Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) [Teresa Sanchez Cepeda Davila y Ahumada]
Carmelite nun, Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint (canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622; made a Doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI), author (The Life of Teresa of Jesus, her autobiography; The Interior Castle; The Way of Perfection; Meditations on the Canticle/Song of Songs; Concepts of Love; Exclamations; and over 342 letters).
Life: Her grandfather was a Jewish convert to Christianity (such converts were called marranos), but condemned by the Spanish Inquisition for supposedly returning to Judaism. Her father bought a knighthood and assimilated himself successfully into Christianity and society, becoming a merchant in the province of Ávila, Spain. His second wife was the mother of Teresa (born in 1515—just two years before Luther’s Protestant Reformation began—and one of her ten children), but she died when Teresa was 14 or 15 years old, which prompted Teresa being sent to Augustinian nuns for her education. Illness is said to have ended her stay with the nuns after a year and a half, whereupon she returned to her immediate and extended family. Five years later, Teresa, after reading the letters of St. Jerome, entered the Carmelite Order of nuns in Ávila, initially against the wishes of her father, but led by her own strong desire, not of piety, but of practicality.*
* The Carmelites: a 12th c. religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, which traditionally (but with dispute) names Saint Bertold as its founder and was originally comprised of all hermits, focuses on contemplation, i.e., prayer, community, and service, hence contemplation is not opposite to action, but inclusive of the latter elements, and adherent to these ideas from Elijah and the Virgin Mary. The Order includes friars, cloistered nuns, and lay people. Their first rule required very strict obedience, residence, constancy of prayer, morning Mass, vows of poverty and work, silence most of the day, strict vegetarianism, and six months of regular fasting. As the Order spread across Europe, some Papal permissions to revise the rules were granted. Through the 13th c. there was religio-political challenge to the Order, but by the 1300’s, they were fully accepted, and thus grew even more rapidly. Many of the rule revisions caused strife amongst the members, and fueled many calls through the 1200’s for reform and division; these calls were reinitiated in the 14th-15th c., especially after permissions were granted to allow three days of meat a week and to walk about their cloisters (though, political instabilities caused by the Hundred Years’ War, the plague, and rise of the Renaissance and its humanism didn’t hurt). In the 1560’s Teresa, along with John of the Cross, founded the splinter Order, the Discalced Carmelites (O.C.D.).
Years into her stay at the convent, she suffered some severe illness that caused three years of paralysis and suffering, but, thereafter began to have visions and other ecstatic experiences that focused on the Christ’s passion--i.e., on his wounds, suffering, and pain. Early on, these visions caused great controversy, and were deemed to be diabolic, rather than divine; although, three years into the visions, by 1559, Teresa determined them to be divine and from Jesus himself (the event causing her apodictic certainty was described as a vision of the invisible body of Christ and a laceration of her heart).
These visions inspired her project of austere reformation of the order, which prompted her founding a new convent that became known as the Discalced, the shoeless, Carmelites. Her new constitution for the Order included absolute poverty, abandonment of all property and ownership, strict regulations, weekly flagellations, and literal discalceation, that is, barefoot nuns. She was eventually granted permission to found further convents, and, in 1567, inspired Saint John of the Cross to extend her reform into the male division of the Carmelite Order. In approximately her first ten years of reform, she established at least eight convents across Spain (by hear death, she will have established 17 convents, and many further men’s cloisters). Her reformation caused great political crisis and discontent, sparking retaliation against her, her nuns, and friends, but was eventually given political and religious approval by 1580. She founded four further convents in the last two years of her life.
After her death, in 1582, her body was miraculously preserved, and persists as a relic, along with her heart, cut from her and encased in crystal, and is said to manifest signs of Transverberations (a mystical experience wherein the heart is pierced by a “dart of love” from and by an angel—St. John of the Cross describes it: “It will happen that while the soul is inflamed with the Love of God, it will feel that a seraph is assailing it by means of an arrow or dart which is all afire with love. And the seraph pierces and in an instant cauterizes this soul, which, like a red-hot coal, or better a flame, is already enkindled. The soul is converted into an immense fire of Love. Few persons have reached these heights.” Her heart is on view in the Carmelite Monastery of Alba de Tormes in Spain).
Philosophically: She is deeply within the mystical tradition—her early inspiration was by Francisco de Osuna’s Tercer abecedario, the Third Spiritual Alphabet (1527), which promoted inner contemplation as a form of spiritual exercise, and perhaps Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises—but on a foundation of Thomism, likely inspired by her confessors and directors being primarily Dominican. She keeps her writings grounded in the personal, and does not engage any of the theory of any of the leading schools of philosophy, although these themes and styles of mysticism and Thomism can be seen. For example, the earliest works, describing her suffering-born mode of prayer, speaks of a progression from “recollection” to “devotions of silence” and then to those “of ecstasy,” wherein divine union with God was achieved.
Her later writings (e.g., her autobiography) describe four stages of ascent of the soul:
1) mental prayer (inner contemplation, withdrawal from the world, concentration on the Passion and penitence);
2) prayer of quiet (human will surrenders to God’s will in a mystical experience, although other faculties can still be distracted by the world and should be kept in check by repetitive prayer and writing and quiet meditation);
3) devotion of union (an ecstatic state where one is surrendered to and absorbed into God and manifests as a slumber of all other human faculties);
4) the devotion of ecstasy (an ecstatic state wherein the body vanishes, sensation ceases, memory and imagination are intoxicated and become of God; this manifests as sweetness and pain, impotence and unconsciousness, and a sense of strangulation and levitation or flight, and resolves itself in tears and a trance).
The Interior Castle (Or, The Mansions)
While the text was started in June of 1577, and finished in November of the same year, five of those months kept her from working on it, hence the entire work was written in just roughly four weeks. She knew, however, that she would write it at least six months in advance. She did not ask permission to write a book, but an order came down to her from her superiors to do so, and that it was to be a book on prayer.
The timing of the order was not particularly good—she was suffering political retaliation for her ‘Reform’ work that created the Discalced Carmelites (and the movement was on the verge of ruin), and acutely from physical and mental problems, namely severe anxiety and hearing voices. Interestingly, though, there is little to no hint of such troubles in her book. Initially, she is said to have protested the order, although eventually gave in when reminded of her duty to duty.
Reputedly, much of the writing itself happened miraculously—several of her sister nuns reported seeing her writing in a trance, bathed in inexplicable light, while others reported witnessing her in a trance before a blank sheet that became miraculously full of text once she came to. Other reports claim that the work was dictated to her by God or by her visions, and she simply recorded them—albeit at impossible speed—afterwards. Her manuscript, though, was heavily edited by the two superiors who had ordered her to write it; she accepted the revisions.
The public reception of the book—which first was just handwritten copies—was very positive; it was read aloud at numerous seminaries, and said to have converted many to the Church, and particularly to the Order. It was decided that the text would be officially published, and was edited by an Augustinian, Fray Luis de Leon, who was thought to be unconcerned with the political issues surrounding the new Order. The new editor decided that all of the revisions previously made were inappropriate, and reverted the entire text back to the original manuscript, minus a few changes suggested by Teresa herself.
After her death, her friend and confessor, Don Diego de Yepes (later: Bishop of Tarazona), revealed that she had shared with him an account of her vision (described in the text), and offered four lessons that she took from it:
1) God is present in all things by His essence, presence, and power;
2) Sin prevents the soul from partaking of the light of God;
3) The beauty of the soul emanates from that light of God, and the powers of soul and body are strengthened by the divine power in the center, from which also comes all good (i.e., the good we do, then, is mostly due to the good within);
4) The seven rooms within the soul-castle represent degrees of prayer that must be moved through in order to reach the seventh room and union with God within.
The standard approach of mystical treatises, of which this text shows influence, divide three activities as stages:
1) Purgative (purge the self of sin and improper habits; typically through attention to Sacraments and penitent or mortifying activities);
2) Illuminative (a passive purification of soul and mind by enlightenment, hence, an activity of God on the faithful’s soul and mind, hence a movement beyond active, rational seeking);
3) Unitive life (union with God, typically by perfect conformity of the will to God, and typically achieved in passions of visions, revelations, miraculous wounds appearing, spiritual marriage, etc.).
In Teresa’s work, Mansions One and Two illustrate the Purgative; Mansions Three and Four, the Illuminative; and Mansion Five, Six, and Seven, the Unitive. (At the end of Mansions, though, this is not the beatific vision—that is reserved for the afterlife.) As much as the work is mystical, though, it is also illustrative of Aquinas’ Summa (often through practical illustration of his theory).
On Our Selections of Readings:
The First Mansion:
Description of the Castle:
The Human Soul
The Fourth Mansion:
The Fifth Mansion:
Prayer of Union:
Effects of Union:
Cause of Union:
The Sixth Mansion:
Preparation for Spiritual Marriage:
The Wound of Love:
Notes:(parentheticals cite pages)
The First Mansion: Description of the Castle: Soul as Castle formed of a single diamond containing many rooms, with God in the center (18). Called to reflect on this beauty, but only to degree possible; reflection will be transformative, and many won’t do this work (18-9). Note the discord between the emphasis on beauty to the reference of the body as the coarse setting for the gem of soul, its outer walls, and the self as “loathsome worms” (19). Key to begin is how to enter the diamond-castle; it is, of course, us, yet, we can live within ourselves in many different ways, e.g., staying in the courtyard, or working inward (20). The work inward is done through prayer, be it contemplative or vocalized, so long as it is done thoughtfully—mere rambling to God is not prayer (20-21). Some won’t enter; some will enter through the first rooms, the basement, which is full of reptiles (21).
The Human Soul: Begins on idea of sin—such darkens the light of God, eclipses the sun that comes from Him from within (22). Mortal sin cannot be rectified except by God (22). Soul in grace is like water from River of Life; sinning soul withdraws from the stream and becomes fetid, reflects no light. The fountain itself and Sun itself do not lose their beauty (23). Questions if there is no work that can be done for the sinners—claims this is “what we must dread and pray God to deliver us from” (23). All good in us and in our works is from God (23-4). Excursus on her writing what she herself cannot understand (24).
Back to the castle: the interior where God and soul commune is like a kernel within, and rinds must be removed before getting there (24).
Capacity of soul is beyond comprehension—good soul must not be kept restrained, but must walk through the castle, lowest to highest rooms, not lingering in any one for too long, especially not on the self-reflection itself, and must remain humble like a bee who must leave the honeycomb and seek flowers, or dwell on God and cease thinking, and this is the better way to learn of one’s baseness (and, presumably, transcend it) (25)—so, contemplate divine MORE than oneself (vs. Al-Ghazzali). Best to know self by contrast—compared to God’s greatness, we see our baseness more clearly (like black and white, next to the other, white looks purer and black looks not so dark) (25).
Beware that the devil keeps legions of evil spirits in all the rooms of this first mansion … linger too long, and they will deceive you (26—and, then as venomous creatures that bite, 27). Turn to God and the Virgin Mary for help fighting these evil (26-7). The light from God shines dim in these rooms in the first mansion—semi-darkness (27).
More on struggles with demons: good inclinations can become vice, so don’t overdo mortification or seeking perfection, don’t stray from charity or affection for other nuns, especially: no “indiscrete zeal” (28). (Connect to insistence on mystical experience—don’t confuse hysteria with divine presence.)
More notes coming soon ... The Fourth Mansion: Divine Consolations:
The Fifth Mansion: Prayer of Union: Effects of Union: Cause of Union: Spiritual Espousals:
The Sixth Mansion: Preparation for Spiritual Marriage: The Wound of Love: