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.