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Meet Saint Teresa of Avila, the Spanish Mystic

Starting a new series with one of the greats

Image Source: Walks in Rome


St. Teresa of Avila is one of the most beloved saints in the world, venerated not only in the Catholic Church, but by Anglicans and Lutherans as well (three groups that rarely agree on anything). She was born in Castile (part of present-day Spain) in 1515, only 23 years after Columbus first voyaged to America. She died in 1582, roughly 20 years after the Council of Trent. And only two years after her birth, Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation. Knowing the time in which she lived matters, because it was a time of great change religiously, politically, and in every other way possible.

Teresa was born into a noble family, and her parents were both extremely pious. As a young child, she read The Lives of the Saints (likely the same one that helped convert St. Ignatius of Loyola) and was so moved she convinced her brother to run away with her to North Africa so they could be gloriously martyred. Her uncle stopped the holy miscreants just outside the city gates and sent them back home.

This episode is instructive, as it shows at an early age both how passionate and stubborn she could be. She was also known to be charming, witty, beautiful, and fond of Romance novels. At 20 she entered the Carmelite convent in Avila, which at that time was as much social club as convent; the discipline and rule of the Order there had given way to entertaining prestigious people of the area rather than focusing on prayer and good works.

While there, Teresa suffered a bout of malaria that left her virtually paralyzed for three years, during which time she discovered the power of prayer. After she recovered, she began having mystical visions which lasted the rest of her life. She would often go into ecstatic raptures and deep religious trances. In 1559 she had an experience during which she felt her heart pierced by an arrow of divine love, plunged into her by an angel. This event is immortalized in the Bernini sculpture “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” in the Santa Maria Della Vittoria Church in Rome (see the image above).

But she was much more than just a cloistered mystic. In keeping with the spirit of that age, she was also a great reformer, but a true reformer rather than one who simply railed against abuses yet did nothing. She set out to reform the Carmelite Orders of Spain, with the aim of returning them to their original strict rule of piety and penitence.

Though vehemently opposed by the leaders of the Order, who preferred the easier path, she travelled throughout Spain and founded a total of 17 reformed Carmelite houses. She also helped found two reformed monasteries for Carmelite friars with her friend and fellow mystic, St. John of the Cross.

St. Teresa was a prolific writer, with her three best-known works being her autobiography and the classic books on mystical prayer, The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection. All three are read widely to this day.

And if all this wasn’t enough, she was funny as well. Once, after she slipped down an embankment during a storm and landed in mud, she looked up at the heavens and shouted: “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”

Teresa was canonized in 1622, a mere 40 years after her death, and in 1970 Pope St. Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church; she and St. Catherine of Siena were the first women to be so honored. Her feast day is October 16. She is the Patroness of Spain, and her emblems are a heart, an arrow, and a book.


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