My Favourite Theologian: St Teresa of Avila

St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

Shanika Ranasinghe

Despite being one of the lesser-known Teresas of the Roman Catholic Church (compared to St Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), St Teresa of Avila was a remarkable woman in her own right. A sixteenth-century Spanish mystic and foundress of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, she is one of only four female Doctors of the Church to date - a testament to the power and conviction of her writings, which are now spiritual classics.

She was a sickly nun who never quite recovered from a prolonged illness which came about after she took her vows. Despite this, the Lord blessed her with many spiritual graces, such as interior locutions, visions and – eventually – mystical marriage. Teresa wrote about these at length in her own idiosyncratic style. Her most famous work is arguably Interior Castle, in which she likened the soul’s journey to the passing through of seven mansions in a castle, each representing a step on the ladder towards mystical union with God. Teresa likened the soul to a silkworm, explaining how the soul must die unto itself, in order to become truly alive and transformed into what it was always destined to be; also, how the soul must cleave to God and become truly dependent on Him.

As is often the case with mystics, Teresa faced much scepticism when she first told people of her experiences; yet she believed it was important to share them, so that the nuns under her charge could also aspire to reaching the highest heights of spiritual encounter with the divine. A keen practitioner of contemplative prayer, Teresa’s influence in this area led to the Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCD) paying particular attention to this aspect of enclosed religious life.

More in this series:

Part of this series was also published in issue 151 of Movement magazine, the Community issue. Movement magazine is distributed free to SCM members and supporters, and you can request a copy here.