The National Catholic Review
John W. Donohue
From October 23, 1982
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The Archbishop of Burgos admitted that he had invited her to come and talk about founding a convent in that city. But he was greatly annoyed, she wrote, when she arrived with seven other Carmelites: "He said that he had meant me to come alone to discuss the matter with him: It was quite a different matter to bring all these nuns, and Heaven knew how much I had distressed him!"

The voice here is unmistakable. There is none other quite like it in the chronicles either of literature or of sanctity, to both of which histories that writer belongs. It is the wise and witty voice of Doña Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, who for the last 20 years of her life was known more simply as Teresa de Jesús and is known today at St. Teresa of Avila.

That was January 1582 when the archbishop was behaving petulantly, and the ailing Teresa was to die the following October at the age of 67. This month marks, therefore, the fourth centennial of her passage to eternal life. To observe the occasion, Seabury Press has brought out an American edition of Stephen Clissold's Si. Teresa of Avila, a short but highly satisfactory biography that first appeared in England in 1979 [272p $8.95 (paper)].

Mr. Clissold is a retired diplomat with a life-long interest in Spanish culture and Spanish saints. He is also a lucid and graceful writer so thoroughly at home with the sources that he can select just the right detail to bring the wonderfully human and heroic figure of St. Teresa into focus against the lowering background of 16th-century Spain.

First among those sources are, of course, St. Teresa's own writings. Most of them were done at high speed by candlelight in an unheated cell late at night after the day's business had been suspended, and they make a copious collection. When Teresa died she left behind not only 16 convents and 14 priories in which she had established the Discalced Carmelite Reform, but also pages enough to fill nine volumes in a definitive 20th-century Spanish edition.

There are 450 letters and a number of short pieces along with four major works. The Book of the Foundations, written between 1573 and June 1582, is a record of the convents she opened and includes the incident of the cranky archbishop. The other three books are the famous spiritual treatises: her autobiography, called the Life (1562-65), The
Way of Perfection
(1566), which gives advice on living the Christian life, and The Interior Castle (1577), which discusses the progressive stages of mystical experience.

In her own day, the Inquisition gave Teresa considerable trouble over the Life, but by now the authority of these three books is so great that in 1970 Pope Paul VI declared St. Teresa a Doctor of the Church, the first woman to be given that distinction. Together with St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), the first friar to follow the Carmelite Reform, St. Teresa is pre-eminent in the school of Spanish mysticism. But unlike most theologians, she is also a popular writer. E. Allison Peers (1891-1952), the great Anglican scholar who translated the writings of those two saints, said of Teresa: "Her works are read and reread by Spaniards to this day and translated again and again into foreign languages. Probably no other book by a Spanish author is as widely known in Spain as the Life or The Interior Castle of St. Teresa with the single exception of Cervantes's immortal Don Quixote. "

What gives these books their continuing allure is the fiavor of Teresa's personality. During her lifetime, she enchanted nearly everyone she met not only when she was a beautiful and mettlesome dark-haired girl but also when she was a worn old nun with blackened teeth and moles on her face. She could employ this gift to good purpose, but she also dismissed it casually. "The Lord gave me the grace of pleasing," she once said. That was, however, a striking understatement. European history has been starred by many gifted or virtuous people along with those who, like Charles II of England, were engaging but ambiguous. But no one so far has matched St. Teresa of Avila for her dazzling combination of holiness, genius and charm.

Those endowments made for a life of greatness but not tranqujlity. Teresa was the third of the nine children bom to Don Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda by his second wife, Doña Beatriz Dávila y Ahumada, who was only 14 when she married and 33 when she died. Since Don Alonso also had three children by his first wife, whose life had been even shorter than Doña Beatriz's, Teresa would say at the beginning of her autobiography: "We were three sisters and nine brothers: all of them, by the goodness of God, resembled their parents in virtue, except myself, though I was my father's favorite."

The history of that family evokes echoes of both the dark and glowing sides of Spain's Golden Age. For instance, Teresa's paternal grandfather, Juan Sanchez, was a Jewish convert and a successful merchant in Toledo. There in 1485 he and more than 2,000 others were subjected by the Inquisition to degrading public penance for having retained some minor Jewish practices.

After that terrible experience, Juan Sanchez moved to Avila where he rebuilt his fortune and even secured some manufactured certificates of nobility. Teresa's father was, therefore, accounted an hidalgo. One of his sons died as a soldier. Several others voyaged to New Spain where Rodrigo was killed fighting the Indians in Chile and Lorenzo became rich in Peru. But it was, of course, Don Alonso's favorite child who was to make the family's name immortal and whose life was to become the stuff of legend.

Stephen Clissold's book provides a firm chronology for the familiar episodes in that life and identifies the persons and places involved. Here, for example, is Teresa as a child persuading Rodrigo, the brother she loved best, to run away from home with her in the hope of being martyred for the love of God in the land of the Moors—they were overtaken by an uncle shortly after leaving town.

And here is Teresa entering the Convent of the Incarnation in Avila in 1536. She is already 21 and is to be a nun there for 27 years. Eventually she came to think that the regimen at the Incarnation was rather too relaxed, although by today's standards it seems to have been poor and austere. Shortly after taking her vows in 1537, Teresa became mysteriously sick, and for three years she was confined to bed and practically paralyzed.

Long afterward, she would write in The Interior Castle: "I know a person who cannot truthfully say that from the time the Lord began 40 years ago to grant the favor that was mentioned she spent even one day without pains and other kinds of suffering (from lack of bodily health, I mean) and other great trials."

That person was, of course, herself and the favor mentioned belonged to the constellation of exceptional mystical graces which she began to experience about the time of her sickness. Mr. Clissold has a helpful account of these in a chapter erititled, "Voices and Visions." They included "locutions," or "words which suddenly crystalized in her consciousness as she knelt in prayer" and were understood by Teresa to be the voice of Christ Himself; raptures and even such physical phenomena as feeling "one's body being lifted from the ground." In the Life, she says this lévitation "makes one's hair quite stand on end" but it also inspires a great fear of offending God and a burning love for Him.

These voices and ecstasies did not dampen Doña Teresa's brilliance and wit but over the course of more than two decades they did transform her mind and heart. In 1560, when she was 45, she set out to found a small convent in which a handful of nuns, living only on alms, might follow the original Carmelite Rule whose primitive austerity had been officially mitigated in 1432.

It took two years to launch in Avila the first of these houses. The last was that convent opened in Burgos in 1582. The intervening 20 years were filled with incessant business: travels from city to city; complicated dealings with benefactors and contractors and continuous discussion with an assortment of puzzled or nervous bishops, confessors and theologians. In her books, she is fond of telling the nuns that they are only poor weak women who can do little, but they might have wondered if she really meant that. In any case, her own accomplishments make her the prime candidate for patron saint of feminists. "I have had a great deal of experience," she wrote in The Interior Castle, "with learned men, and have also had experience with half-learned, fearful ones; these latter cost me dearly."

Her days were pervaded by a continuous sense of God's presence and punctuated by a continual series of temporal crises, large and small: in the Avila convent, an infestation of lice that Teresa routed by organizing a little procession and sprinkling holy water in each cell; perilous journeys in mule-drawn wagons that nearly toppled into ravines; opposition and intrigues organized against her even by some of her Carmelite associates, both men and women, and always the unrelenting pressures of illness and fatigue.

But one will never do anything, she wrote, unless one resolves once for all to accept ill-health and death. She not only pushed on but scattered jokes and wisecracks as she went. She could be stern and witty by turns and sometimes simultaneously. A certain nun resolved to cultivate humility by never expressing any clever thought that might occur to her during the recreation period. But Teresa told her to cancel that resolution. For it is bad enough, she said, to be stupid by nature without trying to be stupid by grace.

Resignation to life's hardness is not, however, an anaesthetic. When Teresa was 65 she wrote to Father Jerónimo Gracián, an attractive and gifted Carmelite who was 30 years younger than herself and whom she cherished with remarkable intensity: "The further joumey in this life—God help me—the less comfort I find."

There was certainly little ease at the journey's end. In the summer of 1582, Teresa was trying to return to Avila from Burgos. The provincial of the Discalced ordered her to detour to Alba so as to console the Duchess of that place, a benefactress who was anxiously awaiting the birth of a grandchild. But shortly after arriving there, Teresa had a massive hemorrhage and died on Oct. 4.

Mr. Clissold gives a succinct but sufficiently disturbing account of the way in which St. Teresa's body was not only sliced up for relics but shuttled back and forth between Avila and Alba, each of which cities wanted to be her burial place. But her real legacy was bequeathed not just to Carmelites or Spaniards but to the world, and the more it is distributed, the greater it becomes for it is the legacy of her example and her teaching.

Since it is so rich a bequest, it has been variously drawn, upon by different admirers at different times. The baroque sculptor Bernini and the 17th-century English devotional poet, Crashaw, like many of their contemporaries, were particularly exhilarated by the image of the ecstatic Teresa whose heart, as she says in the 29th chapter of the Life, once seemed to have been pierced by an angel wielding a golden spear tipped with fire that infiamed her with divine love. But at least equally moving and exemplary is the Teresa who carried on her labors with serene good humor even when, as she said in the very next chapter of that autobiography, she sometimes felt "so peevish and ill-tempered that I seem to want to snap every one up."

We are awed by Teresa the mystic, but we understand the saint who was as troubled by the problem of evil as ordinary people are. Thinking of John of the Cross who for nine months had been kept by his Carmelite brethren in the solitary confinement of a cramped cell, Teresa wrote: "I don't know how God can allow such things."

Her record of raptures and visions answers to nothing in the experience of most Christians. But elsewhere, her coefficient of accessibility, as was said of St. Francis de Sales, is great indeed. For instance, in the Life, she advises people beginning the practice of prayer to have an appropriate book at hand so that they may recollect themselves  quickly. (Her great 19th-century spiritual daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, would have added that this book should always be the New Testament.) Moreover, Teresa suggests that others might recollect themselves as she herself did: "It used to help me to look at a field, or water or fiowers. These reminded me of the Creator—I mean, they awakened me, helped me to recollect myself and thus served me as a book."

And for those who find prayer tedious, this great mystic has encouragement. In the Life she says that for some years she was more occupied during prayer with wishing that the hour were over and listening for the clock to strike than in thinking of things that were good. But by persevering, she learned, she said, that "mental prayer is nothing else, in my opinion, but being on terms of friendship with God, frequently conversing in secret with Him Who, we know, loves us."

In a short but perfect book, Personal Religion (1927), Léonce de Grandmaison, S.J., a French theologian of the first decades of this century, pointed out that for Christians this friendship with God almost always begins with the love of Jesus Christ and is often identified with that love. It is the mystery of Jesus that introduces us to the mystery of God because God made fiesh is more easily apprehended, more readily approached and more instantly loved.

Christians have learned this in every age and not least in our own, although not always by way of routine church membership. "I grew up a Catholic and knew about Jesus Christ in my mind but never in my heart," Steve Foley, a 29-year-old professional football player with the Denver Broncos, told a reporter last autumn. But more recently, he said, he has discovered that it is faith in Jesus that really changes one's life.

It is precisely here that St. Teresa's experience intersects with that of many quite average believers. She, indeed, was profoundly Catholic and on her deathbed she kept repeating: "Lord, I am a daughter of the church." But her books speak to Christians everywhere because they are penetrated with devotion to what she called "the sacred humanity of
our Lord Jesus Christ."

Even those raised to the highest stages of prayer, she writes in The Interior Castle, must not give up meditating on the life of our Lord: "For if they lose the guide, who is the good Jesus, they will not hit upon the right road." And to emphasize this conviction, she quotes a key verse from the Gospel of St. John: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (14:9).

But borrowing another phrase from Père de Grandmaison, one may say that these words are the very definition of specifically Christian mysticism. There has been no more compelling evangelist of that mysticism than St. Teresa of Avila, and generations have been her debtors. In The Idiot, the young Ippolit who is dying of consumption says: "I meant to do so much . . . . I wanted to live for the happiness of all men, to discover and proclaim the truth." Like every saint, but with better reason than even most of them, Teresa de Jesús could have truthfully said that she had lived just that way.

John W. Donohue served as an associate editor at America from 1972 until 2007.

Comments

ROBERT KILLOREN | 3/21/2011 - 7:44pm
It was nice reading this article again. I suppose I have read her autobiography once or twice a decade since the 60s. It never fails to enchant me and move me closer to God. Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain is the only other book that I turn to again and again. In fact there are a lot of similarities between both of these books, not the least of which the experience of a conversion later in life. 

There is a novel by Barbara Mujica, called Sister Teresa, that tells the story of Teresa's life as told by a fictional close friend and maid. It is another good way for people today to meet Teresa. There is also an wonderful film biography of Teresa (Teresa de Jesus) that is based on Life and many of her letters. The acting in the film is superior (Concho Velasco, a famous screen star of Spain, plays Teresa) and it follows Teresa's life very closely and in detail. The movie is in Spanish with English subtitles, but after awhile I found myself understanding the Spanish (though not really - it was just that I became unaware that I was reading the subtitles). The film was a 7-1/2 hour mini-series on Spanish television that PBS broadcast in the States back in the 80s. It is now available in DVD.