THE 17th-century poet Richard Crashaw wrote poems inspired by
her, calling her "undaunted daughter of desires". Simone de
Beauvoir (in The Second Sex) hailed her as the only woman who lived
life for herself. Kate O'Brien, in a biography published in 1951,
called her a "dangerous fellow-creature".
This "dangerous woman" was born Doña Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y
Ahumada, on 28 March 1515, in the province of Avila, in Spain. Her
well-off father had progressed from the disgrace of his own
father's Jewish blood, and bought a knighthood. Her parents
embraced Christianity and perhaps informed Teresa's lifelong
devotion to St Joseph (to whom Teresa attributed the miracle of her
healing and many other graces granted to her) and to St Mary.
Teresa of Avila, or Teresa of Jesus, as she signed herself, was
dangerous because, like Francis and Clare of Assisi, she took the
Gospels at their word, and desired to live accordingly. She would
probably have been surprised by Simone de Beauvoir's assessment -
she thought she was living life for God.
TERESA was only seven years old when she thought it would be
glorious to die for God. She persuaded her brother to run away with
her, to seek martyrdom at the hands of the Moors. She was found by
her uncle, and brought safely home. Next, she tried to build a
hermitage in the garden, but the stones collapsed.
She eventually entered a convent in a more conventional way,
being educated by the Augustinian order before joining the
Carmelites. But, like Julian of Norwich, or the 20th-century
Dorothy Kerin, she suffered an extreme experience of illness, which
brought her to the point of death. It gave her a depth of spiritual
perception which, in turn, brought her a great deal of attention -
rather more, she believed with the benefit of hindsight, than was
salutary for her.
With a reputation for great spiritual wisdom, Teresa spent the
next 20 years or so busy seeing people and giving spiritual
direction, while leading the life of an ordinary Carmelite nun in
the Convent of the Encarnacion, outside the city walls of
The Rule of the Carmelites was domestic and simple. It was
inspired by the figures of Elijah and Mary, but, by this time, it
was kept without inconvenient strictness as to possessions or
enclosure. Nuns lived in a spacious "bed-sit", and often employed a
maid. They could visit their family or patrons, and Teresa was very
much in touch with her family's affairs, and with her wealthy women
IT WAS not until she began to have what might be called
"conversion experiences" in her 40s, that she was overwhelmed by a
love of God: "His Majesty", as she often calls him in her writings.
Then began the ecstatic phenomena that she describes, or her nuns
witnessed - levitation, fainting, tears - and she was forced to
change her life radically.
It was an age of religious fervour. With the encouragement of St
Peter of Alcantara, and particularly inspired by representations of
the suffering Christ, Teresa proposed a reformed Carmelite rule -
that of the "discalced Carmelites" - which would repristinate its
original intention. Going barefoot (or in sandals) was a mark of
that total embrace of Lady Poverty that Francis of Assisi had
fallen in love with, three centuries earlier.
In 1562 Teresa managed to begin her new life with a handful of
like-minded sisters in a tiny convent in Avila dedicated to San
José, against opposition from her former convent, church leaders,
the city authorities, and powerful patrons. But her vision was
caught by a few senior men in powerful positions in the Church.
With their encouragement, further foundations for women followed,
from 1567 to the last years of her life. With the help of St John
of the Cross and Anthony of Jesus she set up two houses for
THE authentic spiritual life is full of paradox, and Teresa's is
no exception. Even as she was flooded with the joy and love of God,
inspiring her to give up even the minimal worldly pleasures that
her Carmelite life afforded her, and wishing to devote herself
entirely to prayer, she found herself striding out of the walls of
the Convent of the Encarnacion, and covering great distances, often
on foot, throughout Spain's harsh terrain and climate. By the end
of her life, she had founded 16 convents across Spain for women who
aspired to the same total self-giving rule of life, hoping to
realise the love of God without reserve for themselves.
For anyone at that time - and especially for a woman - this
achievement would be out of the ordinary; but Teresa's biography
shows that, for her, the extraordinary was a regular
Teresa was involved in every aspect of the life of each of the
houses she founded, from the daily prayer to the education of the
nuns; food; finances; fabric; and governance. She was said to be an
excellent cook, musician, and dancer. She wrote plays for her nuns
to perform. She liked spirit, courage, and joy: "God preserve us
from sour-faced saints!"
And she wrote. She wrote unwillingly, when she would rather have
been getting on with "important things like spinning", on the
orders of those senior churchmen who supported her, and at the
request of her nuns.
Her colloquial, disconnected, irreverent style was a key factor
in making her into one of the most influential Christian teachers,
communicating directly from her heart with little attempt at style
There were several important works - her Life, The
Way of Perfection, The Interior Castle, The Book
of the Foundations, Meditations on the Song of Songs
- as well as six shorter books, poems, and scores of letters, many
of which show her very practical "hands-on" leadership and her
robust sense of humour.
In the letters, one sees her continually defending her vision
from those who resented the presence of a new religious house,
dependant on public charity, competing for resources with others in
All this was achieved within the compass of a life which was
given, for the most part, to prayer and solitude. Like St Paul,
Teresa was impatient with life, regarding it as a perpetual source
of distraction from the real life she found in God.
She exclaims over this, tragically or comically in her writings,
or in a poem such as Vivo, sin vivir en mi ("I live - but
not living myself"), a semi-ironic love lyric with various
counterparts in English poetry of the time.
Yet, of course, this depth of communion was the reason and the
means by which Teresa was inspired to overcome powerful opposition
to her reforms, or triumphantly articulate the importance of God's
love for the individual soul and the reality and joy of this union
even in this present life:
I live - but not living myself;
So longing for a higher life.
I am dying to die.
I live already beyond myself
because I died of love;
because I live in the Lord
who wanted me for himself;
when I gave him my heart
I put in it this sign:
I die because I do not die.
This divine prison of love
with which I live
has made God my captive,
and liberated my heart;
and seeing God my prisoner
gives me such a passion
that I die because I do not die…
In her writings, she uses images of water and gardens, the
soul's interior castle, the king within, guests, battles,
struggles, and treasure (her brothers were conquistadores) - images
which seem exotic to us today, but which reflect all the social and
domestic life of a 16th-century Castilian fortified city. Her point
is that prayer is about real life, not a supernatural activity or a
pious ritual for special occasions. She attempts to create schemata
of the stages of prayer, as was fashionable then - vocal prayer,
mental prayer, the Prayer of Quiet, the Prayer of Union, and so on
- but the core of her experience in prayer is that it is as
foundational as water is to life.
The Inquisition were quick to examine any public utterance for
Protestant sedition, particularly anything by an alumbrada, "an
illuminated one", which asserted an individual's authentic
communi-cation with God; and especially anything from women, or in
the vernacular, which might creep under the radar of official
Church control. Teresa was placed under house arrest in one of her
convents for a time. (St John of the Cross fared far worse, being
imprisoned, starved and tortured by fellow Carmelites for nine
months.) Letters to King Philip II, and support from powerful
friends, secured her freedom, and she resumed her travels and her
foundations undaunted, until her death in 1582.
Although Teresa was influenced by contemporary Spanish works on
the spiritual life, and by some classic writers such as Augustine,
she was diffident about her lack of formal education. This may also
have been a canny cover for her subversive message - she says
blithely that she does not fear making any mistakes, or falling
foul of the Inquisition because she is writing only as an ignorant
woman, and she anxiously hopes they will correct her errors.
WHAT is most inspiring is perhaps the capacity Teresa had to
integrate the oppositions of life. It is a vision shared with
Julian of Norwich, that, at the deepest level, "sin is behovely" in
the hands of God.
After her deeper conversion, we see a woman who was obedient to
the Counter-Reformation Church, and yet practised and taught the
Christian impulses to simplicity and personal prayer which fuelled
the Protestant Reformation. She lived an inner, self-authenticated
life of communion with God, expressed in the vernacular, among a
society of women - but was, as she said, "a loyal daughter of the
Church". She loved God with passion and fervour, and never took
herself (or anyone else) too seriously.
She embraced the strictest poverty and enclosure, and yet
travelled over vast distances of Spain. She innovated by reaching
back into her Order's past; her increasing age brought increased
achievement and exploration; the prejudices and difficulties she
encountered as a 16th-century woman contributed to her development
and the originality of her thinking and writing.
And then there is the sensual - or, if the sceptics are
accurate, the sexual - aspects of her story. There is much
dismissive sniffing over Bernini's statue of Teresa in ecstasy; but
this misses the point that, in the renunciation of the pursuit of
love and sexual fulfilment (and Teresa seems to have enjoyed the
thrill of the chase in her teens) for the love of God alone, people
experience the love of God in every aspect of their humanity.
The Song of Songs was the most frequently commented on biblical
texts for more than a millennium, and Teresa produced her own
commentary on it. The word she herself uses so often is
gozar - to enjoy, akin to the Italian godere -
which has all the resonances of "gusto", a lip-smacking, sensual
relish of joy and sexual enjoyment. Vows of chastity are a
self-renunciation, in the belief that ultimately God is no man's
With Teresa's ecstasies, there is that hallmark of the Kingdom
of God, which is the presence of God realised in this life, not
only as a hoped-for prospect in a life-to-come. Like Jesus, and
like St Paul, Teresa knew the reality of God within the present
moment. She recalled that her initial motive for entering the
convent at 16 was to escape the threat of hell; but her mature
writings describe the joy of a soul united with God. Teresa claimed
to know the way - a knowledge given by the grace of her Lover - to
the centre of her "interior castle", where he dwells.
Many English-speakers are now familiar with just one of Teresa's
writings - a brief poem which reads almost like a note to herself,
kept within the pages of her Bible. Nada te turbe ("may nothing
disturb you"), paraphrased as a Taizé chant. The lines capture her
capacity for simplicity, strength, lack of pretension, and absolute
faith in God.
Nada te turbe,
nada te espante,
todo se pasa,
Dios no se muda;
todo lo alcanza;
quien a Dios tiene
nada le falta:
Sólo Dios basta.
May nothing upset you,
nothing frighten you,
God doesn't change;
patience will accomplish
whoever possesses God,
lacks for nothing:
only God suffices.