1902 Encyclopedia > St Theresa

St Theresa
(St Teresa of Jesus)
Spanish nun
(1515-82)




ST THERESA (1515-1582). Teresa de Cepeda, perhaps the favourite saint of modern Spain, was born at Avila, in Old Castile, on the 28th of March 1515,—at the very time, adds her biographer, " when Luther was secret-ing the poison which he vomited out two years later." She was one of a large family—eight sons and three daughters. Her father was a Spanish gentleman of good family, whose time was chiefly occupied with devotional reading and works of charity. Teresa's mother, his second wife, was a beautiful woman, confined generally to a sofa by delicate health. From her her daughter appears to have inherited both delicacy of health and a remarkably susceptible imagination. She delighted in the books of knight-errantry which abounded in the library, and her children sat up at night in their nursery over the same romances. But Teresa's imagination was judiciously diverted by her father to another form of heroism. She was soon as deep in the histories of the martyrs as she had been in the tales of chivalry. She learned from these histories that martyrs passed straight to heaven without any detention in purgatory ; and, being eminently practical as well as imaginative, she resolved to secure that blessing for herself. When she was seven years old, she started off with her little brother to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors. They had reached the bridge on the stream which runs through the town, when an uncle met them and brought them back. Balked thus of their desire, they played at hermits, making themselves cells in the garden, and giving away their pocket-money to beggars. Teresa lost her mother early, and as she grew up the vanities and flirtations of a pretty girl took the place of these pious imaginations. Her father deemed it best to send her to be educated in an Augustinian convent in the town, but without any thoughts of her adopting a religious life. She would probably have married like her sisters, had it not been for an attack of illness. She was sent away for change of air on a visit to one of her sisters, and on her way home spent some days with a saintly uncle, who was on the eve of entering a monastery, and who strongly urged her to withdraw from the world. Her father was greatly opiDosed to the step, but Teresa was not to be turned from what she conceived to be her duty. She was only eighteen when she left home one morning, and applied for admission at the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation. She was disappointed at first at the slack-ness of discipline. The sisters mixed freely in the society of Avila, receiving visits and returning them, and often absenting themselves from the cloister for months at a time. For the first three years she was constantly subject to attacks of sickness, fainting fits, and paroxysms of pain, but she prayed to St Joseph, after which she became comparatively better, though her nervous system was completely shaken. But she appears afterwards to have accommodated herself with tolerable success to the world-liness of her environment, though not without intervals of religious misgiving. " For twenty years," she says, " I was tossed about on a stormy sea in a wretched condition, for, if I had small content in the world, in God I had no pleasure. At prayer time I watched for the clock to strike the end of the hour. To go to the oratory was a vexation to me, and prayer itself a constant effort." At one time she abandoned prayer altogether, as she found it impos-sible to fix her thoughts, and she abhorred the hypocrisy of mechanically repeating a form of words. It was in the year 1554 (her noviciate dated from 1534), when she was thus nearly forty, that the event known as her conversion took place, and the second part of her life began. The death of her father roused her to serious reflexion, and one day, as she entered the oratory, she was struck by the image of the wounded Christ, placed there for an approaching festival. The blood was depicted as stream-ing over the face from the thorns and running from the side and the hands and feet. The spectacle of suffering pierced Teresa's breast; she fell in tears at the feet of the figure, and felt every worldly emotion die within her. The shock threw her into a trance, arM these trances, accompanied by visions, recurred frequently in the subse-quent part of her life. They have since been adduced as Divine attestations of her saintship, but the sisterhood in the convent set them down to possession by a devil; her new departure was due in their eyes to no worthier motive than the desire to be peculiar and to be reputed better than other people. Teresa herself was very humble, and thought their explanation might be true ; she took her case to her confessor and to the provincial-general of the Jesuits. The latter put her under a course of discipline : she was to flog herself with a whip of nettles, to wear a haircloth pjlaited with broken wires that would tear the skin, and to meditate daily on the details of Christ's passion. One day, while thus occupied, her trance came upon her, and she heard a voice say, " Thou shalt have no more converse with men, but with angels." After this the trance or fit always returned when she was at prayers, and she felt that Christ was close to her. Presently she was able to see him, " exactly as he was painted rising from the sepulchre." Her confessor directed her to exorcise the figure, and she obeyed with pain, but, it is needless to say, in vain. The visions grew more and more vivid. The cross of her rosary was snatched from her hand one day, and when returned it was made of jewels more brilliant than diamonds, visible, however, to her alone. She had often an acute pain in her side, and fancied that an angel came to her with a lance tipped with fire, which he struck into her heart. The 27th of August is kept sacred in Spain to this mystery, which has also formed a favourite subject of Spanish painters; it forms the frontispiece of the biography which is put into the hands of Catholics. She had also visions of another description : she was shown hell with its horrors, and the devil would sit upon her breviary, belabour her with blows, and fill her cell with imps. For several years these experiences continued, and the verdict as to their source still remained far from unanimous. Meanwhile, on the broad stage of the world, the Eeformation continued to spread and establish itself ; and this great falling away became the subject of much searching of hearts to pious Catholics. Teresa reflected like the rest, and her experience led her to find the real cause of the catastrophe in the relaxation of discipline within the religious orders. If the ancient rules could be restored, it appeared to her that the evil might be stemmed ; and she formed the project of founding a house in which all the original rules of the Carmelite order before its relaxation would be observed. She met, not unnaturally, with great opposition from the authorities of the order, and in particular from the prioress and sisters of the Incarnation, who looked upon the step as a reflexion upon themselves. Nevertheless, she persevered with her scheme, being encouraged to appeal to the pope by cer-tain priests who saw the benefit which would accrue to the church from her zeal. A private house in Avila was secretly got ready to serve as a small convent, and, when the bull arrived from Rome, Teresa went out on leave from the Incarnation and installed four poor women in the new house dedicated to her patron St Joseph. It was on the 24th of August 1562 that mass was said in the little chapel and the new order constituted. It was to be an order of Descalzos or Barefoots, in opposition to the relaxed parent body, the Calzados. The sisters were not to be literally shoeless, but to wear sandals of rope; they were to sleep on straw, to eat no meat, to be strictly con-fined to the cloister, and to live on alms without regular endowment. After lodging her four sisters, Teresa re-turned to the Incarnation, as in duty bound; but, when the secret was discovered, Carmelites and townspeople were alike furious. Violence, however, was prevented, and the mattef was referred to the council of state at Madrid. Philip II. referred it again to the pope, and after six months a fresh bull arrived from Pius V. The provincial of her order now gave her leave to remove and take charge of her sisterhood. The number of thirteen, to which on grounds of discipline she had limited the founda-tion, was soon filled up, and Teresa spent here the five happiest years of her life. Her visions continued, and, by command of her ecclesiastical superiors, she wrote her autobiography containing a full account of these experi-ences. She herself, however, profoundly as she believed in their reality, saw the danger which attaches to such experiences, and was far from basing any claim to holiness upon them. One of her visions about this time is interesting as illustrating what is called her mysticism. She fancied that she was a mirror without frame and without dimensions, with Christ shining in the centre of it, and the mirror itself, she knew not how, was in Christ. Teresa was now encouraged to carry her work still further, for the church was girding itself to the work of the Counter-Reformation. The general of the order visited her at Avila, and gave her powers to found other houses of Descalzos, for men as well as women. The last fifteen years of her life were spent mainly in journeys with this end and in the continually growing labour of organization. She travelled in a rude cart in all weathers, and the story of her hardships and misadventures impresses us with the strength of will that animated her old and shaken frame. Convents were founded at Medina, Malaga, Valladolid, Toledo, Segovia, and Salamanca, and two at Alva under the patronage of the famous duke. Then she had three years of rest, as prioress of her old convent of the Incar-nation. She next went to Seville to found a house, thus overstepping for the first time the boundaries of the Castiles, to which her authorization limited her. The latent hostility of the old order was aroused ; the general ordered the immediate suppression of the house at Seville, and procured a bull from Gregory XIII. prohibiting the further extension of the reformed houses (1575). But the movement against her came from Italy, and was resented by Philip and the Spanish authorities as undue interfer-ence ; and, after a fierce struggle, during which Teresa was two years under arrest at Toledo, the Carmelites were divided into two bodies in 1580, and the Descalzos obtained the right to elect their own provincial-generals (see CARMELITES). The few remaining years of Teresa's life were spent in the old way, organizing the order she had founded, and travelling about to open new convents. Sixteen convents and fourteen monasteries were founded by her efforts; she wrote a history of her foundations, which forms a supplement to her autobiography. At Burgos, during the whole of a wet autumn and winter, she endured terrible privations. Her own nuns, too, were not always as single-minded and obedient as the ideal sisterhood of her hopes had been. Those at St Joseph in Avila mutinied for a meat diet; the prioress at Medina answered her impertinently. Her last journey of inspec-tion was cut short at Alva, where she died on the 29th of September 1582, and was laid in her first, but not her last, resting-place. A violet odour and a fragrant oil were said to distil from her tomb ; and when it was opened nine months afterwards the flesh was found uncorrupted. A hand cut off by a fervent brother was found to work miracles, and the order became convinced that their founder had been a saint. It was resolved in 1585 to remove her remains to Avila, where she was born, the sisters at Alva being consoled by permission to retain the mutilated arm. But the family of the duke of Alva pro-cured an order from the pope enjoining that the body should be restored to Alva, and she was accordingly laid there once more in a splendid tomb. But even then she was not allowed to rest: she was again disentombed, to be laid in a more magnificent coffin, and the greed of reveren-tial relic-seekers made unseemly havoc of her bones.
Teresa was canonized by Gregory XV. in 1622. The honour was doubtless largely due to her asceticism and mystic visions. She called herself Teresa de Jesus, to signify the closeness of her relation to the heavenly Bridegroom, who directed all her actions. Though she deprecated excess of ascetic severity in others, she scourged herself habitually, and wore a peculiarly painful haircloth. But her life shows her to have been, besides, a woman of strong practicality and good sense, full of natural shrewdness, and with unusual powers of organization. " You deceived me in saying she was a woman," writes one of her confessors; "she is a bearded man." She was brave in the face of difficulties and dangers, pure in her motives, and her utterances, some of which have been quoted, have the true ethical ring about them. Her MSS. were collected by Philip II. and placed in a rich case in the Escorial, the key of which the king carried about with him. Besides her autobiography and the history of her foundations, her works (all written in Spanish) contain a great number of letters and various treatises of mystical religion, the chief of which are The Way of Perfection and The Castle of the Soul. Both describe the progress of the soul towards perfect union with God.
Her works, edited by two Dominicans, were first published in 1587, and have since appeared in various editions. They were soon afterwards translated into Italian, French, and Latin; an English translation of the Life and works (except the letters) by A. Woodhead appeared in 1669. More recently various transla-tions of the Life have appeared,—by John Dalton (1851), who also translated the Way of Perfection, and by David Lewis (1870), followed in 1871 by the Founda-tions from the same hand. Biographies appeared soon after her death by the Jesuit Ribera, who had been her confessor (1602), and by Diego de Yepez, con-fessor to Philip II. (1599). Details are also given in Ribadeneyra's Flos Sanctorum and in Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints. A separate biography, with preface by Archbishop Manning, appeared in 1865, and an interesting and sympathetic account of her life is given in the Quarterly Review for October 1883. (A. SE.)







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