To have had virtuous and God-fearing parents along with the graces the Lord granted me should have been enough for me to have led a good life, if I had not been so wretched.Saint Teresa of Avila
The Book of Her Life, Chapter 1
Spain, separated from the continent of Europe by the Pyrenees, has a high central tableland both dividing the country within itself and stretching from the northern mountains to the southern coast. Without a natural center and without easy routes, this land was in the Middle Ages a disparate region, a complex of different races, languages, and civilizations.
But at the end of the fifteenth century and the opening years of the sixteenth, all the natural disadvantages were somehow overcome. Spain, with ten percent of its soil bare rock and only ten percent of it rich, became in the sixteenth century the greatest power on earth; this previously remote peninsula was now the ruler of the largest empire the world had yet seen, and all but master of Europe.
During those exhilarating years of outward glory, Teresa of Avila lived and witnessed ironically to another, inward glory, to the sacred truth that becomes the rich possession of every genuine mystic, that a person’s greatest good is within and “won by giving up everything” (Cf. The Book of Her Life, ch. 20, 27).
Born during the reign of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, Teresa saw, under Charles V, Castile’s high moment of prosperity. Under Philip II, she saw her king’s struggles against Protestant and Morisco rebels, against the Netherlanders in the north and the Turks in the Mediterranean—not to mention Philip’s many other activities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the New World.
Teresa’s grandfather, a Toledan merchant, a Jewish converso (Christianized Jew), a victim of the use of religion for the sake of political unity, had to accuse himself before the Inquisition for Judaizing and as a penance was compelled to wear in procession for seven Fridays the humiliating sanbenito. After his reconciliation, out of necessity, he moved with his family to Avila where he was able to continue in his profession as a cloth merchant.
One of his sons, Teresa’s father Alonso, was about fourteen when the family arrived in Avila. In 1505 Alonso married; but two years later his wife died, leaving him two children. Alonso, after four years, married again, this time Doña Beatriz de Ahumada, who on March 28, 1515, gave birth to a daughter and future saint who received her grandmother’s name—Teresa de Ahumada. Doña Beatriz died at the age of thirty-three, leaving behind from her marriage ten children.
Biographers have given posterity a detailed description of Teresa de Ahumada. She was medium in height and tended to be more plump than thin. Her unusual face could not be described as either round or aquiline; the skin was white and the cheeks flesh-colored. Her forehead was broad, her eyebrows somewhat thick, their dark brown color having a reddish tinge. Her eyes were black, lively, and round, not very large but well placed and protruding a little. The nose was small; the mouth medium in size and delicately shaped, and her chin was well proportioned. The white teeth sparkled and were equal in size. Three tiny moles, considered highly ornamental in those days, added further grace to her appearance; one below the center of the nose, the second over the left side of her mouth, the third beneath the mouth on the same side. Her hair was a shining black and gently curled.
In many ways an extravert, she was cheerful and friendly, a happy conversationalist, whom people found pleasing to hear as well as look at. Besides her talent as a writer, she was also gifted in the use of the needle and in household tasks.
Her undaunted spirit first began to show signs of itself when she was only seven and decided to set off with her brother Rodrigo for the land of the Moors to have her head cut off for Christ. With much the same ardor she enjoyed playing hermit life with other children—praying, giving alms, and doing penances.
Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D.
The Book of Her Life, Introduction: The Early Years
Teresa of Avila, St. 1985, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, translated from the Spanish by Kavanaugh, K; Rodriguez, O, ICS Publications, Washington DC.