Teresa of Ávila became the reformer of Carmel, mother of the Discalced Carmelite nuns and friars, “spiritual mother” (as is engraved under her statue in the Vatican Basilica), patron of Catholic writers (from 1965) and Doctor of the Church (1970), the first woman with Saint Catherine of Siena to ever receive this last title. She was born at Ávila in Castile, Spain, on 28 March 1515, and died in Alba de Tormes, near Salamanca, on 4 October 1582 (a correction due to the Gregorian reform of the calendar that year, as the following day was officially 15th October). She was beatified in 1614, canonised in 1622, and her feast day occurs on October 15th.
Her life needs to be understood in the light of the plan that God had for her, with the great desires experienced in her heart, with the mysterious illness to which she was subject in her youth (and with the ill health from which she suffered throughout her life), and with the “resistance” to divine grace for which she blamed herself more than she should. Running away from home, she entered the Carmel of the Incarnation in Ávila on 2 November 1535. As a result, partly of the prevailing conditions in the community and partly from her own spiritual difficulties, she had to struggle before arriving at what she called her conversion at the age of thirty-nine. But, benefiting from various spiritual directors, she then began to make great strides towards perfection.
In 1560, the idea first emerged of a new Carmel, where the Rule could be followed more closely, and this was realised two years later when the monastery of St Joseph was founded without any endowments and “following the Primitive Rule”: a phrase that needs to be clearly understood because both then and later it was a notion which was more nostalgic and “heroic” than practical. Five years later, Teresa obtained from the Prior General of the Order, John Baptist Rossi, then visiting Spain, permission to increase the number of monasteries and a licence to found two communities of contemplative Carmelite friars (later to be called Discalced) who would be the spiritual counterparts of the nuns and, as such, able to help them. At the death of Saint Teresa, there were seventeen monasteries of nuns in the Reform, and the communities of friars also quickly outstripped the original number, some founded with permission from the Prior General Rossi but others, especially those in Andalusia, established against his will, relying on the approval of the apostolic visitors, the Dominican Vargas and the young Discalced Carmelite Jerome Gracian (a close spiritual companion of Teresa, for whom she vowed to do whatever he asked her, as long as it was not contrary to God’s law).
There followed a series of unedifying quarrels, made worse by the interference of the civil authorities and other outsiders, until in 1581, the Discalced were formed into a separate Province. Saint Teresa was then able to write: “Now all of us, Discalced and Calced, are at peace and nothing can hinder us from serving the Lord.”
Saint Teresa of Ávila is among the most important figures of all time for Catholic spirituality. Her works – especially the four best known (The Life, The Way of Perfection, The Mansions and The Foundations) – together with her more historical works, contain a doctrine which encompasses the whole of the spiritual life, from the first steps right up to intimacy with God at the centre of the Interior Castle. Her Letters show her occupied with a great variety of everyday problems. Her doctrine on the unity of the soul with God (a doctrine which was intimately lived by her) follows the Carmelite tradition which had preceded her and to which she herself contributed in such a notable way, enriching it as well as passing the tradition on, not only to her spiritual sons and daughters, but also to the whole Church she served so unsparingly. When she was dying, her one joy was to be able to affirm that “I die a daughter of the Church.”
The kernel of Saint Teresa's mystical thought throughout all her writings is the ascent of the soul in four stages (The Autobiography Chapters 10-22):
The first, Devotion of Heart, is mental prayer of devout concentration/contemplation. It is the withdrawal of the soul from without and especially the devout observance of the passion of Christ and penitence (Autobiography 11.20).
The second, Devotion of Peace, is where human will is surrendered to God. This is by virtue of a charismatic, supernatural state given by God, while the other faculties, such as memory, reason, and imagination, are not yet secure from worldly distraction. While a partial distraction is due to outer performances such as repetition of prayers and writing down spiritual things, yet the prevailing state is one of quietude (Autobiography 14.1).
The third, Devotion of Union, is absorption in God. It is not only a supernatural but an essentially ecstatic state. Here there is also an absorption of the reason in God, and only the memory and imagination are left to ramble. This state is characterised by a blissful peace, a sweet slumber of at least the higher soul faculties, or a conscious rapture in the love of God.
The fourth, Devotion of Ecstasy, is where the consciousness of being in the body disappears. Sense activity ceases; memory and imagination are also absorbed in God or intoxicated. Body and spirit are in the throes of a sweet, happy pain, alternating between a fearful fiery glow, a complete impotence and unconsciousness, and a spell of strangulation, sometimes by such an ecstatic flight that the body is literally lifted into space. This after half an hour is followed by a reactionary relaxation of a few hours in a swoon-like weakness, attended by a negation of all the faculties in the union with God. The subject awakens from this in tears; it is the climax of mystical experience, producing a trance. Indeed, she was said to have been observed levitating during Mass on more than one occasion.
Teresa is one of the foremost writers on mental prayer, and her position among writers on mystical theology is unique. In all her writings on this subject she deals with her personal experiences. Her deep insight and analytical gifts helped her to explain them clearly. Her definition was used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Contemplative prayer [oración mental] in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us." She used a metaphor of mystic prayer as watering a garden throughout her writings.
Saint Teresa, who reported visions of Jesus and Mary, was a strong believer in the power of holy water, claiming to have used it with success to repel evil and temptations. She wrote:
"I know by frequent experience that there is nothing which puts the devils to flight like holy water.
"Let nothing disturb you.
"Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices."
— St Teresa, The Bookmark of Teresa of Ávila