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Saint Teresa of Avila - On The Book of Her Life

 Continued from page 3 (Saint Teresa of Avila - In the Context of Her Times)

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.

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.

 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.