A saint, mystic, and doctor of the church

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Teresa, the granddaughter of a Jewish convert to Christianity, was born to Beatriz and Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda in Avila on March 28, 1515. At the age of seven, she was already so intrigued by the lives of the martyrs that she attempted to sneak off (dragging her brother Rodrigo in tow) to make her way to the distant land of the Moors in the hopes of proclaiming herself Christian, being beheaded, and immediately gaining entrance to Heaven. Luckily, her uncle recognized the wandering children on the dusty Spanish road to Salamanca, took them home, and nipped the potential martyrdom in the bud.  While her youthful plans may have been imaginative, lacking in spiritual maturity, and incompatible with contemporary interfaith sensibilities, Teresa’s commitment to a life lived in constant contact and close proximity to the personal nature of God (with His loving and demanding claims upon her) was already evident in such an escapade.

Losing her mother at the age of thirteen, she prayed before a statue of Mary for God to fill this void left in her life.  Teresa claimed in her autobiographical Vida “it did me good, because whenever I have put myself in the hands of the sovereign Virgin, she has always helped me, and in the end she has brought me close to her.”

At the age of sixteen, the strikingly beautiful Teresa was sent to the Augustinian convent of Santa Maria de Gracia, a Spanish finishing school of the period.  After a year and a half at the convent, she suffered the first of a multitude of physical ailments that would plague her throughout her life. She contracted a dangerously high fever, and was prone to fits of fatigue and fainting. Simultaneously delicate and tenacious, Teresa decided (against the wish of her father) that she ought to take the veil and renounced her inheritance, entering the convent of Encarnatión. While this choice brought her great joy, it did little to alleviate the violent illnesses which continued to wrack her body and sap her strength throughout her adult life. She often turned to the Book of Job for comfort during her sufferings.  Her spells and catatonic episodes once went so far as to convince the other nuns to wrap her body and seal her eyelids with wax in preparation for burial.  She recovered enough to resume a life of quiet reflection in the convent, but was for a long time considered too unwell to be granted solitude in the chapel or allowed any semblance of normal activities.

She eventually regained her health, and while never robust, did attribute her relative recuperation to St. Joseph. She also experienced a religious conversion which deepened her faith and greatly added to her ability to pray and to encounter God’s love in a unique and concentrated way.

Teresa began to experience mystical states of ecstasy, which she alternately called arrebatamiento (rapture) or arrobamiento (trance). The climax of these visions has intrigued, inspired, confused, and scandalized devotees of Teresa’s writings for centuries. Her explanation of the event, the inspiration for Bernini’s famous sculpture and Richard Crashaw’s poems, is variously called sacred or pathological, enlightening or repressed, purifying or risqué, psychosomatic or spiritually healing. In any event the experience, which has come to be commonly referred to as the transverberation of Teresa’s heart, is nothing if not extraordinary:

“An angel appeared in human form…. In his hands I saw a large golden spear, and at its iron tip there seemed to be a point of fire. I felt as if he plunged this into my heart several times, so that it penetrated all the way to my entrails. When he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out with it, and left me totally inflamed with a great love for God. The pain was so severe, it made me moan several times.  The sweetness of this intense pain is so extreme, there is no wanting it to end, and the soul isn’t satisfied with anything less than God. The pain is not physical, but spiritual, even though the body has a share in it — in fact, a large share. So delicate is this exchange between God and the soul that I pray God, in his goodness, to give a taste of it to anyone who thinks I am lying.”

Such an experience of bliss, one which cannot but be seen to reflect swoons of a less transcendent nature, was understood and discussed with her friend and confessor St. John of the Cross. The ecstasy of such a spiritual and nuptial relationship between the soul and God has biblical (cf. Song of Songs) and patristic precedents. Yet, Teresa’s experience, and the courageous boldness with which she relayed it to the authorities of the day, continues to move (and shock) devout Christians of every age.

Not all of Teresa’s visions were so exultant. She also claimed to have had a vision of the place reserved in hell for her if left to what she described (perhaps a bit overly self-critically) as her own selfish and unrepentant ways. The Dante-esque report of “filthy, muddy water, with a pestilential odor and infested with evil vermin” surrounded by impenetrable darkness and suffocating lack of air inspired Teresa to acts of penitence and a stricter observance of her vows. She revolutionized the relationship between the religious orders and the elite families of Renaissance Spain, founding the convent of San Jose, where she and her companions followed the rigors of the ancient monastic rule and strict poverty.

Teresa famously reflected on the four increasingly intimate levels of prayer that she came to experience and scrutinize: prayer of the intellect, unannounced prayer of quietude, prayer of transcendent emotion, and prayer of enraptured union with God.  She explained her spirituality in a number of books: the Vida, the Fundaciones, the Camino de Perfección (Way of Perfection) and the Moradas del Castillo Interior (literally “Dwellings of the Interior Castle,” but most often referred to in English by its last two words). The last speaks of the metaphor of the soul as a crystalline castle with many chambers, the most central of which houses the pure and elaborately luminous inner sanctum, the throne-room of the King. However, most human beings spend their lives clumsily handling the rough settings of the diamond, the outer walls of the castle, without ever penetrating to the core of its relationship with its life-giving source. Teresa guides the reader ever-inward through the seven chambers, warning of potential obstacles and illusions along the path toward self-knowledge.

Teresa was and remains a rather mysterious and controversial figure. Stories of her levitation, incorruptible body and blood, fragrant scent of lilies in her tomb, and miraculous healings only add to the claim that she was a truly remarkable woman and unrivalled mystic in the history of Christianity. She was named the first female Doctor of the Church and is co-patron of Spain with St. James.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University.