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Saint Teresa of Avila - On The Book of Her Life

Saint Teresa of Avila - On <i>The Book of Her Life</i>

Continued from Saint Teresa of Avila - Her First Spiritual Directors

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.

On The Book of Her Life

At the time Teresa took up her pen to begin The Book of Her Life she was approaching fifty and had been experiencing a steady flow of mystical grace for close to ten years. She was obliged, finally, to report in writing her unusual and sometimes disconcerting experiences so as to submit all to the judgment of professionals. She did not at once meet with the best of fortune. Neither Salcedo nor Daza were prepared to deal with anything of this kind and depth. Fearful about her experiences, as was mentioned, they obliged her to go from one counselor to another, Jesuit as well as Dominican. These counselors, in turn, asked for detailed written information.

The painful difficulty for Teresa was that, though she could give a report in word and writing of her sins, the mystical life she was experiencing stubbornly resisted all her attempts to describe it. Her final resort was Laredo'sAscent of Mount Sion, in which she underlined and marked passages that seemed to be telling of something similar to her own experiences. "For a long time, even though God favored me, I didn't know what words to use to explain His favors: and this was no small trial" (ch. 12, 6). To give an adequate explanation of what she was experiencing she still needed other graces. "For it is one grace," she later discovered, "to receive the Lord's favor; another, to understand which favor and grace it is; a third, to know how to describe it" (ch. 17, 5).

Still extant among Teresa's writings are some accounts of her spiritual state written before she wrote her Life. These are the first two of her Spiritual Testimonies. It was García de Toledo, the one most eager, it seems from what she says of him, to know all he could about her, who told her to write a more extended and detailed report of her whole spiritual life and not just of her actual state.

In the wealthy, somewhat peaceful surroundings of the palace of Doña Luisa de la Cerda, where she had been staying, at this noble lady's request and by order of her provincial, Teresa set her mind to the task of putting her story on paper. Satisfied with her first draft, without dividing her work into paragraphs or chapters, she presented the finished product to Fr. García in June, 1562, before returning to Avila. The manuscript read more like a long letter, in which she frequently addressed the person for whom she wrote, carried on a dialogue with him, made appeals to his theological competence, and so on.

Unfortunately, the first draft of her Life has been lost. The learned Dominican priest did however read that composition, making some observations about certain phrases that seemed too strongly worded. He most probably shared the manuscript with some who were close friends, such as Ibáñez, and then returned it to its author with the request, again with his customary eagerness for further details, that she not only transcribe it but add an additional section on the foundation of St. Joseph's in Avila. This request, which Teresa ascribes to her confessors, reached her at the end of 1563, when she had been given verbal permission to reside in her new foundation -- or perhaps later, after the year 1564 had begun. The second draft must have been written somewhat quickly amid the tranquil contemplative life of religious observance that was followed in her new monastery, in a cell stark for its poverty, without any comforts, without even a table or chair.

The revisions she made were not all minor ones. Anxious to make matters clear and herself understood, she added eleven new chapters (from chapters 11 to 22 inclusive) in which, using the allegory of the four ways of watering a garden, she composed a complete little treatise on the degrees of prayer. She added, as well, the requested account of the foundation of St. Joseph's (chapters 32-36), and then tacked on four additional chapters, most gratifying we surmise to Fr. García, that tell of other extraordinary favors she received up until the end of 1565. This latter date accounts for the supposition that it was at this time she finished the book.

Continue Reading: Saint Teresa of Avila - The Nature of Her Book

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.

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  • Mark Leopold
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