St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church
St. Teresa of Avila founded the Discalced Carmelite religious community of women and was one of the first two women to be named Doctor of the Church (with Catherine of Siena) because of her extraordinary contribution to Christian mysticism and spirituality.
Born in 1515 to a large, aristocratic Castilian family in Avila, Spain, Teresa entered the Carmelite monastery when she was 20 years old. She spent a number of relatively average years in the convent before she experienced a vision that changed her life forever.
In 1554, while praying before a statue of the crucified Christ, Teresa underwent a profound spiritual conversion. She later wrote: “When I fell to prayer again and looked at Christ hanging poor and naked upon the cross, I felt I could not bear to be rich.” She prayed that she might be as poor as Jesus. Teresa had a number of mystical experiences centered on Christ’s passion. She was motivated by these visions to reform her religious community which had relaxed the observance of its original rule.
In 1562, Teresa established a convent in Avila with thirteen other nuns where she felt the primitive Carmelite Rule could be strictly observed. Their communal life was marked by prayer, poverty, manual work, abstinence from meat and solitude. This convent would become the model for 16 other Discalced convents she would establish between 1562 and 1582 while traveling across the rugged Castilian countryside by mule. In 1567, she met St. John of the Cross, who she enlisted to extend her reform into the male side of the Carmelite community.
St. Teresa was a prolific writer on the spiritual life and left a substantial body of writings on Christian mysticism. These works include the Way of Perfection and Meditations on the Song of Songs. Her masterpiece was the Interior Castle which was a disguised autobiography. For St. Teresa, the test of growth in the spiritual life was the extent one responded to Christ’s stewardship call to love one’s neighbor.
Teresa died on October 4, 1582, and was canonized in 1622. She is the patron saint of Spain.
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