Biography of Teresa of Avila

Medieval Saint and Reformer, Doctor of the Church

Saint Teresa Of Avila
Saint Teresa Of Avila. Archive Photos / Getty Images

Like Catherine of Siena, the other woman named Doctor of the Church with Teresa of Avila in 1970, Teresa also lived in turbulent times: the New World had been opened to exploration just before her birth, the Inquisition had been influencing the church in Spain, and the Reformation began two years after she was born in 1515 in Ávila in what is now known as Spain.

Teresa was born into a well-to-do family, long established in Spain. Some 20 years before she was born, in 1485, under Ferdinand and Isabella, the Tribunal of the Inquisition in Spain offered to pardon "conversos"—Jews who had converted to Christianity—if they had secretly been continuing Jewish practices. Teresa's paternal grandfather and Teresa's father were among those who confessed and were paraded through the streets in Toledo as repentance.

Teresa was one of ten children in her family. As a child, Teresa was pious and outgoing—sometimes a mixture that her parents couldn't handle. When she was seven years old, she and her brother left home planning to travel to Muslim territory to be beheaded. They were stopped by an uncle.

Entering the Convent

Teresa's father sent her at 16 to the Augustinian Convent Sta. Maria de Gracia, when her mother died. She returned home when she fell ill, and spent three years there recovering. When Teresa decided to enter the convent as a vocation, her father at first refused his permission.

In 1535, Teresa entered the Carmelite monastery at Ávila, the Monastery of the Incarnation. She took her vows in 1537, taking the name of Teresa of Jesus. The Carmelite rule required being cloistered, but many monasteries did not enforce the rules strictly. Many of the nuns of Teresa's time lived away from the convent, and when at the convent, followed the rules rather loosely. Among the times Teresa left was to nurse her dying father.

Reforming the Monasteries

Teresa began experiencing visions, in which she received revelations telling her to reform her religious order. When she began this work, she was in her 40s.

In 1562 Teresa of Avila founded her own convent. She re-emphasized prayer and poverty, coarse rather than fine materials for clothing, and wearing sandals instead of shoes. Teresa had the support of her confessor and others, but the city objected, claiming that they could not afford to support a convent that enforced a strict poverty rule.

Teresa had the help of her sister and her sister's husband in finding a house to begin her new convent. Soon, working with St. John of the Cross and others, she was working to establish the reform throughout the Carmelites.

With the support of the head of her order, she began to establish other convents that maintained the order's rule strictly. But she also met opposition. At one point her opposition within the Carmelites tried to get her exiled to the New World. Eventually, Teresa's monasteries separated as the Discalced Carmelites ("calced" referring to the wearing of footwear).

Writings of Teresa of Avila

Teresa completed her autobiography in 1564, covering her life until 1562. Most of her works, including her Autobiography, were written at the demand of authorities in her order, to demonstrate that she was doing her work of reform for holy reasons. She was under regular investigation by the Inquisition, in part because her grandfather was a Jew. She objected to these assignments, wanting to work instead on the practical founding and managing of convents and the private work of prayer. But it is by those writings that we know her and her theological ideas.

She also wrote, over five years, the Way of Perfection, perhaps her best-known writing, completing it in 1566. In it, she gave guidelines for reforming monasteries. Her basic rules required love of God and of fellow Christians, emotional detachment from human relationships for full focus on God, and Christian humility.

In 1580, she completed another of her major writings, Castle Interior. This was an explanation of the spiritual journey of the religious life, using the metaphor of a many-roomed castle. Again, the book was widely read by suspicious Inquisitors—and this wide dissemination may have actually helped her writings achieve a wider audience.

In 1580, Pope Gregory XIII formally recognized the Discalced Reform order Teresa had begun.

In 1582, she completed another book of guidelines for the religious life within the new order, Foundations. While in her writings she intended to lay out and describe a path to salvation, Teresa accepted that individuals would find their own paths.

Death and Legacy

Teresa of Avila, known also as Teresa of Jesus, died at Alba in October of 1582 while attending a birth. The Inquisition had not yet completed its investigations of her thought for possible heresy at the time of her death.

Teresa of Avila was declared a "Patroness of Spain" in 1617 and was canonized in 1622, at the same time as Francis Xavier, Ignatius Loyola, and Philip Neri. She was made a Doctor of the Church—one whose doctrine is recommended as inspired and in accord with church teachings—in 1970.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Teresa of Avila." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Biography of Teresa of Avila. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Teresa of Avila." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).