St. Teresa of Avila, Rubens

The commonly used name of Teresa of Jesus, St. (1515–82), Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic.  Teresa was descended from an old Spanish family.  She was educated by Augustinian nuns and in 1535 entered the Carmelite monastery of the Incarnation (‘mitigated observance’) at Avila.

A mysterious illness obliged her to return to her family, but on her recovery she re-entered her convent, where she began to lead a rather lax life.  On the advice of her confessor she resumed mental prayer, but it was not until 1555 that she was finally converted to a life of perfection, while praying before a statue of Christ scourged at the pillar.

Her mystic life began soon afterwards with Divine locutions, her first ecstasy, and an intellectual vision of Christ.  In 1560 she received much valued spiritual counsel from St. Peter of Alcantara.




In order to lead a more mortified life she wanted to found a house where the primitive rule would be strictly observed.  This plan she carried out in the face of strong opposition and in 1562 the convent of St. Joseph was founded at Avila.  Here she wrote The Way of Perfection (for her nuns), having recently completed her Life, a spiritual autobiography written under obedience.  The subsequent years from 1567 to her death were filled with labours for the establishment of houses of the primitive rule (‘Discalced Carmelites’) both for nuns and for friars, an undertaking in which she received much assistance from St. John of the Cross.

 Despite violent opposition from the Calced Carmelites and several of the ecclesiastical authorities, her work proceeded, and at the same time her religious life deepened until it reached the state of  ‘spiritual marriage’ (1572).  In the intervals between her foundations she wrote, under obedience to her confessors, Foundations, The Interior Castle, and several smaller books.  After her last foundation at Burgos (1582) under the greatest difficulties and privations, she fell ill and died at Alba de Tormes on 4 Oct.  She was canonized in 1622 and her feast is kept on 15 Oct.  In 1970 she was declared a Doctor of the Church.

St. Teresa’s importance is twofold.

    Her work in reforming the Carmelite Order has survived in the great number of Discalced houses which venerate her as their foundress.  She was a woman of strong character, shrewdness, and great practical ability.

    As a spiritual writer her influence was epoch-making, because she was the first to point to the existence of states of prayer intermediate between discursive meditation and ecstasy (‘quiet’ and ‘union’) and to give a scientific description of the entire life of prayer from meditation to the so - called mystic marriage.  Her combination of mystic experience with ceaseless activity as a reformer and organizer makes her life the classic instance for those who contend that the highest contemplation is not incompatible with great practical achievements.

Adapted from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. E. Livingstone, (Oxford, 1977).

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