The 16th century saw significant reforms in the life of the church in Europe. This included important reforms in the religious orders as part of the Catholic Reformation. To this, Teresa of Avila made an outstanding contribution. Teresa became the founder of a reformed order of the Carmelites.
Teresa was born of an aristocratic Castilian family, and was sent to Augustinian nuns to be educated. Although religiously inclined from a young age, she developed a teenage interest in fashion and romance. Then, after reading Jerome’s letters during a convalescence, she decided to become a nun and joined the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation.
Like many other monasteries of the time, the convent was rather liberal and luxurious, but Teresa committed herself to deepening her prayer life. She impressed the other nuns and the many visitors with her charm. Her prayer life deepened, until in 1555 she experienced visions and a conversion in which she identified herself with Augustine and Mary Magdalene. Her concern for strict observance of the primitive Carmelite rule brought her much opposition and ridicule from ecclesiastical authorities, but in 1562 she set up a new house of St Joseph at Avila, the first of 16 founded during her lifetime. Although almost universally known as Teresa of Avila, from the location of the house, her religious name was Teresa of Jesus.
The austere way of life in the convent was characterised by personal poverty (symbolised by a coarse brown wool habit and leather sandals), manual work and enclosure. Teresa insisted that her nuns must be intelligent and have good judgment (“God preserve us from stupid nuns!”). Teresa also shared in the menial tasks of the house. She proved to be a leader of strong character, common sense, and considerable shrewdness.
By the late 1560s, Teresa was active with St John of the Cross in the reform of the Carmelite Friars, trying particularly to change the prevalent laxity of the order. They faced the same opposition that Teresa had met in establishing an order of reformed Carmelite convents. Teresa returned as prioress to the Convent of the Incarnation in 1571, and for five years John was confessor to the convent. It is generally accepted that he owed much of his understanding of the spiritual life to Teresa.
She wrote extensively on the spiritual life. Her spiritual autobiography, written at the request of her confessors, was an early work. This was followed by a book of instruction for her nuns, 'The Way of Perfection', and a lively account of the various houses she established, 'Foundations'. Her most mature work is 'The Interior Castle', in which she became the first writer on the spiritual life to offer a meticulous description of the stages of spiritual development, from meditation to the so-called mystical marriage.
In 1582, on her way back to Avila from establishing a new house at Burgos, she died at Alba de Tormes and was buried there. It was her writings on the spiritual life that led to the eventual recognition of her importance, and in 1970 she was the first woman to be named a doctor of the church.
BORN: 28 March 1515,
Ávila, Crown of Castile (Spain)
DIED:4 October 1582 (aged 67), Alba de Tormes, Salamanca, Spain.