Monday, October 15, 2007

Feast Day Of Teresa Of Avila

"St. Teresa in Ecstasy" by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Image from The Web Gallery of Art.

I was reluctant to do a post on Teresa of Avila, because I was put off by hearing and reading stories about how she wanted to impose strict rules of poverty on the nuns in her convent, having them wear sandals instead of shoes - thus the Discalced Carmelites. Now I have no problem with that part of the discipline, but I remember stories about her introduction of the discipline of flagellation into her convents. I must say that flagellation creeps me out.

Then we have Teresa's own words from her writing in The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself on her ecstasy during contemplative prayer:

"I saw an angel very near me, towards my left side, in bodily form, which is not usual with me; for though angels are often represented to me, it is only in my mental vision. This angel appeared rather small than large, and very beautiful. His face was so shining that he seemed to be one of those highest angels called seraphs, who look as if all on fire with divine love. He had in his hands a long golden dart; at the end of the point methought there was a little fire. And I felt him thrust it several times through my heart in such a way that it passed through my very bowels. And when he drew it out, methought it pulled them out with it and left me wholly on fire with a great love of God."

This seems de trop, too much. But who am I to question what happens between God and a saint? Also, - dare I say it? - it hints at a sexual experience. I'd say it shouts out as a sexual experience. Of course, I could be wrong. I have never read Teresa's writings, only brief excerpts.

Bernini's sculpture, pictured above, is inspired by Teresa's words. I have seen the sculpture at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. It is breathtaking, a masterpiece of the baroque style. While we were there, a member of our party irreverently renamed the sculpture, which shocked me at the time, but it also got me to thinking about Teresa'a words and the sculpture, and I had to admit he had a point.

However, I came upon a couple of sources where I learned that Teresa was much more interesting than I had first believed, so I will move forward with conventional biographical material.

From James Kiefer at The Lectionary:

Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada (later known as Teresa de Jesus) was born in Avila, Spain, 28 March 1515, one of ten children whose mother died when she was fifteen. Her family was of partly Jewish ancestry.

Teresa, having read the letters of Jerome, decided to become a nun, and when she was 20, she entered the Carmelite convent in Avila.

In fact, because of his ancestry, her father was questioned by the Inquisition.

In 1560 she resolved to reform the monastery that had, she thought, departed from the order's original intention and become insufficiently austere. Her proposed reforms included strict enclosure (the nuns were not to go to parties and social gatherings in town, or to have social visitors at the convent, but to stay in the convent and pray and study most of their waking hours) and discalcing (literally, taking off one's shoes, a symbol of poverty, humility, and the simple life, uncluttered by luxuries and other distractions). In 1562 she opened a new monastery in Avila, over much opposition in the town and from the older monastery. At length Teresa was given permission to proceed with her reforms, and she travelled throughout Spain establishing seventeen houses of Carmelites of the Strict (or Reformed) Observance (the others are called Carmelites of the Ancient Observance). The reformed houses were small, poor, disciplined, and strictly enclosed. Teresa died 4 October 1582.

Teresa is reported to have been very attractive in person, witty, candid, and affectionate. She is remembered both for her practical achievements and organizing skill and for her life of contemplative prayer.

One of Teresa's poems:

Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
compassion on this world
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

I've read this poem before, and I like it quite a lot.

Here's something a little livelier from Catholic Online:

Teresa's father was rigidly honest and pious, but he may have carried his strictness to extremes. Teresa's mother loved romance novels but because her husband objected to these fanciful books, she hid the books from him. This put Teresa in the middle -- especially since she liked the romances too. Her father told her never to lie but her mother told her not to tell her father. Later she said she was always afraid that no matter what she did she was going to do everything wrong.

That's getting off to a bad start.

...she led a fairly ordinary life, though she was convinced that she was a horrible sinner. As a teenager, she cared only about boys and clothes and flirting and rebelling -- like other teenagers throughout the ages. When she was 16, her father decided she was out of control and sent her to a convent. At first she hated it but eventually she began to enjoy it -- partly because of her growing love for God, and partly because the convent was a lot less strict than her father.

She sounds like a normal teenager to me.

Even after Teresa entered the convent, she struggled in her spiritual life.

Teresa suffered the same problem that Francis of Assisi did -- she was too charming. Everyone liked her and she liked to be liked. She found it too easy to slip into a worldly life and ignore God. The convent encouraged her to have visitors to whom she would teach mental prayer because their gifts helped the community economy. But Teresa got more involved in flattery, vanity and gossip than spiritual guidance. These weren't great sins perhaps but they kept her from God.

She seems all too human to me. Aren't we all tempted by pride and wanting to be liked?

"May God protect me from gloomy saints," Teresa said, and that's how she ran her convent. To her, spiritual life was an attitude of love, not a rule. Although she proclaimed poverty, she believed in work, not in begging. She believed in obedience to God more than penance. If you do something wrong, don't punish yourself -- change. When someone felt depressed, her advice was that she go some place where she could see the sky and take a walk. When someone was shocked that she was going to eat well, she answered, "There's a time for partridge and a time for penance." To her brother's wish to meditate on hell, she answered, "Don't."

Now that's beautiful and - or so it seems to me - of vital importance to a saintly life. I should read more of her writings. Perhaps, I should have done so before posting this, because the purpose of the feast days is to honor the saints, and I came into this post with many doubts. Since I struggled so with this, and I am not knowledgeable about Teresa's writings, I might have done better not to post it. But here it is with all its flaws.

St. Teresa is the patron saint of Headache sufferers. Her symbol is a heart, an arrow, and a book. She was canonized in 1622.


Psalm 42:1-7 or 139:1-9
Romans 8:22-27
Matthew 5:13-16

O God, who by your Holy Spirit moved Teresa of Avila to manifest to your Church the way of perfection: Grant us, we pray, to be nourished by her excellent teaching, and enkindle within us a keen and unquenchable longing for true holiness; through Jesus Christ, the joy of loving hearts, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.

Thanks to Paul at Byzigenous Buddhapalian for the reminder of the sculpture by Bernini.


John Bassett said...

"I must say that flagellation creeps me out."

But surely Mimi you'd rather beat yourself with a piece of rope than read Stand Firm. That seems way more punishing to me.

Grandmère Mimi said...

John, that's not fair. There's no good choice. You've put me on the horns of a dilemma, for sure.

What gets me is that they're boring. They're boring with their venom, and they're boring when they attempt humor.

lj said...

Very erotic sculpture. I think all those artists who were commissioned by the church must have enjoyed making this kind of art that they knew would be there where people worshiped, don't you? Of course, the passage you quote would definitely inspire the eroticism.

FranIAm said...

I have given up on the saint post. As a good self respecting Catholic, I get my good saint info from you and Padre Mickey!

Seriously- great post. I was not able to find words for my church blog for her. I love her but she puts me off too.

This was very well done. And when you wrote de trop, I laughed out loud.

Which I needed as I have had some challenging news today.

That laugh, you, St Teresa and our community of bloggers cheers me immeasurably.

Will I really meet you in one week?

P.S. she must have been sex crazed and I am not so sure that sex and God are so far apart on many levels.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I'll reveal here in the comments what my companion renamed the sculpture, just in case you have not already worked it out: "St. Teresa in Orgasm".

It took me hours to put this one together. I almost gave up several times.

God and sex are not far apart at all.

Lapinbizarre said...

That celebrated long golden dart thrust several times into her heart and bowels. Bernini knew what was going on!

Jan said...

Interesting info about Teresa. I always liked her grumbling at the end of her life next to her stranded carriage in the rain, “God, if that’s how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!”

Grandmère Mimi said...

Bernini knew what was going on!

Lapin, from her own words.

Jan, she was definitely a wit. The Catholic Online site has more good information. Here's another sample:

In 1582, she was invited to found a convent by an Archbishop but when she arrived in the middle of the pouring rain, he ordered her to leave. "And the weather so delightful too" was Teresa's comment.

Irony was her friend.

Diane said...

I know Jan's story too, and have used it in a sermon. In college, I took a Mysticism class, and ended up reading both The Interior Castle, and The Way of Perfection. I had trouble, especially toward the end of The Interior Castle, a little too "Interior" for me. But liked The Way of Perfection, which if I remember right, is about the Lord's Prayer.

I liked her wit. She and John of the Cross were good friends, and their Orders were related. Apparently John of the Cross was quite short, so when he came to stay with the order (there was already one monk) she quipped that now they had "a monk and a half".

Grandmère Mimi said...

Diane, thank you for the information about her writing. I know where to start reading now.

Paul said...

Ah, GM, you do such nice work. I especially enjoyed learning about her advice about meditating on hell. How very sensible. I have always felt Christians spend too much time fretting about sin, death, and hell and not enough time thinking about God, life, and joy. (You will note the omission of "heaven" from my positive list; that's pretty useless too.)

Let's not forget what was written on the bookmark in her breviary:
Nada te turbe;
nada te espante;
todo se pasa;
Dios no se muda,
la pacïencia 5
todo lo alcanza.
Quien a Dios tiene,
nada le falta.
Solo Dios basta.

Let nothing disturb you,
nothing affright you;
all things pass
God does not change;
patience achieves all things;
Who has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Paul, you're no slouch, yourself with good posts.

I don't think about heaven or hell. Right now is quite enough to attend to.

That's beautiful advice from St. Teresa.

Linda McMillan said...

Oh Grandmere Mimi, I have been so preoccupied lately that I completely missed this day! Teresa IS interesting and certainly worth spending some time with tonight. Thank you. This is a lovely post.

Diane said...

oh yes, the other thing I remember about Teresa: she was always praying for the Lutherans! (apparently, worried about our souls or something)

Grandmère Mimi said...

Lindy, I hope your shots are not causing you too much trouble. How is Rowan holding up with his confinement?

Diane, I had heard that Teresa prayed especially for the Lutherans. Poor dears. Y'all need prayers badly.

Ann said...

more stories of Teresa - I received this from a friend:
On her way to one of the monasteries, she hit a pot hole and was thrown out of the cart into the mud. She shook her fist at the Heavens and roared, “The way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!” Also, she shook her hourglass to shorten the prayer hour. And one of her sayings that is among my favorites is “If you want to know God’s will for you, look to the deepest, truest desire of your own heart:” Second unto it is her criterion for discernment—if your path is leading you into greater and greater evidence of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), then you are on the right path. If not, turn around.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Ann, Teresa's words are wise and true. Thank you.

susan s. said...

Did you see the PBS program about different artists? I of course can't remember the name of it or the host, but I do remember he is an actor, and in spite of it being over the top in a lot of ways, his stories about Bernini and St. Teresa were wonderful. Apparently Bernini was obsessed, too.

Have a good time next week.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Susan, I did not see the program, but I would not be at all surprised that Bernini was obsessed.

I'm sure that we'll have a good time. We'll raise a glass to our crazy friends who cannot be with us.

Rmj said...

As for the sexuality (I know, I'm late, nobody will see this):

It's quite common in Xian mysticism. The encounter with the Spirit is expressed in physical terms, and the highest physical pleasure is the erotic (well, not that there's a hierarchy, so let's say the "most intense" instead). Some think that means mysticism is simply eroticism disguised. Me, I think you have to translate the experience into something corporeal (I'm enough of an empiricist to agree everything we know comes from the senses), so the experience can only be expressed/remembered as....

...well, you get the idea. If that is "scandalous," it's only because we come long after St. Teresa and the other medieval mystics, and the Victorian sensibility intervenes between us.

Least, that's how I understand it.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Rmj, I get emails about comments, so I see the old ones. Of course, that wouldn't work for you.

My friend who renamed the sculpture - what he said, I was thinking, and yet, I was still a little shocked to hear it aloud.

Teresa is a bit intense for me. Some of the mystics would spend hours in prayer and fasting, and I wonder if what they experienced wasn't the physical translated into spirituality.

I so often don't know what to make of myself and my experiences, much less am I able to work out what's going on with others.

And then, there's the "Song of Songs"....

kishnevi said...

Someone mentioned Juan de Ypes/Juan de la Cruz. Not only was she his friend, but she was also his mentor and encourager. Without her influence, it's quite likely Spanish literature would not have some of its greatest poetry, Christianity one of its greatest mystics, and the spiritual life in general his insightful and detailed writings on the spiritual life.
And it was he who had an important role to play in creating the male Discalced Carmelites--and suffered mightily because of it.
And much of his poetry, too, is sexual in overtones. Although perhaps not this one:
Del Verbo Divino
La Virgen prenada
Viene de camino;
Si le dais posada.

with the Word of God
weighted down, the Virgin
Comes down the road;
If only you would shelter her.

susan s. said...

I feel that way about JS Bach...All his music is very sexy, his cantatas especially. Someone asked me once why I was drawn to the's simple, the music is the perfect description of extended orgasm. Who could ask for anything more?

Grandmère Mimi said...

Susan, Bach is one of my favorites. Is it about sex, and I don't even know it?

Grandmère Mimi said...

Kishnevi, welcome.

I know a little of the poetry of Juan de la Cruz. I wish my Spanish was good enough to read the poems in the original language.

susan s. said...

No, Mimi, I don't think it's about sex so much as it is about the ecstasy experienced in the love of God.
But it can end up feeling the same...If you look at the words of the cantatas, they all can be 'misconstrued' by 'non-believers.' I believe somewhere I read once about the 'pietistic' beliefs of that period...I don't know exactly what that means, but the actual words of the cantatas are so beautiful.
In the "Ich habe genug," for instance...the "I've had enough of this world, I am ready to die, I can't wait to be in the arms of Jesus" attitude underscored by undulating rhythms and the unrelenting drive to the last chord of the last aria, which is all about going joyfully to Heaven remind me of the things I know about revivals and the ecstatic reactions some had to the rhythm of the preachers in those situations.

Religious ecstasy is just too close to the physical not to be compared.

I have always been amazed at the comparison that can be made(be it superficial or not) between the then of Bach and the now of Fundamentalism. Although the music isn't near as 'good' now as it was then. ;-)

Does any of this make sense, or does it just sound like the ravings of a lunatic?

Grandmère Mimi said...

Susan, I wrote a long comment here that disappeared. Your words are not the ravings of a maniac.

I believe somewhere I read once about the 'pietistic' beliefs of that period...I don't know exactly what that means,

It means that if the pietists of the period detected anything of an erotic nature in the music, they had to banish those thoughts from their minds immediately.

Religious ecstasy is just too close to the physical not to be compared.

You're right about that.

Fundamentalists want to remove so much of the joy and pleasure from life. That's why I have the quote from Mencken on the Puritans on my sidebar. He was, in many ways, not an admirable man, but he was dead right on the puritans.

susan s. said...

"if the pietists of the period detected anything of an erotic nature in the music, they had to banish those thoughts from their minds immediately."

I think Bach was putting one over on them then, because, IMNSHO, it certainly is erotic music!

FranIAm said...

So glad I came back to see all these comments due to your great Dali post and link back.

Wow is all I can say.

The words from her Breviary bookmark are just what I need right now and you know that Grandmere. I am glad fate chose your blog to deliver them to me.