As patron saint of Spain, St.Teresa de Jesus always figures large in the nation’s spiritual life. But this year, the 500th anniversary of her birth in Avila, the country pauses to celebrate a singular woman who built an ecclesiastical empire within a nun’s constraints of humility and obedience.
“St. Teresa wasn’t always looking to heaven,” says guide Victoria Hernandez Vazquez during a visit to the Convent of the Incarnation in Avila, Teresa’s home for 30 years. “She was an autodidact and a practical woman, a feminist woman, a business woman. These are the legacies of St. Teresa in our times.”
The convent, now with 34 nuns in cloister, is a major pilgrimage stop this year. Teresa lived here from 1535-62, then returned against her will as Prioress from 1571-74. During that break, she followed the visions from God to found new, reform convents across Spain.
Incarnation shows visitors the parlors where St. Teresa levitated and where she had a vision of Christ bound to a column. She asked a sister to paint her vision, and it’s nearby in the public area.
The nuns saved a pillow she knelt on, a towel she embroidered, a letter she wrote and the key to her cell. They even have a fragment of her white wimple.
Teresa was devout from an early age
Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was born March 28, 1515, to Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda and his second wife, Beatriz de Ahumada. There were eventually 12 children in the family.
Her mother died before Teresa turned 12, and she asked the Virgin Mary to become her mother. Her father put the 16-year-old in the Augustinian Convent of Our Lady of Grace as a boarder.
Teresa fell ill in 1533 and heard her calling, but her father didn’t approve. She had a “religious elopement” at age 20 to the Carmelite Convent of Incarnation just outside the walled city of Avila.
Considered the first female founding religious, the mystic created 17 convents across Spain, mostly in the Castile and Leon region. They all continue today.
Celebrating the Master of Prayer
Teresa founded nine convents in Castile and Leon, and the entire region is sponsoring more than 1,000 celebratory events this year to honor her. In a two-city exhibition that sweeps from her birthplace in Avila to her tomb in Alba de Tormes, curators of The Ages of Mankind have gathered an astonishing collection of paintings, sculpture and artifacts to tell her story. Allied churches and convents open their doors, too, to add new dimensions to the saint’s 67-year life on earth.
The exhibit is “Maestra de Oracion, Master of Prayer.” Teresa wrote that “Prayer and contemplation, if practiced with perfection, were the highest form of human activity.”
She had mystical visions and levitated so high that she had to hold on to the nun’s grille of seclusion. Her fellow sisters would grab her habit to keep her closer to earth.
During this Teresian Jubilee Year, it’s easy to trace her footsteps in the vast region of Castile and Leon, northwest of Madrid. For a woman who wore simple hemp sandals and rode in a cart, she covered a lot of territory—a Papal Nuncio called her a “gadabout,” the people called her the Traveling Saint.
At Incarnation, “she didn’t find what she was looking for,” said Vazquez. She tired of receiving visitors from Avila and of giving advice to her sisters. “A very common temptation,” she wrote of herself later, “with beginners.”
Teresa yearned for the life of contemplative prayer, “to empty the mind of normal thought,” scholar Stephen Clissold wrote, “in preparation for the infusion of divine enlightenment.”
When you go
The Master of Prayer exhibition continues in Avila through Nov. 30. The convents founded by St. Teresa have open hours for the public. For more information, Castile and Leon.