Teresa of Ávila and the Mercy Foundation

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By Sister Janet Ruffing

As we celebrate Teresa of Ávila’s feast day on October 15, we can look to her for inspiration and example. Teresa was a high-spirited young woman from a converso (from Jewish to Christian) family in Ávila in 16th-century Spain. As a young girl, she and one of her brothers rode off on horseback with the intention of enlisting to fight the Moors. Fortunately, they were intercepted by a relative near the city gate and returned to their parents.

Teresa was steeped in romantic novels, which she and her mother read to one another during siesta time. She was passionate as a teenager and sent by her father to school at the Carmelite Monastery in Ávila—an educational experience designed to ensure her romantic interest in a young man did not ruin her or her family’s reputation. When she joined the same monastery sometime later, her passion became focused on Jesus, and she began to undergo mystical experiences, receiving guidance directly from Jesus as well as through her confessors, John of the Cross and Jerónimo Gracián, who served her community and supported her at different times of her life.

As Teresa matured in her religious life, she mapped the contours of the growth of mystical prayer for her sisters in The Way of Perfection, which offered guidance for the beginning stages of prayer, and the Interior Castle, using this complex image through which she described the entire development of mystical prayer in an appealing, conversational style. She was acutely aware of the subordinate position of women in her society and became skilled in securing support from pious laity and clergy alike. These teachings on prayer continue to instruct and inspire readers today.

Teresa and John of the Cross together led the reform of the Carmelite order, she for the women and he for the men. She founded multiple convents all over Spain and gained the support of Jerónimo Gracián, the General of the Carmelites, who often helped reduce local resistance to a foundation. She had excellent social skills, which enabled her to navigate the various authorities in the Carmelite order, the bishops and the wealthy local people she needed to support these foundations financially. She often found inspiration, support and guidance from upper class laity who were themselves living deeply spiritual lives.

In biographical manuscripts about Catherine written by her contemporaries, several speak of Catherine’s admiration of, devotion to and likeness to Teresa. The Carmelite Redmond O’Hanlon served as the archbishop’s deputy for the new community in its first decade, was Catherine’s confessor and saw that her sisters were interred in St. Teresa’s on Clarendon Street.

Within our Mercy tradition, Teresa of Ávila makes several appearances. Sister Mary C. Sullivan highlights instances in which a Teresian influence is clearly present in her book, A Shining Lamp: The Oral Instructions of Catherine McAuley (see pages 17–20 for more detail). According to Sister Mary, “Catherine urges Mary Teresa White to pray to Teresa of Ávila for the new foundation in Limerick because Teresa loved foundations.”

Sister Janet Ruffing is professor emerita of spirituality and ministerial leadership at Yale Divinity School.