St. Teresa of Avila, Rubens

The commonly used name of Teresa of Jesus, St. (1515–82), Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic.  Teresa was descended from an old Spanish family.  She was educated by Augustinian nuns and in 1535 entered the Carmelite monastery of the Incarnation (‘mitigated observance’) at Avila.

A mysterious illness obliged her to return to her family, but on her recovery she re-entered her convent, where she began to lead a rather lax life.  On the advice of her confessor she resumed mental prayer, but it was not until 1555 that she was finally converted to a life of perfection, while praying before a statue of Christ scourged at the pillar.

Her mystic life began soon afterwards with Divine locutions, her first ecstasy, and an intellectual vision of Christ.  In 1560 she received much valued spiritual counsel from St. Peter of Alcantara.




In order to lead a more mortified life she wanted to found a house where the primitive rule would be strictly observed.  This plan she carried out in the face of strong opposition and in 1562 the convent of St. Joseph was founded at Avila.  Here she wrote The Way of Perfection (for her nuns), having recently completed her Life, a spiritual autobiography written under obedience.  The subsequent years from 1567 to her death were filled with labours for the establishment of houses of the primitive rule (‘Discalced Carmelites’) both for nuns and for friars, an undertaking in which she received much assistance from St. John of the Cross.

 Despite violent opposition from the Calced Carmelites and several of the ecclesiastical authorities, her work proceeded, and at the same time her religious life deepened until it reached the state of  ‘spiritual marriage’ (1572).  In the intervals between her foundations she wrote, under obedience to her confessors, Foundations, The Interior Castle, and several smaller books.  After her last foundation at Burgos (1582) under the greatest difficulties and privations, she fell ill and died at Alba de Tormes on 4 Oct.  She was canonized in 1622 and her feast is kept on 15 Oct.  In 1970 she was declared a Doctor of the Church.

St. Teresa’s importance is twofold.

    Her work in reforming the Carmelite Order has survived in the great number of Discalced houses which venerate her as their foundress.  She was a woman of strong character, shrewdness, and great practical ability.

    As a spiritual writer her influence was epoch-making, because she was the first to point to the existence of states of prayer intermediate between discursive meditation and ecstasy (‘quiet’ and ‘union’) and to give a scientific description of the entire life of prayer from meditation to the so - called mystic marriage.  Her combination of mystic experience with ceaseless activity as a reformer and organizer makes her life the classic instance for those who contend that the highest contemplation is not incompatible with great practical achievements.

Adapted from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. E. Livingstone, (Oxford, 1977).






Between Exaltation and Infamy, Female Mystics in the Golden Age of Spain,
Stephen Haliczer, (Oxford University Press, 2002) pp. 42-45

But if the life of Catherine of Siena could point the way to a more prominent role for women in both religion and secular life, it was the revelations of the German mystic Gertrude the Great (d. 1302) that were the most influential in encouraging a climate favorable to the acceptance of the validity of divine communication bestowed on contemporary women. Gertrude the Great, Mechtild of Hackeborn, and Mechtild of Magdeburg were the most important members of a Benedictine community established in the mid-thirteenth century at Helfta near Eisleben in Saxony.[62] Her parents and place of birth are unknown, but from age five she lived in the convent at Helfta, where she received an excellent education. She became fluent in Latin and wrote spiritual works, treatises, and explanations of spiritual texts in both Latin and German. Her vernacular works are unfortunately lost, and what remains are two Latin works, the Legatus divinae pietatis, commonly translated as Herald of God’s Loving Kindness, and The Exercises. The latter work is a series of exercises dealing with the best way to lead a Christian life, the responsibilities of persons leading a life consecrated to God, and the way in which a Christian should prepare for death. The Legatus is five books, of which only book 2 was actually written by Gertrude. Book 1 is a memorial to Gertrude written by her friends to demonstrate her sanctity. Book 2 is Gertrude’s spiritual biography, and the remaining books deal with the soul and its relationship to God, the feasts of the church with special emphasis on the Eucharist, and the exemplary deaths of certain members of her community.[63]

The first printed edition of the Legatus was published in Latin by Lanspergius (Johann Gerecht) in 1536, and two other Latin editions followed in 1579 and 1599. The 1599 edition was published in Madrid by the first official chronicler of the Spanish Benedictines, Juan de Castañiza. But long before Castañiza’s edition appeared, he and many other members of Spain’s intellectual elite— Bartolomé de Carranza, Luis de Granada, and several of Teresa de Jesus’ spiritual advisors including Domingo Báñez—had access to Gertrude’s writings through the work of the Belgian friar Louis de Blois. Blois’s Conclave Animae Fidelis (1558) contained his Speculum Spiritualis, an anthology of the works of the leading medieval women mystics, including St. Matilda, St. Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen, St. Bridget of Sweden, and Gertrude of Helfta. The Conclave also contained two of Blois’s other devotional writings, which were suffused with Gertrude’s ideas, expressions, and methods of prayer. The diffusion of this work in Spain prepared the way for the reception of editions of Gertrude’s own writings, especially after Blois’s complete works were translated into Spanish between 1597 and 1598.[64]

The fact that knowledge of Gertrude’s spiritual life and revelations was filtering into Spanish religious and intellectual circles during the last half of the sixteenth century created some subtle and not so subtle relationships between the seer of Helfta and Teresa of Jesus. The evidence suggests that Teresa was certainly aware of at least some of Gertrude’s visions either through oral transmission or through her confessors, who were very familiar with the work of Blois. [65] It is at least possible, therefore, that Teresa may have consciously patterned herself after the illustrious German nun. Certainly the famous vision of the transverberation of her heart, in which she saw an angel in bodily form pierce her heart with a fire-tipped spear, is remarkably similar to Gertrude’s account of Christ piercing her heart with a triple-pointed arrow.[66]

Even more important, from the standpoint of Teresa’s posthumous reputation, was Gertrude’s impact on Teresa’s supporters. Her first biographer, the Jesuit Francisco de Ribera, was at pains to compare Teresa’s visions and revelations to those of the German mystic and other female saints since such a comparison would provide precedents for Teresa and make her appear less like a dangerous innovator.[67] Confusing Gertrude with her mentor Mechtild of Hackeborn, Ribera asserts that the lives of Teresa and Gertrude the Great were similar in that both were abbesses and reformers. He also specifically points to the vision of the transverberation as an example of both women enjoying similar divine favor and asserts that a vision of a multitude of persons dressed in white that was seen by one of the nuns attending Teresa while she was on her deathbed was the same as one seen by the nuns who attended Gertrude when she was dying. In both instances, Ribera assumes that the white-clad figures were a procession of holy virgins who had come to receive the soul of the dying woman and carry it to heaven, where “her glory would equal that of all the holy virgins who had shed their blood for Jesus Christ and been canonized.”[68]

There can be little doubt that her supporters’ success in identifying Teresa as a kind of Spanish reincarnation of Gertrude the Great helped deflect criticism of the somewhat controversial saint. By the same token, however, Teresa’s increasing acceptability, and the successful publication of Ribera’s biography with its copious references to Gertrude, helped swell the public’s appetite to learn more about the German nun.[69] That need was filled with the publication of Alonso de Andrade’s adulatory biography of Gertrude in 1663. In this work, Andrade underscores Gertrude’s growing importance by referring to the enormous extension of her cult in the Hispanic world. He also quotes approvingly Ribera’s linkage of Teresa and Gertrude. Both were perfect nuns who enjoyed the gift of prophecy, while Teresa’s revelations were corroborated by those of Gertrude. Stretching historical truth more than a little, Andrade makes Teresa take Gertrude as her spiritual guide, “commending herself to her and seeking her intercession before the Almighty.”[70]

Teresa’s growing prominence, long before she was canonized in 1622, and the rapid growth of cultic veneration to Gertrude all over the Hispanic world after the publication of Leandro de Granada’s Spanish translation of her Legatus in 1603 created a highly favorable climate for the revelations of other women mystics.[71] The fact that these revelations could be freely distributed, especially after 1600, stands in marked contrast to the reception they encountered for much of the sixteenth century, when the leading role played by certain women in the Illuminist movement made them the object of suspicion and hostility on the part of male theologians.[72] Even as late as June 1593, Fr. Juan de Lorenzana wrote the Suprema to demand that the recently translated works of Louis de Blois be withdrawn from circulation so that they could be expurgated.[73] But in the preface to the 1616 edition of his biography of St. Gertrude, Leandro de Granada presents us with a very different and far more optimistic picture. Noting that he had published the second edition at the request of nuns from Santiago’s aristocratic Convent of San Payo because the 1603 edition was almost completely sold out, Leandro de Granada commented on the dramatic change that had taken place: “Until that time, works of visions and revelations written in romance did not circulate so freely.”[74]

Teresa’s role in bringing about this change of attitude on the part of male theologians was noted admiringly by her second biographer, Diego de Yepes. In general, such men tended to be highly skeptical of those, especially women, who claimed to receive extraordinary favors from God like trances, visions, and revelations. But in Teresa’s case, “the greater and more learned they are the more they esteem her works and the more devoted to her they become.”[75] Of course, the favor shown her by learned and influential theologians was no accident, as Teresa herself was acutely aware of the need to win them over. In judging the veracity of her revelations, moreover, they would have been cognizant of her endorsement by no less a personage than Juan de Horozco y Covarrubias, whose treatise on true and false prophecy was one of the most influential works of its kind. Horozco asserted that it was precisely because of the way Teresa had manifested “true” prophecy that the devil was trying so hard to discredit it by raising so many false prophets.[76]

With the dramatic growth of cults to both Gertrude and Teresa in Spain and Spanish America and tacit papal approval of the northern mystics around 1610, women mystics had at last gained the kind of respectability that would allow them to play an ever more prominent role in seventeenth-century soci-ety.[77] The availability of cheap “pocket” editions of the hagiographies of both medieval and contemporary or near-contemporary saints, moreover, ensured that their lives and religious practices would be imitated widely, especially by upper- and middle-class women.[78]

The effort that so many individuals were making to replicate aspects of the lives of saints or to imitate Christ through a lifestyle of austerity, mortification, and disdain for the material world was strongly reinforced by a tremendous outpouring of devotional literature that was specifically published in Spanish in order to reach readers of both sexes. In works like Francisco de Osuna’s Tercer abecedario espiritual, Luis de Granada’s Guía de pecadores, and Antonio Quintanadueñas’s Espejo grande, writers emphasized humanity’s infinite debt to God and urged their readers to meditate on Christ’s passion as a way of driving home their constant ingratitude for God’s favors. The individual’s own worthlessness and guilt were manifest because the body was little more than a “dungheap of misery,” while the soul was a “home for satan.”[79] A program of systematic meditation on the parts of Christ’s body and how each suffered for sinful humanity was prescribed in such works as Theologia mystica sciencia y sabiduria de Dios, first published in 1644 by the Augustinian Agustín de San Ildefonso. In this work, beautifully illustrated by the great Claudio Coello, San Ildefonso states that his main purpose was to provide his readers with access to that mysterious ladder, first discovered by Jacob, that permitted angels to pass from heaven to earth. By making use of this ladder, which consisted of a series of spiritual exercises, the reader could attain perfect union with God.[80]



[62] Mary Jeremy Finnegan, The Women of Helfta: Scholars and Mystics (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 1.

[63] Ibid., 71.

[64] José Adriano Moreira de Freitas Carvalho, Gertrudes de Helfta e Espanha (Porto: Instituto Nacional de Investigação Científica, 1981), 153, 182.

[65] Ibid., 226–227.

[66] Finnegan, The Women of Helfta, 68–69.

[67] Francisco de Ribera, S.J., La vida de la Madre Teresa de Jesús, fundadora de las descalças y descalços Carmelitas (Salamanca: Pedro Lasso, 1590), 31–33.

[68] 68. Ibid., 89–92, 301–302.

[69] Teresa was extremely fortunate in having a biography published only eight years after her death. The biographer, Francisco de Ribera, was a distinguished theologian who would go on to publish a commentary on the Apocalypse of Saint John in 1591 and another on St. Peter’s Epistle to the Hebrews in 1598, along with several other biographies of holy persons. Ribera’s productivity could only add to his reputation and enhance the value of his endorsement of Teresa.

[70] Alonso de Andrade, S.J., Vida de la gloriosa virgen y abadesa S. Gertrudis de Eyslevio Manspheldense de la orden del glorioso patiarca San Benito (Madrid: Joseph Fernández de Buendía, 1663), 243–244, 247. In 1647, Andrade had published a two-volume edition of Teresa’s Spiritual Advice in which he took pains to draw parallels between Teresa’s spiritual experiences and those of Gertrudis. Alonso de Andrade, Avisos espirituales de la gloriosa Madre Santa Teresa de Jesús, segunda parte. (Madrid: Carlos Sánchez Bravo, 1647), 864, 869–873.

[71] In Madrid, miracle-working images of Gertrude were worshiped in two parish churches: San Ildefonso and San Miguel. Both churches commissioned estampas of these images to advertise the devotion. BNM, INV. 14328, Juan de la Peña, Verdadero retrato de la milagrosa imagen de Santa Gertrudis la Magna que se venera en la iglesa de San Ildefonso de Madrid. BNM, INV. 14329, Bernardo Alviztur, Gloriosa Virgen Santa Gertrudis La Magna que se venera en la parroquia de San Miguel.

[72] Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of Spain, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1906–7) 4:7–12.

[73] Moreira de Freitas Carvalho, Gertrudis de Helfta, 181. Worries were still being expressed about the publication in Spanish of the revelations of early mystics as late as 1648. See AHN, Inquisition, April 22, 1648, leg. 4480, exp. 6 for the negative comments of censor Thomas de Herrera concerning publication in the vernacular of the works of Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite.

[74] Fr. Leandro de Granada, Vida y revelaciones de Santa Gertrudis la Magna (Madrid: Melchor Alcarez, 1689), prologue, np.

[75] Diego de Yepes, Vida, virtudes y milagros de la bienaventurada virgen Teresa de Jesús madre y fundadora de la nueva reformación de la orden de los descalços y descalças de Nuestra Señora del Carmen (Zaragoza: Angelo Tavanno, 1606), prologo, np.

[76] Juan de Horozco y Covarrubias, Tratado de la verdadera y falsa prophecia (Segovia: Juan de la Cuesta, 1588), ifs. 24–24v.

[77] Moreira de Freitas Carvalho, Gertrudis de Helfta, 285, 287.

[78] Fr. Pedro de San Cecilio, Díos prodigioso en Teresa de Jesús niña que murío a los cinco años un mes y diez y siete días (Madrid: Dionosio Idalgo, 1669), “Al lector,” np.

[79] Antonio de Quintanadueñas, S.J., Espejo grande de los trabajos de Jesús crucificado (Valladolid: Bartolomé Portoles, 1656), 54.

[80] Fr. Agustín de San Ildefonso, Theología mystica, sciencia y sabiduria de Dios misteriosa, oscura, y levantada para muchos (Madrid, 1683), 102.



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