Saint Teresa of Avila - In the Context of Her Times
Continued from Saint Teresa of Avila - Life at the Incarnation
The following selection, a brief biography of St. Teresa of Avila, is taken from The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, volume 1, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, with revisions and introductions by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD. Revised edition, copyright 1987 by the Washington Province of Discalced Carmelite Friars, Inc. Published by ICS Publications, Washington, D.C.
In the Context of Her Times
Readers nowadays can not readily grasp the reason for Teresa's fears, and for those of her confessors, unless they have some notion of the spiritual movements and problems existing in Spain during the sixteenth century. Spain at that time was a world in effervescence not only politically but also spiritually. A longing for deep spirituality took hold among the people themselves and pervaded their lives, having at its center three basic characteristics: a call to the interior life; the practice of mental prayer; and strong leanings toward higher levels of the mystical life. Giving support to this spiritual rebirth was the Spanish Catholic reform initiated before the Council of Trent and championed by the militantly fervent and energetic Cardinal Cisneros. It coincided with the first half of Teresa's life. Prior to the work of Teresa there were other highly influential reform movements, those of St. John of Avila, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Benedictines, the Franciscans, and the Dominicans. Newly founded printing presses offered to the people a large supply of literature on prayer and the interior life: translations from the Fathers, from the Italian, Flemish, and German schools, from Erasmus, the scholastics, the Protestants, and the humanists. The cross-fertilization of ideas that resulted from contact among these schools and movements was only to be expected.
Previously, medieval Spain had been the most tolerant land in Europe, with Christian, Mohammedan, and Jew living there side by side in peace and sometimes, in the closest friendship. But such relations did not last; in a country devoid of political unity a common faith was gradually seen to serve as a tool for binding together Castilians, Aragonese, and Catalans. In the constant interplay between politics and religion, the establishment of an Inquisition throughout Spain was seen as a convenient means to further the cause of Spanish unity, deepening the sense of common national purpose.
Now since in the Netherlands Christianity had developed a strong pietist strain, tending to stress mental prayer at the expense of forms and ceremonies, and in the Florence of Savonarola it had acquired a visionary, apocalyptic character, having an appeal to a number of Spanish Franciscans at that time in Italy, Spain was to find devotees for both these types of Christianity -- particularly among devout women, often referred to as beatas, and among Franciscans of converso origin. It was only in the early years of the sixteenth century, however, that these types began to inspire any form of religious movement. For along with a push for the reform of the ecclesial community and of individuals, they gave rise to an illuminist movement which produced excellent as well as distorted forms of spirituality. Its members were known as alumbrados.
The alumbrados linked up with the movement of Erasmus in its stress on inwardness and its reaction against the misuse of devotional practices and formalism. They later divided into groups having common trends but distinguished by certain differences. Those known as the recogidos attached highest importance to recollection. This term referred to the effort the soul makes to withdraw from and forget everything created so as to allow itself to be penetrated by the divine action. The other group, called the dejados, built its spirituality on the idea of self-abandonment.
In the course of years an evolution took place that accentuated the slightly divergent directions. The partisans of recollection were very largely of the religious orders. Their efforts were directed to building up a technique of the interior life and mental prayer for the sake of helping souls along the path to total nakedness of spirit and union with God. These partisans gradually became known as the "spiritual men," or "men of experience." Since this recollection was practiced above all among the Franciscans, it was not surprising that a Franciscan friar, named Osuna, should give the movement its definitive expression in his Third Spiritual Alphabet.
The supporters of abandonment on the other hand insisted more and more, sometimes imprudently, on the importance of interior inspiration and passivity and opposed all exterior devotion. This form was promoted particularly by the Franciscan, Isabel de la Cruz and her disciple, a layman, Pedro de Alcaraz.
The heart of the spirituality by the alumbrados is identical with that of other illuminist movements. It brings into greater focus the importance of mental prayer, contemplation, and the manifestations of mystical phenomena. In this sense, Osuna, Laredo, and Teresa herself can be considered among the alumbrados. Where there was danger, it lay in exaggeration, in an exclusivism with which these themes were proposed, and in the practical consequences of such distortions. For example, through mental prayer one acquits oneself of everything else -- works of penance, asceticism, and virtue. Furthermore, it was taught that as a means of avoiding any detriment to abandonment, recollection, or quiet, one should abstain from interior acts and exterior works, even from turning one's thoughts to Christ in His humanity. All of this, it was claimed, as well as obedience, did harm to the union contracted with God through passivity and abandonment. Once united to God through passivity and abandonment a person could not sin. As always this unqualified teaching gave rise to some depraved moral consequences. For example, in 1529 the Inquisition arrested a leading woman illuminist, Francisca Hernández. The circle this attractive woman gathered around her in Valladolid consisted of alumbrados, some of whom, it seems, freed from their qualms by such a theory, brought their spiritual companionship with her down to the level of the physical.
In addition, an unrestrained infatuation with ecstasy and other extraordinary phenomena developed. These experiences were thought of as something to be obtained at all costs. Among some noted but deceptive visionaries of the time was the stigmatic, María de Santo Domingo (1486-1524), known as the Beata of Piedrahita. Her monastery became a center of spirituality and high prayer; she herself wrote a book on prayer and contemplation. But soon the Master General of the Dominicans had to isolate her because of certain aberrations and prophetic revelations. No one in the order, with the exception of her confessor, was allowed to converse with her or administer the sacraments to her; nor was anyone allowed to speak about her prophecies, ecstasies, and raptures, except to the provincial.
Another visionary, Magdalena de la Cruz, a Poor Clare with a reputation for holiness, severe fasts, and long vigils, also bearing the stigmata, let it be known that she no longer required any food except the consecrated Host in daily Communion. In an investigation by the Inquisition she confessed to being a secret devil worshiper. Inspired by two incubuses with whom she had made a pact, she became very skillful at all sorts of legerdemain. Through her success in fooling both bishops and kings, she brought the fear of being deceived to all of Spain.
Turning its attention understandably to the activities of the alumbrados, the Inquisition condemned, in 1525, forty-eight illuminist propositions. That same year a decree was promulgated against the heresies of Luther, for the Inquisition suspected that Lutheranism and Illuminism were closely connected in that both movements emphasized internal religion at the expense of outward ceremonial. Anyone suspected of illuminist practices was quickly taken into custody, the net having been thrown wide enough to ensnare even St. Ignatius of Loyola, who was forbidden to preach for three years. Followers of Erasmus as well fell into disfavor.
The driving force behind the revolt of the Comuneros had been hatred of the foreigner and of foreign ways and ideas. Although the Comuneros were defeated, naturally enough the many ideas that inspired them lived on, defended and upheld by the more conservative members of the religious orders. If the friars who ran the Inquisition bridled at alien briefs, they also acted under the impulse of fear, a fear that in a land where heterodox views abounded new heresies might easily take root. The result was a tendency to generate a climate of mistrust and mutual suspicion, one peculiarly propitious for the informer and the spy -- victims never being informed of their accusers, and accusers often finding an ideal opportunity for the settlement of old scores. Authors even of non-theological works tended just the same to exercise a kind of self-censorship, if only to keep their writings free of anything capable of misleading the ignorant and the uneducated.
There is no reason to assume, on the other hand, that the Inquisition was the sole source of constraint. Suspicion of those who deviated from the common norm was deeply rooted in sixteenth-century Spain, even though deviation was more normal there than elsewhere. People could be suspect because of their race just as well as because of their faith. In addition to all the concern about purity of faith there was an inordinate concern about purity of blood.
Another prevalent fear in the society of Teresa's time was fear of the devil. From the fourteenth century the attention of Christians turned more and more to the devil and his powers, and fear of his forces and wiles loomed large. The measured terms and prudent skepticism with which St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century had dealt with the subject of diabolical temptations and marvels had been too readily ignored. The idea gradually grew more widespread that woman, the daughter of Eve, could serve as Satan's intermediary in order the more easily to tempt man and draw him to evil. The diabolical powers that astounded the masses made the Inquisitors feel that they were at grips with supernatural powers.
If we keep all of this in mind, it is not difficult for us to understand why the times were weighed down by distrust of mental prayer, especially that practiced by women (nuns, beatas, or "foolish women"), by suspicion of spiritual books that fostered the practice, and by an open hostility toward mystical manifestations, symptoms of a certain morbid religiosity or of Illuminism. It is not a wonder that there was skepticism and caution among Teresa's directors over her unusual experiences. Nor a wonder that Teresa herself, though she experienced certitude during the actual moments when she received these favors, began to feel doubts and fears that she might be a victim of diabolical deception. She herself testifies: "since at that time other women had fallen into serious illusions and deceptions caused by the devil, I began to be afraid. I experienced wonderful delight and sweetness ... and in addition I was aware of the greatest assurance that this delight was from God, especially when I was in prayer ... But after a little distraction I began to fear and wonder whether the devil, making me think the experience was good, wanted me to suspend the intellect ... this fear increased in such a way that it made me diligently seek out spiritual persons to consult" (ch. 23, 2). Some zealous individuals went so far as to warn her confessor to be careful of her. "I feared that I would have no one who would hear my confession, but that all would run from me" (ch. 28, 14).
Teresa came to realize in the midst of these suspicions that the safest course of action was to hide nothing from her confessor, to lay open before him the whole state of her soul and tell simply and humbly about the favors she received. She also came to the conclusion that the confessor should be learned and that she should obey. Not without some perplexity, she discovered, in turn, that when she obeyed her confessor's direction to resist the favors, they only increased (ch. 29, 7). Through her experience Teresa also acquired the ability to discern when a passive experience was not the result of the workings of God's grace. "I have so much experience now of when something is from the devil that since he at present sees that I understand him, he doesn't torment me in this way as often as he used to. He is recognized clearly by the disturbance and disquiet with which he begins, by the agitation the soul feels as long as his work lasts, by the darkness and affliction he places in the soul, and by dryness and the disinclination toward prayer or toward any good work" (ch. 30, 9).
If people can be misled and deceived by desires for God's favors in prayer, these favors in themselves are not to be disparaged, being, as they were for Teresa, a source of fortitude and strengthening in faith. The foretaste of heavenly things left her with feelings of detachment she could hardly believe after having had so much experience with her own futile efforts, and it prepared her for her mission. "By these gifts, the Lord gives us the fortitude that by our sins we are losing. If people don't have, along with a living faith, some pledge of the love God has for them, they will not desire to be despised and belittled by everyone and have all the other great virtues that the perfect possess. For our nature is so dead that we go after what we see in the present. Thus these very favors are what awaken faith and strengthen it" (ch. 10, 6).
Though Teresa feared greatly that she might by deceived by her experiences, go astray, and lose her Lord, the Inquisition was not the type of thing that could frighten her. When others approached and cautioned her with such fears, she writes: "This amused me and made me laugh ... And I said they shouldn't be afraid about these possible accusations; that it would be pretty bad for my soul if there were something in it of the sort that I should have to fear the Inquisition; that I thought if I did have something to fear I'd go myself to seek out the Inquisitors" (ch. 33, 5). What was considered the most ignominious thing that could happen to a person at that time, Teresa saw as a fortuitous opportunity to submit her spirit totally to the judgment of the Church. Any disgrace involved she did not look upon as a cause for shrinking in terror but as a chance to grow in love for her Lord. Though subsequently accused at different times before the Inquisition, she was never found guilty.
In general it can be said that where there was exaggeration, Teresa in her time was a sign of contradiction; where there were aspects of truth, she was a reconciler. Stressing throughout her life the absolute necessity of prayer and the interior life, her path was that of a devotee of Christ. She found it extremely difficult to be open to any system of mysticism that would demand setting aside the corporeal for the sake of mounting to the spiritual. Devotion to Christ in His humanity was never for her an obstacle to the most perfect contemplation. The obstacle for her was the mistaken notion that all thought of Him must be set aside; to do this, she stated, would impede "raptures and visions and other favors God grants to souls" (ch. 22, 2). She believes that in trying to rid themselves of any thought of the human Christ so as to approach the Divinity many souls do not pass beyond the prayer of union. Paintings and images of Christ, these simple means, were greatly prized and devoutly venerated by Teresa, devotion never being a roadblock for her. But when God desired to suspend all the faculties in the higher degrees of prayer -- yes, then the presence of the humanity of Christ is taken away. "Then let it be so -- gladly; blessed be such a loss that enables us to enjoy more that which it seems is lost" (ch. 22, 9). "When one is in the midst of business matters, and in times of persecution and trials, when one can't maintain so much quietude, and in other times of dryness, Christ is a very good friend because we behold Him as man and see Him with weaknesses and trials -- and He is company for us" (ch. 22, 10). Her spirited defence of friendship with and devotion to Him even in higher stages of the mystical life did not spring from any special talent she had for picturing things with her imagination. "For God didn't give me talent for discursive thought or for a profitable use of the imagination. In fact, my imagination is so dull that I never succeeded even to think about and represent in my mind -- as hard as I tried -- the humanity of the Lord" (ch. 4, 7). Frequently, as a result, in speaking of meditation she has in mind a simple quiet presence to Christ through one of His earthly mysteries. "But one should not always weary oneself in seeking these reflections but just remain there in His presence with the intellect quiet. And if we are able we should occupy ourselves in looking at Christ who is looking at us" (ch. 13, 22).
News that the sacred images of Christ and His saints were being destroyed in other parts of Christian Europe was a torment to her. Even a simple devotional object like holy water left her with the imprint of its efficacy. "The power of holy water must be great. For me there is a particular and very noticeable consolation my soul experiences upon taking it. Without a doubt my soul feels ordinarily a refreshment I wouldn't know how to explain, like an interior delight that comforts it entirely ... and I rejoice to see the power of those words recited over the water so that its difference from unblessed water becomes so great" (ch. 31, 4). On the other hand, those devotions popular in her day, especially among women, that were downright superstitious, she confesses she never cared for (ch. 6, 6).
The first two persons Teresa consulted about her experiences decided after examining her written testimony that her supernatural experiences were from the devil. Told not to remain alone, she seldom dared to stay in a room by herself during the daytime. Once, while terrified that the devil would deceive her, agitated and weary and not knowing what to do, she heard the Lord speak to her. "I was given calm together with fortitude, courage, security, quietude, and light so that in one moment I saw my soul become another" (ch. 25, 18). The words of His Majesty liberated her from the unnecessary and terrible fears of the devil with which society had burdened her. As for devils, she could then say with complete freedom: "I pay no more attention to them than to flies" (ch. 25, 20). The key element of her teaching about the devil, then, so psychologically and spiritually sound, is the utter uselessness of all fears concerning him. "I don't understand these fears, 'The devil! The devil!', when we can say 'God! God!', and make the devil tremble" (ch. 25, 22). With disapproving words she concludes this little section: "I fear those who have such great fear of the devil more than I do the devil himself, for he can't do anything to me. Whereas these others, especially if they are confessors, cause severe disturbance" (ch. 25, 22).
A deep division slowly developed in Spain between those persons Teresa refers to as learned men (theologians or intellectuals) and spiritual men (those with experience in prayer, who nowadays might be referred to as mystics or charismatics). The men of learning often scorned quietism, distrusted prayer, and spoke deprecatingly of the mystical life, especially when promoted among women. They denounced to the Inquisition books dealing with all such matters. On the other hand, the spiritual men often looked down on theologians as professionals in the letter of the law but lacking in the spirit; they grimaced at any mention of the competence of these men in spiritual matters and declared them to be inept in the business of guiding souls.
The intellectualist tendency, spearheaded by the schools of Salamanca and by Dominican theologians, was definitively assumed and imposed as the norm of the Inquisition. Two of the more notorious among the theologians were the formidable Dominican, Melchior Cano, and the Archbishop of Seville and Supreme Inquisitor, Fernando Valdés. Cano taught that the practice of mental prayer was a danger not only for the Church but for the Christian republic as well. Rather incredibly for so illustrious a theologian, he reasoned that since it is impossible to devote oneself to both the active and the contemplative life, colleges and universities would have to be suppressed, books closed, and studies annihilated if all were to dedicate themselves to prayer. As for the assertion that the practice of prayer serves for the acquisition of virtue more than any other practice does, he complained that it was ridiculous.
In 1559, Fernando Valdés published an index of forbidden books among which were included almost all books dealing with prayer; cherished spiritual books by the most renowned contemporary Spanish authors as well as translations from classic writers: St. Francis Borgia, St. John of Avila, Luis of Granada, Osuna, Tauler, Harphius, and Denis the Carthusian. Many of Teresa's favorites.
The prohibition of Francis Borgia's Obras del Cristiano, it is interesting parenthetically to note, is perhaps more easily explained in view of the anti Jesuit sentiments prevalent in the Spanish Church in the sixteenth century. Never one to make facile condemnations, Teresa, despite what others thought, felt high esteem for the Fathers of the Society, and she consulted Father Francis personally, finding him to be a wonderful help because, as she says, he was a man of experience, one who "was advancing in the favors and gifts of God" (ch. 24, 3). In her judgment the Jesuits were spiritual men, men of prayer and experience: "I see that what happened was all for my greater good, that I might get to know and deal with people as holy as are those of the Society of Jesus" (ch. 23, 3, 9, 15).
Despite the Inquisition and Melchior Cano and the index, this Carmelite nun had little doubt about the central place prayer must take. She views prayer as the source of the good things God worked in her. Turning away from prayer would be the equivalent of shutting the door on God who longs to share His life intimately with us. So her tribute to a spiritual and experienced man like St. Peter of Alcántara is glowing. And she agrees also with him that there are many more women than men to whom God grants His favors (ch. 40, 8).
Experience in prayer and prudence, she taught, were the more necessary qualifications in the spiritual direction of beginners. "I say that if these learned men do not practice prayer their learning is of little help to beginners" (ch. 13, 16). On the other hand, she cautioned that anyone experiencing favors, women especially, should consult learned men. "Let not the spiritual person," she wisely warns and reasons, "be misled by saying that learned men without prayer are unsuitable for those who practice it. ... For though some don't have experience, they don't despise the Spirit nor do they ignore it, because in Sacred Scripture, which they study, they always find the truth of the good spirit" (ch. 13, 18). Learning was of particular value, then, in the cases of those who had begun to experience God's favors. The learned man could discern if one were walking in conformity with the truths taught in Scripture. But expertise in Scripture studies doesn't make up for experience and humility; so there may be much that is baffling to the learned man. He may prove somewhat obtuse in puzzling over the infused loving experience that the psychologist William James, exploring the varieties of religious experience, apologetically but not without sarcasm refers to as an amatory flirtation between the devotee and the deity. But Teresa's source of wisdom was her Lord, and she has some motherly-sounding advice for the learned man in his quandary: "As for the rest he shouldn't kill himself or think he understands what he doesn't ... Let him not be surprised ... that the Lord makes a little old woman wiser, perhaps, in this science than he is, even though he is a very learned man" (ch. 34, 11, 12).
Teresa could not be content that men of learning be simply men of learning. She suffered too keenly because she had no one to consult who had experience of the spiritual path she was being drawn along (ch. 28, 18). Deficient in experience, those she consulted frequently disturbed and afflicted her (ch. 40, 8). It was Friar Peter of Alcántara, austere and saintly, who ultimately understood her and, through his own experience, was able to explain things, comfort, and encourage her.
With her ideal that men of learning be also men of experience, or spiritual men, Teresa managed to win the illustrious Dominican theologians García de Toledo and Pedro Ibáñez to the path of prayer. Through her charming influence, dedicating themselves earnestly to this newly discovered way, they soon themselves began to experience God's favors. Contrary to the prosaic teaching of some scholars of the time that many years of arduous asceticism were required before there could be any passivity in the spiritual life, the Lord, Teresa taught, follows no fixed time schedules. Often "the contemplation the Lord doesn't give to one in twenty years He gives to another in one" (ch. 34, 11). Instances of this fact she observed, too, in the young sisters entering the newly established monastery of St. Joseph (ch. 39, 10). Of Pedro Ibáñez, "the most learned man" in Avila, she writes: "I told him then as clearly as I could about all the visions and my manner of prayer and the great favors the Lord granted me. I begged him to consider my prayer very carefully and tell me if there was something opposed to Sacred Scripture and what he felt about it all.... For although he was very good, from then on he dedicated himself much more to prayer and withdrew to a monastery of his order where there was much solitude so that he could practice prayer better" (ch. 33, 5). When she saw him again and heard of his happiness for having done what intensified his life of prayer, she was the recipient of some of its benefits: "And I, too, was able to agree because previously he assured me and consoled me only by his learning, but now he did so also through his spiritual experiences" (ch. 33, 6). In chapter thirty-four she tells of how, when she considered the striking talents and gifts of García de Toledo, she felt an uncontrollable longing that he give himself entirely to God and of how this prayer was answered and God began to favor him.
Worth recalling is that in the Spain of that time the faithful were unable to read Scripture, unless, of course, they had knowledge of Latin, since no vernacular edition was permitted. Teresa had to turn to other spiritual books, which usually abounded with quotations from Scripture. When many spiritual books were placed on Valdés's Index, she was beside herself, wondering what to do. In the midst of her consternation she received a locution from the Lord telling her not to be sad but that He would become for her a living book. Subsequently she began to receive mystical understanding of many truths His Majesty wanted to teach her and, as a result, felt little or almost no need for books (ch. 26, 5). Because of the consequent lack of spiritual books dealing with prayer, she later wrote her own books to explain and give instructions to her new followers about the path to union with God.
Continue Reading: Saint Teresa of Avila - Her First Spiritual Directors
This selection from The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, volume 1 is offered for your personal use as an individual reader only. Please note that this material is copyrighted. It may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information, storage or retrieval system without prior written permission from the publisher.
- Mark Leopold