Her legacy of courage, strength and good humor continues to inspire today.
Teresa was born in Avila, Spain, to a pious family. While her heart was in the right place, guided by her devout mother’s religious instruction, Teresa showed a headstrong and impulsive nature from a young age. She was 7 years old when she decided that the best option for her future was martyrdom—calling to mind what Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.” She convinced her brother Rodrigo of her plan, and the two attempted to run away, but their uncle saw them outside the city walls and sent them back home.
Teresa was 11 when her mother died, which left her heartbroken but deepened her devotion to Mary as a spiritual mother. As she entered her teens, however, the pretty and well-to-do young woman naturally attracted male attention, and she entered a period of frivolity, occupying her mind with little but boys, clothes, flirting, and rebelling. Her father finally decided she was out of control and sent her, at age 16, to an Augustinian convent to be educated.
At first Teresa hated the convent, but as she grew closer to God, she began to enjoy it. Nonetheless, the decision of whether to pursue religious life or marriage was not an easy one for her. Her parents’ marriage had been difficult, so she knew marriage was no fairy tale, but she was not especially drawn to religious life either. When she finally chose religious life, it was less out of attraction to that vocation than because she worried that living in the world would offer too many temptations to someone easily swayed by sin, as she thought she was. Her discernment process again offers hope, as she did not seem like a natural fit for a religious vocation, yet became a great and inspired leader both within her order and in the Church at large.
Teresa chose to enter a Carmelite convent, but after she arrived, she was disturbed by the atmosphere she found. The sisters had become lax in their religious observance, constantly entertaining visitors and paying more attention to their appearance and social prestige than to God. Teresa herself spoke and wrote frankly about the difficulties she found in persisting in prayer: “I was more anxious for the hour of prayer to be over than I was to remain there. I don’t know what heavy penance I would not have gladly undertaken rather than practice prayer.” Nonetheless Teresa persisted in mental prayer and God rewarded her: She began to have mystical experiences in prayer, including periods of deep contemplation and even heavenly visions.
The spiritual malaise in her convent continued to bother Teresa, but it was not until she met Franciscan priest St. Peter of Alcantara, who became her spiritual director, in 1560, that she began to take decisive steps toward reform. She founded a reformed Carmelite convent, called St. Joseph’s, which aimed at correcting the laxity she had found elsewhere. The austerity and rigor of the new monastery, established in 1562, at first caused some scandal, but with the local bishop’s permission they persisted and soon earned general approval.
Teresa spent the first five years after the convent’s founding living there in pious seclusion and devoting herself to prayer and writing. The convent’s success, however, gave her confidence, as did the direction of God in prayer and of her spiritual superiors. Teresa spent the rest of her life founding dozens of Carmelite monasteries, for both men and women, throughout Spain. She faced countless trials and obstacles in this work, particularly from other Carmelites who did not appreciate her efforts to reform their way of life, yet she retained her sense of humor through it all. “May God protect me from gloomy saints!” she was known to exclaim.
The legacy of this extraordinary woman is hard to put into words. She was canonized in 1622, only 40 years after her death, and was one of the first women to be declared a Doctor of the Church. The tireless work she put into reforming her order played a key role in the Catholic Reformation, a period of renewal following the founding of Lutheranism. Her quick wit (and occasional sharp tongue) accompanied a rare courage and energy, coupled with deep love for God and compassion for others. Teresa was the last person one could call mild-mannered or meek, and her strength of character, in particular, makes her a valuable role model today: She demonstrated both that religious reform starts from within and that reform will never happen unless good women and men speak up and take a stand.
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