St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)


Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Saint Teresa in Ecstasy (1647-1652)

St Teresa of Avila was born in Spain on this day, March 28, five hundred years ago. She was a Catholic reformer, Carmelite nun, author, and one of the greatest mystics who ever lived. Because she is a poster child for Counter-Reformation spirituality, most Protestants have either never heard of her or see her as a symbol of all that was wrong with the Roman Church.

Teresa was two years old when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the symbolic beginning of Protestantism. Luther was himself a former monk, who came to reject monasticism, celibacy, and mysticism. Teresa embraced all three and took them to new heights. She was even the co-founder of a strict new religious order called the Discalced Carmelites. One story illustrates both her humility and distance from Protestant spirituality:

Once a young woman of high reputation for virtue asked to be admitted to a convent in Teresa’s charge, and added, as if to emphasize her intellect, “I shall bring my Bible with me.” “What,” exclaimed Teresa, “your Bible? Do not come to us. We are only poor women who know nothing but how to spin and do as we are told.”

Teresa is perhaps most remembered for her mysticism. She was a visionary and her spiritual raptures even caused her to levitate on occasion. Here’s how she described one of her most famous visions:

It pleased the Lord that I should sometimes see the following vision. I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form. . . . In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire.  With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails.  When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, or will one’s soul be content with anything less. . . .

But when this pain of which I am now speaking begins, the Lord seems to transport my soul and to send it into an ecstasy, so that it cannot possibly suffer or have any pain because it immediately begins to experience fruition. May He be blessed forever, Who bestows so many favors on one who so ill requites such great benefits.

Not everything in Teresa’s life was ecstatic bliss. She suffered much both physically and spiritually. She was often opposed by church authorities and nuns who resisted her reforms. Because of her great love for our Lord, she was called simply “Teresa of Jesus.” Happy birthday, St. Teresa!


1 Comment

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One response to “St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

  1. Fr. Leo F. Arnone

    Travis, thanks for the reminder! The following is a story from her life that I came across very early in my Priesthood. Once your hear it, you will know why it sticks with you…
    Teresa established many convents in her day. Once she gathered at least 12 nuns she would set off for a different territory to establish a new convent. One event it had rained badly all day, but she was determined to go that evening. Other nuns had tried to dissuade her but she insisted that God would look after her and her nuns and keep them safe since they were doing His will. In their journey they had to cross a stream. As they were crossing the flow of water had risen and was pressing against them. Teresa told them to start praying the creed over and over again, which they did. reaching the other side they all flopped down on the grass exhausted. Internally Teresa prayed to Jesus, saying: Lord, we are only trying to do your will. Why do you make it so difficult? Jesus replied internally saying: Teresa, that is how I treat all my friends. Teresa said: Yes, Lord, and that is why you have so few of them!
    So when you are having a bad day in your ministry – know that you are a friend of Jesus. Happy Easter, Travis!

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