Very early one November morning in 1535, as the light cast soft shadows on the austere Castilian landscape, twenty-year-old Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda stole away from her home in Ávila.
Her destination: the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in the same city. Her heart ached that morning at the thought of leaving her widowed father behind. “It seemed that every bone in my body was being sundered,” she later wrote.
The decision had not been easy. Teresa’s father, Don Alonso, was a devout and wealthy nobleman who loved his daughter deeply and didn’t want to see her to leave home. Even worse, Teresa was ambivalent about becoming a nun. She had spent several years in a convent as a boarder and enjoyed the experience. She knew that this environment was better for her than the vanities and frivolities she had indulged in with her cousins. Still, she had never felt a strong desire to enter a convent herself. In the end, she confessed, “I was moved more by servile fear than by love.”
Over many years, God was to transform that fear into the heights of mystical love. Teresa of Ávila’s works on prayer are considered to be some of greatest pieces of spiritual literature ever composed. Teresa was also a woman of action who pioneered a reform of the Carmelite religious order at great personal cost.
As soon as Teresa arrived at the Incarnation convent, she felt a great peacefulness about her decision. The beautiful woman with the curly chestnut hair, dancing dark eyes, and vivacious personality could have had her choice of suitors, yet she was content with her new life. However, after only a few years at the convent, Teresa became very ill, and her father took her to her sister’s house in search of a cure.
On the way, Teresa stopped to visit her uncle, a very prayerful man. He gave her a book on prayer that went beyond the vocal recitations that Teresa was used to in the convent. She devoured it, realizing that through prayer she could enjoy a deep friendship and intimacy with God she had never thought possible.
Happy the enamored heart,
Thought centered on God alone,
Renouncing every creature for Him,
Finding in Him glory and contentment.
Living forgetful of self,
In God is all its intention.
Teresa’s prayer life should have been progressing, but in 1542, she halted any attempts to practice mental prayer. She was convinced that her sins were too great, and the casual environment of the convent was too distracting. Visitors were regularly received in the convent parlor, and Teresa, a lively conversationalist, was always in demand. Many of the nuns wore jewelry, accepted gifts, and were permitted to leave the convent for long periods of time. Teresa felt that she had allowed her soul “to become so spoiled by many vanities.” In 1544, while Teresa was nursing her dying father, her confessor convinced her to return to prayer.
For the next eleven years, Teresa lived the ordinary life of a nun but still felt like a failure: “On the one hand, God was calling me. On the other, I was following the world. All the things of God made me happy; those of the world held me bound.” Prayer was dry, Teresa said later, because “I was not able to shut myself within myself . . . instead, I shut within myself a thousand vanities.”
One day in 1555, after she had been a nun for twenty years, Teresa entered the oratory and saw a borrowed statue of the wounded Christ. “I felt so keenly aware of how poorly I thanked him for those wounds that, it seems to me, my heart broke.” Surrendering herself to God, she begged him for help. From then on, she was able to make discernible progress in prayer—even to the point of experiencing great “delights and favors” from God. Teresa said she had received a new life, no longer her own, but one in which God lived in her.
Over the next several years, God granted Teresa so many experiences of his presence in prayer that she feared she was being misled by the devil. Visions and raptures occurred frequently—even in front of the other nuns, which humiliated her. In one vision, an angel pierced Teresa’s heart with a spear, and as he withdrew it, she was left “completely afire with a great love for God.” Throughout her life, she could not understand why such wonderful things were granted her. She always felt radically unworthy of them.
Even as Teresa experienced a mystical union with the Lord, she never lost touch with her own humanity. Affectionate and lively, she often became very attached to others. She wrote to one prioress, “I assure you that if you love me dearly, I love you in return and like to hear you tell me so.” Neither was she beyond castigating her friends when they took too long to respond to her letters.
Untiring in loving,
Our God is calling;
Trusting Him, let us follow.
One day in September 1560, Teresa and several other nuns were talking of the problems of living in such a large and undisciplined convent. Teresa’s cousin, who was visiting, casually suggested that they start their own convent. The idea had already been stirring in Teresa’s mind, and as she prayed about it, God told her it was the work he wanted her to do. Even her confessor agreed to the idea. The nuns at the Incarnation, however, felt threatened, and the people in Ávila were not too eager to support another convent with alms.
Negotiating in secret through her sister and using funds given her by a friend, Teresa purchased a house in the summer of 1561. Authorization was received in February 1562, and on August 24 of that year, the first Mass in St. Joseph’s convent was celebrated. The shock of a new convent stirred up residents, and the police tried unsuccessfully to gain entrance to the house. Several months later, Teresa was permitted to leave the Incarnation and join her four nuns in the first reformed house of the Carmelite order. For the next four years, God allowed Teresa to enjoy the serenity of St. Joseph’s.
In 1567, the Carmelite General from Rome visited Teresa’s convent and came away utterly impressed. The recent Council of Trent had encouraged the reform of religious orders, and here was one nun who was accomplishing it. He ordered Teresa to start more convents. She had nothing—the money, the houses, the people would all have to be found—but Teresa would rely on her natural astuteness and business sense to engineer the founding of sixteen more houses in her lifetime.
The second convent, in nearby Medina del Campo, produced the same opposition as the one in Ávila. Teresa’s solution was the same: the nuns took possession of the house in secret, after midnight. Once Mass had been celebrated early the next morning and the Blessed Sacrament installed, it was much more difficult to evict them.
Let nothing disturb you
Let nothing frighten you
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
Each foundation presented its own set of challenges. As houses were founded in cities further away, Teresa and her nuns endured arduous rides in covered wagons, in blasting heat and cold winds, over dangerous mountain passes and flooded streams, often without water or food. Teresa was ill much of her life and often traveled with a fever. Worse, the inns where the nuns lodged at night were filthy and crowded.
Eventually, Teresa founded a branch of the reformed Carmelite order for men. Both the men’s and women’s reform movements inevitably ran into persecution from the Carmelites who remained under the more permissive rule. From 1576 to 1580, Teresa was forbidden to open new convents and was ordered to remain in Toledo. Finally, in June 1580, the reformed branch was recognized as a separate province, and Teresa was free to travel again.
During this time of persecution, Teresa wrote her spiritual masterpiece, Interior Castle. Writing under obedience to her confessor, she structured the book on a vision of “a most beautiful crystal globe, made in the shape of a castle, and containing seven mansions, in the seventh and innermost of which was the King of Glory.” Teresa had experienced each of these stages—starting in the first mansion with the knowledge of her own sinfulness coupled with humility and gratitude at the great mercy of God. Along the way, as Teresa discovered, God’s grace replaced her efforts to pray, and she became increasingly overwhelmed by divine love.
Teresa died on October 4, 1582, at the age of sixty-seven, exhausted by her work for the King who had come to live in her soul. In 1622, she was canonized, and in 1969, she was named a Doctor of the Church. Teresa of Ávila, this most human of saints, had succeeded in communicating God’s ardent desire for intimacy with the sons and daughters he created in love.
Patricia Mitchell is the content editor of The Word Among Us. The first two poems of St. Teresa of Ávila were taken from the Collected Works, Volume Three, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D, ICS Publications. The last poem was taken from Teresa of Ávila: Her Story, by Shirley du Boulay (Servant Publications).