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Teresa of Avila


"It is true that, however strong you may think yourselves, you cannot enter all the Mansions by your own efforts: the Lord of the Castle Himself must admit you to them. So, if you meet with any resistance, I advise you not to make any effort to get in, for if you do you will displease Him so much that He will never admit you. He is a great Lover of humility."
(Teresa of Avila - The Interior Castle)

Born in Spain in the sixteenth century, Teresa was raised in a prominent family of Avila, a town in the high plains of Castile.  Her father, Don Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda was a faithful and diligent Christian.  He is noted to have prayed the rosary daily and because of his faith, he refused to own slaves. Teresa writes concerning her father:
     So great was his compassion that nobody was ever
     able to convince him to accept slaves. And his
     compassion for them was such that once having in
     his home a slave owned by his brother, he treated
     her as though she were one of his children...No one 
     ever saw him swear or engage in fault-finding. He
     was an upright man. (The Book of Her Life
     Ch. 1)
 Dona Beatriz de Ahumada, Teresa's mother was a bright and cheerful woman who was both Teresa's mother and friend.  They are noted to have read romance novels together, out of sight of Don Alonso Sanchez.  She loved her mother greatly and was troubled following her death at the age of 33.  She spoke of her mother as naturally beautiful and intelligent,
     Although very beautiful, she never gave occasion to anyone
     to think she paid any atention to her beauty...She was gentle
     and very intelligent. (The Book of Her Life Ch. 1)    
Teresa had 11 siblings in all - 10 from her parent's marriage and two siblings from her father's previous marriage.  Not much else is recorded about her family of origin, with one exception.  Her grandfather, Juan Sanchez de Toledo, was a converted Jew.  He was called to appear before a tribunal of the Inquisition to answer charges of 'relapsing' into his old faith. (Feldman, 1995.)
At age seven she and her brother, after reading the lives of the saints together, considered martyrdom a small price to pay to be with God.  So being the kids that they were they ran away, heading towards the land of the Moors.  In her own words,
     We agreed to go off to the land of the Moors and beg them,
     out of love of God, to cut off our heads there...but we
     couldn't discover any means. (The Book of Her Life, Ch. 1)
At the rambunctious age of 16 her father sent her off to the convent school of Our Lady of Grace, run by Augustinian nuns.  But being constrained by convent life she became ill. In 1532 she returned to her father's house and following her recovery she re-entered her wordly life.  However she was continually troubled about her vocation.
After sharing this trouble with her father, Don Alonso refused to allow her to return to the convent. So in 1535 Teresa, being the fiery, free-spirit that she was ran away (with her brother whom she had convinced to become a friar) and entered the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, a Carmelite convent.  She writes,
     we agreed together to set out...for the monastery where
     that friend of mine lived for whom I had so great an
     affection: though I would have gone to any other
     monastery...or to any one my father liked...I remember...the 
     pain I felt when I left my father's house was so great...for, as
     I had no love of God to destroy my love of father and of
     kindred, this latter love came upon me with a violence so
     great that, if our Lord had not been my keeper, my own
     resolution would have failed me. (The Book of Her Life,
     Ch. 4)
Teresa professed her vows as a Carmelite nun in 1537, only to fall ill again in 1538.  She travels to Becedas and notes,  for three months of it suffering [the] most cruel tortures—effects of the violent remedies which they applied. (The Book of Her Life, Ch. 4) So in 1539 she returned to her father's house.  Her Teresa falls into a coma for four days, and even while burial preparations are underway, she dramatically awakens paralyzed.  Soon after she returns to her convent where she spends the next three years in the infirmary.  During this time she is regaining movement in her body and at times she is crawling on the floor, which to her was a joy because she was moving.  In 1542 she is fully recoverd and attributes her healing to San Jose (St. Joseph).
During the next 12 years Teresa describes her life as a time of "wasting."  During this time she frequented the convent's social parlor, joined in the local gossip and became versed in wordly news.  In chapter 7 of The Book of Her Life she recounts this period with much shame and regret,
     going on from pastime to pastime, from vanity to vanity,
     from one occasion of sin to another, I began to expose
     myself exceedingly to the very greatest dangers: my soul was
     so distracted by many vanities, that I was ashamed to draw
     near unto God in an act of such special friendship as that of
     prayer.As my sins multiplied, I began to lose the pleasure
     and comfort I had in virtuous things: and that loss
     contributed to the abandonment of prayer.
In 1554 she experienced a 'new conversion,' which appeared to liberate her from her spiritual struggle.  First through a statue and then through a book she felt the pains of Christ on the cross deeply and felt that like St. Augustine in his book Confessions, she was hearing God's voice calling to her from within.  These experiences brought about a change in Teresa and she was drawn more deeply into silent and passive prayer.  At first she suspected, as did various spiritual directors, that the experiences she was having during her reflective prayer time were caused by the Devil.  She struggled at not being fully understood and understanding and at the direction of her advisors she wrote her experiences down and in 1562 these experiences appeared in their first form in The Book of Her Life.
Also in 1562, after a terrifying vision of hell Teresa began to discuss with close friends and advisors of her desire, and indeed, call to reform the order and truly live out the Carmelite rule.  Therefore, Pope Pius IV granted her permission to found a new convent, San Jose de Avila (St. Joseph) - which was dedicated on August 24, 1562.  It was during the infancy of this new convent that Teresa became aware of the other nuns' desire and need for more direct and practical teaching on doctrine and prayer.  Out of this need Teresa began to construct a text of instruction that was later known as The Way of Perfection.  In this text Teresa's deep desire to teach about prayer and the depth that is present in prayer is apparent. She structures the text to first speak to the things needed for a prayer-filled life (love, detachement and humility), then expounds on the practice of prayer and contemplation, she continues by laying out the fundamental practices of prayer and closed her instruction with a disection of the Lord's Prayer.
From 1567 to 1581 Teresa,  with the permission of Father Rubeo, the general of the Carmelite order and with the help of Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross) founded numerous convents and monastaries of the Reformed Carmelite order. (For the timing of these foundations refer to the Biographical Timeline.)
Teresa's life and work of reform were not without persecution, and from 1575-1580 this persecution was felt deeply.  In December 1575 a woman who had been expelled from the convent in Seville denounced Teresa, her convent and her reform before the Inquisition.  But despite this persecution Teresa continued on in her work for reform.
In 1580 she received some respite from this persecution when an official papal bull was issued declaring her reform efforts, commonly called the Discalced (bare-foot) Carmelites, was 'legal' in the eyes of the church.  With this declaration, Teresa and Juan de la Crux were able to stand firmly on the reforms that they had helped to institute.
It was also during this time that Teresa authored what many call her most luminous writing, The Interior Castle.  Intended to be an instructional reading for the women in her order she sought to help answer some doctrinal questions and to give practical instruction on prayer.  This book however, appeared to be the last she she 'wanted' to do, but in obedience she felt that God was commanding her to write this.  In her own words,
     Not many things that I have been ordered to do
     under obedience have been as difficult for me as is
     this present task of writing about prayer...May He, in
     whose mercy I trust and who has helped me in other
     more difficult things so as to favor me, do this work
     for me. (The Interior Castle, Prologue)
And she continues,
     there came to my mind what I shall now speak
     about, that which will provide us with a basis to
     begin with. It is that we consider our soul to be like
     a castle made entirely out of a diamond or of very
     clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as
     in heaven there are many dwelling places. (The
     Interior Castle, Ch. 1)
Within this writing she discusses seven dwelling places (for a brief description of these seven places click here) within this castle that is our soul.  At the very center of this castle is the dwelling place of God - where the 'secret exchanges' between God and the soul are realized.  At the heart of her writing is the overwhelming desire to share the intimacy that she has experienced with God, with others, so that they too may embark on this journey of prayer and union with God. 
Teresa of Avila, also known as Teresa of Jesus (self-titled) was a woman on a mission.  It was in this mission that she breathed her last.  While beginning the foundation of a convent in Burgos, Teresa fell ill.  She traveled to Alba de Tormes (arriving on September 20) and nine days later she announced her imminent death.  On October 3 she received the sacrament of Extreme Unction and her last confession.  Shortly after Teresa died in the arms of Ana de San Bartholome, a close friend, while reciting verses from Song of Songs and thanking God that she was a daughter of the church.
Teresa's mission was to cleanse her order of the worldliness that had infested it, all the while calling all to a more complete union with God through prayer.  She was a teacher of many then, and her teaching continues to this day.  In 1970 she was declared a Doctor of the Church by the Roman Catholic Church.  She is officially honored within the church as a saint on October 15.

For a biographical timeline click here.
  For excerpts from her writings click here.
For a description of her 'seven places' click here.
For excerpts from her poetry click here.

Experience the mystery...

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