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Saint Teresa of Avila

Category: Religious

Saint Teresa of Avila was blessed with an inordinate number of spiritual experiences.  There appears to be a belief that the poor lady suffered from malaria, but I think she suffered from rheumatic fever which she caught as a teenager, and then suffered recurring bouts.

The initial illness was serious enough for her to be sent back to her father's house to be cared for, [her mother had died] and it so put the wind up her, that it propelled her onto a religious course.

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
I began to fear that if I had died of the illness, I should have gone to hell; and although I could not, even then, make up my mind to take the habit, I saw that the religious state was the best and safest; and so, gradually, I decided to make myself enter it.

In effect, knowing how ill she had been, she realised that her best chance of being cared for if it happened again, was in a convent, especially given that her chances of marriage as a result of the illness were also pretty slim.

After the illness, she continued to suffer periodically from fainting fits, - which probably means her heart was badly damaged, - fever, appalling pain from her joints 'every bone in my body seemed to be wrenched asunder',  extreme pains in her heart, she also occasionally lost consciousness.

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
Whenever I am not busy with something, it is plunged into these death-like yearnings; and I am afraid when I feel them coming on, because I know that I shall not die.  But once I am in them, I long to suffer like this for the rest of my life, although the pain is so extreme as to be nearly unbearable. Sometimes my pulse almost ceases to beat at all, as I have been told by the sisters who sometimes see me in this state, and so understand better now.  My bones are all disjointed and my hands are so rigid that sometimes I cannot clasp them together. Even next day I feel a pain in my wrists and over my whole body, as if my bones were still out of joint.
Sometimes I really think that if things continue as they are at present,  it must be the Lord's will to end them by putting an end to my life. The pain seems to me enough to cause death; only, I do not deserve it. All my longing at these times is to die. I do not remember purgatory or the great sins that I have committed, for which I deserve hell.

She was not helped by the 'treatment' that seems to have been meted out to her.  Purging which resulted in her losing a lot of weight and botanicals which made her feel like death.  So in Teresa's case we have rheumatic fever and starvation coupled with a bit of poisoning!  Death by doctor again.

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
I was three months in that place, suffered great torments.  The treatment was more severe than my constitution could stand.  So strong were the medicines that after 2 months I was almost dead, and the pains in my heart, of which I had come to be cured, were so much more intense that I sometimes felt as if sharp teeth were being plunged into it.  I was in such agony that they feared I might go mad.  I had lost a great deal of strength, for I felt such a loathing for food that all I could take was a little liquid and I had a continuous fever.  I was reduced by the daily purges that I had been given for almost a month and so shrivelled that my nerves began to contract, giving me such unbearable pain that I could get no rest by day or night.

She nearly dies.........

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
that night I had an attack which left me insensible for almost four days.  They gave me the sacrament of extreme unction and in every minute of every hour thought that I was dying.  They never stopped reciting the creed to me, as though I could have heard what was said.  At times they were so sure that I was dead that afterwards I actually found some wax on my eyelids..... For a day and a half a grave was left open in my convent, waiting for my body...
my extreme weakness is beyond description.  I was nothing but bones.  As I have said, I remained in this state for more than 8 months and my paralysis, although it grew less, continued for almost 3 years.  When I began to crawl on hands and knees I praised God.

So she was absolutely ripe for spiritual experiences.  She continued to suffer for the next 20 plus years and more....

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
for the last twenty years I have suffered morning sickness and cannot take my food until past midday.  I think I am never free from aches and pains, which are sometimes very severe especially around the heart, though the fainting fits, which were then so continuous are now rare and I have been free for the last 8 years from the paralysis and from the attacks of fever that I used to have so often........I sometimes had to endure – and still have to though to a lesser degree – the greatest spiritual trials, accompanied by bodily pains and tortures so severe that I could scarcely control myself...
for he made me thresh about with my body, head and arms and I was powerless to prevent him.

In effect she suffered all the symptoms of rheumatic fever – from St Vitus's dance to acute joint pain, to a failing heart, to fever. Poor lass. 

The autobiography

Bernini's ecstasy of Saint Teresa

The autobiography makes wonderful reading. Her confessors 'asked' her to write the book and given what we know about the Church in the 1500s, which is when this was written, she would have been extremely unwise to refuse. 

What appears to have happened in reality, is that she was not asked to write the book, but coerced into it – commanded to write it.  Given that the money and support she and her nuns needed to live came principally from the Church,  it would not have taken much explanation, if any was needed, to have made her realise she had no option but to write.  These were the days of the Inquisition [Avila is in Spain] and the Church at the time was burning Jews at the stake for wanting to practice their own faith, torturing and imprisoning anyone they considered a 'heretic'.  John of the Cross  - one of her successors, was imprisoned for 14 years and suffered appalling deprivations.  He died in penitentiary confinement.  Molinos was condemned to solitary confinement for life and so died.  Fenelon was persecuted and hounded.

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
thers must speak for themselves, I merely relate what happened to me, as I have been commanded. 
I am not learned nor have I led a good life, and I have neither a scholar or anyone else to guide me.  Only those who have commanded me to write this know that I am doing so and they are not here at present.  I have almost to steal the time for writing and that with difficulty, because it hinders me from spinning and I am living in a poor house where there is a great deal to do.

She spent quite a lot of her life hovering very close to similar levels of treatment.

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
many were the reproaches and trials that I suffered when I spoke of these things and many were the fears and persecutions.  They felt so certain of my being possessed by a devil that some of them wanted to exorcise me.

There is also throughout the book, just the hint that she is very frightened of what may happen as a result of the book.  I suspect that this is also the reason why she feels the need to apologise for herself the whole time.  She is very unsure of how all this is going to be taken .

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
so for everything beyond the simple story of my life your Reverence must take the responsibility, since you have pressed me so hard to give some account of the favours that the Lord confers on me, so long as my tale is consistent with the truths of our holy Catholic Church.  If it is not your reverence must burn it immediately.

So, the book is written as one would expect – it contains all the right words to please the theologians and clergy who requested the book.  Lots of passages about how wicked she was and how unworthy to receive all this spiritual favour, but in between this padding we do get a very good picture of what she was really like and what happened.  It is something of a masterpiece of writing, because what really happened comes across very well, as long as you skip all the passages there to please the clergy.

Did she really believe in hell and the devil and all the appalling theological paraphernalia that had accumulated around this religion?

 Who knows, but she was very frightened of the power of the clergy who ran it and that stands out a mile.  

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
since there have been cases lately of women who have been grossly deceived and subjected to great illusions … I was very much afraid.

What she doesn't say is that the women she refers to is one Magdalena de la Cruz, a nun of Cordoba, who was convicted of wilful deceptions by the Inquisition and burnt alive in 1541.

Fascism, communism, socialism, catholicism..........  never trust an 'ism', all isms contain man made dogma designed to control people, in non democratic ways, run by those whose only motive is power, power, empires, position and money.

 This is what the Grand Inquisitor decreed in 1559........

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
when a number of books in Spanish were taken away from us and we were told not to read them, I felt it deeply because some of them gave me recreation and I could not go on reading them,

....  it was the Fascists in the 1930s who had the book burning if you remember.............

 But, one may ask, why was she asked to write the book, given the potential dynamite it could be.  None of it,  in reality, matches church dogma of the time. Here is one reason.....

Pain, Sex and Time – Gerald Heard
mystics in the Roman Church were permitted to develop to a point, because their record of sanctity was useful to Authority through giving the Church spiritual prestige.  The established churches use the copyright of the mystics to claim that they themselves are a source of spirituality and the later mystics are too intellectually unaware to check this dangerous 'piracy'.  Once the Reformation is in retreat  the Church crushes these dangerous servants, only sanctioned during a crisis when concessions had to be made.

It is very clear from her account that she was ill-fitted to being a nun, but despite this she had endless spiritual experiences, really profound ones and these were witnessed.  She says it herself.....

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
more recently I have discussed the subject with men of great learning and persons who have led spiritual lives for many years; and they have seen that in 27 years during which I have practised prayer, ill though I have trodden the road and often though I have stumbled, His Majesty has granted me experiences for which others need 37 or even 42 although they may have progressed in penitence and constant virtue.

So, in other words, all the theologians thought that the way to get a spiritual experience was by the path of 'virtue' and penance and suffering and being 'good' [whatever that means] and praising the Lord and praying and calling out God's name and mortifying themselves and wearing hair shirts and crawling on their hands and knees in [mock] humility and denouncing evil [whatever that means] and punishing those they perceived were evil [people not like them] and denouncing sinners and abstaining from sex, and giving up family life and love and eating for pleasure and drinking and ..................

........... and nothing had happened – zilch – not even a glimmer of synaesthesia.

And along comes Teresa who really did  not want to be a nun in the first place, who loved her family, who loved life, who was kind and compassionate naturally without trying, who was simple and meek and open and honest, genuinely meek, who laughed even though she was wracked with the pain of her illness and lo and behold without any effort, she gets loads of experiences.

They wanted to know how!!!  They were actually saying tell us your secret.

But, poor lass, she didn't know her secret.

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
one thing I can truly say; although I talked with many spiritual persons who tried to make me understand what the Lord was teaching me so that I might be able to speak about it, I was so stupid that I derived not the slightest advantage from their explanations.

Good eh? Not so stupid either.

 At times the courage, diplomacy and  understanding she shows in her writing is extraordinary...........

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
when I hear servants of God, men of weight, learning and understanding, worrying so much because He is not giving them devotion, it makes me sick to listen to them.  I do not say that they should not accept it if God grants it to them and value it too, for then His Majesty will see that it was good for them, but they should not be distressed when they do not receive it.  They should realise that since the Lord does not give it to them, they do not need it.

She makes a valiant effort at describing what she did when she was meditating .............

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
I could not meditate intellectually …. I found it helpful to look at fields, water, or flowers. These reminded me of the Creator.

In actual fact, she was doing the right thing because she basically turned off intellectually, tuned in to love and just went with the flow..............

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
there would come to me unexpectedly such a feeling of the presence of God as made it impossible for me to doubt that He was with me, or that I was totally engulfed in Him.  This was no kind of vision, the soul is so suspended that it seems entirely outside itself [out of body] .  The will loves; the memory is, I think, lost; and the mind, I believe, though it is not lost, does not reason – I mean that it does not work, but stands as if amazed at the many things it understands.

So here we have a precise description of how spiritual experience should work, explained by a nun in the 1500s who was saying it in the face and in direct contradiction to the accepted theological methods.  The will loves, the memory must go and the reasoning system must be put on hold.

 But my goodness does she ramble on, only a woman could have written this – and I'm allowed to say this because I am a woman too! 

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
I do not know whether I am doing right to enter into such trivial details.  As your Reverence has sent me another message, commanding me not to mind writing at some length and to omit nothing, I shall continue to describe clearly and truly all that I remember.  But I cannot help leaving a great deal out [sic!] for if I did not I should have to spend much more time in my writing and as I have said, I have so little [time] and perhaps after all nothing would be gained by it.

About Teresa

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
may it please Your Majesty to give me grace, so that I may not always remain a beginner.

Human, so so lovably human.

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
I am most devoted to Saint Augustine...... because he had been a sinner.  I derive great comfort from those saints who have sinned and yet whom the Lord has drawn to himself...............

I never got so far as to pray, the depression I felt on entering the oratory was so strong that I had to avail myself of all my courage to force myself in............

one should try to be cheerful and not strained; for there are people who think that devotion is ruined if they relax for a moment..... but there are many occasions... when it is permissible to take some recreation, so that we may return to our prayer invigorated.  Discretion is necessary in everything.

my confessors made so little of [her supposed sins].  One of them, to whom I had gone with a scruple, told me that even if I were raised to high contemplation, such happenings and conversations were not unfitting...........

I am sorry now for my soul and the opportunities to wander off in pursuit of its pastimes and pleasures, which were offered to it by those confessors who said that they were legitimate..................

My life was so far from perfection that I took hardly any notice of venial sins and though I feared mortal sins, I was not sufficiently afraid to keep myself out of temptations.............

We are not angels but have bodies, and it is madness for us to want to become angels while we are still on earth, and as much on earth as I was................

Of myself I may say that if the Lord had not given me constant opportunities of speaking with persons who practise prayer, I should have gone on rising and falling again until I tumbled into Hell.  I had plenty of friends to help me..............

now this habit of going on visits, though I was one who frequently indulged in it, was a serious inconvenience to me, because many people whom my superiors could not refuse liked to have me with them, and when I was invited they ordered me to go.  Things reached such a pitch, indeed, that I was able to be in the convent very little; the devil must have had a hand in these frequent departures of mine, though at the same time I would always pass on to some of the nuns what I had learnt from the people I met and this was of great benefit to them............ 

..'I could always pass on to some of the nuns what I had learnt' – marvellous eh!  She is sort of 'streetwise' at a time when being streetwise and female was probably unheard of.

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
Some people began telling me that they approved of my plan, but afterwards, when they looked into it further, they found so many drawbacks that they strongly urged me once more to give it up.  I told them that, in view of the speed with which they changed their opinions, I preferred to stick to mine..............

We shall do all right if we walk in righteousness and cling to virtue, but we shall advance at a snail's pace.  Freedom of spirit is not to be had in that way..... nor can I be persuaded that it is a good method.  I tried it myself, and should have been practising it to this day if the Lord had not shown me a short cut.................

Sensitive, friendly, affectionate, with a wonderful sense of humour, not wanting to hurt anyone or anything – she was told she had to give up her friends.............

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
for my soul was not at all strong, but very sensitive, especially in respect to abandoning certain friendships.  Although these were not the cause of any offence against God, they involved a great deal of affection, and I thought that I should be ungrateful if I were to give them up.  I asked my confessor why I must behave so ungratefully since I was committing no sin.

Before she had been forced by circumstances into the convent, she loved scent and pretty clothes, had a lot of chatty friends who came to see her, had a love of all her brothers and sisters, loved her Mum and Dad and seemed to live a very jolly lively life,  one which was inordinately 'free' for the time, and one which would probably have led her into quite a successful marriage.

 She was not exactly an intellectual powerhouse, but of course that helped, if your reasoning powers are not well developed in the first place, it is a lot easier to subdue them........

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
sometimes I am laughing, sometimes I am in deep distress.  An inner impulse urges me to serve God in some way,  but I am no good for anything but decorating images with branches and flowers, or for sweeping and tidying an oratory, or for doing other things so trifling that they make me ashamed.

She seems to remain very fond of men [at which point she had me as a devoted convert, because I'm with her on this one]...........

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
I began then to confess to the priest I have spoken of and he became extremely fond of me.  I had then little to confess, compared with what I had afterwards, nor had I had much since I became a nun.  There was nothing wrong in his affection for me, but being excessive it ceased to be good...........

a very serious fault of mine which led me into great trouble was that if I began to see that someone liked me and I happened to take to that person myself, I would become very fond of him... I would delight in seeing him and thinking of him......

 this fault of mine has troubled me in my relations with some of my confessors.  I always feel a great affection for those who direct my soul.  I think of them as so truly taking the place of God that my mind is largely taken up with them.  I have always felt perfectly safe, however, and have always therefore behaved warmly towards them.  But they, being God fearing servants of God, have been afraid that I might become attached to them and bound up with them – in a spiritual way of course …........

But of course....

She is cheery, she is well liked by the other nuns. She has a sense of humour, if this does not make you laugh, then you clearly haven't got one!!

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
at such times the understanding is so close to the light that it sees with great clarity, and even I, though I am what I am, seem to be quite different.  Thus ordinarily I hardly understand anything that I recite in Latin, particularly from the Psalms.  Yet when in this state of quiet, I have sometimes not only understood the Latin as if it were Spanish, but to my delight, gone further and seen the meaning of the Spanish as well!

The following does contain a serious message, which is simply that once the will truly loves, the flood gates open, but the way she puts it is wonderful............

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
the will must be fully occupied in loving, but does not understand how it loves.  If it understands, it does not understand how it understands, or at least, cannot comprehend anything of what it understands.  I do not think that it understands at all, because as I have said, it does not understand itself. Nor can I myself understand this.

She is a born teacher, using allegory and analogy quite often to help people's understanding, a genuine desire to help and not a desire to appear 'clever'.  There are also passages that are almost poetry...........

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
so the little restless moth of the memory has its wings burned and can flutter no more.

She rather tactfully explains in the book, that those who constantly interfere in the lives of others – the do-gooders, the control freaks, the ones who try to tell others what to do the whole time, those who judge others, those who try to take away the freedom from other people, are the last people who will ever get a whiff of heaven. To succeed you have to mind your own business.

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
the security of a soul that applies itself to prayer lies in its ceasing to be anxious for anything or anybody, in its watching itself and pleasing God.  This is very important.  If I were to tell of the mistakes I have seen people make, through reliance on their own good intentions, I should never be done.

She is also very concerned about telling the truth, which must have made it doubly difficult to write the book and means it is that much more of a masterpiece. 

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
I mention this because what I am writing must tell the whole truth.

I think she earnestly wanted everyone to realise that getting to heaven was not a theological thing or a religious thing or an 'ism', it required none of the rigmarole the church imposed, and she fervently hoped that maybe someone could see what she had done right to succeed.  And she risked a lot to help them see that. A proper saint then.

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
If the recipient of this does not approve of it, he will tear it up, and he will know better than I what is wrong with it.  But I implore him... to let what I have so far said about my wretched life and my sins be published......

I think this sums her up beautifully....

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
so I beg anyone who reads this account to bear in mind... how wicked my life has been – so wicked, indeed that among all the saints who have turned to God I can find none whose history affords me any comfort.  For I see that, once the Lord called them, they never fell back into sin. 

I, however, not only fell back, but became worse and seem to have deliberately  sought ways of resisting the favours which His Majesty granted me.

Yes, I thought, just like they say in teenage circles these days 'wicked, man', 'really wicked'. 


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