Teresa, then known as Beatrice, was the daughter of a Jewish convert and his second wife. She had a happy childhood with her brothers and cousins.
She was fascinated by novels that told tales of chivalry. After the death of her elder brother John in 1524 and the loss of her mother, Beatrice, the young woman was sent to study at the Augustinian Monastery of Our Lady of Grace.
After serious illness, she returned to her father’s home and witnessed the departure of her beloved brother Rodrigo for the Spanish colonies overseas. In 1536, she came to the firm decision to enter the Carmelite monastery of the Incarnation at Avila. Her father, however, was opposed, and Teresa fled home. Accepted by the nuns, she made her profession on November 3, 1537.
Teresa’s health once again failed her and returned home again to her family. Her case was deemed hopeless, and Teresa went back to the convent, where the nuns begin to prepare her funeral. Inexplicably, however, the gravely ill Teresa recovered to full health.
Partially released from the commitments of cloistered life owing to her convalescence, cheerful of character, a lover of music, poetry, reading and writing, Teresa developed many friendships and attracted various people eager to meet her. She came, however, to feel these encounters a distraction from the principal task of prayer, and experienced her “second conversion.”
“My eyes fell on a picture. … It was our Lord covered with sorrows. As soon as I looked at Him, I felt completely shaken … I threw myself before His feet and shed tears, and I begged Him to give me strength not to offend Him anymore.”
The most mysterious and interesting parts of St. Teresa of Avila’s life are her visions and ecstasies. In her autobiography (written on the order of the bishop), and in other texts and letters, Teresa described the various stages of divine, visual and auditory manifestations.
She was seen levitating, falling into disarray and lying still as death (as Bernini depicted her around 1650, in the statue in the church of Our Lady of Victory in Rome). These events corresponded to a great spiritual growth, which Teresa, who had a natural gift for the literary, would pour into her mystical texts, which are among the clearest, most powerful poetics ever written.
Her intense spirituality did not always meet with understanding. Some of her confessors would even consider her a victim of demonic illusions. She was supported by the Jesuit, St. Francis Borgia, and the Franciscan friar, St. Pietro d’Alcántara, who dissipated the doubts of her accusers.
Teresa felt she had to rebuild Carmel to remedy a certain internal disorganization. In 1566 the Superior General of the Order authorized her to found various monasteries in Castile, including two convents of Discalced Carmelites. So were convents born in Medina, Malagon and Valladolid (1568); Toledo and Pastrana (1569); Salamanca (1570); Alba de Tormes (1571); Segovia, Beas and Seville (1574); Soria (1581); Burgos (1582), inter alia.
In 1567, Teresa met a young student of Salamanca, just ordained a priest: under the name of John of the Cross. The young man would take the habit of the Discalced Carmelites and accompany the foundress on her travels. They would overcome various painful events, including divisions within the order and even charges of heresy.
In the end, Teresa would have the best of it: with the birth of the reformed Order of Carmelites and the Discalced Carmelites.
Teresa’s most famous work is certainly the Interior Castle, the soul’s journey in search of God through seven particular steps of elevation, alongside her Way of Perfection, and the Book of Her Foundations, as well as numerous maxims, poems, and prayers.
Tireless despite her constant health struggles, St. Teresa of Avila died in Alba de Tormes in 1582, during one of her journeys.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini