Saint Teresa of Avila - Biographical Sketch
The Early Years
Spain, separated from the continent of Europe by the Pyrenees, has a high central tableland both dividing the country within itself and stretching from the northern mountains to the southern coast. Without a natural center and without easy routes, this land was in the Middle Ages a disparate region, a complex of different races, languages, and civilizations. But at the end of the fifteenth century and the opening years of the sixteenth, all the natural disadvantages were somehow overcome. Spain, with ten per cent of its soil bare rock and only ten per cent of it rich, became in the sixteenth century the greatest power on earth; this previously remote peninsula was now ruler of the largest empire the world had yet seen, and all but master of Europe. During those exhilarating years of outward glory, Teresa of Avila lived and witnessed ironically to another, inward glory, to the sacred truth that becomes the rich possession of every genuine mystic, that a person's greatest good is within and "won by giving up everything" (ch. 20, 27).
Born during the reign of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, Teresa saw, under Charles V, Castile's high moment of prosperity. Under Philip II, she saw her king's struggles against Protestant and Morisco rebels, against the Netherlanders in the north and the Turks in the Mediterranean -- not to mention Philip's many other activities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the New World.
Teresa's grandfather, a Toledan merchant, a Jewish converso (Christianized Jew), victim of the use of religion for the sake of political unity, had to accuse himself before the Inquisition for judaizing and as a penance was compelled to wear in procession for seven Fridays the humiliating sanbenito. After his reconciliation, out of necessity, he moved with his family to Avila where he was able to continue in his profession as a cloth merchant. One of his sons, Teresa's father Alonso, was about fourteen when the family arrived in Avila. In 1505 Alonso married; but two years later his wife died, leaving him two children. Alonso, after four years, married again, this time Doña Beatriz de Ahumada, who on March 28, 1515, gave birth to a daughter and future saint who received her grandmother's name -- Teresa de Ahumada. Doña Beatriz died at the age of thirty-three, leaving behind from her marriage ten children.
Biographers have given posterity a detailed description of Teresa de Ahumada. She was medium in height and tended to be more plump than thin. Her unusual face could not be described as either round or aquiline; the skin was white and the cheeks flesh-colored. Her forehead was broad, her eyebrows somewhat thick, their dark brown color having a reddish tinge. Her eyes were black, lively, and round, not very large but well placed and protruding a little. The nose was small; the mouth medium in size and delicately shaped, and her chin was well proportioned. The white teeth sparkled and were equal in size. Three tiny moles, considered highly ornamental in those days, added further grace to her appearance; one below the center of the nose, the second over the left side of her mouth, the third beneath the mouth on the same side. Her hair was a shining black and gently curled.
In many ways an extravert, she was cheerful and friendly, a happy conversationalist, whom people found pleasing to hear as well as look at. Besides her talent as a writer, she was also gifted in the use of the needle and in household tasks.
Her undaunted spirit first began to show signs of itself when she was only seven and decided to set off with her brother Rodrigo for the land of the Moors to have her head cut off for Christ. With much the same ardor she enjoyed playing hermit life with other children -- praying, giving alms, and doing penances. While she was growing up in this quiet atmosphere of piety, the revolt of the Comuneros took place, shaking all Castile. This was a movement of angry reaction to a long period in which royal government had eroded many of the traditional powers and prerogatives of the Castilian towns. During this period, too -- in 1525 to be precise -- the Imperialist army, largely through Spanish troops, won the greatest victory of the age at Pavia. Two years later Charles V's armies broke from control and put Rome to the most terrible sack it had ever endured.
It was at about the time of this latter incident that the piety of the now adolescent Teresa began to grow cold. She became over eager to read romantic tales of chivalry, began to cultivate her feminine charms, and to plan a possible marriage. The absorption of her fantasy with chivalrous themes along with her facility for writing stirred her at this time to try, together with her brother, writing a book, of the kind she liked to read. In the judgment of her early Jesuit biographer, Ribera, it contained "much that could be said for it."
As time went on, after her mother's death in November 1528, Teresa began to meet with opposition at home because of her affection for her cousins, sons of her aunt Doña Elvira de Cepeda, and her friendship with a frivolous, unidentified relative whose influence was not of the kind that strengthened Teresa's piety. Teresa was later to look back with much distaste upon this whole period in which she lost the fervor of her early years. On the watch for an excuse to free his daughter from the vain company and enticements she was experiencing, Don Alonso found one, in 1531, when his oldest daughter married. At the age of sixteen Teresa was entrusted to the care of the Augustinian nuns of Our Lady of Grace in Avila.
Since there was no public education system in Spain at the time, Don Alonso's daughter probably learned how to read and write at home. Nor could one compare what was offered to her in the way of education at Our Lady of Grace to any modern boarding school. The nuns did little more, we now conjecture, than prepare the young girls for their future life in marriage, teaching them the usual household tasks: cooking, sewing, embroidery, and other things of that sort. Undoubtedly the girls also received some basic religious instructions. The gentle, friendly nun, Doña María Briceño, who had charge of the girls and carefully watched over them, was a woman of deep prayer. As things turned out she began to mean more to Teresa than all former friends. Doña María loved to talk about prayer, and her high spiritual ideals made Don Alonso's daughter begin to think about a vocation to the religious life and feel more favorable to the idea. But it seems the strain caused by the inner struggle over the pros and cons of the life of a nun harmed Teresa's health so that she had to leave the school.
When her health improved, she was brought to her sister's house in Castellanos de la Cañada, but with a stop along the way for a visit with her uncle Don Pedro de Cepeda, who lived as a hermit in Hortigosa. He introduced her to spiritual books, which helped her in the struggles she was experiencing over her vocation. The Letters of St. Jerome, finally, became the occasion of her courage to make a definite decision. But then, unable to bear the thought of separation, her father refused to give his consent to her becoming a nun. On November 2, 1535, at the age of twenty, she once again stole away from her father's house, this time not to go off to the land of the Moors but to give her life to God as a nun in the Carmelite monastery of the Incarnation. Yet the action was not the result of so cold or indifferent an attitude to her father's feelings as it may seem to have been. She later was to write: "When I left my father's house I felt the separation so keenly that the feeling will not be greater, I think, when I die. For it seemed that every bone in my body was being sundered" (ch. 4, 1). Don Alonso, in fact, accepted it all with resignation, gave her a dowry that was more than substantial, and acquired for his daughter a private room of her own in the monastery.