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Saint Teresa of Avila - The Nature of Her Book

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Saint Teresa of Avila - The Nature of Her Book

Continued from Saint Teresa of Avila - On The Book of Her Life

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.

The Nature of Her Book

Although usually referred to as such, Teresa's book is not an autobiography; nor is it an intimate diary. What she deals with mainly are the supernatural (infused or mystical) realities of the interior life. Nonetheless, she does make use of autobiographical material as a backdrop against which she treats of the existence and value of the favors of God. The fragmentary and scattered biographical data comprise two levels, one exterior, the other interior. The difference between these two levels runs much deeper than any met with in everyday autobiographies. The exterior level deals with the historical facts; it is a personal chronicle limited in value. The interior level deals almost exclusively with the mystical facts, facts that by reason of their quality and depth lie beyond the layers of ordinary inner life, beyond the purely historical, and beyond the usual ways in which the psyche functions. It embraces higher states of consciousness, passive perception and love, relations with the transcendent God, intensification of the life of the spirit.

The evident preponderance of interior facts does not, however, prevent an interweaving of both levels that results in the ingenious plan of the book. As for the exterior events of her Life, the first part, 1515-1535, consists of twenty years of family life; the next twenty-seven years, 1535-1562, comprise her Carmelite life in the monastery of the Incarnation; the final period includes three years, 1562-1565, of her life at St. Joseph's, those initial years in her newly established form of Carmelite life, the expansion of which was to become her mission until her death in 1582.

As for the interior events, her life was by and large of an ascetical type until her conversion experience in 1554 (ch. 9, 1, 8). For the next two years or so she experienced the first inpouring of mystical graces: feelings of God's presence, passive recollection and quiet, and the first tastes of union (ch. 9, 9; 10, 1). About 1557 she received her first locution and rapture (ch. 19, 9; 25, 5). From the following year until 1560 she had to resist persistently, in obedience to her confessor, the locutions and raptures (ch. 25, 1, 15; 27, 2). In June, 1560, she had her first intellectual vision of the humanity of Christ (ch. 7, 2). In January, 1561, the sacred humanity in its risen form, was represented to her in an imaginative vision (ch. 28, 3). For two and a half years, 1561-1563, she frequently received this favor (ch. 29, 2). But then, "for over three years now," 1563-1565, "he has continually replaced this favor with another more sublime" (ch. 29, 2). This other more sublime favor belongs to the state she was in at the time of the writing of her book. It was a period of vehement impulses of love, spiritual wounds of love and the transpiercing of the soul. "You can't exaggerate or describe the way in which God wounds the soul and the extreme pain this wound produces, for it causes the soul to forget itself. Yet this pain is so delightful that there is no other pleasure in life that gives greater happiness" (ch. 29, 10). It feels that the only remedy for this painful sickness is death.

Before adding the final touches to her work, Teresa was raised to a still higher form of mystical experience. It is an experience, she teaches, that comes much later than all the visions and revelations she spoke of. The soul is lifted far above itself and brought into a vast solitude in which it experiences intense spiritual pain. Just as the powerful spiritual joy of union and rapture suspends the faculties, so in this form of prayer it is pain that suspends them. "Who could give a good explanation of this prayer. ... It is what my soul is now always experiencing. Usually when unoccupied it is placed in the midst of these anxious longings for death; and when it sees they are beginning, it fears that it will not die. But once in the midst of them, it would desire to spend the remainder of its life in this suffering, even though the suffering is so excessive a person cannot endure it. ... I sometimes really think that if this prayer continues as it does now, the Lord would be served if my life came to an end, ... I am oblivious of everything in that anxious longing to see God; that desert and solitude seem to the soul better than all the companionship of the world. If anything could give the soul consolation, it would be to speak to someone who had suffered this torment" (ch. 20, 12-13). This painful spiritual fire never produced the death and subsequent vision of God she longed for. But what is worth pointing out is that the definitive work on her Life poured from her pen while she was at this particular milestone of her spiritual journey. In later works she speaks of a further deepening of her union with God, of a more gentle, peaceful fire in which the soul feels that it already enjoys the possession of God, although not the fruition, in which it goes about so forgetful of self that it thinks it has partly lost its being.

In giving personal testimony of her own experience, Teresa proceeds from her particular case to what can be said on a universal plane. In addition to a personal testimony, then, we have a teaching suitable for all. In giving her testimony she examines her conscience and analyzes her spiritual life, making an extraordinary effort to explain herself, and this truthfully and with simplicity. She tells of both sins and favors -- "good things and bad." With the favors preponderating over the sins the balance between these two constitutive elements of her account is broken. Although this is partly due to the fact that in her story the mystical element did prevail over the ascetical, there is, nonetheless, the added factor that the real object of her testimony is the supernatural; to witness to the existence and the value of these realities of her inner life and to affirm their excellence and importance on a universal plane. The resultant intermingling of testimony and doctrine is a characteristic of Teresa's method of teaching. Never does she attempt to camouflage her ignorance nor does she need to. She frankly admits the problem she has with explaining herself clearly in writing; that she doesn't know the precise terminology; that she doesn't know philosophy and theology. Nor does she even have for her use so much as a Bible. Irrespective of her lack of means she has certitude, the certitude of incontestable experience. "I know through experience that what I say is true" (ch. 27, 11). A certitude that would not cower before renowned theologians. "The mystery of the Blessed Trinity and other sublime things are so explained that there is no theologian with whom it [the soul] would not dispute in favor of the truth of these grandeurs" (ch. 27, 9).

Not all possess the charism to speak of the unutterable mystical experience, the grace of speech as Thomas Aquinas calls it (S. Th. 2-2, q.177, a.1-2). The Lord gave her his gift only after she had experienced years of stammering and powerlessness. By God's gift not only were her spoken words imbued with unction but her written ones were as well. Those who knew her testified that reading her words was like hearing her talk; the effect was the same, her manner of writing being the equivalent of her way of conversing. She herself was definitely aware of the divine source from which some of the pages flowed. "Many of the things I write about here do not come from my own head, but my heavenly Master tells them to me" (ch. 39, 8). She cherished her spiritual books and doesn't deny the debt contracted from some of them. But, though she thought she was understanding something of what she read in them, she later realized "that if the Lord didn't show me, I was able to learn little from books, because there was nothing I understood until His Majesty gave me understanding through experience" (ch. 22, 3). Often in setting about to describe a particular mystical state she begins to experience the very prayer she wants to describe. "I believe that on account of the humility your Reverence has shown in desiring to be helped by as simple-minded a person as myself, the Lord today after Communion granted me this prayer; and interrupting my thanksgiving, He put before me these comparisons, taught me the manner of explaining it, and what the soul must do here" (ch. 16, 2). Sometimes the force of the infused love welling up within her leaves a striking mark on what she writes. "Since while I write this I am not freed from such holy, heavenly madness coming from Your goodness and mercy -- for You grant this favor without any merits on my part at all -- either desire, my King, I beseech You, that all to whom I speak become mad from Your love, or do not permit that I speak to anyone!" (ch. 16, 4). She longs to attract souls to the practice of prayer and encourages them to persevere: longs that others be afflicted with her madness, and sick with her sickness (ch. 19, 4; 16, 6).

Where did Teresa discover her message? In the story of her own life. There she found the lessons she must write about, the practical doctrine she thought could be helpful to all who might read her work. Unconcerned about abstract notions, conceptualizations, systems of thought, or articulated outlines, she preferred to tell her story and teach her doctrine without any literary artifices or aids.

Continue Reading: Saint Teresa of Avila - The Plan 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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