Women Doctors Of The Church: St. Teresa Of Avila

by History of the Church, Saints, Spiritual Warfare

Teresa was born on March 28, 1515 and died on October 4, 1582. St. Teresa of Avila was born into the age of exploration in Spain, just two decades after Christopher Columbus opened exploration for Europe in the Americas. At the time, everything was in flux: politics, society, and religious were being vigorously debated. She was born before the time of the Protestant Reformation by two years and she died two decades after the Council of Trent was closed. 

Her father was honest and faithful, but extremely strict. Her mother was less so. Caught in the middle, Teresa constantly felt like she was doing the wrong thing. At the age of seven, she convinced her older brother that they should go to the Muslims and ask them to cut off their heads, and thus become martyrs for the love of God.  They did not get far and were brought home by their uncle. Even in her early age, Teresa seemed very capable of stirring up trouble. 

St. Teresa of Avila’s Early Interests

Teresa’s teenage interests were fairly common for a young woman: boys, clothes, flirting, and being rebellious. Her strict and pious father felt like she was out of control at the age of 16 and sent her to the convent. At first she was very unhappy but then the religious life began growing on her. The convent was less strict than her father and she was falling more in love with God.

St. Teresa’s Vocation

Teresa finally was given a choice: marriage or religious life? On the one hand, she saw how unhappy her mother was but on the other hand, being a nun did not seem like much fun. Prone to sin as she felt herself to be, she determined that being a nun was the safest bet. She became a permanent Carmelite. 

St. Teresa’s Battle of Prayer

Mental Prayer did not come easily to St. Teresa. She said she, “tried as hard as I could to keep Jesus Christ present within me….My imagination is so dull that I had no talent for imagining or coming up with great theological thoughts.”

The convent, unfortunately, was filled with women who did not have a particular vocation to religious life but were just sent there. The outcome was a less-than-holy environment. There were even parties in the parlor with young men. She brought people in to help her with mental prayer, but was more enamored with gossip, vanity, and flattery. These were holding her back from God.

St. Teresa’s Illness

Teresa became ill with malaria. She had a seizure and people thought that she was dead. Four days later when she awoke, she discovered that a grave had been dug for her. She was paralyzed for three years. She made several excuses to not pray. She thought of herself as wicked sinner, but this was a false humility. Later in her life, she would say of prayer, “Prayer is an act of love, words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.”

Back to Prayer

At the age of 41, a priest convinced her to take up praying diligently once more. She said, “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.”

Apparently distraction was very difficult for her. She said, “This intellect is so wild that it doesn’t seem to be anything else than a frantic madman no one can tie down.” And, “All the trials we endure cannot be compared to these interior battles.”

St. Teresa of Avila’s Experience

St. Teresa’s struggle is what has given us such beautiful fruit in her writings. She began eventually to experience great spiritual delight. She even was so overcome by the power of God that she began to levitate. There are accounts of the other nuns having to sit on her to hold her down to the ground. She did not like the public attention that it was bringing. Of all of these great gifts of God, she saw them more as chastisements from God. They helped her stay on track.


In those two years, she became determined to reform the Carmelite order, namely, a simple life of poverty devoted to prayer. She was denounced from the pulpit, threatened with the Inquisition, and the town started legal proceedings against her for suggesting that a new convent be built. Her response, “May God protect me from gloomy saints.”

With total trust in God, she pushed onward. She believed in working, not begging. She also saw obedience as more effective than penance. Focusing on the task at hand, she continued to work for the reformation of the Carmelite order.

St. Teresa’s Life

Under obedience, she began a book of her life. But she was concerned that the Inquisition might discard it all if she was too forceful. So, she would insert little statements in such as, “But what do I know. I’m just a wretched woman.”

Traveling all about, at the age of 51, she founded more convents. The papal nuncio at the time, referred to her as “a restless disobedient gadabout who has gone about teaching as though she were a profesor.” This was not a premium time or place for the equal standing of woman in the public square, clearly.

Teresa wanted to call people to a higher way of living, focused on true love of God. She was hated for it. However, she was not alone. There were others who saw how she was treated and wanted to reform the convents as well.

St. Teresa founded the Discalced Carmelites, so called because they only wore sandals or went barefoot. They practiced a severe austerity in service of the Lord.

Summing Up St. Teresa of Avila

Summing up St. Teresa of Avila, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of her life in this way:

“Dear brothers and sisters, St Teresa of Jesus is a true teacher of Christian life for the faithful of every time. In our society, which all too often lacks spiritual values, St Teresa teaches us to be unflagging witnesses of God, of his presence and of his action. She teaches us truly to feel this thirst for God that exists in the depths of our hearts, this desire to see God, to seek God, to be in conversation with him and to be his friends. This is the friendship we all need that we must seek anew, day after day. May the example of this Saint, profoundly contemplative and effectively active, spur us too every day to dedicate the right time to prayer, to this openness to God, to this journey, in order to seek God, to see him, to discover his friendship and so to find true life; indeed many of us should truly say: “I am not alive, I am not truly alive because I do not live the essence of my life”. Therefore time devoted to prayer is not time wasted, it is time in which the path of life unfolds, the path unfolds to learning from God an ardent love for him, for his Church, and practical charity for our brothers and sisters.”

Image: Peter Paul Rubens / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

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