St. Teresa of Avila

A lot of words put together

As the foundation of the whole building is humility, the nearer we draw unto God the more this virtue should grow; if it does not, everything is lost. It seems to be a kind of pride when we seek to ascend higher, seeing that God descends so low, when He allows us, being what we are, to draw near unto Him. It must not be supposed that I am now speaking of raising our thoughts to the consideration of the high things of heaven and of its glory, or unto God and His great wisdom. I never did this myself, because I had not the capacity for it—as I said before; and I was so worthless, that, as to thinking even of the things of earth, God gave me grace to understand this truth: that in me it was no slight boldness to do so. How much more, then, the thinking of heavenly things? Others, however, will profit in that way, particularly those who are learned; for learning, in my opinion, is a great treasury in the matter of this exercise, if it be accompanied with humility. I observed this a few days ago in some learned men who had shortly before made a beginning, and had made great progress. This is the reason why I am so very anxious that many learned men may become spiritual. I shall speak of this by and by. What I am saying—namely, let them not rise if God does not raise them—is the language of spirituality. He will understand me who has had any experience; and I know not how to explain it, if what I have said does not make it plain. In mystical theology—of which I spoke before—the understanding ceases from its acts, because God suspends it—as I shall explain by and by, if I can; and God give me the grace to do so. We must neither imagine nor think that we can of ourselves bring about this suspension. That is what I say must not be done; nor must we allow the understanding to cease from its acts; for in that case we shall be stupid and cold, and the result will be neither the one nor the other. For when our Lord suspends the understanding, and makes it cease from its acts, He puts before it that which astonishes and occupies it: so that without making any reflections, it shall comprehend in a moment more than we could comprehend in many years with all the efforts in the world. To have the powers of the mind occupied, and to think that you can keep them at the same time quiet, is folly. I repeat it, though it be not so understood, there is no great humility in this; and, if it be blameless, it is not left unpunished—it is labor thrown away, and the soul is a little disgusted: it feels like a man about to take a leap, and is held back. Such a one seems to have used up his strength already, and finds himself unable to do that which he wished to have done: so here, in the scanty gain that remains, he who will consider the matter will trace that slight want of humility of which I have spoken; for that virtue has this excellence: there is no good work attended by humility that leaves the soul disgusted. It seems to me that I have made this clear enough; yet, after all, that is, he will lose the prayer of acquired quiet, because he voluntarily abandons it before the time; and will not attain to the prayer of infused quiet, because he attempts to rise into it before he is called…. –St Teresa of Avila autobiography


Concentration upon prayer

It is not without reason that I (St Tersea of Jesus) have dwelt so long on this portion of my life. I see clearly that it will give no one pleasure to see anything so base; and certainly I wish those who may read this to have me in abhorrence, as a soul so obstinate and so ungrateful to Him Who did so much for me. I could wish, too, I had permission to say how often at this time I failed in my duty to God, because I was not leaning on the strong pillar of prayer. I passed nearly twenty years on this stormy sea, falling and rising, but rising to no good purpose, seeing that I went and fell again. My life was one of perfection; but it was so mean, that I scarcely made any account whatever of venial sins; and though of mortal sins I was afraid, I was not so afraid of them as I ought to have been, because I did not avoid the perilous occasions of them. I may say that it was the most painful life that can be imagined, because I had no sweetness in God, and no pleasure in the world. When I was in the midst of the pleasures of the world, the remembrance of what I owed to God made me sad; and when I was praying to God, my worldly affections disturbed me. This is so painful a struggle, that I know not how I could have borne it for a month, let alone for so many years. Nevertheless, I can trace distinctly the great mercy of our Lord to me, while thus immersed in the world, in that I had still the courage to pray. I say courage, because I know of nothing in the whole world which requires greater courage than plotting treason against the King, knowing that He knows it, and yet never withdrawing from His presence; for, granting that we are always in the presence of God, yet it seems to me that those who pray are in His presence in a very different sense; for they, as it were, see that He is looking upon them; while others may be for days together without even once recollecting that God sees them.   –Autobiography ‘The Life of St Teresa of Avila’


Vanity and the fear of God

I was reflecting upon the insistence of St Teresa of Jesus that she was such a sinful person in her younger years. Was she really the vain girl and young nun she presents herself to be? As a child, she was never in severe trouble with her father, siblings, teachers, nor secular and religious authorities. She was loving and fully present for her parents, brothers, and sisters—all her family and friends. As a religious, she was obedient to her superiors, never in doubt, well liked and sociable to the point she was sent out to perform cheerful public relations, to raise funds and entertain benefactors. This persistence that she was such a vain and sinful (taken down by venial sins rather than mortal) individual needs to be closely examined. Her self-abnegation is a part of the process that allowed her to progress further into the sublime grace of unification, to enter the rarefied air of exemplary religious experience. It is easy for all of us to look around and observe the deeper vanity of those surrounding, yet to honestly and accurately penetrate ourselves with such scrutiny is another matter. To understand that all that I do is really about me is a truth that must be constantly embraced. I think of a recent listening to a modern-day Carmelite nun speaking on the saint, making the odd statement St Teresa might not be accepted into the order now based upon her acknowledgment that she entered out of a fear of God. The nun was trying to establish that fear was not a proper relationship with God. My critical, attacking, mind instantly snapped back: ‘no wonder your numbers are so low when you are so willing to reject a saint.’ Calming myself in reflection, I dissected why the nun irritated so intensely. In properly redefining God, as St Teresa puts it purifying our personal image (awareness) of God, it is important not to redefine, to break away from scripture and teachings of the Church. ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.’  To reject the idea of fear being proper in our relationship with God is a grave error, a venal sin steering one away from the narrow path. In making peace with the nun, I understand what she is trying to accomplish, making everything warm and fuzzy—easily acceptable and non-abrasive, yet St Teresa penetrates deeper, willing to open herself fully to the mystery of God and the wisdom of the Church. We must not replace our known God based upon personal upbringing and understanding with further personal interpretation as we mature. Rather the unknown God of eternity working through the Church, the Trinity in reality, ascends, while descending, to a state of love, experience, and faith. To examine my own words, stripping away the vanity, yearnings, and insecurity contained within I can open myself greater to God. St Teresa was not exercising a false sense of humility, nor developing the negativity of scrupulosity. She was insightfully answering the questions: ‘who am I Lord?’ and ‘who are You?’ An overtly scrupulous person drives people away; the exercising of dogma, while inflicting the blessing of religion as a rigorous and punitive effort proves impossible in sustaining relationships. It is just another self-infliction of will upon the world, the imposing of law and the establishing of one’s self as an authority; being right becomes an obsession and an end itself. St Teresa was well loved, always drawing people to her, yet discerning in a deeper trust, recognizing those who it was proper to share her polished pearls with. She instantly recognized the youthful St John of the Cross as a giant in a diminutive body, establishing him as her first friar while he was just in his mid-twenties. She connected deeply with Saint Peter of Alcantara. Placed herself in obedience to Father Gracian while he was in his twenties and herslf in her sixties. She possessed the power of reading hearts and souls, while loving all—truly cherishing people, able to interact with a healthy temperament and cheerful disposition. She brought about a conservative reform with the care and compassion of a liberal. During the time of the brutal Spanish Inquisition, a time when those claiming supernatural experiences were closely scrutinized, enduring the trials of being reported to the Inquisition as a heretic and practicer of the supernatural by the Princess of Eboli, Anna de Mendoza, Saint Teresa’s humility and authenticity proved worthy of acceptance by all. She always knew how to get her way. Her greatest strength also being a weakness, a cause for self-criticism and her doggedness in declaring she was a vain creature. Just some early morning thoughts. Enough. I am committed to exercise this week as I finalize plans for a Carthusian retreat to Vermont next week. More will be expressed regarding the retreat. I am still working massive hours, finding it difficult to find the energy to write.  My vacation request has not been approved yet.

St Teresa of Jesus (Avila) on her youthful vanity

So, then, going on from pastime to pastime, from vanity to vanity, from one occasion of sin to another, I began to expose myself exceedingly to the very greatest dangers: my soul was so distracted by many vanities, that I was ashamed to draw near unto God in an act of such special friendship as that of prayer. As my sins multiplied, I began to lose the pleasure and comfort I had in virtuous things: and that loss contributed to the abandonment of prayer. I see now most clearly, O my Lord, that this comfort departed from me because I had departed from Thee. It was the most fearful delusion into which Satan could plunge me—to give up prayer under the pretense of humility. I began to be afraid of giving myself to prayer, because I saw myself so lost. I thought it would be better for me, seeing that in my wickedness I was one of the most wicked, to live like the multitude—to say the prayers which I was bound to say, and that vocally: not to practice mental prayer nor commune with God so much; for I deserved to be with the devils, and was deceiving those who were about me, because I made an outward show of goodness; and therefore the community in which I dwelt is not to be blamed; for with my cunning I so managed matters, that all had a good opinion of me; and yet I did not seek this deliberately by simulating devotion; for in all that relates to hypocrisy and ostentation—glory be to God!

I have asked others to recommend themselves to St. Joseph, and they too know this by experience; and there are many who are now of late devout to him, having had experience of this truth. I used to keep his feast with all the solemnity I could, but with more vanity than spirituality, seeking rather too much splendor and effect, and yet with good intentions. I had this evil in me, that if our Lord gave me grace to do any good, that good became full of imperfections and of many faults; but as for doing wrong, the indulgence of curiosity and vanity, I was very skillful and active therein. Our Lord forgive me! Would that I could persuade all men to be devout to this glorious Saint; for I know by long experience what blessings he can obtain for us from God. I have never known anyone who was really devout to him, and who honored him by particular services, who did not visibly grow more and more in virtue; for he helps in a special way those souls who commend themselves to him. It is now some years since I have always on his feast asked him for something, and I always have it. If the petition be in any way amiss, he directs it aright for my greater good.

Now and then, during the temptations I am speaking of, it seemed to me as if all my vanity and weakness in times past had become alive again within me; so I had reason enough to commit myself into the hands of God.

For though now—glory be to God!—I had no desire after vanities, I saw clearly in the vision how all things are vanity, and how hollow are all the dignities of earth; it was a great lesson, teaching me to raise up my desires to the Truth alone. It impresses on the soul a sense of the presence of God such as I cannot in any way describe, only it is very different from that which it is in our own power to acquire on earth. It fills the soul with profound astonishment at its own daring, and at any one else being able to dare to offend His most awful Majesty.


Portrait of a Saint

There are, also two paintings, the work of brother Juan de la Miseria, whom I mentioned earlier as having joined the Reform at Pastrana. The first is a portrait of Teresa done at the request of her nuns before she left Seville in 1571. “God forgive you, Brother Juan! How ugly and bleary-eyed you have made me!” was her comment on the finished painting. The words were spoken in fun. Later generations, however, have used them as an excuse to belittle a portrait which has much to commend…..Like many done during the same period in England, it has character and honesty. The hands, the dove and the scroll, all added later, can’t be ignored. The allure of the painting is in the face framed in the white coif and black veil. There is nothing sanctimonious about it. It is pleasing rather than beautiful, serene, not ecstatic. The dark eyes under the well-defined arched brows have a humorous quizzical expression; they are eyes that see God, but they also see man, with a gentle, amused tolerance. Bernini has given us the Baroque Teresa: the visionary with rapturous gaze and flowing draperies caught up in heaven upon the clouds, the angel piercing her heart. Juan de la Miseria’s Teresa is the saint who, while convinced of the truth of her visions, is forever questioning their validity, forever seeking assurances from those more learned than herself; who can laugh at herself and be prepared for her confessor to laugh too. “Que San Pablo parar vox cosas del ciedo!” Quite a Saint Paul with her heavenly experiences! This is the Teresa who traveled up and down Spain, slept in verminous inns, humored mule drivers and archbishops—a saint too natural for the Baroque world to understand; one who in evidence of her canonization was remembered more for her kindness and gaiety than for her visions.

The second painting is of Lorenzo’s daughter. It shows the ten-year-old Tersita wearing the Carmelite habit. The face is plump and smiling. The dark, intelligent eyes are the eyes of Teresa.  –‘A Journey in Spain: Saint Teresa’ Elizabeth Hamilton.

Bernini’s St Teresa


Smooth and steady: a mindset of fortitude and proper determination

It must be carefully noted—and I say this because I know it by experience—that the soul which begins to walk resolutely in the way of mental prayer and can persuade itself to set little store by consolations and tenderness in devotion, and neither to be elated when the Lord gives them, nor disconsolate when He withholds them, has already traveled a great part of His journey.  However often he may stumble he need not fear a relapse, for his building has begun on a firm foundation.  Yes, love for God does not consist in shedding tears, in enjoying those consolations and that tenderness which for the most part we desire and in which we find comfort, but in serving Him with righteousness, fortitude of soul and humility.  The other seems in me to be receiving rather than giving anything.  –‘The Autobiography of St Teresa Avila’


Two saints applying

A second and more important reason for their (St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross) preeminence today is that their method of approach to spiritual theology is already very much the modern scientific method as we know it. Both writers take as their starting point an immense quantity of carefully assembled empirical data. They lived at a time and in a place where there was an immense religious zeal, and when innumerable people applied themselves to the business of the spiritual life. Many more, spurred on by fashion rather than piety to study, and in the course of guiding, directing, and praying for them St Teresa and St John of the Cross, observed them and learnt from them, filling out the wealth of their own personal experience from the temptation and the blessings, the successes and the failings of their fellow countrymen and women. Like the true scientists they were, they collated, classified, and examined in detail the information at their disposal, and wrote their conclusions in treaties which deliberately give a conspectus of the whole field of spiritual theology. Thiers is no haphazard, piecemeal work. They aimed to produce a complete and systemized body of doctrine. It was of the genius of St Teresa to pioneer the method, the crowning glory of St John of the Cross to relate the material to the whole background of dogmatic and moral theology of the Church.

…this was no academic exercise. The saints were surrounded by those who wished to make their way to God. The task before them was that of evolving a practical method of guiding them. –E.W. Trueman Dicken ‘The Crucible of Love: A Study of the Mysticism of St Teresa of Jesus and St John of the Cross’



During the last twenty years there has been a quite astonishing demand among English speaking people for the classics of the spiritual life. It would be rash to draw from that fact any general conclusions as to the state of religion at the present day, for a not too serious curiosity on the part of the reading public concerning all that appears mysterious or occult may easily account for the sales of many ‘mystic’ works. But if this is so, it is a pity. It is true that the spiritual masters can open for us ‘deep caverns of the sense which were dark and blind,’ but they make no offer of a sight-seeing trip at the price in cash of a paper-backed translation. The road where they would lead us is one of self-discipline and self-abnegation, and there is no easy way round. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”E.W. Trueman Dicken ‘The Crucible of Love: A Study of the Mysticism of St Teresa of Jesus and St John of the Cross’ copyright 1963.

Crucible: noun 1. a container of metal or refractory material employed for heating substances to high temperatures. 2.
Metallurgy. a hollow area at the bottom of a furnace in which the metal collects. 3. a severe, searching test or trial.