The birth of Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda on March 28, 1515 in Avila, Spain was the dawn of a brilliant light which shone forth both in the Church and in the Order of Carmel. Compelled by the Holy Spirit to renew Carmelite life, she became the Mother and Foundress of the Discalced Carmelites, both nuns and friars, and in her lifetime made 17 foundations of nuns in Spain. Her main work of renewal consisted in going back to the roots, the beginnings of Carmel—to those ancient fathers on Mount Carmel “who in such great solitude. . . sought this precious pearl of contemplation.” Solitude, prayer, and sacrifice were combined with the joy of sisterly communal life; prayer was to be their main work: apostolic prayer at the service of the Church and for the salvation of souls.
“Forever will I sing of your mercies, O Lord!” These words which St. Teresa wrote in the account of her Life could sum up her own journey of faith and message to the world. It is the song of a Love and Friendship that bears with it a great transforming power—the love and friendship of Jesus Christ. Teresa knew and shared through her writings what this did in her own life. St. Teresa was brought up in a home and society that was centered around the Catholic Faith. As a child she played hermit and loved to think of heaven (“Forever and ever and ever. . . ,” she used to repeat with her brother Rodrigo.) She was even caught running off with her brother to be “martyred” for Christ (a quick way, she thought, to obtain the heaven she desired). St. Teresa experienced the death of her mother at an early age, after which she went before the statue of the Virgin Mary with many tears and supplications: “You will be my Mother. . .”
The age of adolescence brought a decrease in religious fervor as she now became enamored with books of chivalry. Vanities and friendships “not the least bit edifying,” occupied her mind and heart. Her father sent her to a boarding school of Augustinian nuns in Avila at the age of 16, hoping that this would re-fire her weakened religious fervor. There she soon regained her desires and longing for God and at this time she began to think of a possible vocation to religious life.
Teresa entered the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila at the age of 20. She embraced the life with much joy and determination. However, due to the laxity in religious life at that time and especially because of the situation at the Incarnation and Teresa’s own weaknesses, she soon fell away from her original purpose and ardor. In the book of her Life, St. Teresa describes this period of her life: “My heart was torn between God and the world.” She struggled for 18 years with mediocrity pulling her in one direction and her determination to be faithful to prayer despite great dryness and difficulty leading her in the opposite direction.
One day before the statue of the wounded Christ she experienced the grace of conversion. “What I was unable to do over the course of many years and with much struggle, Our Lord did for me in an instant.” Thus began a new phase in her life: “From here on,” she emphasized in the story of her Life, “this is a new book. Up until now it was the life I lived; and from here on it is the life Christ lived in me.”
At this time in her life, Teresa began to experience passively and in a living way the presence of God in the center of her soul. Urged by the many mystical graces God was giving her and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Teresa of Jesus founded a new reformed Community which would be known as “The Discalced Carmelites.” (In the 1500s, there was much laxity in Religious Communities. The name “Discalced,” which literally means “without shoes,” was given to the various reforms which sprung up over Europe as a result of the Council of Trent.) Beginning with the foundation of St. Joseph’s in Avila in 1562, St. Teresa gradually founded a total of 17 Monasteries within her lifetime. Click here for more on the Reform of St. Teresa.
St. Teresa of Jesus was known for her vivacious personality, her astute business skills, her leadership qualities and, most of all, for her profound teachings on prayer. Proclaimed a Doctor of the Church, her teaching embraces all times and places, all cultures and peoples. She teaches prayer as friendship, “taking time to be alone with One who we know loves us.” Having the heart of an apostle, she lived her life faithfully as both mystic and teacher, mother and sister and was a faithful “daughter of the Church” until her death. Her feast is celebrated on October 15th.
*Some of the major works of St. Teresa are The Way of Perfection, her Life, and her Interior Castle which was the crowning work of her life and experience. Her writings can be found in Vol. I, II & III of the Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila (I.C.S. publications, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh & Otilio Rodriguez).