione et meditatione of Peter of Alcantara, and perhaps many of those upon which St. Ignatius of Loyola based his Exercitia and perhaps even the Exercitia itself.

She claimed that during her illness she rose from the lowest stage, “recollection,” to the “devotions of peace” or even to the “devotions of union,” which was one of perfect ecstasy.  During this final stage, she said she frequently experienced a rich “blessing of tears”.  As the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin became clear upon her, she says she came to understand the awful terror of sin and the inherent nature of original sin. She also became conscious of her own natural impotence in confronting sin, and the necessity of absolute subjection to God.

Around 1556, various friends suggested that her newfound knowledge was diabolical, not divine. She began to inflict various tortures and mortifications on herself.  But Francis Borgia, to whom she made confession, reassured her of the divine inspiration of her thoughts.  On St. Peter’s Day in 1559, Teresa became firmly convinced that Christ was present to her in bodily form, though invisible. This vision lasted almost uninterrupted for more than two years. In another vision, a seraph drove the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly through her heart, causing an ineffable spiritual-bodily pain. The memory of this episode served as an inspiration throughout the rest of her life, and which motivated her life-long imitation of the life and suffering of Jesus, epitomized in the motto usually associated with her: “Lord, either let me suffer or let me die”.