Less than twenty years before Teresa was born in 1515, Columbus opened up the Western Hemisphere to European colonization. Two years after she was born, Luther started the Protestant Reformation. Out of all of this change came Teresa pointing the way from outer turmoil to inner peace.
Teresa’s father was rigidly honest and pious, but he may have carried his strictness to extremes. Teresa’s mother loved romance novels but because her husband objected to these fanciful books, she hid the books from him. This put Teresa in the middle — especially since she liked the romances too. Her father told her never to lie but her mother told her not to tell her father. Later she said she was always afraid that no matter what she did she was going to do everything wrong.
When she was five years old she convinced her older brother that they should, as she says in her Life, “go off to the land of the Moors and beg them, out of love of God, to cut off our heads there.” They got as far as the road from the city before an uncle found them and brought them back. Some people have used this story as an early example of sanctity, but this author think it’s better used as an early example of her ability to stir up trouble.
After this incident she led a fairly ordinary life, though she was convinced that she was a horrible sinner. As a teenager, she cared only about boys and clothes and flirting and rebelling — like other teenagers throughout the ages. When she was 16, her father decided she was out of control and sent her to a convent. At first she hated it but eventually she began to enjoy it — partly because of her growing love for God, and partly because the convent was a lot less strict than her father.
Still, when the time came for her to choose between marriage and religious life, she had a tough time making the decision. She’d watched a difficult marriage ruin her mother. On the other hand being a nun didn’t seem like much fun. When she finally chose religious life, she did so because she though that it was the only safe place for someone as prone to sin as she was.
Once installed at the Carmelite convent permanently, she started to learn and practice mental prayer, in which she “tried as hard as I could to keep Jesus Christ present within me….My imagination is so dull that I had no talent for imagining or coming up with great theological thoughts.” Teresa prayed this way off and on for eighteen years without feeling that she was getting results. Part of the reason for her trouble was that the convent was not the safe place she assumed it would be.
Many women who had no place else to go wound up at the convent, whether they had vocations or not. They were encouraged to stay away from the convents for long period of time to cut down on expenses. Nuns would arrange their veils attractively and wear jewelry. Prestige depended not on piety but on money. There was a steady stream of visitors in the parlor and parties that included young men. What spiritual life there was involved hysteria, weeping, exaggerated penance, nosebleeds, and self- induced visions.
Teresa suffered the same problem that Francis of Assisi did — she was too charming. Everyone liked her and she liked to be liked. She found it too easy to slip into a worldly life and ignore God. The convent encouraged her to have visitors to whom she would teach mental prayer because their gifts helped the community economy. But Teresa got more involved in flattery, vanity and gossip than spiritual guidance. These weren’t great sins perhaps but they kept her from God.