In this presentation we will learn about Teresa of Avila: her life story and her teachings. Teresa stands out for her intense mystical experiences and for her sense of authority and forcefulness as a leader, derived from her profound sense of loving and being loved by God. Her actions and writings show that she does not believe that women should be passive or that they are not capable of reaching the highest levels of spiritual development. Teresa was born in Spain in 1515. She was the first woman declared Doctor of the Church (1970). And the first woman to write an autobiography in Spanish (1562). She wrote several books, treatises on prayer and mysticism, in addition to her autobiography. She lived in perilous times when disputes about women’s right to teach, about prayer not sanctioned by the Church, and about the strict need to obey Church commands were life threatening for many. To complicate matters further, Teresa was descendant of conversos (converted Jews). She struggled with the Inquisition and male authorities who believed women should not teach. In her books, she uses personal narrative to describe interior life. She describes complex psychic realities using simple metaphors and narrating her own story. Teresa’s psychological insights developed in her effort to understand herself and make herself understood. She towers above many other spiritual teachers with her powerful presence and her uniquely personal way of describing her relationship with God, her defense of the dignity of women, and her courage in challenging authority to accomplish what she believed God wanted from her. Teresa stands out for her intense mystical experiences and for her sense of authority and forcefulness as a leader, derived from her profound sense of loving and being loved by God. Her actions show that she does not believe that women should be passive or that they are not capable of reaching the highest levels of spiritual development. Like so many other women before, her mysticism—her first person contact and relationship with God—is the source of her authority. But, unlike them, she does not seek bodily annihilation as evidence of her virtue. Teresa’s authority comes from her deep love relationship with a God she knows loves her. For her, prayer is a love affair with God. She encouraged others to pray and develop spiritually and continues to do so through her writings several centuries after her death.
Her most significant contribution was the importance of individual (“mental”) prayer to develop a personal relationship with God. She believed that it is in human interactions that we learn who we truly are, thus she created spaces where women could be friends with other women and develop spirituality. She devoted her life to the creation of spaces where women joined together to develop their own individual experience of God through prayer. Using a paradoxical rhetoric, she argued for the important contribution of women to the Church and lamented the restrictions imposed on women by “the sons of Adam.”