St. Teresa of Ávila, Doctor of the Church, Pray For Us

SAINTS & ART: St. Teresa’s pursuit of spiritual perfection extended into reform of her religious community and rich blessings for the entire Church.

Eduardo Balaca, “Santa Teresa de Jesús,” ca. 1877
Eduardo Balaca, “Santa Teresa de Jesús,” ca. 1877 (photo: Public Domain)

Religious reformer and mystic St. Teresa of Ávila lived from 1515-1582. The Spanish nun was instrumental in the reform of the Carmelite Order.

She came into the world into a family of the petit nobility (her father had a knighthood), her grandfather having been a convert from Judaism after the Reconquista of Spain. She was raised in a devout and pious family but lost her mother in her early adolescence. She was eventually sent to the school of the Augustinian Sisters in Ávila for her education.

Teresa decided to enter religious life, though it seems her biographers tend to think “not so much through any attraction towards it, as through a desire of choosing the safest course.” Initially opposed, her father finally relented and Teresa entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Ávila.

Beset by severe illnesses and a prolonged convalescence, she began advancing in mental prayer as well as having visions. At first her claims were suspect, even considered of diabolical origin, but eventual spiritual guidance by Dominican and Jesuit confessors helped her advance.

A key distinguishing feature of her spiritual experience and driving force in her life and work was her “mystical marriage.” Teresa reports how she repeatedly sensibly and spiritually felt her heart pierced by an angel with a golden lance, filling her with the love of God. She describes it as an exquisitely painful pain, but one so dear and sweet she would not have foregone it for anything. Bernini attempted to capture that mystical marriage in marble in his “Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” which now stands in Rome.

Teresa is the author of important works in spiritual and mystical theology, works based on her own spiritual experience. The Life of St. Teresa, Interior Castle, The Way of Perfection, and numerous poems remain classical works in spiritual theology and led to her proclamation as a Doctor of the Church by Pope St. Paul VI in 1970.

Because holiness is not just an individualistic affair, Teresa translated the seriousness of her path of spiritual perfection into reform of her religious community. Teresa eventually founded a whole new branch of the Carmelites, the Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites, starting with the St. Joseph’s Convent in Ávila. The success of her efforts eventually led to a Carmelite effort to staunch it, but it received papal approval. By involving a friar, John of the Cross, to extend the Discalced reform to the male branch of the order, she inspired the next great spiritual master of her community, a man whose own spiritual writings (Dark Night of the Soul, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Spiritual Canticle) would be as important as hers in Western Catholic spirituality.

Death caught her in her travels to establish new houses of reform of her order.

An interesting fact: she died apparently on the night of Oct. 4-15, 1582. That’s not a typo. On that night, Catholics in Europe switched from the Julian to Gregorian Calendars, because the former had fallen so out-of-step with the sun. Calendar reform required the dropping of 11 days to realign sun and calendar, so those who went to bed on Oct. 4 arose on Oct. 15 — from their beds or to eternity.

Living in an age of no photography and wanting apparently to preserve some image of her, Teresa’s superior had a brother, Juan de la Miseria, paint her around 1575. The Spanish portrait painter Eduardo Balaca (c. 1840-1914) reproduced it about 300 years after the original, circa 1877. The picture here is Balaca’s painting.

I chose it because the original was done during the saint’s life, which suggests at least some resemblance to what she really looked like (although it’s said she told him he “turned her out ugly”).

Teresa is shown in a Carmelite habit in a prayerful pose, since she is a spiritual mistress of prayer and reformer of her order. Her true inspiration, the Holy Spirit, hovers above her. In case anybody doesn’t recognize her, the painter helpfully added, “Teresa of Jesus.” What looks like a little sticky on the saint’s right tells us it was painted in her 61st year of life. The band above her head is the opening of Psalm 89: “I will forever sing of the Lord’s mercies.”