ST. TERESA OF AVILA
Born in a small village in the province of Avila, Spain, Teresa lived in an age of exploration as well as political, social, and religious upheaval. It was the 16th century, a time of turmoil and reform. She was born before the Protestant Reformation and died almost 20 years after the closing of the Council of Trent.
The gift of God to Teresa in and through which she became holy and left her mark on the Church and the world is threefold: She was a woman; she was a contemplative; she was an active reformer.
As a woman, Teresa stood on her own two feet, even in the man’s world of her time. She was “her own woman” entering the Carmelites despite strong opposition from her father. She is a person wrapped not so much in silence as in mystery. Beautiful, talented, outgoing, adaptable, affectionate, courageous, enthusiastic, she was totally human. Like Jesus, she was a mystery of paradoxes: wise, yet practical; intelligent, yet much in tune with her experience; a mystic, yet an energetic reformer; a holy woman, a womanly woman.
Teresa was a woman “for God,” a woman of prayer, discipline, and compassion. Her heart belonged to God. Her ongoing conversion was an arduous lifelong struggle, involving ongoing purification and suffering. She was misunderstood, misjudged, and opposed in her efforts at reform. Yet she struggled on, courageous and faithful; she struggled with her own mediocrity, her illness, her opposition. And in the midst of all this she clung to God in life and in prayer. Her writings on prayer and contemplation are drawn from her experience: powerful, practical, and graceful. She was a woman of prayer; a woman for God.
Teresa was a woman “for others.” Though a contemplative, she spent much of her time and energy seeking to reform herself and the Carmelites, to lead them back to the full observance of the primitive Rule. She founded over a half-dozen new monasteries. She traveled, wrote, fought — always to renew, to reform. In her self, in her prayer, in her life, in her efforts to reform, in all the people she touched, she was a woman for others, a woman who inspired and gave life.
Teresa who became a celebrity in her town dispensing wisdom from behind the convent grille, was also known for her raptures which sometimes involved levitation. It was a source of embarrassment to her and she bade her sisters to hold her down when this occurred. The fact that she wrote down virtually everything that happened to her during her religious life, means that an invaluable and exceedingly rare record from the 16th-century has been preserved.
Her final illness overtook her on one of her journeys and she died in 1582 at the age of 67. Her last words were: "My Lord, it is time to move on. Well then, may your will be done. O my Lord and my Spouse, the hour that I have longed for has come. It is time to meet one another."
Teresa was buried at the Convento de la Anunciacion in Alba de Tormes. Nine months after her death, the coffin was opened and her body was found to be intact but her clothing had rotted. Before the body was re-interred one of her hands was cut off, wrapped in a scarf and sent to Avila. Father Gracian cut the little finger off the hand and - according to his own account - kept it with him until it was taken by the occupying Ottoman Turks from whom he had to buy it with a few rings and 20 reales. The body was exhumed again on November 25, 1585 to be moved to Avila and was found again, to be incorrupt. An arm was removed and left in Alba de Tormes at the nuns' request, to compensate for losing the main relic of Teresa, but the rest of the body was reburied in the Discalced Carmelite chapter house in Avila.
In 1970, the Church gave her the title she had long held in the popular mind: Doctor of the Church. She and St. Catherine of Siena were the first women so honored.