Teresa of Ávila (1515–82) was a Spanish Carmelite nun and reformer, mystic, and celebrated Christian writer born in Ávila, Spain.
At twenty Teresa ran away from home to join the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Ávila. She made her final vows two years later, taking the name Teresa of Jesus. The young beauty found herself playing hostess to many visitors, male and female, who came to the convent for counsel or simply to enjoy the company of the nuns.
Soon Teresa became gravely ill and was sent to the home of an uncle for a cure. The cure—strong purgatives and bleeding—nearly killed Teresa, and she was sent back to Incarnation to die. She recovered, though it was nearly three years before she could walk.
Her sense of personal unworthiness crippled her prayer life until reading Augustine’s Confessions convinced her that she could be forgiven. At thirty-nine Teresa experienced a deep inner certainty of God’s love while praying before a crucifix. She began to experience religious ecstasy and confounded many confessors who tried to advise her. They condemned her prayer as female emotionalism.
Teresa was ordered to write an account of her life and spiritual experiences for the Spanish Inquisition. She completed her Life in 1562. The central chapters are a treatise on prayer, in which she pictures the soul as a garden where virtues grow and blossom, and prayer waters the garden with grace. Teresa describes four ways of obtaining this water. Beginning prayer is like drawing water from a well with a bucket, requiring much work (discursive meditation) for little water. As the soul becomes more recollected, prayer is like turning a water wheel that gives more water for less effort. Eventually prayer is like having irrigation ditches coming from a stream. The soul needs only to open the floodgates and then rest in quiet as the water flows. Finally, sometimes it rains—God catching the soul up in union and ecstasy.
In late 1562 Teresa was allowed to found the reformed convent of St. Joseph in Ávila, where she lived with four other nuns. During the next four years she served as prioress and wrote The Way of Perfection as a basic manual of mental prayer grounded in reflections on the Lord’s Prayer. Teresa explains that mental prayer can begin by reflecting on the verbal prayers one is already saying, paying attention to the meaning of each word.
In 1577 Teresa began her most famous writing, Interior Castle, at the order of her confessor. In it she describes the soul as a crystal castle in which seven varieties of dwelling places grow increasingly interior. The first three correspond to the purgative way as the soul grows from nominal Christianity through a desire to grow spiritually to beginning in meditation and recollection (the first water). The fourth dwelling corresponds to the illuminative way of growing quiet and beginning contemplation (the second and third waters). The final three dwelling places are the unitive way as the soul moves closer to complete union, or spiritual marriage, corresponding to the fourth water.
Teresa died in 1582 and was canonized forty years later. In 1970 Teresa and Catherine of Siena became the first women designated Doctors of the Church, that is, authoritative teachers. Teresa’s writing is free-flowing and often repetitive because she had no time to revise. Since she knew that every word would be scrutinized by men firmly opposed to women teaching or writing theology, her works are full of self-abasement and are presented as stories about experience rather than as the sophisticated treatises on prayer they really are.
Keith R. Beasley-Topliffe, The Upper Room Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation, ed. Keith Beasley-Topliffe, (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2016), 268-269.
For more, read Writings of Teresa of Avila, Upper Room Spiritual Classics Series), edited by Keith Beasley-Topliffe. Writings of Teresa of Avila presents excerpts from her best-known writings. This volume includes portions from The Book of Her Life, The Interior Castle, and The Way of Perfection, all from a noted contemporary translation.