St. Teresa of Jesus was born in Avila, Spain, in 1515. At the age of 20 she entered the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation in her native Avila. After 26 years in the Incarnation, she was inspired by God to found the convent of St. Joseph in Avila for religious devoted to a life of contemplative prayer. Before her death in 1582 she founded 17 convents, which formed the beginnings of the Order of Discalced Carmelites. Today Discalced Carmelites number about 12,000 cloistered women in 98 countries, nearly 4,000 mendicant friars in 82 countries, and some 40,000 lay Carmelites throughout the world.
Teresa believed the purpose of her new order was to pray for the needs of the church. During the course of her life she wrote several books and left other writings that teach the way of contemplative prayer for those who follow in her footsteps. In 1970, Pope Paul VI declared St. Teresa the first woman doctor of the church, primarily for her teaching on prayer.
Teresa, however, did not always find prayer easy. In the earlier years of her religious life, she was not able to follow the traditional methods of discursive meditation, or prayerfully calling to mind and reflecting on specific religious thoughts and images. Finally she discovered “the prayer of recollection,” which she said the Lord Himself taught her. “I confess that I never knew what it was to pray with satisfaction until the Lord taught me this method” (The Way of Perfection, 29.7). It involved simply meeting Jesus Christ, true God and true man, in the deepest center of her being. She wrote: “I tried as hard as I could to keep Jesus Christ, our God and our Lord, present within me, and that was my way of prayer” (The Book of Her Life, 4.7).
Enthusiastically, she taught this way of prayer to others, assuring them that this method “is not something supernatural, but is something we can desire and achieve ourselves with the help of God” (Way of Perfection, 29.4). It is a method she found beneficial in all stages of the spiritual journey (The Book of Her Life, 12.3).
Lay people who are attracted to the teachings of St. Teresa and Carmelite spirituality often become members of the Third Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. They make a formal commitment to follow the charism of the Carmelite order according to their state in life. To learn more about Carmelite spirituality and the Third Order, please visit the web pages for the Institute of Carmelite Studies, the Carmelites of the Washington province, and the Third Order Community of St. Joseph.