We know of the life of Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), patron saint of Spain, mainly through her biography, which she began writing in order to forestall proceedings against her by the Spanish Inquisition. At issue were her inner experiences of Christ as a formless presence.
Though alert to any trace of heresy, the Inquisitors ultimately acquitted her and recommended the reading of her biography to strengthen one’s faith.
Teresa yearned for a life of solitude, absorbed in divine communion, but her calling was to lead the reform of the Carmelite Order. Modeled after the early church fathers, the Carmelite Order developed from a community of hermits living on Mt. Carmel in Palestine. Their monasteries were places of contemplation, prayer and total austerity.
An ideal reformer
When Teresa entered the Convent of the Incarnation in 1536, the Carmelite Order’s original spirit had given way to laxity. The convent was home to 180 women, including servants and laywomen, who arranged themselves by wealth and rank.
Free to come and go as they pleased, they chattered noisily, listened to popular music, wore expensive clothes and jewelry, and gossiped with male and female guests in the convent parlor. Those who troubled to observe the religious disciplines were in the minority.
Teresa’s eighteen-year struggle to transcend these temptations made her an ideal reformer. She wrote of herself, “All things of God gave me pleasure, but I was held captive by those of the world.”
It was only after an experience of ecstasy in 1554, that her “resolution to give up everything for His sake became unshakeable.”
Teresa saw the need to return to the original austerities, not only for herself but also for the younger nuns toward whom she felt a sense of duty. But it wasn’t until 1560, when she was 45, that she felt the inner guidance to act.
“His Majesty’s” command
In her words: “One day after communion, His Majesty (her name for God or Christ) earnestly commanded me to strive for this new monastery with all my powers…. He said it should be called St. Joseph’s and…that it would be a star shining with great splendor.”
From that day on, Teresa worked unceasingly to get the new convent built and approved. The first step was approval by the local Carmelite superior, who seemed pleased with the idea and promised his authorization.
But when news of her plans exploded on the town of Avila, people of rank and influence mounted a campaign against her. Convents in which laxity prevailed took a dim view of a return to primitive austerities. Teresa’s superior ordered her to give up the idea.
Going forward in secrecy
Anticipating trouble with the local authorities, Teresa had already appealed to a powerful Vatican official. After careful consideration, he gave the new convent his unqualified approval.
Teresa could not disobey her Carmelite superiors, but urged on by the Vatican official, one of her supporters secretly sought official authorization from Rome. With Rome’s approval, the convent would come under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Avila, not the local Carmelite leader.
A building for the convent was purchased, but Teresa could not visit the site unnoticed. Undeterred, Teresa persuaded her sister and brother-in-law to occupy the building under the pretense of setting up house. The subterfuge worked and Teresa lived with them for months at a time, supervising the work of turning the house into a convent.
After months of delay, the authorization from Rome finally arrived and St. Joseph’s opened August 24, 1562—to an uproar of opposition. Teresa was accused of treachery and disobedience.
Under her vow of obedience, she was forced to return to the Incarnation while her enemies tried—unsuccessfully—to close St. Joseph’s down. Six months later, Teresa was allowed her to rejoin her nuns.
“Preach by deeds”
Teresa created small convents, often with only 12 or 13 nuns, who lived completely enclosed, in solitude and silence. Dressed in coarse sackcloth, they went barefoot or wore rope sandals, and thus came to be known as “Discalced” or unshod Carmelites. They sustained themselves through spinning and needlework, which was placed outside the convent door for donations.
Humility was the hallmark of Teresa’s leadership. She showed each Carmelite how she must “preach by deeds,” often using her own example to show that a thing was blameworthy, and urging her nuns to correct her whenever she erred.
Constantly spinning, even when talking to influential visitors from behind the curtained grille, Teresa also cooked, cleaned and swept. She would later write into the Rule that prioresses should be at the head of the list for sweeping, and that they should make themselves loved in order to be obeyed.
God is the Doer
Four years after the founding of St. Joseph’s, the head of the Carmelite Order endorsed Teresa’s reforms and gave her permission to found other convents. It was at the site of her second convent that Teresa met John of the Cross in 1567. Inspired by her example, he became the first of the Discalced friars.
Teresa never saw herself as the doer, but only as God’s instrument, and she employed all of her considerable resources of intelligence, charm, and personal magnetism to carry out God’s will. She displayed great skill in dealing with businessmen and church dignitaries, and in the art of winning adversaries to her point of view. Her keenness of mind caused one church dignitary to exclaim: “Good God, I would rather argue with all the theologians in the world than with this woman!”
Combining a deep inner relationship with God with a practical, commonsense outlook, she met all difficulties with equanimity and cheerfulness, knowing with unshakeable certainty the rightness of her mission.
Persecution and betrayal
The persecution Teresa underwent toward the end of her life had its roots in her success. “Calced” friars and nuns were jealous of Teresa and the admiration aroused by her monks and nuns. They violently opposed any extension of austerities to their monasteries.
Their hostility turned to hatred when King Phillip II, is his zeal for monastic reform, ordered the founding of Discalced monasteries in traditional Calced strongholds. In response, Teresa’s enemies mounted a well-organized campaign to destroy her reputation.
Teresa was accused of having lovers and of founding convents for immoral purposes. Using bribery and intimidation, including threats of excommunication, her enemies fabricated discrediting evidence.
In many locales, Teresa, so recently venerated, was greeted with distrust or threats of violence. Discalced monks, including John of the Cross, were kidnapped, imprisoned and beaten, and Teresa feared for their lives.
“I am speechless with wonder”
Teresa’s response to the persecution was to issue a summons to prayer in all her convents and monasteries “in order that whatever is for the greatest service of God may come to pass.” She and her supporters also worked tirelessly to bring about the separation of the Calced and Discalced into independent branches of the Carmelite Order.
At the urging of Teresa’s supporters, King Phillip initiated an impartial investigation into the charges against her and the reform. Based on the findings, he was able to silence Teresa’s enemies. Finally, in 1581, Pope Gregory VII formally announced the separation of the two orders.
Teresa said, “When I consider the means Our Lord has used to turn the malice and cruelty of the enemies of Carmel solely to our advantage, I am speechless with wonder.”
With the adoption of the Rule and Constitution for the Discalced Order, Teresa, who would never admit she was unwell, was dying. She had founded 22 convents and monasteries throughout Spain. En route to Avila, she died October 4, 1582.
John Lenti, and Ananda Minister, lives at Ananda Village and serves on the Ananda Sangha staff.
Paramhansa Yogananda: Teresa of Avila is “in our own line.”
by Swami Kriyananda
Several of the monks were reading the lives of saints. At this time, the Master gave us the following recommendation as to what we should read of those lives:
“Read the lives only of those in our own line: Saint Francis of Assisi, for example, and Saint Teresa of Avila.”
His expression, “those who are in our own line,” was one I pondered for a long time. The Master could not have meant, “those who are directly connected with our line of gurus,” for we’d have had no way of knowing who such persons were. He could only have been referring, then, to saints who had attained deep states of inner communion with God. Not all saints, certainly, even among those canonized by the Church, belong in this higher category.