Born: March 28th, 1515
Died: Oct. 4th, 1582
FEast: Oct. 15th
Headaches, seizures, Spain, paralysis, difficult friendships
Teresa was born to a Spanish wool merchant's second wife, and was given the name Teresa Ali Fatim Corella Sanchez de Capeda y Ahumada. She grew up often torn between her parents, since her mother loved romance novels and was a devout Christian while her father was more serious but less religious, as his father - Teresa's grandfather - was actually originally a Jewish man given the choice to convert or leave the region.
Teresa had an idea one day when she was 7, after reading stories about lives of the saints, that she and her brother should go off into the world to become martyrs. Her scheme did not pan out, however, as an uncle discovered the two just outside the city walls and brought them home!
At age the age of 11, Teresa's mother passed away, and she was heartbroken. This occurrence, plus the wedding of her older sister, prompted her father to send her away to be educated at a convent. He thought she had become too rebellious as she was very interested in boys, socializing, and fashion.
When her years of school were over, Teresa had the choice to leave and pursue marriage or stay and enter the Order. Despite her parents' often rocky relationship, she resisted the idea of religious life initially, since it was not as adventurous as she'd have liked. However, the convent had begun to grow on her and so, against her father's wishes, in a move that she described as heart-wrenching, she left her family secretly to join the monastery.
Her father forgave her after awhile for her move, but he refused to approve of the group she had chosen. In Teresa's monastery, the status of the sisters was determined, unfortunately, by their wealth. In addition, the sisters would wear their habits "fashionably" with jewelry and accessories, and have visitors at all hours that included flirtatious young men, wealthy society members, and other people who would engage in small talk and unnecessary drama.
Though these things interrupted Teresa's prayer life, which was developing steadily after a period of serious illness, and though she knew they did not have a place in religious life, it was hard for her, at first, to try and distance herself from them. She has been described as charming, affectionate, humorous, and glamorous, loving the spotlight and attention. The convent was full of dramatic prayers and penances to "show off" to the guests, and because of those characteristics of Teresa's, she was persuaded for a time to teach the guests her new practice of "mental prayer" because it would bring in more money for the sisters. She found it hard not to use those sessions for gossip!
This all ended abruptly, however, when Teresa had a serious seizure. Historians now think she had a certain type of epilepsy. The sisters had become so convinced that she was dead that they had even dug her a grave - but she woke four days later and remained paralyzed for the next 3 years.
Her suffering and losses due to this illness gave her a plethora of excuses to turn away from prayer. For a period of several years, Teresa barely even prayed at all, at times thinking she was not worthy of it, and at other times just too distracted and unable to focus to be able to do it.
Finally, when she was 41, a priest helped her return to prayer, and she was able to do it through her earlier-discovered practice of "mental prayer", which she described as, "...taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love."
Teresa soon was able to dive so deeply into prayer that sometimes she was able to levitate, and asked the fellow sisters to sit on her to keep her from doing so! She also experienced many visions and even physical sensations. She tried, in her writing, to figure out the cause of these things with science, but was convinced that they were not gifts, and would rather have not have had to experience them, if they had not often brought her peace.
Teresa also continued to struggle with letting go of some toxic friendships. This caused her more unexpected pain as well, though, because some of those friends were not happy about it. A few of them decided to bring in someone to analyze her and her visions, and though he confirmed that she was correct in her faith and beliefs, the ordeal gained her much unwanted attention. She was often poked fun of and mocked, and even humiliated by priests and spiritual directors.
All of this, however, did not break her spirit, and only gave Teresa the fuel she needed to make her desire to reform her Order come true.
When she was 43, she began to make plans to found her own community. Her plans were discovered however, and she was denounced at services, sued by the town, and shamed by the sisters, who believed she should raise money for the convent she was already a part of, instead. She even was threatened by the Spanish Inquisition, but she persisted. Though it took many months, she began her own tiny convent, which continued to be ridiculed until, through her hard work to gain support, it was given official permission in 1653. She wrote the Rule for it similar to the way convents began, in much earlier times. Her goal was for it to be more simple, with members giving up their property, not wearing shoes, working for their living, and stressing forgiveness and joy rather than penance and sorrowful meditations. They became known as the Discalced Carmelites.
Teresa spent much of the next part of her life writing about everything she believed and everything that had happened to her. The Inquisition had ordered she do so to be able to clear her name, and despite continuous attacks on her and the new convent, they did.
Teresa then began a period of travel to establish more monasteries like hers. She courageously braved not only the elements and dangerous journeys, but also the religious authorities that continued to condemn her works, and even excommunicated her Sisters when they voted to make her the leader of her original monastery.
Law officers were brought in, and Teresa had to begin traveling secretly at night. Still, more people began to flock to her convents because they had heard of these scandals and wanted to learn from her personally. Her ideas began to make their way across all of Europe.
Teresa passed away after many more refusals and trials, the last being a demand that she assist in a noblewoman's birth, though she was very sick and the baby had already arrived by the time she got there. She was too sick to leave and passed away at the age of 67.
She was canonized only 40 years after her death, but was given the title "Doctor of the Church" in 1970. She was the first woman given the title, along with St. Catherine of Siena, due to her important works. In Teresa's writing, she is distinctive from other saints and writers in that her reflections are deeply personal.
We need friends in our lives, but it can sometimes be difficult to manage our relationships with them, or choose the right ones in the first place. Remind us how much the influence our lives and our personalities and help us in regards to choices we make about them. Let our friendships always be filled with love, trust, respect, and joy.
Despite all her suffering, Teresa valued joy. I wanted her to express that in this image, as well as contentment - Despite her constant battles, she did win out in the end. She was strong, intelligent, and holy, but also found an importance in remaining womanly and feminine throughout.