TERESA OF AVILA Biography - Religious Figures & Icons


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Name: Teresa of Avila                                                                 
Born: 28 March 1515, Avila, Old Castile, Spain                                         
Died: 4 October 1582, Alba de Tormes, Salamanca, Spain                                 
Saint Teresa of Avila, known in religion as Saint Teresa of Jesus and baptized         
as Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, (born March 28, 1515 at Avila, Old Castile, Spain,     
died October 4, 1582 at Alba de Tormes, Salamanca, Spain) was a prominent             
Spanish mystic, Carmelite nun, and writer of the Counter Reformation. She was a       
reformer of the Carmelite Order and is considered to be, along with Saint John         
of the Cross, a founder of the Discalced Carmelites. She became the first female       
to be named a Doctor of the Church in 1970 and is one of only three females to         
be awarded that honor, along with St. Catherine of Siena, made so in 1970 and St.     
Therese of Lisieux, made so in 1997.                                                   
Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada was born in 1515 in Avila, Spain. Her paternal             
grandfather, Juan de Toledo, was a Jewish convert to Christianity and was             
condemned by the Spanish Inquisition for allegedly returning to the Jewish faith.     
Her father, Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda, bought a knighthood and successfully             
assimilated into Christian society. Teresa's mother Beatriz was especially keen       
to raise her daughter as a pious Christian. Teresa was fascinated by accounts of       
the lives of the saints, and ran away from home at age seven with her brother         
Rodrigo to find martyrdom among the Moors. Her uncle spoiled their plan as he         
was returning to the city and spotted the two outside the city walls.                 
Leaving her parents' home secretly one morning in 1534, at the age of 19, Teresa       
entered the Monastery of the Incarnation of the Carmelite nuns at Avila.               
In the cloister, she suffered greatly from illness. Early in her sickness, she         
experienced periods of spiritual ecstasy through the use of the devotional book,       
Abecedario espiritual, commonly known as the "third" or the "spiritual alphabet"       
(published in six parts from 1537-1554). This work, following the example of           
similar writings of medieval mystics, consisted of directions for tests of             
conscience and for spiritual self-concentration and inner contemplation (known         
in mystical nomenclature as oratio recollectionis or oratio mentalis). She also       
employed other mystical ascetic works such as the Tractatus de oratione et             
meditatione of Peter of Alcantara, and perhaps many of those upon which St.           
Ignatius of Loyola based his Exercitia and perhaps even the Exercitia itself.         
She claimed that during her illness she rose from the lowest stage, "recollection,"   
to the "devotions of peace" or even to the "devotions of union," which was one         
of perfect ecstasy. During this final stage, she said she frequently experienced       
a rich "blessing of tears." As the Catholic distinction between mortal and             
venial sin became clear upon her, she says she came to understand the awful           
terror of sin and the inherent nature of original sin. She also became conscious       
of her own natural impotence in confronting sin, and the necessity of absolute         
subjection to God.                                                                     
Around 1556, various friends suggested that her newfound knowledge was                 
diabolical, not divine. She began to inflict various tortures and mortifications       
on herself. But Francis Borgia, to whom she made confession, reassured her of         
the divine inspiration of her thoughts. On St. Peter's Day in 1559, Teresa             
became firmly convinced that Christ was present to her in bodily form, though         
invisible. This vision lasted almost uninterrupted for more than two years. In         
another vision, a seraph drove the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly           
through her heart, causing an ineffable spiritual-bodily pain. The memory of           
this episode served as an inspiration throughout the rest of her life, and which       
motivated her life-long imitation of the life and suffering of Jesus, epitomized       
in the motto usually associated with her: "Lord, either let me suffer or let me       
die." This last vision was the inspiration for one of Bernini's most famous           
works, Ecstasy of St Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.