As a Catholic professor of church history at a Lutheran seminary, I am often asked: “Who is your favorite saint?” It is an unsurprising question. After all, I talk and write about historical Christians for my work, and like any good Catholic, I have my favorite saints. And while there are plenty of saints I write about, teach about, and genuinely feel drawn to, there is a clear winner for favorite: Teresa of Ávila. The Spanish mystic and reformer stands out amongst this holy crowd, for her life, her writings, and her lasting legacy in Christian history.
I was born on her feast day (October 15), but did not realize how much I related to her until after I converted to Catholicism in my thirties. Stories of the saints are sometimes presented in idealized fashion—surely to emphasize their holiness—but the downside is that the saints become too holy and too perfect, and they stop being relatable. I first encountered Teresa in this manner when I was younger, and she did not seem particularly interesting. I learned that she and one of her brothers had run away from home as children in hopes of being martyred (how bizarre!), and I learned that she was a pious nun who reformed the Carmelite Order (I didn’t know what the Carmelite Order was). So, I left her alone, and it was only later that I came to realize what a remarkable woman she truly was.
The benefit of studying St. Teresa is that she wrote a lot. We have books and letters, so we can, with a fair amount of accuracy, recount her biography, her motivations, and her faith. She was born Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda in the city of Ávila in the old Spanish kingdom of Castile in 1515. She was two years old when Martin Luther nailed up his 95 Theses in faraway Wittenberg. While she knew who Luther was, and was aware of Reformation activity, (at least in a general sense), it is doubtful she ever would have read any of his writings. She stayed a devout Catholic, and has had a remarkable impact on Catholic spirituality.
Teresa was the fifth of twelve children in her family. Her two eldest siblings were from her father’s first marriage, and she was from his second. Teresa’s mother died at the age of thirty-three after the birth of her tenth child. Most of Teresa’s brothers left home and headed to the Americas to make their fortunes, since this was also the era of Spanish exploration and colonization. Teresa seemed an unlikely candidate for the holy life, despite that famous childhood attempt at martyrdom (One quick note on this: Christians were not being persecuted in Spain at this point in history. Teresa and her brother planned to run away to the “land of the Moors” and to beg them to “chop off their heads.” It was an ill-conceived childhood plan inspired by stories of martyrs from the past).
As a young woman, Teresa was apparently difficult. She loved romance novels and fashion. One can look at her early life and see that perhaps she was just a little too beautiful, rich, and adventurous for sixteenth century Spanish society. Exasperated, her father sent her off to an Augustinian convent when she was fifteen. While she had little desire to become a nun, she did enjoy her time there, and later entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Ávila against her father’s wishes in November of 1536, at the age of twenty. Life at the convent likely provided her with more freedom than had she decided to marry. The Incarnation was a wealthy convent that was not strictly cloistered, and Teresa was able to come and go, visiting friends and family, thus able to maintain her social life even after becoming a nun. For a Spanish woman in the sixteenth century, this was about as much freedom as one could hope for.
She spent nearly two decades in lukewarm religiosity. In her autobiography, she writes about wanting a deeper spiritual life, but she struggled for a variety of reasons. However, in 1555 she had a radical conversion experience which changed her life. She was about to walk into the convent’s chapel when she saw a statue of Christ that had been set aside for an upcoming celebration. The statue depicted Christ being scourged at the pillar, and the sight of it shook her to the “root of her being” and stirred a deep devotion in her. She was never the same.
From this point forward, Teresa’s story is intertwined with her mystical experiences. She had miraculous encounters with the Divine. She had intellectual visions which imparted her with theological knowledge. She saw Jesus, angels, demons, and the dead. She spent a few agonizing moments in hell, and had visions of heaven. There were even reports of her levitating—something she found deeply embarrassing. Her best-known mystical experience was the transverberation, which has been brought to life through various works of art, the most famous being the Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. All this activity brought Teresa a good deal of fame, but it also brought concerns from the Inquisition, which was very active during Teresa’s life.
Teresa wrote her first book, her autobiography, or her Vita, known today as The Life of Teresa of Jesus, because various clerical authorities wanted to examine her prayer life, her theology, and her mystical experiences. Despite suspicion, the Catholic Church deemed her theology orthodox, and her mystical experiences legitimate. Concerned about what others would do with her writings though, the Inquisition tried to keep the autobiography from the public. Eventually the book was widely read and has since become a Catholic classic. She also wrote The Way of Perfection and Interior Castle, both of which are important contributions to Spanish Renaissance literature.
Teresa was not just a mystic; she made her mark as a religious reformer as well. She believed God was calling her to return the Carmelite Order back to its original strictness, which included a return to enclosure, poverty, and a commitment to silent prayer. The nuns were to be discalced, which means wearing sandals instead of shoes to show a commitment to poverty. One other important aspect of her reforms was to accept women of all social classes. Dowries, which often kept pious but poor women from entering the religious life, were welcomed, but not required, and a faithful woman seeking a monastic life would not be turned away due to lack of funds. Teresa opened the Convent of St. Joseph in 1562, and she would spend the rest of her life establishing fourteen new Discalced Carmelite Convents and two monastic houses for men. After a full life, Teresa died at the age of sixty-seven on October 15 of 1582.
Teresa was canonized in 1611 and was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970, an honor to which only four women have been granted. However, it is not just her impressive credentials that have made a lasting impression in Christian history. In fact, her autobiography is one of the most enjoyable pieces of mystical literature available. She comes across as funny, smart, and warm. The book feels intimate—like you are getting prayer advice from a friend who just happens to be a canonized saint. She has long been a favorite in Catholic circles, but she is a figure that is approachable to all Christians. Her context may be different, and her mysticism may seem strange to the modern reader, but her honest recounting of struggles with prayer, authority, and her relationship with God is profoundly relatable.
This blogpost is adapted from Dr. Wojciechowski’s book, Women and the Christian Story: A Global History (Fortress, 2022). If you’re interested in learning more about women in Church History from Dr. Wojciechowski, check out our Faith+Lead Academy course, Faithfully Gifted!