Teresa of Avila
Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) is one of the most admired theologians in the history of Christianity. Within her lifetime, Teresa established seventeen religious foundations for women and collaborated in the founding of fifteen foundations for men. In 1627, Teresa was named co-patron saint of Spain, which, at the time ranked as one of the most powerful nations in Christendom. In 1970, after centuries during which the Catholic Church refused to fully acknowledge the invaluable contributions of its female members, Pope Paul VI belatedly endowed Teresa with the title “Doctor of the Church”—making her the first woman, along with St. Catherine of Siena, to receive this esteemed title. As this study demonstrates, however, Teresa achieved the successes that ultimately led to such a revered status only after long and bitter struggles against numerous challenges that sought to prevent her efforts at religious reform. Teresa succeeded in these efforts only because of her remarkable faith, her uncompromising endurance in the face of bitter opposition, and her extraordinary abilities to reap the most from the narrow range of possibilities that were open to her.
Teresa of Avila was born in 1515 into a relatively privileged family from Castile in Central Spain. At twenty years of age Teresa entered the Carmelite order at the Avila Convent of the Incarnation, where she would remain until she was forty-six years old. While at the Convent of the Incarnation, Teresa had significant mystical experiences that would inspire her to embark on an unceasing journey to reform what she perceived as a spiritually decadent order. Armed only with spiritual insights and resilience in the face of formidable resistance, Teresa would selflessly dedicate the rest of her life to achieving this goal, despite the fact that she personally stood to gain nothing and to lose a great deal in pursuing it. In fact, when one considers her rather privileged if somewhat marginal family background, it becomes obvious that Teresa would have yielded immense gains if she had instead worked quietly to preserve and strengthen the prevailing regimes of her day.
Teresa’s vision of reform was informed by a desire to eliminate what she saw as pervasive social inequalities amongst the Carmelites, and to return the order to the unspoiled, egalitarian principles that had shaped the foundation of the order in the twelfth century. Prominent among the goals for reform were a return to a commitment to absolute poverty, enclosure of the nuns, and strict adherence to the Rule established at the order’s founding. Teresa’s strong dedication to the cause of much-needed religious reform is made all the more remarkable when one considers the social and religious context in which she developed and operated.