Saint Teresa of Avila was a born leader, but her strengths were made perfect in the crucible of obedience.
St. Teresa joined the Carmelite Order at a time when the order had become somewhat lax. There are a variety of reasons for this, including the aftermath of the Black Death of the 14th century. In Teresa’s Spain, constant war and colonization decimated the male population and left large numbers of women unable to find a husband. Many simply joined a religious order, not because they felt a vocation, but as a backup plan.
St. Teresa spent nearly two decades as a nun living in a somewhat lax house in her hometown of Avila, Spain, with little or no compunction about this laxity. St. Teresa simply followed the relaxed rule of her order and obeyed her superiors. This was commendable.
But upon reading the Confessions of Saint Augustine, St. Teresa began to experience what she later called a “second conversion,” which included a desire to live out the earlier, much more demanding form of the Carmelite rule like the saints she so venerated. In this great ambition she quickly found that she was not alone, as other sisters told her they wanted to strive after holiness in a more intense way.
To us St. Teresa’s goal of returning to the roots of her order sounds like a perfectly harmless and laudable goal, but it was not shared by all. This initiative was largely taken as a criticism by those in charge of the order. St. Teresa found resistance to her vision not only from the outside world but most intensely of all from her fellow Carmelites.
In Avila, everyone considered her idea ridiculous and some thought that Teresa was arrogant for such ambitions. And of course there was, as always, the question of how to pay for it. Avila already had a great number of religious houses and both the clergy and the state alike were convinced that it could not afford another. Teresa’s idea not only seemed like a personal affront to her fellow nuns but a threat to the finances of the community.