St. Teresa of Avila: Autobiography

February 26, 2009

The Book of Her Life (1562)
St. Teresa of Avila (ICS Publications, 1987)
312 p.  First reading.
Written 25 March 2006.

The Flaming Heart

O thou undaunted daughter of desires!
By all thy dower of lights and fires;
By all the eagle in thee, all the dove;
By all thy lives and deaths of love;
By thy large draughts of intellectual day,
And by thy thirsts of love more large than they;
By all thy brim-filled bowls of fierce desire,
And by thy last-morning’s draughts of liquid fire;
By the full kingdom of that final kiss
That seized thy parting soul, and sealed thee His;
By all the heavens thou hast in Him
(Fair sister of the Seraphim);
By all of Him we have in Thee;
Leave nothing of my Self in me.
Let me so read thy life, that I
Unto all life of mine may die.

— Richard Crashaw

In the summer of 2005 I was in central Spain on holiday. Rather than loiter in Madrid, I decided to make a few day trips to some well-preserved medieval towns in the neighbourhood: Toledo, Segovia, and Avila. These places were splendid: imposing city walls, twisting narrow streets, beautiful castles and churches, and a far-ranging view of the Spanish countryside. Segovia boasts an astonishing Roman aqueduct, still standing despite having been constructed without mortar in the third century. When the Muslim armies swept through North Africa, Spain, and southern France in the 7th and 8th centuries, all three towns were conquered, and were not regained by the Christians for half a millennium, so the architecture of the towns reflects the mixed cultural influences of this history.

My tour through these towns wasn’t limited, however, to architectural sightseeing; it turned out to be an impromptu Carmelite saint tour. In a monastery just outside Segovia I found the tomb of St. John of the Cross, one of Christianity’s great masters of the interior life, and in Avila — here, there, and everywhere in Avila — I found St. Teresa.

I knew her only by reputation: a friend of St. John of the Cross; a reformer, with him, of the Carmelite order; a widely admired saint; a simple, straight-talking woman without much formal education, she was nevertheless the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church in acknowledgment of her exemplary contribution to theology. In Avila I saw her home (now a church), visited her convent, and, every which way, stumbled upon sites associated with her. Avila today is not a large town, and she still dominates it. As I left, I promised myself that I would make a point of reading some of her books. It took me a while to make good on that promise, but here I am.

The Book of Her Life is Teresa’s autobiography, written under orders from her religious superior. It is a remarkably lively book, full of amazing events and unusual experiences for which she has to struggle to find words. It was written piecemeal, whenever she had a break from her other duties, which partly explains its episodic, digressive form in which, I confess, I soon lost the autobiographical thread. But there is always more to a book than the plot.

There is, for example, Teresa herself. I have never before encountered a person who united so artlessly — so naturally, I might say — the earthy with the exalted. Many passages in the book are difficult, describing ascending stages of prayer or religious visions, but they are written in the most unpretentious prose imaginable. This I believe, was the quality that struck me most forcefully about Teresa’s personality: her lack of pretension. She is celebrated as one of the Church’s great mystics, but she could not be less glassy-eyed or airy. Perhaps this is what is meant by that difficult word ‘humility’. Despite the unusual — some might say outrageous — nature of the experiences she describes, she is never defensive, never claims any authority for her visions, and welcomes criticism and correction.

If I were a person who had authority for writing I would willingly and in a very detailed way enlarge upon what I am saying… But so as to do no more than what they gave me the command to do, I will be briefer in many matters than I desire, more extensive in others than necessary – in sum, like one who has little discretion in anything that is good.

At one point, after arguing in some detail that a particular vision could not have been produced by her imagination or by the devil, she concludes by flatly stating that “if these reasons aren’t good ones, I must be wrong.”  She makes frequent asides to her superior recommending that the book be burned if it is not judged worthwhile. She endeared herself to me with her holy self-forgetfulness, as when her prose erupts with sudden litanies of praise to God, leaving the narrative thread dangling wherever it was when the impulse struck her, never to be resumed.

Nearly a quarter of the book drops the autobiographical genre entirely, and is given over to a treatise on prayer. The discussion is framed in terms of a metaphor of a garden:

It seems to me that the garden can be watered in four ways. You may draw water from the well (which is for us a lot of work). Or you may get it by means of a water wheel and aqueducts in such a way that it is obtained by turning the crank of the water wheel. (I have drawn water in this way sometimes – the method involves less work than the other and you get more water.) Or it may flow from a river or a stream. (The garden is watered much better by this means because the ground is more fully soaked, and there is no need to water so frequently – and much less work for the gardener.) Or the water may be provided by a great deal of rain. (For the Lord waters the garden without any work on our part – and this way is incomparably better than all the others mentioned.)

The garden is the soul, the water the grace of God, and the labour is discipline in prayer. Beginners struggle but see few returns; those who persevere find the benefits begin to outstrip the effort (as with a waterwheel). In a later stage a continuous stream of prayer bathes the soul, and then, from time to time, it rains, such that one is soaked to the skin. Despite the simplicity of her basic scheme, this section of the book is not easy to understand. She gives a detailed description of these types of prayer, along with the temptations and obstacles that one may encounter. But I suspect that to really understand her one would have to be a saint oneself, for this kind of understanding depends less on one’s intellect than on who one is. I myself could not follow her much past the first stage. The reason for this is obvious.

Later in her life, after she had advanced through the stages she describes, she began to have a wide variety of highly unusual religious experiences. Many of these were visions, though she struggles to explain that they were often not visible visions. What she really means remains, to me, unclear. It is startling to be reading along, calmly, and suddenly happen upon the off-hand remark that she spoke with St Peter and St Paul, or that she had a vision of the Holy Spirit, a dove with feathers gleaming like rainbow-coloured sea shells. In the latter half of her book these experiences begin to accumulate.  Before long, she has met Christ, Mary, St. Joseph, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Clare, and even seen the heavenly throne room. Each person will make up their own mind about what to make of these visions. It seems that either she was crazy, or she was a special friend of God, a very great saint indeed.  And while the Church has given us some guidance by elevating Teresa to a Doctor, she herself seems not to have been very concerned about what her readers would decide:

May it please the Lord that in what I said I knew how to explain myself.  I firmly believe that whoever has had experience will understand and see that I succeeded in saying something; whoever has not had experience – I wouldn’t be surprised if it all seems to be nonsense to such a one…nor would I blame anyone who says it is nonsense.  May the Lord help me to succeed in doing His will.  Amen.

[A soul full of love]
This is the experience of those to whom God gives the great impulses of love I mentioned.  These impulses are like some little springs I’ve seen flowing; they never cease to move the sand upward.  This is a good example of, or comparison to, souls that reach this state: love is always stirring and thinking about what it will do.  It cannot contain itself, just as that water doesn’t seem to fit in the earth; but the earth casts it out of itself.  So is the soul very habitually, for by reason of the love it has it doesn’t rest in or contain itself.  It is already soaked in this water; it would want others to drink, since it has no lack of water, so that they might help it praise God.

[That God tests with trials is a commonplace of spiritual literature. Teresa says that God may also test with blessings.]
It also seems to me that His Majesty is testing to see who it is who loves Him; He tests now this one, now another, by revealing who He is with superb delight and by quickening faith – if it is dead – in what He will give us, saying: ‘Look, this is but a drop from the vast sea of blessings.’  He does this so as to leave nothing undone for those who love Him: in the measure He sees that they receive Him, so He gives and is given.  He loves whoever loves Him; how good a beloved!

[On humility]
“Humility has this excellent feature: when it is present in a work, that work does not leave in the soul a feeling of frustration.”

[The consolation of death]
I am consoled to hear the clock strike, for at the passing away of that hour of life it seems to me I am drawing a little closer to the vision of God.

I write without the time and calm for it, and bit by bit.  I should like to have time, because when the Lord gives the spirit, things are put down with ease and in a much better way.  Putting them down is then like copying a model you have before your eyes.  But if the spirit is lacking, it is more difficult to speak about these things than to speak Arabic, as the saying goes… As a result, it seems to me most advantageous to have this experience while I am writing, because I see clearly that it is not I who say what I write; for neither do I plan it with the intellect nor do I know afterward how I managed to say it.  This often happens to me.

3 Responses to “St. Teresa of Avila: Autobiography”

  1. […] in the rest of my life, so it must be fruitful somehow. But it’s like Teresa of Avila’s analogy about drawing water up in a bucket- I can hear the wheels squeaking and I’m getting rope burn […]

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