She was born Teresa Sanchez y Cepeda, a name whose aristocratic
ring points to her fathers vast wealth and social privilege. Rich enough to buy his
shirt-cuffs and collars in Paris, he was yet denied admission to the most elite levels of
society. For in 16th century Spain, "honour" was everything, and
Teresas grandfather had been Jewish. (Actually her grandfather had
"converted" under the arm-twisting of the Inquisition.)
The town of Avila knew Teresa to be beautiful, an able
chess-player, an accomplished horsewoman, and a fine dancer. Her teenage days in a
convent-school left her thinking that she had been driven into a box that offered no
escape. After all, marriage appeared loathsome in that it entailed, in 16th
century Spain, a wifes servile submission to a tyrant-husband. Convent life, on the
other hand, required its own form of submission. Her independent spirit raged at the
dilemma. She was helped past it through reading the letters of Jerome, a theologian and
spiritual guide from the Patristic era. Her feistiness now tempered by her vocation, she
entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation. She was 21 years old.
To Teresas surprise she relished convent life, never
missing the clutter of former luxuries. Nevertheless, as her vocation intensified day by
day, she was puzzled and then disquieted at a contemplative order that belittled
protracted private prayer, content as it was to have outer liturgical formalities disguise
inner spiritual impoverishment. Seeking out the priest who had provided spiritual
assistance to her dying father, he urged her to attend Holy Communion at least twice
monthly and to persist in concentrated mental prayer. Gradually her inner aridity gave way
to a spiritual fecundity that was to became famous the world over.
Helped by Augustines Confessions, Teresa faced the
horror of her sin-corrupted heart. In the midst of an unpromising service of rote-worship
she beheld Christ wounded for her. "So great was my distress when I thought
how ill I had repaid Him for those wounds", she blurted through her tears, "that
I felt as if my heart was breaking, and I threw myself down beside him." She was 40
At this point she began to undergo mystical visions and raptures.
Protestants tend to find all of this incomprehensible. Alas! What, then, are we to make of
Pauls Damascus Road episode when the vision and locution arrested and redirected the
man whose doctrine Protestants cherish forgetting, as we do, that his doctrine arose
only as a result of his experience? Plainly he thought that his telling the
Corinthians of being "caught up" and hearing "things that cannot be told,
which man may not utter" (2 Cor. 12:3-4) would help correct the Christians
there. How can Protestants deny the mysticism of Isaiahs experience in the temple
amidst incense-fumes that he saw to be nothing less than the train of Gods
royal robe, even as he heard and beheld what left him convinced he was going to perish in
the collision between his uncleanness and Gods purity? What do Protestants make of
Gods "still, small voice" that Elijah heard more clearly than he heard an
earthquake? of Gods lion-roar that caused Amos to roar in turn? And concerning our
denominational foreparents, what are we to make of Charles Wesleys mysticism when he
writes of being "drowned" in God, "lost" in His oceanic
"immensity", "plunged" so deeply into Gods depths as never to
find his way out (or even want to)? Before we snicker at Teresas finding relief from
spiritual assault by flinging holy water at the devil we should recall Luthers
relief upon hurling the inkpot!
In any era triflers resent those who have abandoned themselves to
God and dwell where the uncommitted gain no entry. Not surprisingly, then, the spiritual
dabblers who occupied the pulpits of Avila reviled Teresa as deluded herself and dangerous
Undeflected, she knew God had summoned her to reform an order
long since riddled with frivolity, shallowness, corruption, materialistic preoccupation;
in her words, "the great evils that beset the church." She began her momentous
task with only four sisters. They found a mud and stone house in Avila, so small and
frail, said Teresa wryly, that "it wouldnt make much noise when it fell on
Judgement Day even as the five women exulted, dancing to flute and
The reformers proceeded on several fronts: frequent attendance at
the Lords Supper, renewed attention to spiritual direction, immersion in the works
of the spiritual masters, discipline to fend off cavalier self-indulgence.
Her influence rippled throughout Spain. A Jesuit at Salamanca,
famous for its superb university that trained legions of intellectual, political and
ecclesiastical leaders, pleaded with her to establish a reformed house there. As the
reform movement spread, embarrassed church authorities scrabbled for any pretext to sue,
ceaselessly multiplying lawsuits against her.
At age 60 she met the man who would be the closest friend she
ever had. He was half her age, a Jesuit, a brilliant graduate of Alcala (the other famous
university in Spain.) He became her soul-mate, ending the isolation that mystical
vivedness had forced upon her. Such a friendship, given but once in a lifetime, was
slandered as malicious gossip exploded. Undeterred, she knew that the deeper the Christian
sinks into God, the more urgently a human soul-mate is needed.
The churchs persecution reached its worst from 1576-1580.
Imprisoned for one year at Toledo and then released, she was welcomed among sisters whom
church authorities promptly excommunicated. Only the intervention of King Phillip
that is, only the intervention of civil authority fended off the
churchs injustice and reinstated the nuns. Nothing daunted her. Upon departing a
convent where community-life had degenerated into endless idle amusement, she denounced
it: "I find a puerility about that house which is intolerable."
Ill-health shortly overtook Teresa. "We can die, but we
cannot be conquered", she reminded those who shared her zeal. Two years later she
slipped away, having told her readers that discerning Gods will and desiring to do
it above all else was everything. The prayerbook she was using at her death
contained her "bookmark", the outpouring of her own heart:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
As recently as 1969 the Roman Catholic Church pronounced her Doctoris
Ecclesiae, a teacher whom Catholics and Protestants alike should hear and heed. Her
books have been translated into scores of languages. Apart from Cervantes Don
Quixote, her works are the most widely read today of any Spanish author.