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Virgin and Doctor of the Church, c.1515-1582

 When Teresa was seven years old, she ran away with her brother so that the Moors might cut off her head. An uncle found the would-be martyrs not far from home and returned them to their mother. The children did not thank him - they considered him a meddler who had ruined their plans. This childish single-mindedness matured, and with it grew the fortitude and love that made Teresa of Avila one of the most revered women of all time. The chivalrous spirit of Teresa's youth remained with her all her life but it was tempered by intelligence and successfully channeled by grace.

 Teresa was born in Avila, Spain, in 1515. Her father was Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda, and her mother was Beatriz de Ahumada - good parents who reared their own nine children and the three children of Alonso's first wife in the spirit of Christianity.

 From the time she was a small girl, Teresa was considered charming, intelligent, lovely, and endowed with a lively sense of humor. Teresa, at thirteen, presents a most familiar and lovable picture. She was a wonderful combination of practicality and idealism. Occasionally, either quality would get out of hand. Teresa liked to read romantic novels, charm the young men who flocked about her, and chatter with her friends.

 After the death of her mother, when Teresa was only thirteen, her father decided to place her in a convent of Augustinian nuns in Avila, where many young women were studying at the time. (Picture) After a year and a half in the convent school, Teresa became ill and had to return home. It was during these days that she began to read the Letters of Saint Jerome and found in them a spirit akin to her own. She seriously began to consider entering a convent, but was disturbed by her father's reaction to such plans. He withheld his consent, saying that after his death she could do what she pleased, but for the present she was to remain at home. Teresa loved her father dearly. She was also beginning to know herself and the world. Fearing that a delay might easily weaken her resolve to dedicate her life, she went secretly to enter the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation in a suburb of Avila. In her autobiography, Teresa describes this step as the most painful of her life, for the great love of God that was to permeate her later years did not yet have the first place in her soul. Her father at once yielded, and a year later, Teresa was professed.

 Once again, however, Teresa was struck by illness, and suffered such unskilled medical treatment that her health became permanently impaired. She attributed her partial recovery to the intercession of Saint Joseph. The three years that she suffered were spent at home, and they were spiritually fruitful in the sense that Teresa developed her powers of mental prayer and contemplation to a remarkable degree.

 When she returned to the convent, Teresa found herself a favorite. It was the custom in those days for the nuns to receive their friends in the convent parlor, and Teresa spent much time there, basking in the warmth of her friends' admiration for her charming self. During this time she gave up her practice of mental prayer, convincing herself that her health was too poor. But an inevitable depression of spirit always followed this waste of time, and Teresa had the sense to withdraw from the pleasures of social life, awakened somehow to the insufficiency of it for her particular soul.

 Teresa cultivated her interior union with God and began to experience certain manifestations that troubled her. She received intellectual visions of divine things, her exterior senses being in no way affected, and heard inner voices. Convinced as she was that they were from God, Teresa was understandably perplexed. She knew her own faults and exaggerated them because of her delicate conscience. With characteristic simplicity she sought to find an answer by confiding in confessors and friends. The friends she bound to secrecy, but nevertheless, much to her mortification, tales of her experiences were spread, along with her own exaggeration of her faults, and she found herself the object of much ridicule and disapproval. Some even believed that her experiences were manifestations of the evil spirit.

 Seeking for some help in all her troubles, Teresa asked for permission to consult a Jesuit confessor. Members of this new Society were being talked about everywhere for their remarkable preaching and apostolic fervor. A young Jesuit was sent to her in March 1554 and she had his guidance for four months; it was very precious and helpful. It was he who brought Saint Francis Borgia to visit her - that famous grandee who had so startled the world by becoming a Jesuit. His advice about prayer and meditation brought her a period of joy and tranquility. Other Jesuits served as her confessors until in 1560 she found as guide a Franciscan who was a contemplative himself, Saint Peter of Alcantara. He had had considerable experience in the inner life of the soul, and found in Teresa great evidence of the action of the Holy Spirit. Teresa's mystical life had for years been intensified and her visions increasing. During this period, as she tells us in her autobiography, her mystical marriage with Christ took place. An angel appeared to her and seemed to thrust a golden dart into her heart until, as she says, it left me wholly on fire with a great love of God."

 In 1562, Teresa came into the fullness of her vocation. One of the nuns at the Convent of the Incarnation began to talk about the good that might result from the founding of a stricter community. Teresa determined to take this task upon herself. She founded one small convent at Avila, the first of many, at the cost of much personal persecution and innumerable difficulties, including opposition from the local nobility, magistrates, and her own family. But she persevered, seeing in her own early struggle with worldliness the dangers of laxity in convent life. The poor and austere convents she established at Avila, Toledo, Valladolid, Salamanca, Alba, and elsewhere are the testimony of her determination. This is especially evident when one realizes the long distances she traveled with but one companion and nearly always without money. At Toledo, she had only three ducats (equal to about ten dollars) to begin her building. "Teresa and three ducats," she said, "are nothing; but God, Teresa, and three ducats are sufficient to make a success of everything." Here was the perfect fusion of her idealism and practicality.

 Despite the indifference, and at times disapproval, of many of her companions, Teresa did not completely lack human support. Saint John of the Cross was one of the holy men who aided her in extending the reform to the friars of the Carmelite Order.

 At the age of sixty-five, though broken in health, Teresa was still traveling the country, directing her reform. On one such journey, she grew so weak that she had to take shelter at the convent in Alba. There, in the arms of Blessed Anne of Saint Bartholomew, a faithful friend, Teresa died on the night of October 4, 1582.

 Teresa, who forsook the admiration of the world to gain the admiration of the Lord, enjoys the wonderful paradox of sanctity. With her renunciation of the things that are temporal, she won universal admiration. Her charm and intelligence and her mysticism and writings have given her a remarkable place in the world's affection. Teresa's literary works, Autobiography, The Way of Perfection, the Book of Foundations, and The Interior Castle, are proof of her authority on the spiritual life, and in them is found a power and strength to inspire the world.

 Teresa has also won a magnificent place in the Church Triumphant. She was canonized by Gregory XV in 1622. She is regarded as the patron saint of lacemakers, perhaps through an association of the dart that pierced her heart with the needle or crochet hook used in lacemaking.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved