Prioress Maria Capillas angles her fair face within a quadrant of the iron grille to better speak with her visitors at the Convent of St. Teresa in Valladolid, Spain.
“Our mission is to pray for everyone,” she says through an interpreter. “We have decided to follow the life of St. Teresa,” reaching her hand through the grille to emphasize her point, “her way.”
The convent, now of 12 cloistered sisters, was the fourth that Teresa founded in 1569. Generations of Barefoot Carmelite Sisters have followed her into the life of extreme poverty. Today, the sisters generate their small income by repairing furniture and crafting small souvenirs. So extreme is their dedication, in winter, they limit heat to an hour or two a day in the cold stone building.
As the patron saint of Spain, St. Teresa de Jesus always figures large in the nation’s spiritual life. But this year, the 500th anniversary of her birth in Avila, the country pauses to celebrate a singular woman who built an ecclesiastical empire within a nun’s constraints of humility and obedience.
“St. Teresa wasn’t always looking to heaven,” says guide Victoria Hernandez Vazquez during a visit to the convent of the Incarnation in Avila, Teresa’s home for 30 years. “She was an autodidact and a practical woman, a feminist woman, a business woman. These are the legacies of St. Teresa in our times.”
Mystic, Feminist, Renegade
Considered the first female founding religious, the mystic created 17 convents across Spain, mostly in the Castile and Leon region. They all continue today.
The sisters in Valladolid don’t wish to be photographed, but when they hand me a souvenir postcard, I look at it and wonder if they would mind replicating the pose—turning their backs on the camera. A few sisters graciously face away from the grille, and allow me to capture a tiny fragment of our time together.
Teresa founded nine convents in Castile and Leon, and the entire region is sponsoring more than 1,000 celebratory events this year to honor her. In a two-city exhibition that sweeps from her birthplace in Avila to her tomb in Alba de Tormes, curators of The Ages of Mankind have gathered an astonishing collection of paintings, sculpture and artifacts to tell her story. Allied churches and convents open their doors, too, to add new dimensions to the saint’s 67-year life on earth.
The exhibit is “Maestra de Oracion, Master of Prayer.” Teresa wrote that “Prayer and contemplation, if practiced with perfection, were the highest form of human activity.”
Teresa was a mystic. She had visions and levitated so high that she had to hold on to the nun’s grille of seclusion. Her fellow sisters would grab her habit to keep her closer to earth.
During this Teresian Jubilee Year, it’s easy to trace her footsteps in the vast region of Castile and Leon, northwest of Madrid. For a woman who wore simple hemp sandals and rode in a cart, she covered a lot of territory—a Papal Nuncio called her a “gadabout,” the people called her the Traveling Saint.
Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was born March 28, 1515, to Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda and his second wife, Beatriz de Ahumada. There were eventually 12 children in the family.
Their house is gone, replaced by the Church and Convent of St. Teresa on the spot. Many people referred to Teresa as a saint in her lifetime, so after her death in 1582, they were quick to save her personal belongings and relics and sanctify sites associated with her. The Church and Convent built a gilded chapel on her birth site.
By the time Teresa as born, her family prospered by trading. Her grandfather, Juan Sanchez ,was a Jewish convert to Christianity in Toledo. Once the Catholic monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand cranked up the Inquisition, he was investigated and publicly shamed for “Judaizing.” To restore his reputation, Sanchez changed his name and moved to Avila. His descendants grew richer by each generation.
Eight days after Teresa’s birth, her proud family brought her to the Church of St. John the Baptist. The 13th-century stone font where she was christened is spotlighted in the Master of Prayer exhibit, along with dozens of paintings, sculptures as well as her habit and sandals.
A short walk away in the Mosen Rubi Chapel, the exhibition continues with a broader look at the Spain of Teresa’s time. She was born into the country’s Golden Age, after Isabella and Ferdinand united Spain, commissioned Christopher Columbus to set sail, blessed the Conquistadors on their way, and welcomed home unimaginable riches from the New World.
However, Catholicism was under attack from reformers such as Martin Luther in Germany. She wrote of “times so full of peril because of those (who had left the church)!”
Always a devout child, Teresa and her brother Rodrigo set out to fight the Moors from Spain. Their goal was to die beheaded as Christian martyrs. This was 1522, and she was 7—fortunately, their uncle stopped the mini-Crusaders on the edge of Avila.
Her mother died before Teresa turned 12, and she asked the Virgin Mary to become her mother. Her father put the 16-year-old in the Augustinian Convent of Our Lady of Grace as a boarder.
In 1533, Teresa fell ill and heard her calling, but her father didn’t approve. She had a “religious elopement” at age 20 to the Carmelite Convent of Incarnation just outside the walled city of Avila, a bit of inspired rebellion that would set her on the road to sainthood.
The Convent of Incarnation, now with 34 nuns in cloister, is a major pilgrimage stop this year. Teresa lived at the convent from 1535-62, then returned–against her wishes–as Prioress from 1571-74. During that break, she followed visions from God to found new, reform convents across Spain.
Incarnation shows visitors the parlors where St. Teresa levitated. The nuns saved a pillow she knelt on, a towel she embroidered, a letter she wrote and the key to her cell. They even have a fragment of her white wimple (nun’s headdress that covers the neck, head and sides of the face).
“She didn’t find what she was looking for,” said guide Victoria Hernandez Vazquez during a visit to the convent of the Incarnation in Avila. She tired of receiving visitors from Avila and of giving advice to her sisters. Advice giving was, Teresa wrote of herself later, “a very common temptation with beginners.”
She yearned for the life of contemplative prayer, “to empty the mind of normal thought,” scholar Stephen Clissold wrote, “in preparation for the infusion of divine enlightenment.”
She also wanted the extreme poverty of the Barefoot—Discalced— Nuns. She wore a coarse wool habit, mended again and again, in the brown of the Carmelites, topped by a white wool cape. Her sandals were rough hemp They are all on display in the Mosen Rubi Chapel.
Against great opposition, Teresa worked to found her first reform convent, St. Joseph in Avila. Always in ill health, she recovered from three years of paralysis, she believed through the intercession of St. Joseph. She later took him as her patron.
In 1562, she founded the Convent of St. Joseph, a small house for 13 sisters, sanctioned by Pope Paul IV. The nuns shared one blanket and one frying pan.
The city’s other convents and monasteries feared competition for alms and charities, and even the Inspector of Fountains claimed the new house would interfere with the water supply. The Town Council pounded on the doors and demanded the nuns surrender.
But she persevered, and the convent stands today.
Medina del Campo
Soon, Teresa was called to found her second house in Medina del Campo, a city associated with another dynamic woman, Isabella of Castile.
She and her small band of supporters arrived at midnight to the brick building that was little more than a hovel. They cleaned and set up a makeshift chapel and Teresa rang the bell to summon her sisters to Mass by St. John of the Cross. Once a building had been sanctified by a Mass, it was nearly impossible for her opponents to dismantle the new convent.
At the convent in Medina del Campo, Teresa often met with St. John of the Cross, the priest who carried out Carmelite reforms for the friars. They collaborated for years, and their relics are often displayed side by side.
The nuns saved Teresa’s early bell, some of her writings and even a piece of her flesh
The most remarkable treasure, though, is the tiny cell that Teresa used during her 13 visits to the convent. No more than 10’x10’, the room became a chapel in 1682, and every inch has been lovingly decorated. Someone added a dome and oculus (round window) for the woman who often looked heavenward.
Throughout her travels, Teresa wrote. More than 2,000 pages of her original manuscripts survive.
“She was the first woman writing in Spanish about mystical subjects,” says Vazquez. “Before, it was only men, and only in Latin. The Castillian language was just forming.”
Some of her writings, especially of her mystic experiences that her priestly confessors demanded she record, brought her under suspicion of the Inquisition. They examined her, and once confined her to her cell for three years. Undaunted, she used the time to pray and write.
Alba de Tormes
Teresa’s earthly work was nearing its end, yet she traveled on. With a broken arm and weak heart, she jostled along to Alba de Tormes. She had founded the Annunciation Convent in 1571. It was to be her final resting place.
Nine nuns now live in cloister here, welcoming pilgrims who want to see her gilt coffin high above the altar and, up the stairs through the museum, the reliquaries (containers for holy relics) on either side of the coffin. One holds her heart, the other her arm.
“We aren’t able to put ourselves 500 years ago,” said Vazquez, “so we can’t understand what these relics meant to people.” To have a piece of Teresa meant everything.
During her life, people often commented on Teresa’s lovely smell. Even though her teeth were rotten, those who knew her said her breath smelled pleasant, like musk.
After death, some said Teresa’s sweet smell persisted. She was disinterred five times over the years, displayed and dismembered for relics.
Avila asked for her body for burial, but it was there only nine months before the powerful Duke of Alba wrested it back for Alba de Tormes. Avila took one of her hands, which is now in Portugal. The other is in Southern Spain.
In 1591, the Bishop of Salamanca wanted to see the condition of the saint’s body. It was then that the heart was removed for its own reliquary.
St. Teresa’s spiritual reach far transcends mere geography. Faithful around the world call upon this capable woman, an entrepreneur and feminist centuries ahead of her time. And every Friday at the Convent of St. Teresa in Vallodolid, Prioress Maria Capillas and her eight fellow Carmelites pray for St. Teresa as her spiritual descendants have since 1569. — Story and photos by Betsa Marsh, RFT Contributor
If You Go
The Master of Prayer exhibition continues in Avila and Alba de Tormes through Nov. 30. The convents founded by St. Teresa have open hours for the public. For more information, turismocastillayleon.com/turismocyl/en