The first 40 years of Teresa’s life gave no clue to the rich depth and productivity of the second half of her life. Born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada in central Spain, she spent her early years with her family, giving herself to the duties of extended family life. At age 21, against her father’s wishes, she professed vows as a Carmelite at the Spanish Convent of the Incarnation in Avila.
Still, according to her own account, she waffled spiritually. The convent was known for its leniency, for example, permitting relationships with those outside the convent and allowing worldly possessions within. Teresa, enjoying the convent’s indulgences, waned in her devotion. Then a serious, prolonged illness (and partial paralysis from an attempted cure) forced her to spend three years in relative quiet, during which time she read books on the spiritual life. When she recovered and returned to the convent she resumed what to her later seemed only a half-hearted spirituality. Of these years, she wrote in her Autobiography, “I voyaged on this tempestuous sea for almost 20 years with these fallings and risings.”
Then one day while walking down a hallway in the convent, her glance fell on a statue of the wounded Christ, and the vision of his constant love throughout her inconstancy pierced her heart. Gently but powerfully, she said Jesus began to break down her defenses and reveal to her the cause of her spiritual exhaustion: her dalliance with the delights of sin.
She immediately broke with her past, undergoing a final conversion. After this, she began experiencing profound mystical raptures, though these soon passed. For the rest of her life, she gave herself completely to her spiritual growth and the renewal of the Carmelite monasteries.
A spiritual legacy
Teresa dreamed of establishing convents where young women could pursue deep lives of deep prayer and devotion. She once wrote, “Whoever has not begun the practice of prayer, I beg for the love of the Lord not to go without so great a good. There is nothing here to fear but only something to desire.” Teresa spent days on end traveling the countryside establishing reformed (or “Discalced,” meaning “unshod,” that is, more simple) Carmelite convents. She convinced John of the Cross to join her in this work.
Her success as an administrator and reformer (she founded 14 monasteries) was due in part to her natural leadership gifts, her tenacity in the face of adversity (especially from older Carmelites who resented her reforms), and a keen sense of humor. Once when praying about her many trials and sufferings, she heard she heard Jesus say, “But this is how I treat my friends.” Teresa replied, “No wonder you have so few friends.”
Yet it is her gift of spiritual direction, practiced personally with nuns and publicly in her writings, for which she is known today.
She was hesitant to put her insights to paper and had to be ordered by her superiors to do so. Thankfully for later generations, she obeyed: her three works, Autobiography, Way of Perfection, and Interior Castle, contain some of the most profound insights into the spiritual life ever written.
To take one example, considered by many her masterpiece: Interior Castle describes the soul as a “castle made entirely of diamond or of a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms.” Some are above, some below, some to the sides, “and in the very center and middle is the main dwelling place where the very secret exchanges between God and the soul take place.” Teresa wanted to teach her readers how to enter this castle, that is, how to pray, so that they might commune more intimately with God.
For Teresa, prayer is the source of Christian life and the wellspring of all moral virtues. Prayer is not everything, but without prayer, nothing else is possible. By prayer does the soul enter the Castle, and by prayer does the soul continue the journey. Under this umbrella of prayer, God works, in mysterious, often unpredictable ways, and the soul works strongly. Without the soul’s active compliance, God will not move (though human effort cannot do what God alone must do).
From the First Dwelling Place, where the soul begins to pray, to the Seventh Dwelling Place, where the soul, united to God, finds both perfect peace and deepest suffering, the person builds on prayer and the progressive disengagement from the things of this world. But unlike her partner in reform, John of the Cross, Teresa’s understanding of disengagement is not ascetic. On the contrary, for Teresa true suffering comes from being in the world and serving others. Spiritual progress is measured neither by self-imposed penance nor by the sweetest pleasures of mystical experiences but by growth in constant love for others and an increasing desire within for the will of God.
This love for her sisters and brothers and this union with the will of God compelled Teresa onward in constant efforts. To someone who encouraged her to rest, she once said, “Rest, indeed! I need no rest; what I need is crosses.” In her last years, her health suffered, as did her reputation with church authorities, who sought to restrict her influence. On yet another mission of service, her body exhausted, Teresa died reciting verses from the Song of Songs.