Teresa Sanchez Cepeda Davila y Ahumada
Born at Avila, Old Castile – 28 March 1515
Died at Alba de Tormes – 4 October 1582
Feast Day 15 October
St Teresa was the third child of Don Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda by his second wife, Doña Beatriz Davila y Ahumada. Teresa was brought up by her saintly father, a lover of serious books, and a tender and pious mother, who died when the saint was in her fourteenth year.
After her mother’s death and the marriage of her eldest sister, Teresa was sent to the Augustinian nuns at Avila to be educated, but owing to illness she left at the end of eighteen months. For some years she remained with her father and occasionally with other relatives, notably an uncle who made her acquainted with the Letters of St. Jerome. Through these readings she determined to adopt the religious life, not so much through any attraction towards it, as through a desire of choosing the safest course.
Images of Avila, Spain today!
Unable to obtain her father’s consent she secretly left his house in November 1535 in order to enter the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation at Avila, which then counted 140 nuns. The wrench from her family caused her a pain which she ever afterwards compared to that of death. However, her father at once yielded and Teresa took the habit.
After her profession the following year, she became seriously ill, and underwent a prolonged convalescence. She endured such abysmal medical treatment that she was reduced to a most pitiful state – and even after partial recovery through the intercession of St. Joseph, her health remained permanently impaired.
During these years of suffering she began the practice of mental prayer. However she was racked by fears that her conversations with some worldly-minded relatives, who were frequent visitors at the convent, rendered her unworthy of the graces God bestowed on her in prayer. She thus discontinued the practice until coming under the influence of the Dominicans, and afterwards, the Jesuits.
Meanwhile God had begun to visit her with “intellectual visions and locutions,” that is manifestations in which the exterior senses were in no way affected – the things seen and the words heard being directly impressed upon her mind. These gave her wonderful strength in trials, correcting her for unfaithfulness, and consoling her in afflictions.
Unable to reconcile such graces with her shortcomings, which her delicate conscience represented as grievous faults, she had recourse not only to the most spiritual confessors she could find, but also to some saintly laymen. The latter, never suspecting that the account she gave them of her sins was greatly exaggerated, believed these manifestations to be the work of the evil spirit.
The more she endeavoured to resist them the more powerfully did God work in her soul. The whole city of Avila was troubled by the reports of the visions of this nun. It was reserved to St. Francis Borgia and St. Peter of Alcantara, and afterwards to a number of Dominicans (particularly Pedro Ibañez and Domingo Bañez), Jesuits, and other religious and secular priests, to discern the work of God and to guide her on a safe road.
The account of her spiritual life contained in the “Life written by herself” (completed in 1565, an earlier version being lost), in the “Relations,” and in the “Interior Castle,” form one of the most remarkable spiritual biographies with which only the “Confessions of St. Augustine” can bear comparison.
To this period belong also such extraordinary manifestations as the transverberation (piercing through) of her heart, the spiritual espousals, and the mystical marriage.
A vision of the place destined for her in hell in case of infidelity to grace, determined her to seek a more perfect life.
After many troubles and much opposition, St. Teresa founded the convent of Discalced Carmelite Nuns of the Primitive Rule of St. Joseph at Avila (24 Aug 1562), and after six months obtained permission to take up residence there.
Four years later she received the visit of the General of the Carmelites, John-Baptist Rubeo (Rossi), who not only approved of what she had done, but authorized the foundation of other convents of nuns as well as friars.
In rapid succession she established her nuns at Medina del Campo (1567), Malagon and Valladolid (1568), Toledo and Pastrana (1569), Salamanca (1570), Alba de Tormes (1571), Segovia (1574), Veas and Seville (1575), and Caravaca (1576).
In the “Book of Foundations” she tells the story of these convents, nearly all of which were established in spite of violent opposition, but with manifest assistance from above.
Everywhere she found souls generous enough to embrace the austerities of the primitive rule of Carmel. Having made the acquaintance of Antonio de Heredia, prior of Medina, and St. John of the Cross, she established her reform among the friars (28 Nov 1568), the first convents being those of Duruelo (1568), Pastrana (1569), Mancera, and Alcalá de Henares (1570).
A new era began with the entrance into Religion of Jerome Gratian, inasmuch as this remarkable man was almost immediately entrusted by the Nuncio with the role of Visitor Apostolic of the Carmelite friars and nuns of the old observance in Andalusia. As such, he considered himself entitled to overrule the various restrictions insisted upon by the general and the general chapter.
On the death of the Nuncio and the arrival of his successor, a fearful storm burst over St. Teresa and her work, lasting four years and threatening to annihilate the nascent reform. The accounts of this persecution are best described in her letters.
The storm at length passed, and the province of Discalced Carmelites, with the support of Philip II, was approved and canonically established on 22 June, 1580.
Villnuava de la Jara and Palencia (1580), Soria (1581), Granada (through her assistant the Venerable Anne of Jesus), and at Burgos (1582).
She left this latter place at the end of July, and, stopping at Palencia, Valladolid, and Medina del Campo, reached Alba de Torres in September, suffering intensely. Soon she took to her bed and passed away on 4 Oct 1582, which owing to the reform of the calendar, was reckoned as 15 October.
After some years her body was transferred to Avila, but later on conveyed to Alba, where it is still preserved incorrupt. Her heart, too, showing the marks of the Transverberation, is exposed there for the veneration of the faithful. She was beatified in 1614, and canonized in 1622 by Gregory XV, the feast being fixed on 15 October.
St. Teresa’s place among writers on mystical theology is unique.
In all her writings on this subject she deals with her personal experiences, which a deep insight and analytical gifts enabled her to explain clearly.
The Thomistic substratum may be traced to the influence of her confessors and directors, many of whom belonged to the Dominican Order.
She herself had no pretension to found a mystical school in the accepted sense of the term.
She is intensely personal, her system going exactly as far as her experiences, but not a step further.