THERESA, ST (1515-1582), or Teresa de Cepeda, Spanish nun, was born at Avila, in Old Castile, on the 28th of March 1515, and was educated in an Augustinian convent in the town. As a child she was interested in the stories of martyrs, and at the age of eighteen left home one morning, and applied for admission at the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation. She was disappointed at first at the slackness of discipline, but she appears afterwards to have accommodated herself with tolerable success to the worldliness of her environment, though not without intervals of religious misgiving. It was in the year 1554, when she was nearly forty, that the event known as her conversion took place, and the second part of her life began. The death of her father roused her to serious reflection, and one day, as she entered the oratory, she was struck by the image of the wounded Christ, placed there for an approaching festival. She fell in tears at the feet of the figure, and felt every worldly emotion die within her. The shock threw hei into a trance, and these trances, accompanied by visions, recurred frequently in the subsequent part of her life. They have since been adduced as Divine attestations ot her saintship, but the sisterhood in the convent set them down to possession by a devil; her new departure was due in their eyes to no worthier motive than the desire to be peculiar and to be reputed better than other people. Teresa herself was very humble, and thought their explanation might be true; she took her case to her confessor and to the provincial-general of the Jesuits, who put her under a course of discipline. One day, while thus occupied, her trance came upon her, and she heard a voice say, " Though shall have no more converse with men, but with angels." After this the trance or fit always returned when she was at prayers, and she felt that Christ was close to her. Presently she was able to see Him, " exactly as He was painted rising from the sepulchre." Her confessor directed her to exorcise the figure, and she obeyed with pain, but, it is needless to say, in vain. The visions grew more and more vivid. The cross of her rosary was snatched from her hand one day, and when returned it was made of jewels more brilliant than diamonds, visible, however, to her alone. She had often an acute pain in her side, and fancied that an angel came to her with a lance tipped with fire, which he struck into her heart. The 27th of August is kept sacred in Spain to this mystery, which has also formed a favourite subject of Spanish painters. She had also visions of another description: she was shown hell with its horrors, and the devil would sit upon her breviary, belabour her with blows, and fill her cell with imps. For several years these experiences continued, and the verdict as to their source still remained far from unanimous. Meanwhile, the spread of the Reformation became the subject of much searching of hearts to pious Catholics. Teresa reflected like the rest, and her experience led her to find the real cause of the catastrophe in the relaxation of discipline within the religious orders. She formed the project of founding a house in which all the original rules of the Carmelite order would be observed. In spite of great opposition from the authorities of the order, and in particular from the prioress and sisters of the Incarnation, she persevered with her scheme, being encouraged to appeal to the pope by certain priests who saw the benefit which would accrue to the Church from her zeal. A private house in Avila was secretly got ready to serve as a small convent, and, when the bull arrived from Rome. Teresa went out on leave from the Incarnation and installed four poor women in the new house dedicated to her patron St Joseph. It was on the 24th of August 1562 that mass was said in the little chapel and the new order constituted. It was to be an order of Descalzos or Barefoots, in opposition to the relaxed parent body, the Calzados. The sisters were not to be literally shoeless, but to wear sandals of rope; they were to sleep on straw, to eat no meat, to be strictly confined to the cloister, and to live on alms without regular endowment. After lodging her four sisters, Teresa returned to the Incarnation; but. when the secret was discovered, Carmelites and townspeople were alike furious. Violence, however, was prevented, and the matter was referred to the council of state at Madrid. Philip II. referred it again to the pope, and after six months a fresh bull arrived from Pius V. The provincial of her order now gave her leave to remove and take charge of her sisterhood. The number of thirteen, to which on grounds of discipline she had limited the foundation, was soon filled up, and Teresa spent here the five happiest years of her life. Her visions continued, and, by command of her ecclesiastical superiors, she wrote her autobiography containing a full account of these experiences, though she was far from basing any claim to holiness upon them. The general of the order visited her at Avila, and gave her powers to found other houses of Descalzos, for men as well as women. The last fifteen years of her life were spent mainly in hard journeys with this end and in the continually growing labour of organization. Convents were founded at Medina, Malaga, Valladolid, Toledo, Segovia and Salamanca, and two at Alva under the patronage of the famous duke. Then she had three years of rest, as prioress of her old convent of the Incarnation. She next went to Seville to found a house, thus overstepping for the first time the boundaries of the Castiles, to which her authorization limited her. The latent hostility of the old order was aroused; the general ordered the immediate suppression of the house at Seville, and procured a bull from Gregory XIII. prohibiting the further extension of the reformed houses (1575). But the movement against her came from Italy, and was resented by Philip and the Spanish authorities as undue interference; and after a fierce struggle, during which Teresa was two years under arrest at Toledo, the Carmelites were divided into two bodies in 1580, and the Descalzos obtained the right to elect their own provincial-generals (see CARMELITES). The few remaining years of Teresa's life were spent in the old way, organizing the order she had founded, and travelling about to open new convents. Sixteen convents and fourteen monasteries were founded by her efforts; she wrote a history of her foundations, which forms a supplement to her autobiography. Her last journey of inspection was cut short at Alva, where she died on the 29th of September 1582. A violet odour and a fragrant oil were said to distil from her tomb; and when it was opened nine months afterwards the flesh was found uncorrupted. A hand cut off by a fervent brother was found to work miracles, and the order became convinced that their founder had been a saint. It was resolved in 1585 to remove her remains to Avila, where she was born, the sisters at Alva being consoled by permission to retain the mutilated arm. But the family of the duke of Alva procured an order from the pope enjoining that the body should be restored to Alva, and she was accordingly laid there once more in a splendid tomb. But even then she was not allowed to rest: she was again disentombed, to be laid in a more magnificent coffin, and the greed of reverential relicseekers made unseemly havoc of her bones.
Teresa was canonized by Gregory XV. in 1622. The honour was doubtless largely due to her asceticism and mystic visions. She called herself Teresa de Jesus, to signify the closeness of her relation to the heavenly Bridegroom, who directed all her actions. Though she deprecated excess of ascetic severity in others, she scourged herself habitually, and wore a peculiarly painful haircloth. But her life shows her to have been, besides, a woman of strong practicality and good sense, full of natural shrewdness, and with unusual powers of organization. " You deceived me in saying she was a woman," writes one of her confessors; " she is a bearded man." She was brave in the face of difficulties and dangers, pure in her motives, and her utterances, some of which have been quoted, have the true ethical ring about them. Her MSS. were collected by Philip II. and placed in a rich case in the Escorial, the key of which the king carried about with him. Besides her autobiography and the history of her foundations, her works (all written in Spanish) contain a great number of letters and various treatises of mystical religion, the chief of which are The Way of Perfection and The Castle of the Soul. Both describe the progress of the soul towards perfect union with God.
Her works, edited by two Dominicans were first published in 1587, and have since appeared in various editions. They were soon afterwards translated into Italian, French (4 vols., Paris, 1840-46) and Latin; an English translation of the Life and works (except the letters) by A. Woodhead appeared in 1669. Other translations of the Life are those by John Dalton (1851), who also translated The Way of Perfection and the Letters (1902), and by David Lewis (1870), who in 1871 also translated the Foundations. A. R. Waller reprinted Wopdhead's translation of The Way of Perfection in " The Cloister Library " (1901). Biographies appeared soon after her death by the Jesuit Ribera, who had been her confessor (1602), and by Diego de Yepez, confessor to Philip II. (1599).
Details are also given in Ribadeneyra's Flos Sanctorum and in Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints. A separate biography, with preface by Cardinal Manning, appeared in 1865; a full and critical edition of the Life is that by Mrs G. C. Graham, 2 vols. (1894). See also H. Prinz v. Oettingen-Spielberg, Geschichte d. heil. Theresia (Regensburg, 1899); A. Whyte, Santa Teresa, an appreciation, with some of the best passages of the writings (1897) ; E. Hello, Studies in Saintship (1903).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)