The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila: The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus


Alan Gullette


University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Winter 1979 (3/6/79)

Religious Studies 3011: Phenomenology of Religion

Dr. Jay Kim


Teresa's experiences relevant to mysticism were either prayers, visions of God and Christ, visions of devils, or experiences of pain.  The prayers she her self understood to progress through four stages, or degrees of union, with the related experience of rapture.  This understanding came in retrospect – in fact, during the writing of this book she was enlightened as to the distinct natures of the third and fourth stages.  In prayer came locutions, or messages spoken by God, and divine visions.  Diabolic visions also appeared to her.  Throughout her life (1515-1582) her health was poor, and she had many intensely painful illnesses.  Perseverance through temptation, fear, and doubt brought her certainty and tranquility; endurance through pin suffering, aridity, etc., brought her "favors" or experiences of divine grace.  She always felt unworthy of these favors, which created distress and shame, which brought further favors, thus encouraging her to progressively perfect herself.

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Thanks to the fact that her parents were virtuous, good desires were awakened in Teresa around age 6 or 7.  Her father encouraged her to read "good books," or books of a religious nature (65).  With her favorite brother, Rodrigo, she read the lives of the saints and wanted to die as had the martyrs in order to achieve the blessings of heaven in the quickest and "cheapest" way (66).  Her reading also included "books of chivalry" which she read for many hours, day and night, after her mother's example.  In fact, she was unhappy without a book – a trait that seems to have lasted for many years (68-9).

At a certain age, however, she began to be concerned about being attractive, and was fastidious about her appearance (69).  Thanks to her friendship with a couple of women who preoccupied themselves with vain conversations and pastimes, she lost almost all inclination toward virtue, yet was extremely anxious not to lose her "honor" altogether, though she did not strive to improve it (70-1).  From this, she learned the importance of good companionship for the young (71).  For some secret reason not revealed, she was taken to a convent for education after her mother had died and her sister had married.  (Her mother's death, by the way, when Teresa was 13, grieved her greatly, and she went to an image of Mary for comfort and asked Mary to be her mother (67).)  For the first week in the convent, she was restless and suffered, fearing that others knew of her vanity.  But she had a pleasing manner and became a favorite among the nuns, and thus she became very happy (72).  At this time, she had "the greatest possible aversion" to becoming a nun herself (72) and "thought more about pleasures of sense and vanity" than of spiritual development (74).

She had a serious illness and recovered at home.  Afterwards, she visited her uncle, whose talk of God and of the world's vanity helper her begin to understand the truth of what she had learned as a child – that all things are vain and impermanent.  She began to fear that she would have going to hell had she died of her illness, but still had no interest in being a nun, so that she had to force herself for three months to embrace the religious life.  She decided it would be better to suffer the hardships of a nun during her life and to heave than be sent to hell.  Thus, her decision to become a nun was inspired by fear and not by love (75).  She had many temptations to dissuade her from this decision and also had begun to suffer poor health – fainting, fever, etc.  Good books gave her "new life," though, had she become concerned with the good of her soul and not with physical comfort.  But she still had no love for God and so was distressed to leave her father and beloved family again when she entered the convent at age 21 (November 2, 1536).  However, the new life gave her a great joy that continued thought her life, and her aridity was changed to "the deepest tenderness" (76-7).

The change in her lifestyle affected her health with fainting fits, heart trouble, and "many other ailments." This lasted for a year – three months of which she suffered "tortures" from the remedies intended to cure her (79).  She left to receive treatment elsewhere, visiting her uncle again on the way.  He gave her a book on prayer, which she studied diligently.  She began spending time in solitude and received favors, or graces, and occasionally experienced the Prayer of Quiet and the Prayer of Union (which she later described as two of the four stages of prayer)(80).  She prayed by thinking that Christ was present, and, for about twenty-two years, she also found it necessary to have a book with her, for without it her thoughts wandered and she experienced aridity. Evidently, her being unable to "meditate" was a result of having no teacher to guide her (82).  (Eighteen years later – c. 1556 – she underwent a "final conversion" that seemed to help resolve this problem.)

Her illness was treated for three more months by severe remedies that almost killed her.  Her pain was so great that it was feared she would go mad (87).  As a result of fasting (due to distaste for food) and the use of purgatives, her nerves began to shrink – which, as can be imagined, caused intolerable pain. She was given patience to endure her condition by remembering the story of Job and the moral that "since we have received good things at the hand of the Lord, why shall we not suffer evil things?" (88).  She had an attack of catalepsy and was unconscious for four days, and it was thought she was dead. She asked to be taken to confession, and after this always confessed everything that might have been a sin – however venial (or excusable) .  Part of her distress was in thinking that she had been misled as to what was venial sin and what was mortal sin (89).  And this, I suppose, is a point whereat she began to part from human authority in order to develop her own moral perception – something especially necessary for one such as she, was is more advanced (shall we say) or who has had richer experience, spiritually than those who might merely have a higher position in the church.  She remained catatonic for eight months, and paralysis only gradually disappeared over three years. Surprisingly, she endured all of this with joy – knowing that the trial was sent by God.  Through prayer, she was granted grace that made her realize her love for God (91).  She desired solitude yet sometimes did not pray, being distressed that she was so sinful and undeserving of the favors given by God.  This distress, which seems to continue throughout her life, was an "incomparable torment." Interestingly, though, she never thought in terms of punishment, and her fear of God was "swallowed, up in love" (92).

For several years, she seemed to drift away from God, or at least to "lose honor" again.  She began to indulge in conversations with nuns who were no particularly religious.  This was so dangerous that Christ revealed Himself to her and warned her bout this.  This was evidently her first "vision," or seeing "with the yes of the soul" (99).  A temptation arose to doubt this vision as imaginary or demonical, and, though she had a feeling that the source was divine, she ignored it because she liked the person she was warned about.  Afterward, she spent many years "in this pestilential pastime," despite another vision (of a great toad) also apparently meant as a warning (100).  The greatest temptation of her life concerned the refraint from prayer (with its favors) as an act of humility.  She did not pray for year, in fact, until a confessor told her never to leave off prayer, after which her life became full of trails as prayer uncovered faults in her (101, 105).  Meanwhile, her father had died, which caused her great grief (103).  Also, her paralysis had ceased (or ceased to be serious), though she continued throughout life to experience intermittent thought sometimes grave "indispositions" (102).

Around this time (c. 1556), she seems to have undergone a "final conversion" after an eighteen-year battle or conflict between her interests in the world and her interest in God.  Having resumed prayer, she realized its importance as "the means by which we may amend our lives."  "If we truly repent and determine not to offend Him, " God will " resume His former friendship with us" and grant us favors.  There is no place for fear, again, but only for desire and love.  "Mental prayer… is nothing but friendly intercourse" with God (110) – which seems to be a rather Protestant idea.  Sermons were both comforting, pleasurable refreshment and torture for her – the latter because they made her aware of her shortcomings (114).  Her conscientiousness or scrupulousness was the apparent cause of the distress or suffering that humbled her before the graces for which she never asked (118).  Unlike St. Th้r่se of Lisieux, she never seems to accept her own imperfections (though she later accepts those of others), but always humiliates herself as being sinful, unworthy, etc.  Again, denying favors and prayer as an act of "humility" is a dangerous temptation.  Only through recognizing the favors can we be aroused to love God (121).  To really love Him involves total self-offering, becoming "servants of love," following Christ in prayer; and with this love comes all blessings. Often, we do not give ourselves wholly but only offer Him "the fruits of our land while keeping … the right of ownership of it in our own hands" (125).  And following Christ involves labor, making a garden in which He can take pleasure, bearing a cross – which means trials and suffering (127).

Teresa compares what she sees as four stages of prayer to four methods of watering a garden: raising water from a well; using an apparatus to raise the waster; by a string or ditch; by rain.  There is most labor at the beginning and none at the end.  In the first stage or degree, the beginner must be alone and think over his life, meditate on the life of Christ and his sufferings for us (which moves us to compassion), and build a foundation of humility (essential to the whole edifice)(128, 129, 134, 135).  Aridity (being unable to think a good thought) is a trial; and trials let us know how miserable we are without God, so that, when we experience favors, we will not think ourselves dignified or fall as Lucifer did (129, 130).  We must not "lift up our spirits" unless they are "lifted up by the Lord," or we will defy humility and delude ourselves (137).  Yet we should have the courage to go forward, not cramping our good desires or slowing our progress (138).  It is a temptation to misunderstand humility or hold back for fear of striving to raise ourselves to being saintlike and above all we need to have confidence in God (139).  Other temptations are:  to expect others to be extremely spiritual, wanting to teach others, being distressed at the sins and failing of others, etc. (141, 142).  We must see only the virtues, the good in others, and cultivate the great virtue of considering all others to be better than ourselves (142-3).  For the beginner , a spiritual director is necessary; but only one who has greater -- and hopefully very great --- experience, since the unenlightened cannot enlighten others (144, 146).  But self-knowledge must never be neglected: self-knowledge with regard to sin, or awareness of one's imperfections, which gives us direction by showing us our work (145).

IN the second stage of prayer, the prayer of Quiet, the soul is awakened and begins to recollect itself – which needs the assistance of God.  It is the will that finds increasing union with God in prayer, and the faculties of imagination (or understanding _ and memory are in various states of activity or quiet.  Understanding works to draw water for the cultivation of the garden, or to think good thoughts. A danger Teresa mentions is that imagination and memory will present the will with a picture of what it is enjoying – thus distracting it from the real experience (149).  But she also says that the will, while not completely absorbed in God, is sufficiently occupied to rejoice without being distracted by the other faculties (155).  The danger, evidently, is that one will believe that one has no right to the favor being bestowed, if memory brings up thoughts of one's sins – a problem which Teresa had (157).  If we try to attain a state of quiet on our won, nothing comes of it but aridity (1459).  Thus we must not pursue the pleasure of the experience but detach ourselves from all desires save that of helping to bear the Cross (160).  The devil will try to snare us with the pleasure he sends, so we must found our prayer on a humility in which we are determined not to desire pleasure or be drawn by it (161 and 135).

In the third stage, the faculties are "asleep" and the bliss is "incomparably greater" than in the second state (163).  One is filled with an inebriating love in which one may commit follies (or foolish acts?).  In other words, action is possible and the faculties are not "asleep;" union of faculties is not complete; but they can only act to occupy themselves with God (is this a folly?)(164).  One can also read and write, converse, do works of charity, attend to business, etc., and the faculties are free to "understand, and have fruition of," the favors (170).  The bliss is so great that the soul sometimes "seems to be on the point of leaving the body" – so that one needs courage to consent to the favors (168).

In the fourth and highest degree of prayer, the sour is not quite "dead to the world" but is still aware of its loneliness and separation (173).  The labor at this stage "is felt to be, not labor at all, but bliss" (174).  Ad the soul "dies to itself wholly" (if not to the world wholly) in order to "fix itself" on God (179).  On returning to the world from a state of union, Teresa notes, the soul finds life to be a farce, ill-organized, burdened with the body's needs – an imprisonment, or an exile (as St. Th้r่se put it) (205).  But this is our cross to bear…

After her first experience of rapture, she felt both fear at the strangeness of the experience and comfort, which alone remained (cf. Thomas Merton).  The experience for her was related to her friendships, and a message or locution from God told her to keep friendships only with those who love and serve God (232).

Another point of distress and temptation for her concerned the validity of the locutions as divine.. In doubt, she resisted them for two years (233).  And because of the ignorance of her confessor and others, she came to doubt the source of her favors, as well, and this caused her much fear until God spoke to reassure her (241).  With the help of a crucifix and holy water, she was able to fend off devils that had begun to pester her (242, 288+).

After many books were banned by the Inquisition, she was distressed until God told her to look at her own life as a living Book, and she no longer needed books to aid her (246-7).

She had other visions of God and Christ, and had some fear, which passed.  She realized that imagination could not possibly have created such beautifully enlightened visions, whereas the devil's simulations lacked the glory of the real thing (258-63).  Again, others did not believe that she was blessed by visions from God but thought her possessed or influenced by evil spirits.  But God gave her clearer signs, and finally Fray Peter came and validated her experiences (279).

Following a visionary experience of hell, where she felt extreme torture, she felt deep distress at the thought of people bringing damnation upon themselves, and she was inspired to work to save souls (303).  It was revealed to her that she was to found a more strictly enclosed convent, which caused something of a scandal, brought main trials, and allowed her to develop a lot in her dealings with people.  She put her trust in the Lord and finally overcame difficulties with the church and resistance from the people of the province.  The devil, as usual, tempted her, making her question the whole project, since she was unworthy of it and already had a convent, etc.  But she endured and at last they fled, leaving her happy forever after… (344)

Her trials made her realize that nothing can be done without God's grace (358-9).  Everything worldly appeared to her as dreamlike – as essentially unreal or empty (364).  Her vision of devils taking a body at a funeral made her realize how much she owed God for what He saved her from (372).  She had a vision of the world surrounding her soul malignly, with Christ, above, reaching down to her, after which she hated the world altogether, was oppressed by it, and found relief only in calling upon God (383-04).  Another vision of Christ, in the mirror of her soul, gave her an understanding of how heretics' souls are like broken mirrors and sinners' like darkened ones (390).  Finally, a vision showed her how "all things are seen in God" and how He contains All things (391).  Confused about being sometimes in a high state (e.g., fervent or tranquil), and sometimes in not-so-high states (e.g., restless), she was consoled when God explained that in this life we could not always be in the same condition (394).  Such are the visions, experiences, and insights of a mystic.



The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila: The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus.  Page references to an unknown paperback edition.



Professor's Comment: Grade A.  Perceptive work. [Dr. Kim.]


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