Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Teresa, Foundress of the Reformed Carmelites

detail of a painting of Saint Teresa of Avila by Peter Paul Rubens, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, AustriaArticle

Died A.D. 1582.

“Oh thou undaunted daughter of desires!
By all thy dower of lights and fires,
By all of God we have in thee,
Leave nothing to myself in me.
Let me so read thy life that I
Unto all life of mine may die.”

– Crushaw

Saint Teresa, one of the most noble women and beautiful characters of modern times, was born at Avila, in Spain, on the 28th of March, 1515. Alphonsus Sanchez, her father, was a gentleman of great virtue, purity of heart, and high respectability; and her mother, Beatrice Ahumada, who suffered much If om sickness, was a lady of uncommon goodness.

At seven years of age Teresa found pleasure in reading the lives of the saints. Her mind was greatly impressed by the word eternity. “For ever, for ever, for ever,” the sweet child would repeat, in thinking of the everlasting glory of the blessed. She would often retire to a secluded spot, and say her beads or some other prayers. She gave her little alms to the poor, and loved to do all the good in her power.

When the Saint was only twelve years old, her mother died. It was a great blow. Grief crushed the heart of the tender girl. She threw herself on her knees, and, with bitter tears streaming down her face, she looked up to heaven, and besought the Immaculate Virgin to be to her a mother.

The reading of romances was the first obstacle that seriously retarded Teresa’s spiritual progress. “This fault,” she writes, “failed not to cool my good desires, and was the cause of my falling insensibly into other defects – so enchanted was I with the extreme pleasure which I took in it that I thought I could not be contented if I had not some new romance in my hands. I began to imitate the fashion, to take delight in being well dressed, to take great care of my hands, to make use of perfumes, and to effect all the vain trimmings which my condition in life permitted.

“There was nothing bad in my intention. I would not for the world, in the immoderate passion which I had to be decent, give any one an occasion of offending God. But I now acknowledge how far these things – which for several years appeared to me innocent – are effectually and really criminal.”

There is danger in worldly companions. This our Saint experienced. She laments her familiarity with a vain young lady, a first cousin of her own, whose manners and conversation had anything but a happy influence on the blossoming soul of Teresa.

“Were I to give counsel to parents,” says the Saint, “I would warn them to be well advised as to what persons are the companions of their children of that age, because the bent of our fallen nature inclines us rather to evil than to virtue. I found this myself. I profited nothing by the great virtue of one of my sisters, who was much older than I; but I retained all the bad example given me by a relation who haunted our house.”

It is the mature opinion of the Saint herself that, only for romances and idle company, her early favor would never have diminished, but, on the contrary, that she would have gone on increasing in the bright way of virtue. What a precious jewel is piety in the young heart! How easily lost! How carefully to be guarded!

After finishing her studies at a convent, and suffering much from sickness, Teresa resolved to embrace the religious state. She entered the house of the Carmelite Nuns near Avila, and made her profession with great fervor at the age of twenty. For the next three years, however, her life was one ceaseless conflict with a complication of diseases which baffled all remedies. Her mind was oppressed with sadness. She was several times on the verge of the tomb. But a happy change came. The young nun was restored to perfect health through the intercession of Saint Joseph, as she learned afterwards.

Two years later her good father took sick, and this tender, affectionate daughter did all in her power to soothe his last days. She left her convent. She stood by his bed like a ministering angel, and, when death closed his eyes, Teresa prayed that the light of heaven might shine on his spirit.

After over a quarter of a century spent in the religious state, the Saint was inspired by the Almighty to begin the work of reforming her Order. The Carmelite rule which had been drawn up by Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, early in the thirteenth century, was very austere. But after a time several relaxations were introduced. A mitigation of the rule was approved by Pope Eugenius in 1431.

At the convent near Avila, in which Teresa lived, other relaxations were tolerated. The visits of secular friends to the parlor were too frequent. This led to the loss of much precious time, and was often the cause of dissipation of mind and spiritual mischief, as the Saint herself experienced.

At first, the project of reform met with much opposition, and the Saint was slandered and persecuted. During the erection of the new convent at Avila – built by funds given by her relatives – a little nephew of the Saint, named Gonzales, was accidentally crushed by a falling wall. Teresa took him in her arms, prayed to God, and in a few moments restored him in perfect health to his mother.

The boy would often tell his holy aunt afterwards that it was her duty to secure his salvation by her prayers and instruction, as it was owing to her intervention that he was not long ago in heaven. He lived a pious life, and died happily soon after the Saint herself.

In 1562 Teresa and four fervent nuns from the old house entered the new convent. The establishment was confirmed by a papal brief from Rome. Much against her own will, the Saint was obliged to take the charge of governing.

The restored rule was marked by an austere poverty. The nuns wore habits of coarse serge, sandals instead of shoes, lay on straw, and never ate flesh-meat. They fasted eight months in the year, recited the Canonical Office, and offered up their prayers and other good works for the benefit of souls, and particularly for those who labored in the vineyard of Christ.

Despite great opposition, houses of the reformed Order arose in various cities. The Saint began a new edifice at Toledo, with only four or five ducats in her pocket. “Teresa and this money,” she said, “are indeed nothing; but God, Teresa, and these ducats suffice for the accomplishment of the undertaking.”

It was in the same city that a young lady of high reputation asked to be admitted to the Order. “I will bring my Bible with me,” she added. “What!” exclaimed our great Saint, “your Bible! Do not come to us. We are poor women who know nothing but how to spin and to do what we are told.” This was meant as a rebuke to the vanity and wrangling disposition of the applicant. It exhibits the keenness and happy penetration of Saint Teresa, for the woman afterwards fell into many extravagances.

The saint tells us that during her own early religious life she gave up mental prayer for a time. But she adds: “It was the worst and greatest temptation I ever had.”

By mental prayer we learn truly to understand the way of heaven. It is the gate through which God reaches our souls. It is a treaty of friendship with the Almighty. An eminent spirit of prayer, founded in deep humility and perfect self-denial, was the sublime means by which God raised this holy Virgin to such an heroic degree of sanctity. Following the advice of a wise and learned Jesuit father, she made a meditation every day on some part of the sacred Passion of Jesus Christ.

“I do not see how God can come to us, or enrich us with His graces,” says the Saint, “if we shut the door against him Though He is infinitely desirous to communicate all His gifts, He will have our hearts to be found alone, and burning with a desire to receive Him O Joy of the angels! My Lord and my God! I cannot think of conversing with Thee without desiring to melt like wax in the fire of Thy divine love, and to consume all that is earthly in me by loving Thee.

“How infinite is Thy goodness to bear with, and even to caress, those who are imperfect and bad; to recompense the short time they spend with Thee, and, upon their repentance, to blot out their faults! This I experienced in myself. I do not see why all men do not approach Thee, to share in Thy friendship.”

Though superior and foundress, Saint Teresa chose the greatest humiliations that could be practised in her Order. If she pronounced a word with a false accent in reciting the divine office, she at once prostrated herself in penance. For the least fault she humbled herself. It was her pleasure after the office to steal into the choir and fold up the cloaks of the sisters. She served at table. She performed the lowest offices in the kitchen. She carefully swept the most filthy places in the yard.

But in these exterior employments, the eyes of her pure soul were fixed on heaven. To her every place was a sanctuary. All her actions were offered to God as a continual sacrifice of love and praise and humility.

For years and years she mourned over the slight faults of her girlhood with the compunction of a Magdalen. She remembered them with floods of tears. She set no bounds to her mortifications. She chastised her delicate body by austere fasts, long prayers, hair-shirts, and severe disciplines. It was this lofty spirit of penance that moved her to restore the Carmelite rule in all its original rigor.

This noble woman suffered every kind of persecution. At one period her very friends avoided her as one possessed by the devil. Others went so far as to call her a devil. But when assailed with the most outrageous slanders, she would say with a smile: “No music is so agreeable to my ears.”

“Do you think,” said Christ to her in a vision, “that merit consists in enjoying? No. It is in working and suffering and loving. He is most beloved on whom My Father lays the heaviest crosses – if these are borne and accepted with love. By what can I better show My love for you than by choosing for you what I chose for Myself?”

Her charity was tender and beautiful. She was the very soul of goodness. She had an extreme horror of detraction. She hated its very shadow. In her presence no one dared to make the least reflection on the faults of another. She always observed the golden rule of speaking of others in the same kind way that she would desire others to speak of herself.

Nor was her great love of truth less admirable. If she heard one of her nuns repeat anything – be it ever so trifling – with the least alteration, she at once severely reprimanded the offender. She often said that no person could arrive at perfection who was not a scrupulous lover of truth and simplicity.

The Saint was singularly devout to the Blessed Sacrament. She used to say that one Communion properly made is enough to enrich the soul with all the treasures of grace and virtue. Her ardor in approaching the holy table was inexpressible.

If God often tried His servant in order to purify her virtue, He no less frequently favored her with celestial communications, which added new lustre to her glory. She was favored with visions and raptures. The soul sometimes raised the body into the air during these raptures.

“When I had a mind to resist these raptures,” writes the lovely Saint, “there seemed something of a mighty force under my feet. It raised me up. I know not with what to compare it. All my resistance was of little use, for when our Lord wishes to do a thing no power is able to withstand it.

“The effects of the rapture are great. The mighty power of God is thus made manifest. . . . We must acknowledge that we have a superior, that these favors come from Him, and that of ourselves we can do nothing. The soul is greatly impressed with humility.

“I confess it also produced great fear in me – which at first was extreme – to see that a massy body should be thus raised up from the earth. For though it be the Spirit that draws it up, and though it be done with great sweetness and delight – if not resisted – yet our senses are not thereby lost. At least I was so perfectly in my senses that I understood I was then elevated.

“There also seems so great a majesty in Him who can do this that it even makes the hair of the head stand on end, and there remains in the soul a mighty fear of offending a God so powerful. But this fear is wrapped up in a boundless love. . . . Such a favor also leaves in the soul a wonderful disengagement from all the things of this world.”

This great lady was ever simple as as a child. “Do you see Teresa of Jesus?” said her confessor, Father Alvarez, S. J. “What sublime graces has she not received of God! Yet she is like the most tractable little child in relation to everything I can say to her.” She obeyed her confessor as she would have done God Himself.

The enchanting modesty of this holy virgin’s countenance was a silent sermon on the beauty of purity – a virtue which she preserved spotless from the cradle to the grave. When once asked for advice about impure temptations, she answered that she knew not what they meant.

The Saint’s noble and generous soul made her deeply grateful to all who did her the least service. Though the wonderful success of her enterprises was owing to the blessing of God, and to the divine light which she drew down upon her actions by the sublime spirit of prayer, still she was doubtless a woman of rare natural gifts.

Her temper was sweet and amiable. Her pure heart throbbed with the most tender affection. In early life the quickness of her wit and the richness of her imagination, poised by an uncommon maturity of judgment, gained her the love and esteem of all her acquaintances. Nor did this charm of person and manners desert her in old age. To the end her prudence and address were admirable. Her gravity, modesty, graceful ways, and wise words were the delight of all with whom she conversed. She lived to see sixteen nunneries of her reformed Order established.

When her last hour came, she kept repeating, until speech failed: “A contrite and humble heart, O God! Thou wilt not despise.” And with these words on her lips the dear Saint Teresa passed on the 15th of October, 1582, at the age of sixty-seven years, forty-seven of which were entirely consecrated to Heaven. She was canonized in 1621.

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Teresa, Foundress of the Reformed Carmelites”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 September 2018. Web. 17 November 2018. <>