Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada was born in 1515 in Gotarrendura (Ávila), Spain. Her paternal grandfather, Juan de Toledo, was a Jewish convert to Christianity and was condemned by the Spanish Inquisition for allegedly returning to the Jewish faith. Her father, Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda, bought a knighthood and successfully assimilated into Christian society. Teresa's mother Beatriz was especially keen to raise her daughter as a pious Christian. Teresa was fascinated by accounts of the lives of the saints, and ran away from home at age seven with her brother Rodrigo to find martyrdom among the Moors. Her uncle spoiled their plan as he was returning to the city and spotted the two outside the city walls.
"I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see, unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord's will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise." The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus (c.1565), Ch. XXIX, ¶ 16-17.Leaving her parents' home secretly one morning in 1534, at the age of 19, Teresa entered the Monastery of the Incarnation of the Carmelite nuns at Avila. In the cloister, she suffered greatly from illness. Early in her sickness, she experienced periods of spiritual ecstasy through the use of the devotional book, Abecedario espiritual, commonly known as the "third" or the "spiritual alphabet" (published in six parts from 1537-1554). This work, following the example of similar writings of medieval mystics, consisted of directions for tests of conscience and for spiritual self-concentration and inner contemplation (known in mystical nomenclature as oratio recollectionis or oratio mentalis). She also employed other mystical ascetic works such as the Tractatus de oratione et meditatione of Peter of Alcantara, and perhaps many of those upon which St. Ignatius of Loyola based his Exercitia and perhaps even the Exercitia itself.
She claimed that during her illness she rose from the lowest stage, "recollection," to the "devotions of peace" or even to the "devotions of union," which was one of perfect ecstasy. During this final stage, she said she frequently experienced a rich "blessing of tears." As the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin became clear upon her, she says she came to understand the awful terror of sin and the inherent nature of original sin. She also became conscious of her own natural impotence in confronting sin, and the necessity of absolute subjection to God.
Around 1556, various friends suggested that her newfound knowledge was diabolical, not divine. She began to inflict various tortures and mortifications on herself. But Francis Borgia, to whom she made confession, reassured her of the divine inspiration of her thoughts. On St. Peter's Day in 1559, Teresa became firmly convinced that Christ was present to her in bodily form, though invisible. These visions of Jesus Christ lasted almost uninterrupted for more than two years. In another vision, a seraph drove the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly through her heart, causing an ineffable spiritual-bodily pain. The memory of this episode served as an inspiration throughout the rest of her life, and which motivated her life-long imitation of the life and suffering of Jesus, epitomized in the motto usually associated with her: "Lord, either let me suffer or let me die." This last vision was the inspiration for one of Bernini's most famous works, Ecstasy of St Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.
The incentive to give outward practical expression to her inward motive was inspired in Teresa by Peter of Alcantara. Incidentally, he became acquainted with her as Founder early in 1560, and became her spiritual guide and counselor. She now resolved to found a Carmelite monastery for lakers, and to reform the laxity which she had found in the Cloister of the Incarnation and others. Guimara de Ulloa, a woman of wealth and a friend, supplied the funds.
The absolute poverty of the new monastery, established in 1562 and named St. Joseph's, at first excited a scandal among the citizens and authorities of Ávila, and the little house with its chapel was in peril of suppression; but powerful patrons like the bishop himself, as well as the impression of well-secured subsistence and prosperity, turned animosity into applause.
In March 1563, when Teresa moved to the new cloister, she received the papal sanction to her prime principle of absolute poverty and renunciation of property, which she proceeded to formulate into a "Constitution" (see Constitutions of the Carmelite Order). Her plan was the revival of the earlier stricter rules, supplemented by new regulations like the three disciplines of ceremonial flagellation prescribed for the divine service every week, and the discalceation of the nun, or the substitution of leather or wooden sandals for shoes. For the first five years, Teresa remained in pious seclusion, engaged in writing.
In 1567, she received a patent from the Carmelite general, Rubeo de Ravenna, to establish new houses of her order, and in this effort and later visitations she made long journeys through nearly all the provinces of Spain. Of these she gives a description in her Libro de las Fundaciones. Between 1567 and 1571, reform convents were established at Medina del Campo, Malagon, Valladolid, Toledo, Pastrana, Salamanca, and Alba de Tormes.
As part of her original patent, St Teresa was given permission to set up two houses for men who wished to adopt the reforms; to this end she convinced John of the Cross and Anthony of Jesus to help with this. They founded the first convent of Discalced Carmelite Brethren in November 1568 at Duruello. Another friend, Geronimo Grecian, Carmelite visitator of the older observance of Andalusia and apostolic commissioner, and later provincial of the Teresian reforms, gave her powerful support in founding convents at Segovia (1571), Vegas de Segura (1574), Seville (1575), and Caravaca de la Cruz (Murcia, 1576), while the deeply mystical John, by his power as teacher and preacher, promoted the inner life of the movement.
In 1576 a series of persecutions began on the part of the older observant Carmelite order against Teresa, her friends, and her reforms. Pursuant to a body of resolutions adopted at the general chapter at Piacenza, the "definitors" of the order forbade all further founding of convents. The general condemned her to voluntary retirement to one of her institutions. She obeyed and chose St. Joseph's at Toledo. Her friends and subordinates were subjected to greater trials.
Finally, after several years her pleadings by letter with King Philip II of Spain secured relief. As a result, in 1579, the processes before the Inquisition against her, Grecián, and others were dropped, and the extension of the reform was at least negatively permuted. A brief of Pope Gregory XIII allowed a special provincial for the younger branch of the discalceate nuns, and a royal rescript created a protective board of four assessors for the reform.
During the last three years of her life, Teresa founded convents at Villanueva de la Jara in northern Andalusia (1580), Palencia (1580), Soria (1581), Burgos, and at Granada (1582). In all seventeen convents, all but one founded by her, and as many men's cloisters were due to her reform activity of twenty years.
Her final illness overtook her on one of her journeys from Burgos to Alba de Tormes. She died in 1582, just as Catholic nations were making the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar which required the removal of 10 days from the calendar. (In 1582 October 5-14 did not exist.) She died either before midnight of 4 October or early on the morning of 15 October, which is celebrated as her feast day.
Forty years after her death, she was canonized, and her church reveres her as the "seraphic virgin". The Cortes exalted her to patroness of Spain in 1617, and the University of Salamanca previously conferred the title Doctor ecclesiae with a diploma. The title is Latin for Doctor of the Church, but is distinct from the honor of Doctor of the Church conferred posthumously by the Holy See, which she received in 1970, the first woman to be awarded it. The mysticism in her works exerted a formative influence upon many theologians of the following centuries, such as Francis of Sales, Fénelon, and the Port-Royalists.
The kernel of Teresa's mystical thought throughout all her writings is the ascent of the soul in four stages (Autobiography, Chs. 10-22):
The first, or "heart's devotion," is that of devout contemplation or concentration, the withdrawal of the soul from without and specially the devout observance of the passion of Christ and penitence.
The second is the "devotion of peace," in which at least the human will is lost in that of God by virtue of a charismatic, supernatural state given of God, while the other faculties, such as memory, reason, and imagination, are not yet secure from worldly distraction. While a partial distraction is due to outer performances such as repetition of prayers and writing down spiritual things, yet the prevailing state is one of quietude.
The "devotion of union" is not only a supernatural but an essentially ecstatic state. Here there is also an absorption of the reason in God, and only the memory and imagination are left to ramble. This state is characterized by a blissful peace, a sweet slumber of at least the higher soul faculties, a conscious rapture in the love of God.
The fourth is the "devotion of ecstasy or rapture," a passive state, in which the consciousness of being in the body disappears (). Sense activity ceases; memory and imagination are also absorbed in God or intoxicated. Body and spirit are in the throes of a sweet, happy pain, alternating between a fearful fiery glow, a complete impotence and unconsciousness, and a spell of strangulation, intermitted sometimes by such an ecstatic flight that the body is literally lifted into space. This after half an hour is followed by a reactionary relaxation of a few hours in a swoon-like weakness, attended by a negation of all the faculties in the union with God. From this the subject awakens in tears; it is the climax of mystical experience, productive of the trance. (Indeed, St. Theresa herself was said to have been observed levitating during Mass on more than one occasion.)
Teresa is one of the foremost writers on mental prayer. Her definition was used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Mental prayer [oración mental] is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us."
Two smaller works are Conceptos del Amor and Exclamaciones. Besides, there are the Cartas (Saragossa, 1671), or correspondence, of which there are 342 letters and 87 fragments of others. Teresa's prose is marked by an unaffected grace, an ornate neatness, and charming power of expression, together placing her in the front rank of Spanish prose writers; and her rare poems (Todas las poesías, Munster, 1854) are distinguished for tenderness of feeling and rhythm of thought.
This article was originally based on the text in the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.