Teresa Avila

Biography of Santa Teresa with surnames Sánchez de Cepeda Dávila and Ahumada, although she generally used the name Teresa de Ahumada until she entered the Carmelite Order, then changing her name to Teresa de Jesús.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation

She was such an extraordinary and unusual woman that even during her life the universities, the academic world in general, and the Church did not hesitate to splendidly recognize her worth.

Since she was included among the saints of the Church by Pope Gregory XV, on March 12, 1622, she has been known as Saint Teresa of Jesus. Five years later, in 1627, Pope Urban VIII appointed her as Patroness of Spain.

She was named Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Salamanca, and later she was appointed patron saint of writers. In 2015, the Universidad Católica de Ávila also named her Doctor Honoris Causa.

University Salamanca
Library of the University of Salamanca, where Teresa de Avila was declared Doctor Honoris Causa. Credit: web elcorso.es

The Catholic Church as an institution did not officially recognize the magisterium of spiritual life carried out by a woman. In fact, all attempts by her devotees were aborted in that regard.

Finally, in 1970, under the pontificate of Paul VI, Saint Teresa of Jesus became the first woman elevated by the Catholic Church to the status of Doctor of the Church.

Reading the verses outlined below, it can be deduced that he had an extraordinary lyrical streak.

Indeed, her mystical and literary poetic production was inexhaustible and of the highest quality. Here are a few verses, demonstrating the quality of those written by Saint Teresa.

Vivo sin vivir en mí,
y de tal manera espero,
que muero porque no muero.
Vivo ya fuera de mí
después que muero de amor;
porque vivo en el Señor,
que me quiso para sí.

Cuando el corazón le di
puse en él este letrero:
que muero porque no muero
. 
Aquella vida de arriba
es la vida verdadera;
hasta que esta vida muera,
no se goza estando viva.
Muerte, no me seas esquiva;
viva muriendo primero,
que muero porque no muero.
Vida, ¿qué puedo yo darle
a mi Dios, que vive en mí,
si no es el perderte a ti
para mejor a Él gozarle?
Quiero muriendo alcanzarle,
pues tanto a mi Amado quiero,
que muero porque no muero
.

She was a convinced Christian and full of love for God. She was also a hyperactive woman, she was a force of nature, totally determined to go to the end in the multiple projects she decided to undertake to improve religious life as she conceived it.

The large number of convents that she founded cannot be explained without the power of persuasion, the ability to organize, the sympathy (one of her biographers says that she was beautiful, cheerful and that when she laughed, everyone laughed), tenacity and self-denial. inexhaustible of a woman of the sixteenth century who managed to win over everyone: Popes, bishops, abbots, nobles, nuns and religious.

Her abundant and prodigious literary production should be thanked in large part to the successive “spiritual directors” she had, and who were ordering her to write her memoirs and mystical poems.

In those years, all Christians, from the most humble to the kings and the Pope himself, had a spiritual director. And he not only advised, but ordered; what he said was fulfilled.

Francisco Borja
San Francisco de Borja, sculpture by Juan Martínez Montanés, painting by Francisco Pacheco

Teresa’s father was Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda, sondalgo of Spain. The grandfather, Juan Sánchez de Toledo, was a prosperous merchant of converted Jewish origin. The mother, Beatriz Dávila y Ahumada had 10 children.

Teresa was born on March 28, 1525, and was the third. Her father, Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda, had had 2 children from a previous marriage.

In short, Teresa had to compete with 11 other siblings, of whom only 2 were also women. A good piece of information to suspect the origin of the combativeness that the future Santa Teresa always demonstrated.

In addition to the siblings, there were the cousins, several of them the same age, which made games, adventures and childish mischief possible.

Avila
Avila was the city where Teresa’s family lived. Credit: web de flickr.com

Her parents were fond of pious readings and romance. This contributed to the awakening of the imagination and intelligence of little Teresa.

The anecdote that she starred with her brother Rodrigo, when they were 6 or 7 years old, is well known. Both decided to escape to the lands of the Moors, thinking of suffering martyrdom there. They set out on the journey begging for alms, so that there they beheaded.

Fortunately, one of their uncles found them shortly after leaving town and brought them back home.

Seeing that their project was unworkable, the two brothers agreed to become hermits and settled for hours in a garden at home.

Her mother passed away in November 1528, when Teresa was thirteen years old. This death was a great trauma for the Cepeda Ahumada family.

One by one her brothers, including her brother Rodrigo, set out on the West Indies road; none remained in the family home.

In 1531, by decision of her father, Teresa entered the Santa María de Gracia school as a boarding student, run by the Augustinian nuns.

The following year, 1532, due to an illness, she was taken to the house of an uncle, and later, to that of her sister María, who had married and lived near Ávila, in Castellanos de la Cañada.

As soon as her health improved, she returned to her parental home and worked as a housekeeper for about three years.

In 1536, she expressed her desire to be a nun to her father. She was met with stiff opposition from Don Alonso Sánchez.

But Teresa was already 21 years old and left the paternal home on November 2, 1536, to enter the convent of the Incarnation, of the Carmelite Mothers.

In that community of almost 180 nuns, she found herself very comfortable sharing work, prayers, readings and joys with her religious sisters.

Convent Encarnación
Convent of the Incarnation, in Avila. Credit: Wikimedia. Discasto

However, shortly after entering the convent, her health deteriorated significantly, she suffered from fainting spells, heart disease and other complaints.

She lost her joviality and a melancholy invaded her that ended up generating an imbalance of psychic order.

Her father decided to take her to her sister María’s house, to the village of Castellanos de la Cañada, where she remained from the fall of 1538 to the spring of 1539. It was a period of spiritual freedom, without the strict discipline of the convent.

Faced with the apparent improvement, she returned to the town of Becedas, near Ávila. But on August 15, 1539, she suffered a sudden and violent attack, with a series of seizures, followed by loss of consciousness and a deep level 3 coma that lasted for four days.

Later, she herself narrated how this terrible experience was: “I was left with these four days of paroxysm, so that only the Lord can know the unbearable torments I felt in me: my tongue was bitten into pieces; the throat, if nothing had happened and the great weakness that drowned me, that even the water could not pass; everything seemed to me was out of joint; with great folly in the head; all shrunken, curled into a ball […] without being able to move, neither arm nor foot nor hand nor head, more than if I were dead, if they did not shake me; only one finger seemed to be able to shake of the right hand. […] On a sheet, one from one end and the other from another, they shook me.

Becedas
Becedas, a town located near Avila. Credit: web becedas.info

In the middle of 1539, Teresa recovered her health and moved again to the convent of the Incarnation, where she received frequent visits.

With health, Teresa also recovered worldly hobbies, easy to satisfy at that time, since the closure was only imposed on these nuns after 1563.

Teresa’s father passed away in 1541.

In 1555, the Jesuits founded a school of the Society of Jesus in Avila. Saint Teresa met Saint Francisco de Borja there and chose one of the Jesuits, Baltasar Álvarez, as her confessor, who led her spiritually for 6 years.

Teresa had been dissatisfied for some time with the relaxation in the observance of religious norms in the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

She decided to work to reform the Order, and for this she wanted to found a monastery in Ávila in which strict observance of the rule of her Order was practiced, which included the obligation of poverty, solitude and silence.

She asked the Jesuits Francisco de Borja and Pedro de Alcántara for advice, who approved her project.

At the end of 1561, Teresa received a certain amount of money sent from Peru by one of her brothers.

It was a providential financial aid to carry out the foundation of the projected monastery, which would be called the Convent of San José.

Convent San José
Convent of San José, of the Discalced Carmelites, founded by Teresa de Avila. Credit: Wikimedia. Zarateman

In 1562, a bull from Pope Pius IV authorized the founding of the Convent of San José, in Ávila.

This monastery was inaugurated on August 24, 1562; Four novices in the new Order of the Discalced Carmelites of San José took the habit.

Riots broke out in the city, and Teresa was forced to return to the Convent of the Incarnation.

Once tempers had calmed down, the religious authorities allowed Teresa to return to the Convent of San José, where she remained for 4 years.

The religious followers of Teresa de Ávila‘s reform slept on a straw mattress; they wore leather or wooden sandals; they would devote eight months of the year to the rigors of fasting and completely abstain from meat. Teresa did not want any special distinction for her.

In 1567, the religious authorities gave Teresa permission to found other convents for women and two for men.

This is how a maelstrom of trips, meetings and negotiations began that led to the founding of convents throughout much of the geography of Castile: Medina del Campo, Alcalá de Henares, Valladolid, Toledo, Pastrana, Alba de Tormes, Ávila, Segovia, Salamanca, Malagón, Beas de Segura, Caravaca, Villanueva de la Jara, Palencia, Soria and finally Burgos.

A total of 17 convents of women, in less than 14 years.

Convent La Rioja
Convent of the Carmelites of Rioja, one of the many convents founded by Teresa de Avila. Credit: Wikimedia. Zarateman

In the convent of La Encarnación, in Ávila, she was elected Prioress and held this position for 3 years. In the convent of Alba de Tormes, she lived throughout the year 1574.

To assess the merit of carrying out these foundations, it must be borne in mind that in the 16th century, roads, means of transport and road safety were not even the shadow of what we can enjoy in the 21st century.

On the other hand, the recruitment of so many economic means could only have been possible with a lot of persuasive power, great personal sympathy, an enormous management capacity and the respect of the authorities towards a “nun” who was able to conquer their hearts and open your pockets.

In the first years of her life, she did not write anything important. Possibly as a result of the numerous illnesses that began in her youth and caused her terrible suffering.

Later, from the age of 41, she experienced intense mystical experiences, which she considered to be of divine origin and which caused her an unspeakable peace and the desire to serve God and her neighbor.

Teresa cultivated lyrical-mystical poetry. Driven by her enthusiasm for poetry, she did not dedicate herself so much to imitating the holy books, as “The Song of Songs“, but developed her own inspirations. Her verses are easy, fiery and passionate in style, born of the ideal love of God.

The most important mystical works of all the saint wrote are entitled: “Path of perfection“, “Concepts of the love of God” and “The dwellings“.

In addition to these three, we must mention “Life of Teresa of Jesus”, “Book of relations”, “Book of foundations”, “Book of constitutions“.

And many others, dedicated to the organization of convents: “Notices”,Way of visiting the convents of religious”, “Exclamations of the soul to their God”, “Meditations on songs”, “Visit barefoot”, “Ordinances of a brotherhood ”,“ Spiritual challenge ”,“ Vejamen ”.

The “Book of her life” was written by order of her confessor, the Dominican Pedro Ibáñez. On every page you can see the traces of a lively passion, of a moving frankness.

All of her revelations testify that she firmly believed in a spiritual union between herself and Jesus Christ.

She saw God, the Virgin, the saints and the angels; from them she received inspirations that she took advantage of to increase the discipline of her inner life.

She also wrote poetry, short writings, and loose writings. Santa Teresa also wrote 409 Letters, published in different letters.

In all her writings, she recommends prayer as the quintessential mode of relationship and communication with God. The saint’s writings have been translated into several languages.

The Inquisition closely watched everything that she wanted to publish, fearing that there were texts that might incite to follow the Lutheran reform begun in Europe in 1517.

Many of her texts are self-censored, as she feared that the Holy Office could accuse her of heresy.

Due to this fear, she herself burned her manuscript “Meditations on the Song of Songs“; She did so by order of her confessor, since the Church prohibited the dissemination of the Holy Scriptures in the Romance language.

The name of Saint Teresa of Jesus appears in the Catalog of Authorities of the Language, published by the Royal Spanish Academy.

Teresa’s intense literary and foundational activity could not fail to disturb the ever-present envious people.

Since 1566, and for 4 years she suffered severe persecutions. There came a time when Teresa came requesting help from King Felipe II of Spain, who took the matter into her hands.

King Felipe II
Portrait of King Felipe II, made by Antonio Moro. Credit: Prado Museum

In 1566, the princess of Éboli denounced her to the Spanish Inquisition, for the Book of her Life.

In Seville, a confessor denounced to the Inquisition the alleged faults of the Prioress of the Discalced Carmelites and Teresa de Jesús herself.

Once the file to investigate the noisy scandal was concluded, the innocence of both became clear.

In 1578, Teresa had a strong controversy with Father Suárez, provincial of the Jesuits.

In addition, the Nuncio of the Holy See redoubled his persecutions to the point of trying to destroy the reform of the Carmelites, banishing the main religious of this Order and confining Teresa in Toledo, whom he described as a “restless and wandering female.

In one of her letters written from Ávila, Saint Teresa even said to one of her confidants:All the demons are making war on us, and it is necessary to wait for the protection of God alone, and this has to be with obeying and suffering, and then He takes my hand.”

By then another complaint had been filed against her for the “Book of Life.

At the beginning of 1579, the storm against Teresa and her reform began to subside.

She was over forty-three years old, when for the first time she experienced an ecstasy. Her visions followed one another without interruption.

Her spiritual directors forbade her to indulge in these fervors of devotion and ordered her to resist these raptures, in which her health wasted away.

She obeyed; but, despite her efforts, everything remained the same. In those moments of ecstasy, burned with a violent desire to see God, she felt herself dying.

On September 20, 1582, upon reaching Alba de Tormes, her state of health worsened seriously.

Received viaticum and confessed, she died on the night of Thursday, October 4, 1582. This date coincided with the introduction in Spain of the “Gregorian calendar“, which replaced the “Julian calendar“.

Alba de Tormes
Alba de Tormes. Credit: Wikipedia

The change to the new calendar made it necessary to eliminate 10 days, so the day of her death, October 4, happened on October 15.

This circumstance explains why 11 days did not elapse between the day of her death and the day of her funeral.

Along with Rosalía de Castro, she is one of the great figures of Spanish poetry, internationally recognized.

Many years later, back in 1666, a young Mexican woman, very intelligent and a prodigious poet, entered a Carmelite convent in New Mexico. Her name was Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. She was there for a short time, before professing at the Jerónimas nuns.

There are two other extraordinary Spanish poets who have stood out worldwide: Francisca Aguirre Benito (born 1930) and Rosalía de Castro (1837 – 1885).

Her body was buried in the Convent of the Annunciation of Alba de Tormes, with great precautions to avoid a robbery.

Three years later, the Order of the Discalced Carmelites decided to take the body to Ávila.

The decision provoked the rejection of the Dukes of Alba, who used their power to recover the body; They succeeded in getting Pope Sixtus V to give the order, under pain of excommunication, that the body be interred again in her primitive tomb at Alba de Tormes. There it remains, well guarded and in a silver coffin.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation

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