Teresa of Avila
Raymond G. Helmick S.J.
Professor of Theology, Boston College
in residence, Saint Theresa of Avila Parish, West Roxbury
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Teresa of Avila was a visionary, mystic, subject of a famous statue by the Baroque
artist Bernini, and one of only three women to be declared Doctors of the Universal
Church. Teresa of Avila: patroness of our parish.
Spain of the 16th century bristled with the masculine pride of the hidalgos. It
was alive with suspicions of everything new, in reaction to the Protestant Reformation in
countries to the North. It was consumed with self-righteousness over its recent expulsion
of its Jewish and Muslim populations. Many of them had chosen forced conversion to the
Catholic faith instead of exile. Determined to prevent any relapses into their former
faith and practices among these, Spanish society made use of the Inquisition to enforce
their conformity. It would seem an improbable place for a woman of Jewish origin to have
made her mark as the intrepid reformer of her Carmelite Order of nuns, foundress of new
religious houses over the length and breadth of the country, establishing, through her
recognized wisdom and insight, such authority with religious men as to become the reformer
of their branch of the Carmelite Order too.
Teresa, known to us as Saint Teresa of Avila and to her contemporaries as Teresa of
Jesus, was born in 1515, daughter of Don Alonso de Cepeda and Dona Beatriz de Ahumada, in
the Castilian city of Avila, one of twelve children, three girls and nine boys. The
family, pious and respected, were of the lower nobility. Most of her brothers went out to
Spain's new American colonies -- Argentina, Peru, Mexico -- as conquistadores. Of
her sisters, one died young. The other, her older half-sister, married.
After her mother's death, Teresa was brought up in a convent of Augustinian nuns. She
entered the Carmelite Order in 1535, at aged twenty. She felt dissatisfied with the
religious character of her life until, after eighteen years in the order, she began in
1553 to experience God in a new way in her prayer. Her practice of a mental prayer, her
visions and raptures were met with consternation and disbelief by her sisters in the
convent, by her priest-confessors and by the town fathers of Avila. The Jesuit Saint
Francis Borgia encouraged her in her contemplative prayer in 1555, and Saint Peter of
Alcantara, reformer of the Franciscan Order, gave her strong reassurance in 1560.
She was urged to write of her experiences, but by 1562, now 47 years old, her relations
with the other sisters at the Convent of the Incarnation had become so tense, her life
seen as such a reproach to the rest of them, that she left that convent, with a small band
of nuns who had accepted her leadership, and founded the new Convent of Saint Joseph,
still in her home city of Avila.
The break had been very turbulent, resistance strong. Once established in St. Joseph's
she had five years of relative calm to build up the life of her new community on the basis
of the oldest traditions of the Carmelite Order. She wrote, for the instruction of her
nuns in the practice of prayer, her very down-to-earth and practical book, not at all the
formidable treatise it sounds like, The Way of Perfection.
To her aid came St. John of the Cross, a priest of the Carmelite Order of men, and
between them they established the Reform for both the men's and women's orders. Beginning
in 1567, and for the remaining 15 years of her life, the now 52 year old Teresa of Jesus
embarked on strenuous journeys, on mules and in primitive ox-carts, all over Spain, to
found and constantly visit 17 new convents of nuns who followed her reform vision of the
Carmelite life, alongside 15 new monasteries of the men's order. Her life of contemplative
prayer and the pursuit of Christian perfection never flagged during those years. Despite a
constant threatening watch over her and her work by the Inquisition, she wrote several
more books on prayer and accounts of her life and the foundation of her convents.
Opposition and harassment from the parent branch of the Order continued unabated until, in
1580, two years before her death, the two ways of Carmelite life were separated into
different Orders. Teresa's Carmelites, as part of their reform, had discarded their shoes,
as had the earliest Carmelites of many centuries before. Hence they were called
"Discalced," un-shooed, to distinguish them from the "Calced"
Carmelites. In fact, in the harsh climate of Spain, they soon found that they had to put
their shoes back on, but the term has remained as the name of Teresa's order.
Teresa died in 1582, at the age of 67. She was canonized a Saint in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. Both he and, before him, Pope Urban VII in 1590, had commented that Teresa's writings were equal to those of a Doctor of the Church. It never occurred to anyone to declare any woman Saint a Doctor until, on September 27, 1970, Pope Paul VI added both Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Catherine of Siena to the roster of Doctors of the Church. In 1997, Pope John Paul II named Theresa of Lisieux the third woman Doctor of the Church.
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