During her 27 years at the Convent, Teresa became deeply spiritual. In her prayers she sensed a divine presence. It seemed to her that she was “being addressed by inner voices and seeing certain visions.” The most dramatic such experience was an encounter with an angel holding a golden spear tipped with a point of fire. “This,” she reported, “he plunged into my heart several times. The pain was so severe that it made me utter moans. If anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God, in his goodness, to grant him some experience of it.”
Those watching Teresa during r38 her more and more frequent trances said that her face shone with an inner light, her body became limp. Some witnesses swore that they had seen her being lifted off the ground to remain suspended for long moments in the air.
Describing her experiences, Teresa wrote, “He appears to the soul by a knowledge brighter than the Sun. I do not mean that any sun is seen, or any brightness. But there is an unseen light that illuminates the understanding . . . a soft whiteness and infused radiance causing great delight.”
Such visions made Teresa conscious that her abode, from which she was allowed to come and go at will, seemed more like a fashionable boarding-house than a convent. So she planned to set up her own sanctuary, where a few dedicated souls could lead a life of poverty, contemplation and prayer far from the hubbub of the world.
Most of her sisters at the Incarnation were shocked by her idea. Was not life there good enough for her Teresa paid no heed. With a new resourcefulness, she pursued her goal. A pious widow contributed a modest sum, and the local bishop was persuaded to grant the necessary permit for a new convent.
But the townsfolk, faced with the prospect of yet another institution depending on their charity, were up in arms. It was not until high ecclesiastics came out in favour of Teresa’s “noble folly” that she was able to keep her little stone house on the edge of town, which she had dedicated to St Joseph. The modern tourist has little trouble finding it—every child in Avila will happily show him the way to San Jose, where 20 Carmelite nuns still keep alive the flame lit by Teresa.
Thus the reformed branch of the Carmelite Order was born. Teresa, who took the religious name “Teresa de Jesus,” called her followers the Discalced, or Barefooted, Carmelites. Their habit was dark sackcloth, covered, for choral services, by a white mantle (and, in point of fact, they wore rope sandals and hemp stockings against the cold).
No one might leave the convent except in case of grave illness, and worldly talk was forbidden. Each nun lived in a small cell of her own. The beds were bags of straw; Teresa used a wooden log for her pillow. There were long fasts, and much work to earn needed cash. But there was also one unheard-of luxury Teresa introduced: each nun must keep a jug of water in her cell and wash! She abhorred dirt, and never tired of tidying things up.