September 28, 2006

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82)
Carmelite Reformer and Great Mystic

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.



Life in Carmelite convents at the time
First efforts at reform
Teresa and John of the Cross
Teresa, woman of prayer
Visiting St. Teresa’s shrines
Teresa’s mystical works
A footnote on our pilgrimage tour from Lisbon to Lourdes (May 15-26, 2006)


This month we are looking at another great Spanish saint encountered during our tour across Spain earlier this year. This series really started with the July 28 column in which I reflected on St. Ignatius of Loyola, whose feast day of July 31 was quickly approaching. In this column we are focusing on St. Teresa of Avila. (Her feast day is coming soon, October 15.) St. John of the Cross and St. Francis Xavier will follow in the October and November columns respectively

Born in Avila of well-to-do parents in 1515, St. Teresa was attracted to the religious life for a long time. In 1535, she entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation, which was nearby. After her profession, however, she fell terribly ill and had to be absent from the community for three years as she struggled with fainting spells, paralysis and other perplexing health problems.

Teresa also had difficulties with prayer. At times she saw visions and heard voices. Some confessors and spiritual advisors said these things were from God, while others said that they were the work of the devil. She found special comfort, however, in spiritual advisors like St. Peter of Alcantara and others who assured her that her experiences were from God.  

Life in Carmelite convents at the time

It’s helpful to know what life was like in the Carmelite convents in Teresa’s day. The lifestyles of many nuns had become lax. Visitors could come rather freely as guests of the nuns, and the nuns, many who had comes from wealthy families, could have servants living in the convent with them or could live away from the convent if they wished. Teresa’s own life had become somewhat comfortable. She had her own oratory (chapel), kitchen and guest room, according to Butler’s Lives of the Saints.

For some time, Teresa believed that reforms were needed in the Carmelite way of life. She and others felt the convents at the time were too large. Some numbered over 100 members and were often considered too open to worldly distractions. At times, Teresa longed for a poorer form of life in a smaller community (limited to about a dozen nuns) that would adhere to the original Rule and spirit of the Carmelites. In fact, Teresa became strongly convinced that God was calling her to bring about reform among the Carmelites.     

First efforts at reform

Eventually in 1562, Teresa, with 12 other nuns, established the new Carmelite Convent of St. Joseph’s, near Avila. They set about living in greater fidelity to the original Carmelite rule with emphasis on contemplation and a more austere lifestyle. They wore sandals instead of shoes, for example, and sought other ways to live poverty more strictly. Because those seeking reform changed to simpler footwear, this very visible sign of poverty led eventually to their being called discalced Carmelites (discalced meaning “without shoes”).

About five years later, the father general of the Carmelite Order visited the Convent of St. Joseph. He was very interested in reforming the Order according to the decrees of the Council of Trent. And Teresa seemed to be the perfect instrument for this. He gave her permission to found other convents and two reformed houses for friars. Thus, this first reformed convent became the model for 16 other discalced houses that Teresa in her lifetime would found for women, as well as two for men.

Teresa and John of the Cross

It was about this same time (1567) that Teresa met a newly ordained Carmelite priest, St. John of the Cross, while establishing her second reformed convent at Medina del Campo. Teresa was 52; John of the Cross was 25. She convinced him to collaborate with her in the reform of the Order. Within a year, she founded her first monastery for men at Duruelo, not far from Avila.

A few years later, when Teresa was appointed abbess of the Convent of the Incarnation in Avila, she obtained permission for John of the Cross to become the confessor for the convent. Some of the Carmelite friars questioned the way Teresa arranged his appointment. There were other signs that strong resistance to the reform movement was growing. They would soon discover that trying to reform an established Order is not the best way to win a popularity contest.

The spiritual controversy reached a climax in 1577, when Carmelite friars, opposed to reform, took John of the Cross by force and imprisoned him for nine months in the Carmelite priory in Toledo in a 6 x 10-foot cell.

During these years, Teresa was often traveling about Spain seeking to implement her reforms under difficult circumstances and in the face of angry opposition at times. Increasingly, she would be suffering from ill health as well.

Teresa, woman of prayer

In the beginning, Teresa found difficulties with prayer and was discouraged by long periods of spiritual aridity, but over the years she made great progress in her prayer life, giving all the credit to God. In her Autobiography, Teresa describes a special moment of profound spiritual conversion that she experienced while praying before an image of the wounded Christ. “When I fell to prayer again,” she wrote, “and looked at Christ hanging poor and naked upon the Cross, I felt I could not bear to be rich. So I besought him with tears to bring it to pass that I might be as poor as he.” Teresa’s experience reminds us of St. Francis of Assisi and also gives us a sound, spiritual reason, based on the example of Christ, why Teresa saw a stricter form of poverty as an important goal in her reformed monasteries.

Meanwhile, deep within herself, Teresa was also becoming vividly aware of God’s presence. In 1572, while receiving Communion from the hands of John of the Cross, she received the favor of spiritual marriage or mystical union with God. She had already been experiencing visions of Christ and of the saints and was often drawn into states of ecstasy. She constantly attributed such favors to the goodness and mercy of God and not to any virtue on her part.

Visiting St. Teresa’s shrines

Alba de Tormes. As indicated earlier, I traveled across Spain this spring by motorbus, along with 40 pilgrims, to visit the shrines of four Spanish saints. Not long after passing the great university town of Salamanca, our bus rolled into the small city of Alba de Tormes. The town’s principal claim to fame is that St. Teresa of Avila died there in 1582 at the Carmelite monastery she had founded 12 years earlier. Keenly aware of her failing health, she decided to stop there on the way back to Avila during one of her many travels.

Of special interest to many visitors—in an exposition room in the convent—is the incorrupt heart of St. Teresa, which can be viewed in a glass receptacle set delicately amidst angelic figures. It is most appropriate that St. Teresa’s heart is one of the central symbols of this world-famous shrine.

One of the most popular images of Teresa in the world of art is that of her heart being wounded by an arrow (or spear) because of her great love of God. At Alba de Tormes, as well as in Avila, one sees many artistic references to this celebrated ecstatic experience or vision.

Indeed, Teresa writes about it herself in chapter XXIX of her great classic work, The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila.

This glass receptacle containing St. Teresa’s incorrupt heart is located in an exposition room in the Carmelite convent in Alba de Tormes. (Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)

“It pleased the Lord that I should sometimes…see beside me…an angel in bodily form…. He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seemed all afire…. In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of its iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times…[leaving] me completely afire with a great love of God.”

This painting of the angel's spear piercing St. Teresa’s heart is in the Carmelite chapel in Alba de Tormes. (Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)

Avila. This ancient walled city is located 90 miles southeast of Alba de Tormes. In Avila, we visited various rooms in the Convent of Santa Teresa, which was built over Teresa’s birthplace. The most-visited room is a small chapel built directly over the room where she was born. We also had the chance to visit several rooms in the Convent of the Incarnation, where Teresa entered the Carmelites and spent 27 years of her life.

Teresa’s mystical works

Besides her Autobiography, Teresa also wrote several other spiritual classics such as The Way of Perfection and her great book on mystical prayer, The Interior Castle. In this book, Teresa teaches that a religious person’s soul is like an “interior castle” in which the Holy Trinity dwells.” As Richard McBrien writes in his Lives of the Saints, “The book describes the mystical life through the symbolism of seven mansions, with the first three mansions as the pre-mystical journey to God and the next four mansions as growth in the mystical life….Teresa saw spiritual betrothal occurring in the sixth mansion and spiritual marriage in the seventh.”

Teresa of Avila’s greatness as a spiritual writer was not universally recognized during her life. It would take a few centuries before her contributions to mystical theology and Christian spirituality were duly recognized. This finally came about in 1970, when Pope Paul VI declared Teresa a Doctor of the Church, the first woman to be so honored. 

A footnote on our pilgrimage tour from Lisbon to Lourdes (May 15-26, 2006)

Our pilgrimage began at the birthplace of St. Anthony of Padua in Lisbon, Portugal. We then moved by motorbus to Fatima, which was followed by a visit to Coimbra, Portugal, and to the Monastery of Santa Cruz there, where St. Anthony spent several years as an Augustinian friar. Our motorbus journey then proceeded across Spain, where we visited the shrines of four great Spanish saints in this sequence: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier. Finally, we crossed the border between Spain and France and made a two-day visit to Our Lady’s Shrine in Lourdes, France.

(The tour was arranged by Pentecost Tours, Inc.)

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