On 15 October the Carmelite Order began a year of Celebration to mark the fifth centenary of the birth of St Teresa of Avila. She was born on Wednesday 28 March 1515 at 5 o’clock in the morning, and the year of celebrations will run until her feast day in 2015, writes SR MARIE THÉRÈSE FROST
Teresa’s father was Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda, who had been widowed after only three years of marriage, but had married a second time to Beatriz de Ahumada. Teresa was the third child of this second marriage. With the three children from the first marriage, Teresa had a total of two sisters and nine brothers. The family belonged to the lower ranks of the nobility, and had many servants, though unlike most of his class Teresa’s father refused to have slaves. He had a wide taste in literature and ensured that his children were well educated.
Teresa’s mother taught her the faith, and introduced her to the lives of the saints, as well as to tales of chivalry, which she enjoyed, even though Teresa’s father disapproved of them. At an early age Teresa was fascinated with the concept of eternity and with her brother Rodrigo repeated the phrase ‘for ever and ever and ever…’ These two little children decided to leave home one day to go off to the land of the Moors, in search of martyrdom. It seemed to Teresa that the martyrs had found a very easy way to get to heaven. However, the little adventurers were met by an uncle not far from home and he returned them to their anxious parents.
Difficult Teenage Years
Teresa’s mother died when she was thirteen and she felt her loss deeply as they had been very close. Soon afterwards, she asked Our Lady to be her mother and this gave her some comfort. By the time she was sixteen, Teresa was an attractive, vivacious girl with curly chestnut hair and large dark eyes; she was experimenting with hairstyles and makeup, trying on her late mother’s gowns and reading her books of chivalry, taking care to hide them from her father, but happily playing chess with him whenever he wished. She passed through a giddy phase and became too flirtatious with her cousins for her father’s liking. He thought that she would benefit from the restraint of a convent boarding school and sent her to the Augustinian nuns of Our Lady of Grace for about eighteen months. While she was there Teresa began to consider religious life herself. She was still undecided when she became ill and left school. Shortly afterwards, influenced by good spiritual books that she read in an uncle’s home, she made the decision to enter the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation at Avila. She received the religious habit in 1536 but she became ill again and spent some time in the care of her family before returning to the monastery. Even after her return, she was not able to move very much and she remained in this state for nearly three years. The debilitating illness led her to give up prayer and it was only in 1554 that she, again, gave herself fully to God. She always regretted this and later encouraged her nuns to be faithful to prayer whatever was happening in their lives.
The Turning Point
The turning point came for Teresa when she saw a statue of the wounded Christ, which touched her heart. From then on, she began to receive mystical graces and she developed a close and loving relationship with Christ. Teresa resolved to live her religious life as perfectly as possible but this proved difficult at the Incarnation where she was frequently called to the parlour. It was a very large community and Teresa together with some young nuns had the idea of founding a small community where they could live a life more dedicated to prayer. They began to make plans for a monastery where the nuns could practise greater solitude and silence, following in the footsteps of the early hermits who first observed the Carmelite Rule. For Teresa, prayer was primarily conversation with a loving friend or spouse. She believed that God was interested in every aspect of her life and she brought all her concerns to him.
Teresa founded her first Monastery in Avila in 1562 and named it St Joseph’s, in fact, most of her monasteries were named after St Joseph because she liked to entrust them to his care. She said that he never failed her when she asked his prayers. Teresa founded seventeen monasteries for nuns all over Spain as well as beginning the reform of the friars together with St. John of the Cross. She took the name Sr Teresa of Jesus and discouraged the use of family names. She also forbade the use of titles of honour to keep class distinction out of her communities. Teresa was a strong woman, possessing the determined determination that she wanted in her nuns. Although she lived such a long time ago she has a lot to say to us today.
Teresa As Writer
In addition to her work as reformer of Carmel Teresa was a prolific writer, and her books have become spiritual classics. She wrote extensively on prayer. Her first major work was her Life, written when she was forty-seven, at the request of her confessors. As well as telling the story of her life and her own progress in prayer, she gives some more general teaching on prayer, illustrated by an allegory based on four ways of watering a garden. In her Way of Perfection, written as a handbook for her nuns at their request, she stresses the importance of humility, detachment and charity, all necessary elements if we are going to make any progress in the spiritual life. In this same book, she gives an extended commentary on the ‘Our Father’ in which she shows how all ways of praying can be found in this prayer. Teresa had recounted the story of the foundation of her first monastery in her Life but she later wrote the Book of the Foundations describing her journeys and difficulties with the foundations of her other monasteries. Although primarily biographical and historical, this book also contains many spiritual insights. Teresa’s last major work, The Interior Castle , sometimes known as The Mansions, is a full exposition of the spiritual life and growth in prayer from the earliest stages until union with God, referred to as the spiritual marriage.
In addition to her well known ‘Works’ Teresa wrote a number of minor works and a huge number of letters to religious and priests, to family members and friends, to superiors in the Order and even to the King of Spain, who supported her reform. Many of these were preserved and can still be read today. Teresa, whose health was never good, travelled many miles to make her foundations. The last monastery she founded was at Burgos, after which she intended to return to Avila. On 20 September 1582, she stopped at the monastery of Alba de Tormes with her faithful nurse, Sr Anne of St Bartholomew, but by this time she was too ill to travel further and she died there on 4 October 1582.
Pope Gregory XV canonised St Teresa in 1622 and in 1970 Pope Paul VI made her a Doctor of the Church, together with St. Catherine of Sienna, the first women to be given that title.
All branches of the Carmelite Order are involved in planning the celebrations for this auspicious anniversary. You are invited to join in these celebrations. For details of events marking the fifth centenary of St Teresa’s birth visit www.teresaofavila.org