Born of an aristocratic Castilian family at Avila in 1515, Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada showed precocious piety by playing as hermits with her younger brother and by once running away from home with him, hoping to reach Morocca and to die as martyrs. She was reared at home according to her station in life until she was fourteen, when her mother died. In adolescence she became interested in romances and fashion, whereupon her father sent her to be educated by Augustinian nuns in the town. A year and a half later she fell ill, and after reading St Jeromes’ Letters during her convalescence, she decided to become a nun. Her father was at first unwilling, but later gave consent, and Teresa entered the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation in Avila at twenty. A year later she fell ill again, possibly from malaria. She left the convent to stay with her family during the treatment of her illness, and on her recovery three years later she returned to the convent.
At this time the community at the Incarnation was large, comprising one hundred forty nuns, and the nuns’ observance of the rule was relaxed. The parlor was frequented by ladies and gentlemen of the town, and the nuns were able frequently to leave the cloister. In this atmosphere where solitude and poverty seem lightly to have been esteemed, Teresa first practiced mental prayer, then abandoned it, to take it up again after her father’s death, never again to give it up. Gradually she entered more deeply into the practice of prayer until in 1555 she experienced an interior conversion, identifying herself with two penitents, St Mary Magdalene and St Augustine of Hippo, whose Confessions were deeply influential in the formation of her piety. She was helped by Dominican and Jesuit spiritual directors, but her visions and other experiences became more widely known through indiscretion and led to misunderstanding, ridicule, and even persecution.
After twenty-five years or more of this more relaxed religious life, she determined to found a house where the primitive Carmelite rule would more strictly be observed. She met with opposition from ecclesiastical and civil authorities, but her new house of St Joseph at Avila, founded in 1562 with thirteen nuns in conditions of poverty, hardship, and solitude, became the example for sixteen other houses during her lifetime and provided inspiration and an example for reforms in other countries and centuries. Personal poverty was signified by the coarse brown wool habit and the leather sandals. The regimen of manual work, together with alms, provided their income for a very simple way of life which included perpetual abstinence from meat. Teresa herself took her turn at sweeping, spinning, and other household tasks. Teresa’s robust common sense and prudence, and her trust in God’s providence, allied with an extraordinary capacity for work and organization overcame many obstacles. In selecting candidates for this austere way of life, she insisted above all on intelligence and good judgment (“God preserve us from stupid nuns,” she remarked), because she believed that intelligent people see their faults and allow themselves to be guided, while narrow-minded people fail to do so, but are pleased with themselves and never learn to do right.
During the late 1560s she was also active in the reform of the Carmelite friars in association with John of the Cross and this, like her own convents, met with much opposition from the unreformed Carmelites, but eventually the Discalced (reformed) Carmelites were recognized and given and independent juridical structure.
Teresa’s teaching on prayer was complemented by John’s more theological approach, and her own writings in a vivid vernacular stress among other things the existence of different kinds of prayer which are neither rudimentary nor properly mystical. Fortunately for posterity she commited her teaching to writing, and she authored several books, including her autobiography, the story of her foundations, The Way of Perfection (written for nuns), and The Interior Castle, her most mature teaching on prayer and contemplation.
Teresa established her last foundation of Discalced Carmelite sisters at Burgos in 1582, and died on her way back to Avila at Alba de Tormes on October 4 (Old Calendar). Her body was buried and still rests there. In 1662 she was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1970 she was declared a Doctor of the Church, the first woman so honored.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
O God, by your Holy Spirit you moved Teresa of Avila to manifest to your Church the way of perfection: Grant us, we pray, to be nourished by her excellent teaching, and enkindle within us a keen and unquenchable longing for true holiness; through Jesus Christ, the joy of loving hearts, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Teresa of Avila, Nun, are published on the Lectionary Page’s website.