Friday, October 14, 2022

Saint Teresa of Avila

St Therese of Avila, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1615
When she was little, Teresa (1515-82) and her brother dreamed of becoming martyrs and set off for the land of the Moors. Their plan for an easy access to Heaven was thwarted, however, by an uncle who met them on the way and quickly brought them back to their worried mother. They next resolved to become hermits, but they could never find enough stones to build their hermitages in the family garden.
Saint Teresa recounted these stories later in her life, for she had a lovely, self-deprecating sense of humor. Teresa was a good girl, but after her pious mother’s death at the age of fourteen she became immoderately attached to popular fiction and her personal appearance. This frivolity ended when she was educated by Augustinian nuns and introduced to books on Franciscan spirituality.
After eighteen months with the Augustinians, Teresa became seriously ill. It was during that time that she began to understand the ways in which she was resisting God. Teresa later joined the Carmelite convent at Ávila, but after seeing how lax they had become regarding the rules of cloister, she founded, along with Saint John of the Cross, the Order of Discalced Carmelites.
At the same time, Teresa’s intimacy with God grew. She began to experience mystical visions and religious ecstasy, so much so that others began to suspect a diabolical cause (thankfully, the Jesuit Saint Francis Borgia and the Franciscan Saint Peter of Alcantara would reassure her otherwise). Teresa learned that there is one reliable litmus test for mystical experiences: if it leads to the love of God and neighbor, it is real; if it does not, it is not.
One of Teresa’s most famous visions is of a Seraph driving a fiery golden lance through her heart:
He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.
The vision inspired Bernini’s famous statue (1647-52) “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”, a daring interpretation of the saint’s experience, combining spiritual elation with an appearance of sensual climax, but as art historian Irving Lavin has pointed out, the work captures “a point of contact between earth and heaven, between matter and spirit." In this decisive respect Bernini’s masterpiece is an apt expression of Teresian spirituality.
Teresa of Ávila died during the night of October 4/October 15. No, that’s not a typo. She passed away at the very time that the new Gregorian calendar took effect, which deleted ten days from the year 1582 in order to correct the antiquated Julian calendar. Thus, the morning after October 4 in that singular year was October 15, the date on which the Church celebrates her feast.
Teresa’s popularity in Spain after her death was so great that she was almost named the country’s patron saint, barely losing out to Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moor-slayer. Her writings, especially her Autobiography, the Way of Perfection, and the Interior Castle, are among the high watermarks of Spanish Renaissance literature, and she is considered one of the chief figures of the Counter-Reformation.
But Teresa is not only an important figure for Spain or the Counter-Reformation; she is, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “one of the peaks of Christian spirituality of all time.” Teresa’s writings are intensely personal yet contain truths relevant to all believers. Her psychological insight and spiritual acumen make her one of the foremost authorities on mental prayer. It is no surprise that she was declared the first female Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970. And it is no surprise that the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes her when defining mental or contemplative prayer as “a close sharing between friends” and “taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.” (#2709)
An earlier version of this article was published as “Ecstasy of Love,” in the Messenger of St. Anthony 119:9, international edition (October 2017), p. 31. Many thanks to its editors for its inclusion here.

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