Tuesday, October 15, 2013

St. Teresa of Avila: Mystic, Foundress, Doctor of the Church

Today we celebrate the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila, who lived from 1515-82. Here's more from the OSV Encyclopedia of Saints:

Discalced Carmelite mystic, foundress, and Doctor of the Church. She was born at Ávila, in Castile, Spain, on March 28, 1515, and was baptized Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada. She was the daughter of Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda and his second wife, Beatrice Davila y Ahumada. Teresa was educated by Augustinian nuns until 1532 when she returned home because of ill health. Four years later she entered the Carmelite convent in Ávila, an establishment that was somewhat lax about poverty and enclosure. She was professed in 1536 but had to return to her family for two years because of renewed illness.

In 1555, however, she underwent a conversion while praying before a statue of the scourged Christ. Thereafter she progressed as a mystic, being visited by “intellectual visions [of Christ] and locutions,” meaning images that were impressed or communicated upon her mind rather than her senses. At first she received very poor counsel from her spiritual advisers, but gradually sound advice and guidance were given to her by St. Peter of Alcántara, St. Francis Borgia, and especially one of the most remarkable Dominicans, Dominic Báñez.

In 1558, Teresa was convinced of the need to bring reform to the Carmelite Order and return it to its original austerity. She proposed to adopt a religious life of prayer, penance, and work, securing permission from Pope Pius IV (r. 1559-1565) to open a convent for Carmelite reform. The foundation of St. Joseph’s Convent in Ávila in 1563 was not well-received because of the severity of opposition from local secular and religious leaders, who disapproved of her innovations and the fact that the house was not to be endowed but would exist entirely through charitable donations.

In 1567, Teresa sought permission from the prior general of the Carmelite Order, John Baptist Rossi, to found more convents. Granted permission, she continued her labors, founded sixteen other convents, and earned the nickname “the roving nun,” because of her travels.Teresa met St. John of the Cross, another Carmelite seeking reform, at Medino del Campo, the site of her second convent. She founded a monastery for men at Duruelo in 1568, turning over the task of future reformed monasteries to St. John of the Cross. Opposition developed among the Calced Carmelites, the members of the original order, and a council at Piacenza in 1575 greatly restricted her activities. The struggle continued until 1580 when Pope Gregory XIII (r. 1572-1585), at the request of King Philip II of Spain (r. 1556-1598), recognized the Discalced Reformed Carmelites as a separate province of the order.

Teresa’s spiritual maturity was evident at the time and was recognized as her books and letters became known. Now regarded as classics of spiritual literature, they include her Autobiography (1565), The Way of Perfection (1573), and the Interior Castle (1577). Teresa was revered as one of the great mystics, having remarkable common sense and humor, and combining a life of mystical contemplation with dazzling activity. She fell ill at Alba de Tormes and died there on October 4, 1582 (October 14 by the Gregorian calendar, which went into effect the next day and advanced the calendar ten days).

In 1572, her spiritual development led to her “spiritual marriage,” considered the highest level of mystical attainment. She was also the recipient of the extraordinary piercing of her heart; the fact of this occurrence was proven after her death, when her heart was found to have been pierced. Her writings on her experiences are full of deep insights and Thomistic influence, but they remain intensely personal; she did not adhere to any school of mysticism, and she never intended to be the founder of a new one.

She was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV (r. 1621-1623) and was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI (r. 1963-1978). Feast day: October 15.

Also read: 'Water your garden: St. Teresa of Ávila’s water images of prayer' on the OSV Daily Take blog.

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