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Saint Teresa of Avila - The Plan of Her Book

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Saint Teresa of Avila - The Plan of Her Book

Continued from Saint Teresa of Avila - The Nature of Her Book

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 Plan of Her Book

Teresa's book, resembling a long letter, contained no pauses, divisions, intermediate titles, or any initial title. When she tried to divide the work into chapters and add chapter headings she met with unsurprising difficulty. According to the custom of the times each heading had to be a summary of the material covering the ten or twelve folios the chapter comprised, obliging her to figure out the common denominators, central themes, and, bookish formulas that her digressions and letter-writing tone would allow. She rarely succeeded, but limited herself to suggesting the general idea of what was being discussed, and then often adding, with engaging simplicity, a few words of praise for what is written, or an ingenuous exhortation to read and allow oneself to be convinced.

With all this in mind, one supposes that the final result would have to be a jumble of themes, held only loosely together by the thread of her personal story. The supposition proves false. Amazingly enough, the structural plan results in a remarkable unity, developed with sharp, impeccable logic, and articulated in four sections expertly joined and almost equal in length. By combining the basic outline with a summary of the contents the following guide can be constructed.

  1. She starts off by telling how from a very early age she began to receive God's abundant grace. She was introduced to the path of prayer and, in her early twenties, even led to some initial experience in mystical prayer. Though she repeatedly frustrated God's work, even to the point of abandoning prayer and the interior life, His mercy was finally victorious over her own sorry state. When, in the end, she surrendered more totally to His grace, God began His admirable and more immediate work within her soul (chaps. 1-10).
  2. So wonderful was this work that she finds it necessary, in order that it be understood, to present a detailed exposition of prayer, its nature, degrees, and effects. She goes about this task with the help of an allegory, that of four different ways of watering a garden: using buckets of water drawn from a well, the equal of meditation; using a bucket-type water wheel that has to be turned by hand, the equivalent of the prayer of recollection and quiet; diverting a stream along irrigation ditches, equal to the prayer of the sleep of the faculties; and allowing the garden to be watered with rain from heaven, the equivalent of the prayer of union (chaps. 11-22).
  3. From the detailed exposition of those forms of prayer the reader understands more easily how the latter ways of watering were accomplished in the soul of Teresa; how the Lord purified her, flooded her with grace, allowed her to perceive His divine presence, hear His voice, penetrate the mysterious abyss of His trinitarian life, and come into contact with the most varied realities of the supernatural world. Throughout the pages of her book a steady series of rare and wonderful things is set before our minds: ecstasies, visions, locutions from God, transpiercing of the soul, infused love of the purest and strongest kind, new wisdom, the flowering of sturdy virtues, premonitions of a probable death of love, and foretastes of beatific life (chaps. 23-31).
  4. A practical result of this outpouring of divine grace is the fruitfulness of her life of service. She observes that in the earlier period of her spiritual life only three persons, in the course of many years, profited from what she said to them. Later when she had been strengthened through God's favors, many profited within two or three years (ch. 13, 9). In Carmel itself, through the foundation of St. Joseph's she inaugurated a new, more contemplative lifestyle that stressed divine intimacy and was to spread throughout the entire world, serving as yeast, reminding all that if they seek resolutely through prayer the things that are above, they will soon enjoy the possession of perfect love, a blessing more precious than any earthly thing (ch. 11, 1-2).

She begins, furthermore, to live with surprising intensity the mystery of the communion of saints. She deals on familiar terms with the saints in heaven. Her prayer bears special efficacy for those in purgatory as well as for those on earth; it also gives her dominion over demons (chaps. 32-40).

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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