Saint Teresa of Avila
Feast Day: October 15th
Born at Avila, Old Castile, 28 March, 1515; died at Alba de Tormes, 4 Oct., 1582.
The third child of Don Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda by his second wife, Doña Beatriz Davila y Ahumada, who died when the saint was in her fourteenth year, Teresa was brought up by her saintly father, a lover of serious books, and a tender and pious mother. After her death and the marriage of her eldest sister, Teresa was sent for her education to the Augustinian nuns at Avila, but owing to illness she left at the end of eighteen months, and for some years remained with her father and occasionally with other relatives, notably an uncle who made her acquainted with the Letters of St. Jerome, which determined her to adopt the religious life, not so much through any attraction towards it, as through a desire of choosing the safest course. Unable to obtain her father's consent she left his house unknown to him on Nov., 1535, to enter the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation at Avila, which then counted 140 nuns. The wrench from her family caused her a pain which she ever afterwards compared to that of death. However, her father at once yielded and Teresa took the habit.
After her profession in the following year she became very seriously ill, and underwent a prolonged cure and such unskillful medical treatment that she was reduced to a most pitiful state, and even after partial recovery through the intercession of St. Joseph, her health remained permanently impaired. During these years of suffering she began the practice of mental prayer, but fearing that her conversations with some world-minded relatives, frequent visitors at the convent, rendered her unworthy of the graces God bestowed on her in prayer, discontinued it, until she came under the influence, first of the Dominicans, and afterwards of the Jesuits. Meanwhile God had begun to visit her with "intellectual visions and locutions", that is manifestations in which the exterior senses were in no way affected, the things seen and the words heard being directly impressed upon her mind, and giving her wonderful strength in trials, reprimanding her for unfaithfulness, and consoling her in trouble. Unable to reconcile such graces with her shortcomings, which her delicate conscience represented as grievous faults, she had recourse not only to the most spiritual confessors she could find, but also to some saintly laymen, who, never suspecting that the account she gave them of her sins was greatly exaggerated, believed these manifestations to be the work of the evil spirit. The more she endeavoured to resist them the more powerfully did God work in her soul. The whole city of Avila was troubled by the reports of the visions of this nun. It was reserved to St. Francis Borgia and St. Peter of Alcantara, and afterwards to a number of Dominicans (particularly Pedro Ibañez and Domingo Bañez), Jesuits, and other religious and secular priests, to discern the work of God and to guide her on a safe road.
The account of her spiritual life contained in the "Life written by herself" (completed in 1565, an earlier version being lost), in the "Relations", and in the "Interior Castle", forms one of the most remarkable spiritual biographies with which only the "Confessions of St. Augustine" can bear comparison. To this period belong also such extraordinary manifestations as the piercing or transverberation of her heart, the spiritual espousals, and the mystical marriage. A vision of the place destined for her in hell in case she should have been unfaithful to grace, determined her to seek a more perfect life. After many troubles and much opposition St. Teresa founded the convent of Discalced Carmelite Nuns of the Primitive Rule of St. Joseph at Avila (24 Aug., 1562), and after six months obtained permission to take up her residence there. Four years later she received the visit of the General of the Carmelites, John-Baptist Rubeo (Rossi), who not only approved of what she had done but granted leave for the foundation of other convents of friars as well as nuns. In rapid succession she established her nuns at Medina del Campo (1567), Malagon and Valladolid (1568), Toledo and Pastrana (1569), Salamanca (1570), Alba de Tormes (1571), Segovia (1574), Veas and Seville (1575), and Caravaca (1576). In the "Book of Foundations" she tells the story of these convents, nearly all of which were established in spite of violent opposition but with manifest assistance from above. Everywhere she found souls generous enough to embrace the austerities of the primitive rule of Carmel. Having made the acquaintance of Antonio de Heredia, prior of Medina, and St. John of the Cross, she established her reform among the friars (28 Nov., 1568), the first convents being those of Duruelo (1568), Pastrana (1569), Mancera, and Alcalá de Henares (1570).
A new epoch began with the entrance into religion of Jerome Gratian, inasmuch as this remarkable man was almost immediately entrusted by the nuncio with the authority of visitor Apostolic of the Carmelite friars and nuns of the old observance in Andalusia, and as such considered himself entitled to overrule the various restrictions insisted upon by the general and the general chapter. On the death of the nuncio and the arrival of his successor a fearful storm burst over St. Teresa and her work, lasting four years and threatening to annihilate the nascent reform. The incidents of this persecution are best described in her letters. The storm at length passed, and the province of Discalced Carmelites, with the support of Philip II, was approved and canonically established on 22 June, 1580. St. Teresa, old and broken in health, made further foundations at Villnuava de la Jara and Palencia (1580), Soria (1581), Granada (through her assiatant the Venerable Anne of Jesus), and at Burgos (1582). She left this latter place at the end of July, and, stopping at Palencia, Valldolid, and Medina del Campo, reached Alba de Torres in September, suffering intensely. Soon she took to her bed and passed away on 4 Oct., 1582, the following day, owing to the reform of the calendar, being reckoned as 15 October. After some years her body was transferred to Avila, but later on reconveyed to Alba, where it is still preserved incorrupt. Her heart, too, showing the marks of the Transverberation, is exposed there to the veneration of the faithful. She was beatified in 1614, and canonized in 1622 by Gregory XV, the feast being fixed on 15 October.
St. Teresa's position among writers on mystical theology is unique. In all her writings on this subject she deals with her personal experiences, which a deep insight and analytical gifts enabled her to explain clearly. The Thomistic substratum may be traced to the influence of her confessors and directors, many of whom belonged to the Dominican Order. She herself had no pretension to found a school in the accepted sense of the term, and there is no vestige in her writings of any influence of the Aeropagite, the Patristic, or the Scholastic Mystical schools, as represented among others, by the German Dominican Mystics. She is intensely personal, her system going exactly as far as her experiences, but not a step further.
A word must be added on the orthography of her name. It has of late become the fashion to write her name Teresa or Teresia, without "h", not only in Spanish and Italian, where the "h" could have no place, but also in French, German, and Latin, which ought to preserve the etymological spelling. As it is derived from a Greek name, Tharasia, the saintly wife of St. Paulinus of Nola, it should be written Theresia in German and Latin, and Thérèse in French.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV
text Courtesy of TraditionalCatholic.net
St. Teresa of
St. Teresa, so greatly gifted by the Almighty, was born in 1515, at Avila, in Spain, of not less pious than noble parents. Among other devout exercises, her parents were accustomed frequently to read pious books, and their daughter was taught to do the same as soon as she was able to read. Teresa soon became so much attached to this that she often retired with her brother Roderick to a solitary place, in order to read more undisturbed. Though scarcely seven years of age she thus obtained so vivid a knowledge as well of temporal as of spiritual things that she sometimes would exclaim, as if in ecstasy: "O Eternity! O Eternity! To be tormented during a whole eternity! To rejoice during a whole eternity! To be without end in pain! To be without end in joy! Oh, who can find words for it?" Whilst she read the lives of the Saints, her heart became so inflamed with the desire to die for the honor of Christ, that, in company with Roderick, she secretly left her father's home, intending to go to Africa to preach Christ among the Saracens, and thus earn the glorious crown of martyrdom. Although the two young adventurers were immediately pursued and brought back to their parents, yet the desire to die for Christ could not be torn from Teresa's heart. When, in the twelfth year of her age, she lost her mother by an early death, Teresa cast herself down before an image of the Blessed Virgin, and in a flood of tears, cried out: "Mother of Mercy! I choose thee for my Mother! Take me, a poor orphan, among the number of thy children!" The wonderful protection of the Queen of Heaven, which she enjoyed in the future, proved that her prayer was heard.
Through the natural levity and forgetfulness of childhood, it happened that Teresa, after the death of her mother, gradually left off her devout reading, and instead of it, fell upon worldly books. She also became very intimate with one of her cousins, who was much addicted to vanity. This caused her to grow cold in her devotion; she no longer found pleasure in prayer, but became idle and vain,--without, however, losing the innocence of her heart. When her pious father became aware of the change, he sent her into an Augustinian convent, where she soon came to the knowledge of her fault, and bitterly repented of it. That she did not fall into greater spiritual danger she always ascribed to the special favor of the Divine Mother. She again began to read devout books, and thus brought back her former pious zeal, which had almost entirely died out, since she had spent so much time in reading romances. Soon after, she became dangerously sick, and her father took her home again. During her illness she recognized more thoroughly than before the vanity of the world, and was filled with an intense desire to leave it entirely and to serve God in the religious state. Her father was greatly opposed to this; but she secretly fled to the convent of the Carmelite Nuns, near Avila. This took place when she was in her twentieth year. But no sooner had she left her father's house, than she felt so ardent a desire to return to it, that she trembled in all her limbs. Looking upon this as a temptation of Satan, she courageously continued her way, and when she had arrived at the Convent, an entire change suddenly took place within her; her sorrow and dread became joy and comfort. Thus did the Almighty recompense her self-control.
Teresa began her novitiate with great zeal, continued in it, and ended by taking upon herself the usual vows. Some time later, however, she once more lost her fervor in the service of God, because she conversed too long and too often with people of the world and thus neglected her prayers and lost her love for devout exercises. One day, going into church to pray, her eyes fell upon a picture of Our Savior representing Him covered with wounds. At the same moment, her inmost soul was deeply moved by the thought that Christ had suffered so much for her, and that she had hitherto been so ungrateful and disobedient to Him. Her heart became so filled with grief, that it seemed to her as if it would break. Hence, sinking down before the image, she began to weep bitterly over her inconstancy, and said, with the most perfect trust: "Lord, I will not rise from the ground, until Thou hast bestowed sufficient strength on me, not to sin in future, but to serve Thee faithfully and with my whole heart." This short but fervent prayer of Teresa was heard by the Almighty. Her heart was suddenly and forever changed; all affection for human beings was banished from it; her love of God and her delight in prayer and other spiritual exercises renewed, and the resolution taken to continue henceforth in the same. From that hour Teresa vacillated no more in the service of God, but persevered, with uninterrupted and daily increasing zeal, in the path of virtue and perfection.
God afterwards revealed to her that she owed her conversion to the intercession of St. Joseph and of the Blessed Virgin; hence she sought also to obtain the grace of perseverance by their aid. To this end, she represented frequently to herself the example of St. Magdalen and St. Augustine, and thus animated herself against a relapse. She repented daily most bitterly of the faults of her past life and endeavored to atone for them by wearing rough penitential garments, by scourging herself, and by other penances, although, according to the words of her confessors, she had not been guilty of great sin. One day, God showed her a terrible place in hell, saying that she would have been precipitated into it, if she had continued in her frivolous conversations at the convent-gate with people of the world, and in her neglect of devotional exercises. Her hair stood on end at this revelation, and her eagerness to serve God most faithfully and also to persuade others to do the same, was newly awakened. For this reason, she determined to use all possible means, in order to institute once more the original austerity of the Carmelites, from which, by consent of the spiritual authorities, they had somewhat departed. God Himself inspired her with these thoughts and promised her His aid in the execution of them. But as this was an undertaking which had never yet been attempted by a woman, it is easy to imagine the many and great obstacles she had to overcome. Many of the Clergy and laity opposed her plans, and she was slandered and persecuted on account of them.
But notwithstanding this, heaven so visibly assisted her, that, before her death, she counted thirty-two new convents, either of men or of women, in which the religious of her order led a holy life in the observance of all the severity of the original rule. Whoever reflects on the trouble and labor it must have cost St. Teresa to carry out this great enterprise, will not hesitate to pronounce her success a great miracle. It is impossible to describe the great virtues of this holy foundress or the wonderful graces which God bestowed upon her. She possessed among others, the gifts of prophecy and of reading the secrets of the heart. During her prayer, she frequently fell into ecstasy, and was often seen surrounded by a divine light. Once she was heard to exclaim: "Ah! only one God! Only one death! Only one soul! "the explanation of which words she herself gave afterwards, as follows: "There is only one God; if we displease Him, there is no other from whom to seek help. Man dies only once; if therefore his death is unhappy, there is no chance left to remedy the mistake. One soul only do we possess; and if this is lost, there is no hope of salvation."
The visions she had of our Lord, of the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, the holy Angels and other Saints, were almost without number. In the last years of her life, seldom a day passed in which she was not favored with the sight of Christ in the holy Sacrament. The Divine Mother herself instructed, comforted and strengthened her on all occasions. She said of St. Joseph, that she never asked anything of him which she did not obtain. But notwithstanding these and other great graces, her humility was so deep, that she called herself the greatest of sinners, and desired to be considered as such. She often said that she owed it to the especial grace of God that He had not, according to her deserts, precipitated her into hell. She hated all human praise, and it was her greatest delight to be abused, reviled and slandered. She often begged God to withhold His gifts, as she had so often offended Him and made herself unworthy of His grace. Not less wonderful was her patience and desire to suffer. She said, one day, that during forty years she had scarcely been one hour without pain, except at the time when she received Holy Communion, when the interior consolation she felt made her forget her bodily ailments. Incredible almost are the many and severe sicknesses with which she was visited by divine Providence. Among these were violent pains in her side and joints, trembling in all her limbs, disgust of food, and a fever which troubled her for five long years. All these were increased by temptations and spiritual desolation, and also by many and great persecutions.
But in all these trials, she never manifested the slightest impatience; on the contrary, she felt an insatiable desire to suffer still more. Hence she was frequently heard to exclaim: "Lord, either to suffer or to die! For, life is too burdensome when I have nothing to suffer." During her maladies she said with Job: "If we have received good things from the hands of the Lord, why should we not also be grateful for that which is evil? "She never manifested any dislike, much less hatred towards those who most unjustly slandered and persecuted her; on the contrary, she showed them a great deal of kindness and endeavored to be useful to them. Hence a certain bishop said: "Whoever wishes to be favored by Teresa, must revile or injure her." She wept bitterly over the blindness of the heretics, and offered many penances for their conversion. She also prescribed in her regulations that the religious of her Order should offer prayers and other good works, in order that God might aid preachers and others who labor for the salvation of souls and the conversion of heretics and sinners. God, one day, showed her the joys of Heaven, saying: "Behold! of what great treasures sinners deprive themselves! "This increased more and more her zeal to further the conversion of sinners. To the poor and sick she was like a tender mother. She offered for the souls of the departed many penances and prayers, thus opening the gates of heaven to a great many of them. In purity of mind and body, she was more an angel than a human being; for besides never having the least fault to reproach herself with in that regard, she had received from God the grace of being free from all unclean thoughts and temptations. Nevertheless she employed all the means which are necessary or useful to preserve purity.
Her other virtues, as her perfect obedience, her extreme poverty, her constant self-abnegation, her wonderful moderation in everything, and her great austerity, must be omitted for want of space; but of her love of God we feel obliged to speak, as in this virtue she seems to have reached the highest point which a human being can attain. And can it be wondered at? She herself saw that an angel pierced her heart with a burning arrow, as a sign of her intense devotion to the Almighty. Christ Himself gave her His hand, saying: "In future shalt thou, as a true spouse, labor zealously for my honor." Nothing grieved her more painfully than when she heard that God, whom she loved so intensely, had been offended by others; and she avoided nothing so carefully as in the least to offend Him. God was constantly in her thoughts even in the midst of her occupations. To Him she constantly raised her heart by short interior prayers, which she sent to heaven with such fervency, that the flames of divine love which burned within her, were reflected on her countenance. The least fault she committed caused her many tears, and she made a vow, not only never to displease God by a voluntary venial sin, and to guard herself against every imperfection, but also constantly to endeavor to do what she knew was most agreeable to the Almighty. The Roman Breviary testifies that she died more from the greatness of her love for the Most High, than from the pains of her sickness.
She knew the hour of her death, eight years before it took place. When she felt it approaching, she wrote a most touching and beautiful letter to all the members of the Convents she had founded, exhorting them to persevere in their fervor. After having most devoutly received the Holy Sacraments, she occupied herself with mental prayer. "At length, the long wished for hour has come, in which I cannot offend Thee any more, O my Lord!" exclaimed she, "the hour in which I shall see Thee." Soon after, she thanked God that she had been born in the Catholic Church, and repeatedly said: "I am a daughter of Thy church, I die a child of the Catholic Church." She was also frequently heard to say: "O Lord! cast me not from Thy face A contrite and humble heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise." Turning on one side, her arms crossed over her breast and pressing a crucifix to her heart, she prayed silently for some time, and calmly expired, in the 68th year of her age, in 1582. Christ visibly appeared to her in her last hour, accompanied by His divine Mother and many Angels. She appeared in great glory to several of her absent friends, at the hour of her death. At the moment when she gave her soul to God, a dead tree, which stood before her cell, began to bud. Her holy body, from which a most delicious odor emanates, has remained incorrupt until this hour; and the relation of the many miracles which took place after her death, fill several books. But what appears most worthy of our admiration in the life of this Saint, is that she, though a weak woman, and almost always afflicted with sickness, could have written many books filled with more than human wisdom; worked so much for the honor of God and the salvation of souls, endured so many persecutions, wrongs and slanders in her holy undertaking; and yet succeeded so well in what she had begun by divine inspiration. God manifested in her, what a feeble human being can do with His aid, and what great works He can perform through feeble hands.
The whole life of St. Teresa is filled with the most wholesome lessons. Let us point out some of them in a few words:
I. Teresa began in early youth, after the teachings of her pious parents, to read devout books; from this she first drew the spirit of piety. No sooner, however, had she become interested in reading worldly books, than she grew from day to day more indolent in the service of God; and she returned not to her first fervor, until she had cast aside those works, and again resumed her pious reading: a proof of the great benefit we may derive from devout books, and of the harm which worldly writings may do us. Oh! that those, who desire to live piously, may understand this, and conform their lives to it. Oh! that all Christians would guide their children from their early youth to the reading of devout books!
II. Teresa, after the death of her mother, chose the Blessed Virgin to be another mother to her, and sought and found in her, comfort and help in all her needs. Through her intercession and that of St. Joseph, she received the grace of being constant in her reform. Love Mary as your mother ; seek, with filial trust, consolation and help from her. St. Joseph should be one of your principal patrons, as his intercession is very powerful with the Almighty, and especially as he has now been solemnly declared the Patron Saint of the Universal Church.
III. The sight of the wounded Jesus filled the heart of St. Teresa with great contrition for her former indifferent life; it inflamed her with true love of God, and kept her until her end in these sentiments. Consider frequently how your Saviour suffered for your sake; and repent of your sins sincerely, as they were the cause of Christ's bitter Passion. Love your Redeemer with all the strength of your heart, and make the resolution to serve Him in future most fervently.
IV. Teresa saw the place in hell which would have been hers, if she had not discontinued her idle discourses and her indifference in the worship of the Most High. Hence, she often gave humble thanks to God that He had not condemned her, and she learned by it how hurtful even a menial sin can become, since it may lead us gradually to the path of everlasting perdition. You have still more reason to give thanks to God that He did not call you away in your sin.
How long would you already have been in hell? If idle, empty conversation would have led Teresa gradually into hell, what may you not have to fear if you do not abstain from so much sinful talking in which you indulge? Learn also that you should not esteem a venial sin, however small it appears to you, as trifling; for, it may slowly lead you to damnation.
Many other lessons, which the life of St. Teresa contains, I leave to yourself to consider. One thing only I request of you. Call to mind frequently the words which the Saint uttered in her ecstasy: "Only one God! Only one death! Only one soul! "Love this only God, and do not offend Him. Take earnest care of your only, your precious, your immortal soul. "Keep thyself, therefore, and thy soul carefully." (Deut., iv.)
Hope in the Mercy of God
When I was in the midst of the pleasures of the world, the remembrance of what I owed to God made me sad, and when I was praying to God my worldly affections disturbed me. This is so painful a struggle that I know not how I could have borne it for a month, let alone for so many years. Nevertheless, I can trace distinctly the great mercy of our Lord to me, while thus immersed in the world, in that I had still the courage to pray. I say courage, because I know of nothing in the whole world which requires greater courage than plotting treason against the King, knowing that He knows it, and yet never withdrawing from His presence; for, granting that we are always in the presence of God, yet it seems to me that those who pray are in His presence in a very different sense; for they, as it were, see that He is looking upon them, while others may be for days together without even once recollecting that God sees them.
It is true, indeed, that during these years there were many months, and, I believe, occasionally a whole year, in which I so kept guard over myself that I did not offend our Lord, gave myself much to prayer, and took some pains, and that successfully, not to offend Him. I speak of this now because all I am saying is strictly true; but I remember very little of those good days, and so they must have been few, while my evil days were many. Still, the days that passed over without my spending a great part of them in prayer were few, unless I was very ill, or very much occupied.
When I was ill, I was well with God. I contrived that those about me should be so, too, and I made supplications to our Lord for this grace, and spoke frequently of Him. Thus, with the exception of that year of which I have been speaking, during eight and twenty years of prayer, I spent more than eighteen in that strife and contention which arose out of my attempts to reconcile God and the world. As to the other years, of which I have now to speak, in them the grounds of the warfare, though it was not slight, were changed; but inasmuch as I was--at least, I think so--serving God, and aware of the vanity of the world, all has been pleasant, as I shall show hereafter.
The reason, then, of my telling this at so great length is that, as I have just said, the mercy of God and my ingratitude, on the one hand, may become known; and, on the other, that men may understand how great is the good which God works in a soul when He gives it a disposition to pray in earnest, though it may not be so well prepared as it ought to be. If that soul perseveres in spite of sins, temptations, and relapses, brought about in a thousand ways by Satan, our Lord will bring it at last--I am certain of it--to the harbor of salvation, as He has brought me myself; for so it seems to me now. May His Majesty grant I may never go back and be lost! He who gives himself to prayer is in possession of a great blessing, of which many saintly and good men have written--I am speaking of mental prayer--glory be to God for it! and, if they had not done so, I am not proud enough, though I have but little humility, to presume to discuss it.
I may speak of that which I know by experience; and so, I say, let him never cease from prayer who has once begun it, be his life ever so wicked; for prayer is the way to amend it, and without prayer such amendment will be much more difficult. Let him not be tempted by Satan, as I was, to give it up, on the pretense of humility; let him rather believe that His words are true Who says that, if we truly repent, and resolve never to offend Him, He will take us into His favor again, give us the graces He gave us before, and occasionally even greater, if our repentance deserves it. And as to him who has not begun to pray, I implore him by the love of our Lord not to deprive himself of so great a good.
Herein there is nothing to be afraid of, but everything to hope for. Granting that such a one does not advance, nor make an effort to become perfect, so as to merit the joys and consolations which the perfect receive from God, yet he will by little and little attain to a knowledge of the road which leads to heaven. And, if he perseveres, I hope in the mercy of God for him, seeing that no one ever took Him for his friend that was not amply rewarded; for 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. Now, true love and lasting friendship require certain dispositions; those of our Lord, we know, are absolutely perfect; ours, vicious, sensual, and thankless; and you cannot, therefore, bring yourselves to love Him, as He loves you, because you have not the disposition to do so; and if you do not love Him, yet, seeing how much it concerns you to have His friendship, and how great is His love for you, rise above that pain you feel at being much with Him Who is so different from you.
O infinite Goodness of my God! I seem to see Thee and myself in this relation to one another. O Joy of the angels! when I consider it, I wish I could wholly die of love! How true it is that Thou endurest those who will not endure Thee! Oh, how good a friend art Thou, O my Lord! how Thou comfortest and endurest, and also waitest for them to make themselves like unto Thee, and yet, in the meanwhile, art Thyself so patient of the state they are in! Thou takest into account the occasions during which they seek Thee, and for a moment of penitence forgettest their offences against Thyself.
. . . . . I look upon it as a most certain truth, that the devil will never deceive, and that God will not suffer him to deceive, the soul which has no confidence whatever in itself; which is strong in faith, and resolved to undergo a thousand deaths for any one article of the creed; which in its love of the faith, infused of God once for all,--a faith living and strong,--always labors, seeking for further light on this side and on that, to mold itself on the teaching of the Church, as one already deeply grounded in the truth. No imaginable revelations, not even if it saw the heavens open, could make that soul swerve in any degree from the doctrine of the Church.
If, however, it should at any time find itself wavering even in thought on this point, or stopping to say to itself, If God says this to me, it may be true, as well as what He said to the Saints--the soul must not be sure of it. I do not mean that it so believes, only that Satan has taken the first step towards tempting it; and the giving way to the first movements of a thought like this is evidently most wrong. I believe, however, that these first movements will not take place if the soul is so strong in the matter--as that soul is to whom our Lord sends these graces--that it seems as if it could crush the evil spirits in defense of the very least of the truths which the Church holds.
If the soul does not discern this great strength in itself, and if the particular devotion or vision help it not onwards, then it must not look upon it as safe. For though at first the soul is conscious of no harm, great harm may by degrees ensue; because so far as I can see, and by experience understand, that which purports to come from God is received only in so far as it corresponds with the sacred writings; but if it varies there from ever so little, I am incomparably more convinced that it comes from Satan than I am now convinced it comes from God, however deep that conviction may be.
In this case, there is no need to ask for signs, nor from what spirit it proceeds, because this varying is so clear a sign of the devil's presence, that if all the world were to assure me that it came from God, I would not believe it. The fact is, that all good seems to be lost out of sight, and to have fled from the soul, when the devil has spoken to it; the soul is thrown into a state of disgust, and is troubled, able to do no good thing whatever--for if it conceives good desires, they are not strong; its humility is fictitious, disturbed, and without sweetness. Any one who has ever tasted of the Spirit of God will, I think, understand it. Nevertheless, Satan has many devices; and so there is nothing more certain than that it is safer to be afraid, and always on our guard, under a learned director, from whom nothing is concealed.
Now that I have described certain temptations and troubles, interior and secret, of which Satan was the cause, I will speak of others which he wrought almost in public, and in which his presence could not be ignored (2 Cor ii. II).
I was once in an oratory, when Satan, in an abominable shape, appeared on my left hand. I looked at his mouth in particular, because he spoke, and it was horrible. A huge flame seemed to issue out of his body, perfectly bright, without any shadow. He spoke in a fearful way, and said to me that, though I had escaped out of his hands, he would yet lay hold of me again. I was in great terror, made the sign of the cross as well as I could, and then the form vanished--but it reappeared instantly. This occurred twice. I did not know what to do; there was some holy water at hand; I took some, and threw it in the direction of the figure, and then Satan never returned.
On another occasion I was tortured for five hours with such terrible pains, such inward and outward sufferings, that it seemed to me as if I could not bear them. Those who were with me were frightened; they knew not what to do, and I could not help myself. I am in the habit, when these pains and my bodily suffering are most unendurable, to make interior acts as well as I can, imploring our Lord, if it be His will, to give me patience, and then to let me suffer on, even to the end of the world. So, when I found myself suffering so cruelly, I relieved myself by making those acts and resolutions, in order that I might be able to endure the pain. It pleased our Lord to let me understand that it was the work of Satan; for I saw close beside me a most frightful little negro, gnashing his teeth in despair at losing what he attempted to seize. When I saw him, I laughed, and had no fear; for there were some then present who were helpless, and knew of no means whereby so great a pain could be relieved. My body, head, and arms were violently shaken; I could not help myself: but the worst of all was the interior pain, for I could find no ease in any way. Nor did I dare to ask for holy water, lest those who were with me should be afraid, and find out what the matter really was.
I know by frequent experience that there is nothing which puts the devils to flight like holy water. They run away before the sign of the cross also, but they return immediately: great, then, must be the power of holy water. As for me, my soul is conscious of a special and most distinct consolation whenever I take it. Indeed, I feel almost always a certain refreshing, which I cannot describe, together with an inward joy, which comforts my whole soul. This is no fancy, nor a thing which has occurred once only; for it has happened very often, and I have watched it very carefully. I may compare what I feel with that which happens to a person in great heat, and very thirsty, drinking a cup of cold water--his whole being is refreshed. I consider that everything ordained by the Church is very important; and I have a joy in reflecting that the words of the Church are so mighty, that they endow water with power, so that there shall be so great a difference between holy water and water that has never been blessed. Then, as my pains did not cease, I told them, if they would not laugh, I would ask for some holy water. They brought me some, and sprinkled me with it; but I was no better. I then threw some myself in the direction of the black man, when he fled in a moment. All my sufferings ceased, just as if some one had taken them from me with his hand; only I was wearied, as if I had been beaten with many blows. It was of great service to me to learn that if, by our Lord's permission, Satan can do so much evil to a soul and body not in his power, he can do much more when he has them in his possession. It gave me a renewed desire to be delivered from a fellowship so dangerous.
Another time, and not long ago, the same thing happened to me, though it did not last so long, and I was alone at the moment. I asked for holy water; and they who came in after the devil had gone away,--they were two nuns, worthy of all credit, and would not tell a lie for anything,--perceived a most offensive smell, like that of brimstone. I smelt nothing myself; but the odor lasted long enough to become sensible to them.
On another occasion I was in choir when, in a moment, I became profoundly recollected. I went out in order that the sisters might know nothing of it; yet those who were near heard the sound of heavy blows where I was, and I heard voices myself, as of persons in consultation, but I did not hear what they said: I was so absorbed in prayer that I understood nothing, neither was I at all afraid. This took place almost always when our Lord was pleased that some soul or other, persuaded by me, advanced in the spiritual life. Certainly, what I am now about to describe happened to me once; there are witnesses to testify to it, particularly my present confessor (Either Fr. Dominic Banez or Fr. Garcia de Toledo), for he saw the account in a letter. I did not tell him from whom the letter came, but he knew perfectly who the person was.
There came to me a person who, for two years and a half, had been living in mortal sin of the most abominable nature I ever heard. During the whole of that time he neither confessed it nor ceased from it; and yet he said Mass. He confessed his other sins; but of this one he used to say, How can I confess so foul a sin? He wished to give it up, but he could not prevail on himself to do so. I was very sorry for him, and it was a great grief to me to see God offended in such a way. I promised him that I would pray to God for his amendment, and get others who were better than I to do the same. I wrote to one person, and the priest undertook to get the letter delivered. It came to pass that he made a full confession at the first opportunity; for our Lord was pleased, on account of the prayers of those most holy persons to whom I had recommended him, to have pity on this soul. I, too, wretched as I am, did all I could for the same end.
He wrote to me, and said that he was so far improved that he had not for some days repeated his sin; but he was so tormented by the temptation that it seemed to him as if he were in hell already, so great were his sufferings. He asked me to pray to God for him. I recommended him to my sisters, through whose prayers I must have obtained this mercy from our Lord; for they took the matter greatly to heart; and he was a person whom no one could find out. I implored His Majesty to put an end to these torments and temptations, and to let the evil spirits torment me instead, provided I did not offend our Lord. Thus it was that for one month I was most grievously tormented; and then it was that these two assaults of Satan, of which I have just spoken, took place.
Our Lord was pleased to deliver him out of this temptation, so I was informed; for I told him what happened to myself that month. His soul gained strength, and he continued free; he could never give thanks enough to our Lord and to me as if I had been of any service--unless it be that the belief he had that our Lord granted me such graces was of some advantage to him. He said that, when he saw himself in great straits, he would read my letters, and then the temptation left him. He was very much astonished at my sufferings, and at the manner of his own deliverance: even I myself am astonished, and I would suffer as much for many years for the deliverance of that soul. May our Lord be praised for ever! for the prayers of those who serve Him can do great things; and I believe the sisters of this house do serve Him. The devils must have been more angry with me only because I asked them to pray, and because our Lord permitted it on account of my sins. At that time, too, I thought the evil spirits would have suffocated me one night, and when the sisters threw much holy water about I saw a great troop of them rush away as if tumbling over a precipice. These cursed spirits have tormented me so often, and I am now so little afraid of them,--because I see they cannot stir without our Lord's permission,--that I should weary both you, my father, and myself, if I were to speak of these things in detail.
May this I have written be of use to the true servant of God, who ought to despise these terrors, which Satan sends only to make him afraid! Let him understand that each time we despise these terrors, their force is lessened, and the soul gains power over them. There is always some great good obtained; but I will not speak of it, that I may not be too diffuse. I will speak, however, of what happened to me once on the night of All Souls. I was in an oratory, and, having said one Nocturn, was saying some very devotional prayers at the end of our Breviary, when Satan put himself on the book before me, to prevent my finishing my prayer. I made the sign of the cross, and he went away. I then returned to my prayer, and he, too, came back; he did so, I believe, three times, and I was not able to finish the prayer without throwing holy water at him. I saw certain souls at that moment come forth out of purgatory--they must have been near their deliverance, and I thought that Satan might in this way have been trying to hinder their release. It is very rarely that I saw Satan assume a bodily form; I know of his presence through the vision I have spoken of before, the vision wherein no form is seen.
I wish also to relate what follows, for I was greatly alarmed at it: on Trinity Sunday, in the choir of a certain monastery, and in a trance, I saw a great fight between evil spirits and the angels. I could not make out what the vision meant. In less than a fortnight it was explained clearly enough by the dispute that took place between persons given to prayer and many who were not, which did great harm to that house; for it was a dispute that lasted long and caused much trouble. On another occasion I saw a great multitude of evil spirits round about me, and, at the same time, a great light, in which I was enveloped, which kept them from coming near me. I understood it to mean that God was watching over me, that they might not approach me so as to make me offend Him. I knew the vision was real by what I saw occasionally in myself. The fact is, I know now how little power the evil spirits have, provided I am not out of the grace of God; I have scarcely any fear of them at all, for their strength is as nothing, if they do not find the souls they assail give up the contest and become cowards; it is in this case that they show their power.
Some considerable time after our Lord had bestowed upon me the graces I have been describing, and others also of a higher nature, I was one day in prayer when I found myself in a moment, without knowing how, plunged apparently into hell. I understood that it was our Lord's will I should see the place which the devils kept in readiness for me, and which I had deserved by my sins (1). It was but a moment, but it seems to me impossible I should ever forget it, even if I were to live many years.
The entrance seemed to be by a long narrow pass, like a furnace, very low, dark, and close. The ground seemed to be saturated with water, mere mud, exceedingly foul, sending forth pestilential odors, and covered with loathsome vermin. At the end was a hollow place in the wall, like a closet, and in that I saw myself confined. All this was even pleasant to behold in comparison with what I felt there. There is no exaggeration in what I am saying.
But as to what I then felt, I do not know where to begin, if I were to describe it; it is utterly inexplicable. I felt a fire in my soul. I cannot see how it is possible to describe it. My bodily sufferings were unendurable. I have undergone most painful sufferings in this life, and, as the physicians say, the greatest that can be borne, such as the contraction of my sinews when I was paralyzed, without speaking of others of different kinds, yea, even those of which I have also spoken, inflicted on me by Satan; yet all these were as nothing in comparison with what I felt then, especially when I saw that there would be no intermission, nor any end to them.
These sufferings were nothing in comparison with the anguish of my soul, a sense of oppression, of stifling, and of pain so keen, accompanied by so hopeless and cruel an infliction, that I know not how to speak of it. If I said that the soul is continually being torn from the body it would be nothing,--for that implies the destruction of life by the hands of another; but here it is the soul itself that is tearing itself in pieces. I cannot describe that inward fire or that despair, surpassing all torments and all pain. I did not see who it was that tormented me, but I felt myself on fire, and torn to pieces, as it seemed to me; and, I repeat it, this inward fire and despair are the greatest torments of all.
Left in that pestilential place, and utterly without the power to hope for comfort, I could neither sit nor lie down: there was no room. I was placed as it were in a hole in the wall; and those walls, terrible to look on of themselves, hemmed me in on every side. I could not breathe. There was no light, but all was thick darkness. I do not understand how it is; though there was no light, yet everything that can give pain by being seen was visible.
Our Lord at that time would not let me see more of hell. Afterwards I had another most fearful vision, in which I saw the punishment of certain sins. They were most horrible to look at; but, because I felt none of the pain, my terror was not so great. In the former vision our Lord made me really feel those torments, and that anguish of spirit, just as if I had been suffering them in the body there. I know not how it was, but I understood distinctly that it was a great mercy that our Lord would have me see with mine own eyes the very place from which His compassion saved me. I have listened to people speaking of these things, and I have at other times dwelt on the various torments of hell, though not often, because my soul made no progress by the way of fear; and I have read of the diverse tortures, and how the devils tear the flesh with red-hot pincers. But all is as nothing before this; it is a wholly different matter. In short, the one is a reality, the other a picture; and all burning here in this life is as nothing in comparison with the fire that is there.
I was so terrified by that vision,--and that terror is on me even now while I am writing,--that though it took place nearly six years ago, the natural warmth of my body is chilled by fear even now when I think of it. And so, amid all the pain and suffering which I may have had to bear, I remember no time in which I do not think that all we have to suffer in this world is as nothing. It seems to me that we complain without reason. I repeat it, this vision was one of the grandest mercies of our Lord. It has been to me of the greatest service, because it has destroyed my fear of trouble and of the contradiction of the world, and because it has made me strong enough to bear up against them, and to give thanks to our Lord, who has been my Deliverer, as it now seems to me, from such fearful and everlasting pains.
Ever since that time, as I was saying, everything seems endurable in comparison with one instant of suffering such as those I had then to bear in hell. I am filled with fear when I see that, after frequently reading books which describe in some manner the pains of hell, I was not afraid of them, nor made any account of them. Where was I? How could I possibly take any pleasure in those things which led me directly to so dreadful a place? Blessed for ever be Thou, O my God! and, oh, how manifest is it that Thou didst love me much more than I did love Thee! How often, O Lord, didst Thou save me from that fearful prison! and how I used to get back to it contrary to Thy will.
It was that vision that filled me with the very great distress which I feel at the sight of so many lost souls, especially of the Lutherans,--for they were once members of the Church by baptism,--and also gave me the most vehement desires for the salvation of souls; for certainly I believe that, to save even one from those overwhelming torments, I would most willingly endure many deaths. If here on earth we see one whom we specially love in great trouble or pain, our very nature seems to bid us compassionate him; and if those pains be great, we are troubled ourselves. What, then, must it be to see a soul in danger of pain, the most grievous of all pains, for ever? Who can endure it? It is a thought no heart can bear without great anguish. Here we know that pain ends with life at last, and that there are limits to it; yet the sight of it moves our compassion so greatly. That other pain has no ending; and I know not how we can be calm, when we see Satan carry so many souls daily away.
This also makes me wish that, in a matter which concerns us so much, we did not rest satisfied with doing less than we can do on our part,--that we left nothing undone. May our Lord vouchsafe to give us His grace for that end! When I consider that, notwithstanding my very great wickedness, I took some pains to please God, and abstained from certain things which I know the world makes light of,--that, in short, I suffered grievous infirmities, and with great patience, which our Lord gave me; that I was not inclined to murmur or to speak ill of anybody; that I could not--I believe so--wish harm to any one; that I was not, to the best of my recollection, either avaricious or envious, so as to be grievously offensive in the sight of God; and that I was free from many other faults,--for, though so wicked, I had lived constantly in the fear of God,--I had to look at the very place which the devils kept ready for me. It is true that, considering my faults, I had deserved a still heavier chastisement; but for all that, I repeat it, the torment was fearful, and we run a great risk whenever we please ourselves. No soul should take either rest or pleasure that is liable to fall every moment into mortal sin. Let us, then, for the love of God, avoid all occasions of sin, and our Lord will help us, as He has helped me. May it please His Majesty never to let me out of His hands, lest I should turn back and fall, now that I have seen the place where I must dwell if I do. I entreat our Lord, for His Majesty's sake, never to permit it. Amen.
When I had seen this vision, and had learned other great and hidden things which our Lord, of His goodness, was pleased to show me,--namely, the joy of the blessed and the torment of the wicked,--I longed for the way and the means of doing penance for the great evil I had done, and of meriting in some degree, so that I might gain so great a good; and therefore I wished to avoid all society, and to withdraw myself utterly from the world. I was in spirit restless, yet my restlessness was not harassing, but rather pleasant. I saw clearly that it was the work of God, and that His Majesty had furnished my soul with fervor, so that I might be able to digest other and stronger food than I had been accustomed to eat. I tried to think what I could do for God, and thought that the first thing was to follow my vocation to a religious life, which His Majesty had given me, by keeping my rule in the greatest perfection possible.
(1) Way of Perfection, ch. xiii. 2.--As Ribera remarks, it does not follow from this passage that St. Teresa had ever committed a mortal sin--and thereby deserved hell--as there is abundant evidence even from her own words that she never had such a misfortune, but only that she would have fallen into grievous sins if she had not mended her life.
Text Courtesy of Catholic Harbor of Faith and Morals
Prayers in honor Saint Teresa of Avila
Litany of St.
Theresa of Avila
For private use only.
Lord, have mercy on us.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the
V. Pray for us, O holy Saint Teresa,
Let Us Pray.