One of the most celebrated women in all of Church history is Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). A Spanish mystic and Church reformer, Teresa battled against her own passionate nature to become a leader in the Counter Reformation and a reformer of her order—the Carmelites. Her book, Interior Castle, is considered a classic of Western spirituality. Today, Teresa’s work is read more than any other women of her era.
Teresa was Jewish by birth though her grandparents converted to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition. Born into a wealthy family, Teresa entered a monastery at the age of twenty, following much philandering during her teens.
Once a Carmelite, Teresa believed that God was calling her to a life of prayer. Though her contemplative life was repeatedly disrupted by her longing for pleasure, Teresa ultimately transcended her passions, and devoted herself to prayer. Her effort culminated in a classic work, Interior Castle, a guide into the depths of the spiritual world. She illustrated, through analogy, the process of mental prayer, based on a vision she had,
of the soul moving closer to God, who lives in the center of the castle—who lights and warms every room. The soul must pass through, or transcend the rooms filled with lesser pleasures, illusions, vanities and restlessness of life in order to draw closer to the soul’s ultimate source of joy—Christ.
Teresa’s life work, holiness, and intimacy with Christ, brought her into conflict with her Carmelite order whose wealth and greed was growing like a cancer. She established sixteen convents built on her reform, and was named a doctor of the church for leadership in the Counter Reformation. Teresa had many disciples, including John of the Cross. Despite her many great literary, administrative, and reformation achievements, Teresa remembered that it is not great accomplishments that God favors, but the love behind our labor. “The important thing,” she said, “is not to think much, but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you to love.”