Visit the Cornaro Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, and you will see a 17th century masterpiece of Baroque sculpture: Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. This life-sizes statue depicts a nun reclining with a look of bliss on her face, while a grinning cherub stands before her, an arrow pointed at her heart. It is a striking work of art — but the subject of this sculpture, a Spanish Carmelite mystic Saint Teresa of Ávila, is even more remarkable than this world-renowned statue of her.
Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada (1515-1582), now known as St. Teresa of Jesus or St. Teresa of Ávila, was one of the three greatest mystics of 16th century Spain — alongside St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) and Teresa’s own protegé, St. John of the Cross. Teresa was the founder of the reformed Carmelites (known now as the Discalced Carmelites), having established 14 Discalced Carmelite convents and monasteries in her lifetime. That alone probably would have merited her being canonized as a saint — an honor bestowed only forty years after her death. But even in her lifetime she had a reputation as a great mystic, thanks to several books of luminous mystical theology and autobiography she wrote, including The Book of My Life (her autobiography), The Way of Perfection (a manual of instruction on how to pray, written originally for her Carmelite sisters) and Interior Castle (her masterpiece). Teresa did not fancy herself a writer and indeed wrote each of these books in response to request from others; but from those humble beginnings these books have become crown jewels in the literature of western mysticism.
Teresa felt called to be a nun from an early age, and although her father was initially opposed to this, she entered a Carmelite convent when she was twenty years old. The following year she suffered a mysterious illness that included time spent in a coma and a period of paralysis; during her slow convalescence she began to read spiritual writings that introduced her to practices such as meditation or mental prayer. But by her own admission, she remained a fairly ordinary, not-so-pious nun for many years. It wasn’t until she was 39 that she experienced a new conversion toward a more meaningful, and committed, life of prayer. With this, she began to experience a succession of extraordinary phenomena, including visions, locutions (the sense of Christ speaking to her), rapture (a sense of being completely absorbed in God) and what eventually would prove to be an abiding sense of deep, interior communion with God (her king) and Christ (her beloved). About ten years before she died, she experienced a sense of being spiritually married to Christ, leading to an abiding sense of union with him.
Remember, Teresa lived during a tumultuous time: it was the age of the Protestant Reformation (which began while she was a child), and the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain took place in 1492, the same year Christopher Columbus sailed to America. So those were events of recent memory, and the Catholic Church in Spain was marked by the notorious inquisition. It was not a very congenial time for women to be reporting supernatural visions and a sense of union with God!
Teresa, of course, reported her extraordinary experiences to her confessors, and they carefully pondered whether such phenomena could truly be of divine origin, or perhaps had a less savory provenance. Indeed, it was one of her confessors who instructed her to write down her experience of prayer — which resulted in her autobiography, completed during the 1560s. The evident spiritual depth of her writing soon won her a following, with Jesuits, Dominicans, laypersons, and even the Bishop of Ávila among her “fans.” Around this same time, in response to the request of her nuns to teach them how to pray, she wrote The Way of Perfection, offering an almost stream-of-consciousness meditation on the importance of humility, charity, non-attachment, and ordinary forms of praying (like the Our Father) for even a mature person of prayer. Teresa’s writing proved to be colorful and vivid, if not always particularly logical or linear. But with her most mature and renowned work, The Interior Castle, Teresa provides almost a systematic overview not just of prayer, but of the entire process of spiritual growth for those persons committed to giving themselves completely to God.
The Interior Castle is based on a vision Teresa received, of the human soul as being like a glittering castle, carved from a single luminous diamond. Within the ramparts of this castle are a series of mansions (indeed, the book’s title in Spanish is simply “The Mansions“). Each mansions represents a stage or state of spiritual maturity; the first mansion is the most immature, representing someone who has committed to the life of prayer, but still retains much love and attachment to worldly pleasures; each subsequent mansion represents a new chapter in the developing life of faith, culminating in the seventh, most central mansion, occupied by Christ himself. As the spiritual pilgrim journeys through the mansions, he or she must learn to sweep away the “venomous reptiles” — Teresa’s colorful image for human attachments and sinfulness — and master essential virtues for the life of faith, such as humility, perseverance, surrender, and unreserved trust in God.
So the books provide a rare glimpse into Teresa’s own personal experience of prayer (her autobiography), her method and priorities as a spiritual teacher (The Way of Perfection), and the theology or philosophy that underlies her entire spirituality and world-view (The Interior Castle). Taken together, these three books provide an unusually holistic insight into the life, belief, and teaching of one of the greatest of Christian mystics.
Unlike some mystics, Teresa’s prominence as a mystic is embraced even by the Catholic hierarchy. In addition to being canonized in 1622, in the year 1970 Teresa became the first woman ever to be declared a “Doctor of the Church” — an honorary title that indicates the hierarchy considers her writings to be exemplary for all Catholics to study. As of 2019, Teresa remains one of only four women to have received this distinction. All four women doctors of the church are mystics, but Teresa is clearly the most articulate and nuanced mystical teacher of the lot.
One edition of Interior Castle features commentary by a Redemptorist priest, Fr. Dennis Billy, who writes that there are at least nine dimensions of prayer that Teresa describes throughout her writings, beginning with “vocal prayer” (the ordinary practice of praying using words, either written in a book or spontaneously out of one’s heart), leading through to meditation (mental prayer), affective or adoring prayer, and then on to forms of contemplation, silent prayer, and ultimately degrees of mystical union with God. Most of these “higher” mystical forms of prayer are described in the latter mansions of the Interior Castle.
But in The Way of Perfection, Teresa offers surprisingly humble and down-to-earth advice for the person who wants to pray seriously. Recognizing that the most humble type of prayer — vocal prayer — needs to remain the foundation of prayer even for an advanced mystic, Teresa describes a beautifully simple way of praying that anyone can embrace: of combining ordinary vocal prayers (like the Our Father) with a focus on silent adoration (love) for God in one’s heart, while praying. So, in effect, Teresa combines a simple form of affectionate contemplation with the ordinary, humble experience of reciting one’s daily prayers, to form a basic, accessible practice of heartfelt praying that anyone can embrace. Indeed, Teresa suggests that anyone who is capable of advanced forms of meditation or contemplation probably does not need her simple advice, which she suggests is for the ordinary person whose mind races like wild horses!
Reading Teresa is not always easy: she often wanders into lengthy digressions that make it difficult to follow her train of thought, and her theology often emphasizes the royalty of God and Christ that Americans might find difficult to relate to. She also often puts herself down as simply an ignorant woman, a technique that feels annoying to postmodern eyes but in fact may have been a literary device she consciously used to preemptively defend herself against any possible accusations of heresy. How could Teresa be a heretic, if she were only a “stupid woman”?! But in fact, she proves again and again not only that she wasn’t stupid, but indeed that she was a genius of the soul.
To readers encountering Teresa for the first (or fiftieth) time, I would recommend approaching her words in a spirit of lectio divina — read her writings slowly, meditatively, looking for guidance from the Spirit to help you identify which of her words, phrases, ideas or principles seem to speak most directly to your situation. When something jumps out at you in this way, turn to prayer, and meditate over the words that speak to your heart. Let Teresa’s writing be a venue for the deepening of your own contemplative journey.
Here are a few quotations from Teresa, that help to illustrate just how feisty and passionate a person she was.
From The Book of My Life:
O God, help me! How a soul suffers when she loses the freedom to be who she truly is.
Without a doubt, I fear those who fear the devil more than I fear the devil himself.
Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.
From The Way of Perfection:
We have heaven within ourselves since the Lord of heaven is there.
There are some souls and minds so scattered they are like wild horses no one can stop. Now they’re running here, now there, always restless… This restlessness is either caused by the soul’s nature or permitted by God.
If you speak, strive to remember that the One with whom you are speaking is present within. If you listen, remember that you are going to hear One who is very close to you when he speaks.
From Interior Castle:
The important thing is not to think much but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you to love.
We cannot know whether we love God, although there may be strong reason for thinking so; but there can be no doubt about whether we love our neighbor or not.
Just as we cannot stop the movement of the heavens, revolving as they do with such speed, so we cannot restrain our thought. And then we send all the faculties of the soul after it, thinking we are lost, and have misused the time that we are spending in the presence of God. Yet the soul may perhaps be wholly united with Him in the Mansions very near His presence, while thought remains in the outskirts of the castle, suffering the assaults of a thousand wild and venomous creatures and from this suffering winning merit. So this must not upset us, and we must not abandon the struggle, as the devil tries to make us do. Most of these trials and times of unrest come from the fact that we do not understand ourselves.