By CAROLE BRESLIN
Many parents have bemoaned a strong-willed child. Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, said, however: “Be thankful. Only strong-willed children become saints.” St. Teresa of Avila was a strong-willed child. In fact, one biographer called her a troublemaker. Born of Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda and his second wife, Beatriz Davila y Ahumada, she loved her parents. She was born on March 28, 1515 of a large family and admits that they were all virtuous except her.
Teresa’s early years were occupied with reading about the saints with her brother Rodrigo. They thrilled at the victories of martyrs. Hoping to win the same eternal rewards, she and Rodrigo left to go to the Moors and to beg God to allow them to lay down their lives for Him.
An uncle found them, however, and brought them back home where Rodrigo was quick to blame the whole escapade on Teresa. At home, these partners set about building hermitages in the garden, but were unable to complete a solid structure.
St. Teresa lost her mother at the age of 14. She recognized the enormity of her loss, and so turned to the Blessed Virgin Mary, imploring her to become her mother. Unfortunately, without the guidance of her mother, she slipped into worldly ways as she and Rodrigo took up the reading of romances.
This focus led to pursuits of beauty and vanity. Her secular ways caused her father so much worry that he put her in a convent. Eighteen months into her stay, she fell ill and returned home, seriously considering a vocation to the religious life. Oddly enough, she found inspiration in the fiery letters of St. Jerome.
Determined to overcome her father’s objection, she sneaked off to join the Carmelite convent in Avila. Her heart yearned so for the religious life that her father finally capitulated. Shortly before her profession, she fell ill once again.
As her condition grew worse, her father brought her home once again. She began the practice of mental prayer, but without a spiritual director she made little progress.
Three years later Teresa recovered and returned to the convent where her charm and wit won her many friends and admirers. As a result of the excessive socialization in the Carmelite convent, she lost her spirit of piety and began rationalizing her behavior by claiming frailty. “This reason of bodily weakness was not a sufficient cause to make me give up so good a thing which requires not corporal strength but only love and custom.”
After her father’s death, she once again took up the practice of mental prayer, though quite imperfectly. She described her challenge to remain recollected. Taking courage from St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalen, she resolved to better her efforts. From this point on, she grew continuously in her spiritual journey, withdrawing from socialization.
Blessed with the prayer of quiet and union, she tried to reject the spiritual visions, but in vain. Fr. Baltasar Alvarez, a Jesuit spiritual director, assisted her in developing a deep and intimate communication with God.
Nevertheless, when she revealed her visions to him, she suffered many persecutions for three years along with great aridity and desolations. Her spiritual encounters were ridiculed by the Carmelites, who persuaded Fr. Alvarez to side with them.
In 1557, St. Peter of Alcantara came to Avila and visited the “troublemaker.” He possessed the wisdom to recognize the events as coming from God and explained to her that she would suffer more persecutions. These would serve to keep her humble and strengthen her virtue, he informed her.
During this period she received a deep wound in her heart. This wound was part of the mystical marriage. (After her death a long scar was discovered in her heart.) Overwhelmed with such love of God, her prayer became: “Lord, either to die or to suffer.” She longed to be with Christ in Heaven, while at the same time she wanted to suffer for His love.
For an in-depth account of her spiritual life, refer to Saint Teresa of Avila, Collected Works, translated by Kavanaugh and Rodriguez. These writings, which describe the seven interior castles, earned her the title of doctor of the Church, the first woman to earn this exalted distinction. For an uneducated woman to describe the deepest mysteries of the prayer life was nothing short of miraculous.
While St. Teresa wrote volumes on the revelations — under obedience — she also worked to establish new convents. In fact, two of her writings were for the Carmelites: The Way of Perfection and Interior Castle.
After 25 years as a nun residing with some 140 nuns accustomed to a relaxed and social life, St. Teresa decided to found a much smaller reformed community following the Carmelite rule more closely. Although she received proper canonical approval and funding, there was such an uproar that the approval was withdrawn.
In 1561 several citizens continued with Teresa’s plan by building a “house” which really was to be become a convent. When the son of a benefactor was grievously injured at the site, he was completely restored to health by St. Teresa.
The convent opened in 1562, much to the dismay of the prioress of the Incarnation. She sent for Teresa and became determined to have the convent demolished. This was avoided by a settlement reached by the intercession of Fr. Domingo Banez. She and four other nuns formed the first house founded on the reformed rule.
The Carmelites strictly adhered to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In 1567, the prior general of the Carmelites gave her permission to open more convents upon the same plan. He also gave her permission to open two houses of reformed friars in Castile.
Beginning in August 1567, she founded convents in Medina del Campo, Malagon, Madrid, Valladolid, and Toledo. She was approached by two men to open a home for men and did so in 1568. One of the men was St. John of the Cross.
Soon Pius V sponsored an inquiry into orders that relaxed their rules. Their findings led to St. Teresa being appointed as prioress to her original convent, the Incarnation, much to her distaste. She met much resistance, but her charm, wit, and humility soon won over the recalcitrant nuns to improve their cloistered spirit.
When she was sent to Seville, she was denounced to the Inquisition. The Italian Carmelites feared her reforms and thus persuaded the superiors to severely restrict St. Teresa’s Carmelites. Providentially, King Philip II of Spain intervened, obtaining an agreement for the separation of the order into the Calced and Discalced Carmelites in 1580.
Teresa was then 65 years old and in broken health. Before she died two years later, she founded two more houses of Discalced Carmelites. She died on October 4, 1582, was canonized in 1622, and declared a doctor of the Church in 1970. Her feast day is October 15.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ. She is celebrating her 20th anniversary with the organization.)