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The advocacy and the ecstasy

27 March 2015

St Teresa, born in Avila 500 years ago this weekend, is often depicted in a religious fervour. But there was much more to her than that, writes Laurie Vere


One side of a saint: St Teresa painted by Guido Cagnacci (1601-63)

One side of a saint: St Teresa painted by Guido Cagnacci (1601-63)

THE 17th-century poet Richard Crashaw wrote poems inspired by her, calling her "undaunted daughter of desires". Simone de Beauvoir (in The Second Sex) hailed her as the only woman who lived life for herself. Kate O'Brien, in a biography published in 1951, called her a "dangerous fellow-creature".

This "dangerous woman" was born Doña Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, on 28 March 1515, in the province of Avila, in Spain. Her well-off father had progressed from the disgrace of his own father's Jewish blood, and bought a knighthood. Her parents embraced Christianity and perhaps informed Teresa's lifelong devotion to St Joseph (to whom Teresa attributed the miracle of her healing and many other graces granted to her) and to St Mary. Teresa of Avila, or Teresa of Jesus, as she signed herself, was dangerous because, like Francis and Clare of Assisi, she took the Gospels at their word, and desired to live accordingly. She would probably have been surprised by Simone de Beauvoir's assessment - she thought she was living life for God.

TERESA was only seven years old when she thought it would be glorious to die for God. She persuaded her brother to run away with her, to seek martyrdom at the hands of the Moors. She was found by her uncle, and brought safely home. Next, she tried to build a hermitage in the garden, but the stones collapsed.

She eventually entered a convent in a more conventional way, being educated by the Augustinian order before joining the Carmelites. But, like Julian of Norwich, or the 20th-century Dorothy Kerin, she suffered an extreme experience of illness, which brought her to the point of death. It gave her a depth of spiritual perception which, in turn, brought her a great deal of attention - rather more, she believed with the benefit of hindsight, than was salutary for her.

With a reputation for great spiritual wisdom, Teresa spent the next 20 years or so busy seeing people and giving spiritual direction, while leading the life of an ordinary Carmelite nun in the Convent of the Encarnacion, outside the city walls of Avila.

The Rule of the Carmelites was domestic and simple. It was inspired by the figures of Elijah and Mary, but, by this time, it was kept without inconvenient strictness as to possessions or enclosure. Nuns lived in a spacious "bed-sit", and often employed a maid. They could visit their family or patrons, and Teresa was very much in touch with her family's affairs, and with her wealthy women friends.

IT WAS not until she began to have what might be called "conversion experiences" in her 40s, that she was overwhelmed by a love of God: "His Majesty", as she often calls him in her writings. Then began the ecstatic phenomena that she describes, or her nuns witnessed - levitation, fainting, tears - and she was forced to change her life radically.

It was an age of religious fervour. With the encouragement of St Peter of Alcantara, and particularly inspired by representations of the suffering Christ, Teresa proposed a reformed Carmelite rule - that of the "discalced Carmelites" - which would repristinate its original intention. Going barefoot (or in sandals) was a mark of that total embrace of Lady Poverty that Francis of Assisi had fallen in love with, three centuries earlier.

In 1562 Teresa managed to begin her new life with a handful of like-minded sisters in a tiny convent in Avila dedicated to San José, against opposition from her former convent, church leaders, the city authorities, and powerful patrons. But her vision was caught by a few senior men in powerful positions in the Church. With their encouragement, further foundations for women followed, from 1567 to the last years of her life. With the help of St John of the Cross and Anthony of Jesus she set up two houses for men.

THE authentic spiritual life is full of paradox, and Teresa's is no exception. Even as she was flooded with the joy and love of God, inspiring her to give up even the minimal worldly pleasures that her Carmelite life afforded her, and wishing to devote herself entirely to prayer, she found herself striding out of the walls of the Convent of the Encarnacion, and covering great distances, often on foot, throughout Spain's harsh terrain and climate. By the end of her life, she had founded 16 convents across Spain for women who aspired to the same total self-giving rule of life, hoping to realise the love of God without reserve for themselves.

For anyone at that time - and especially for a woman - this achievement would be out of the ordinary; but Teresa's biography shows that, for her, the extraordinary was a regular occurrence.

Teresa was involved in every aspect of the life of each of the houses she founded, from the daily prayer to the education of the nuns; food; finances; fabric; and governance. She was said to be an excellent cook, musician, and dancer. She wrote plays for her nuns to perform. She liked spirit, courage, and joy: "God preserve us from sour-faced saints!"

And she wrote. She wrote unwillingly, when she would rather have been getting on with "important things like spinning", on the orders of those senior churchmen who supported her, and at the request of her nuns.

Her colloquial, disconnected, irreverent style was a key factor in making her into one of the most influential Christian teachers, communicating directly from her heart with little attempt at style or structure.

There were several important works - her Life, The Way of Perfection, The Interior Castle, The Book of the Foundations, Meditations on the Song of Songs - as well as six shorter books, poems, and scores of letters, many of which show her very practical "hands-on" leadership and her robust sense of humour.

In the letters, one sees her continually defending her vision from those who resented the presence of a new religious house, dependant on public charity, competing for resources with others in a city.

All this was achieved within the compass of a life which was given, for the most part, to prayer and solitude. Like St Paul, Teresa was impatient with life, regarding it as a perpetual source of distraction from the real life she found in God.

She exclaims over this, tragically or comically in her writings, or in a poem such as Vivo, sin vivir en mi ("I live - but not living myself"), a semi-ironic love lyric with various counterparts in English poetry of the time.

Yet, of course, this depth of communion was the reason and the means by which Teresa was inspired to overcome powerful opposition to her reforms, or triumphantly articulate the importance of God's love for the individual soul and the reality and joy of this union even in this present life:

I live - but not living myself;
So longing for a higher life.
I am dying to die.

I live already beyond myself
because I died of love;
because I live in the Lord
who wanted me for himself;
when I gave him my heart
I put in it this sign:
I die because I do not die.

This divine prison of love
with which I live
has made God my captive,
and liberated my heart;
and seeing God my prisoner
gives me such a passion
that I die because I do not die…

In her writings, she uses images of water and gardens, the soul's interior castle, the king within, guests, battles, struggles, and treasure (her brothers were conquistadores) - images which seem exotic to us today, but which reflect all the social and domestic life of a 16th-century Castilian fortified city. Her point is that prayer is about real life, not a supernatural activity or a pious ritual for special occasions. She attempts to create schemata of the stages of prayer, as was fashionable then - vocal prayer, mental prayer, the Prayer of Quiet, the Prayer of Union, and so on - but the core of her experience in prayer is that it is as foundational as water is to life.

The Inquisition were quick to examine any public utterance for Protestant sedition, particularly anything by an alumbrada, "an illuminated one", which asserted an individual's authentic communi-cation with God; and especially anything from women, or in the vernacular, which might creep under the radar of official Church control. Teresa was placed under house arrest in one of her convents for a time. (St John of the Cross fared far worse, being imprisoned, starved and tortured by fellow Carmelites for nine months.) Letters to King Philip II, and support from powerful friends, secured her freedom, and she resumed her travels and her foundations undaunted, until her death in 1582.

Although Teresa was influenced by contemporary Spanish works on the spiritual life, and by some classic writers such as Augustine, she was diffident about her lack of formal education. This may also have been a canny cover for her subversive message - she says blithely that she does not fear making any mistakes, or falling foul of the Inquisition because she is writing only as an ignorant woman, and she anxiously hopes they will correct her errors.

WHAT is most inspiring is perhaps the capacity Teresa had to integrate the oppositions of life. It is a vision shared with Julian of Norwich, that, at the deepest level, "sin is behovely" in the hands of God.

After her deeper conversion, we see a woman who was obedient to the Counter-Reformation Church, and yet practised and taught the Christian impulses to simplicity and personal prayer which fuelled the Protestant Reformation. She lived an inner, self-authenticated life of communion with God, expressed in the vernacular, among a society of women - but was, as she said, "a loyal daughter of the Church". She loved God with passion and fervour, and never took herself (or anyone else) too seriously.

She embraced the strictest poverty and enclosure, and yet travelled over vast distances of Spain. She innovated by reaching back into her Order's past; her increasing age brought increased achievement and exploration; the prejudices and difficulties she encountered as a 16th-century woman contributed to her development and the originality of her thinking and writing.

And then there is the sensual - or, if the sceptics are accurate, the sexual - aspects of her story. There is much dismissive sniffing over Bernini's statue of Teresa in ecstasy; but this misses the point that, in the renunciation of the pursuit of love and sexual fulfilment (and Teresa seems to have enjoyed the thrill of the chase in her teens) for the love of God alone, people experience the love of God in every aspect of their humanity.

The Song of Songs was the most frequently commented on biblical texts for more than a millennium, and Teresa produced her own commentary on it. The word she herself uses so often is gozar - to enjoy, akin to the Italian godere - which has all the resonances of "gusto", a lip-smacking, sensual relish of joy and sexual enjoyment. Vows of chastity are a self-renunciation, in the belief that ultimately God is no man's debtor.

With Teresa's ecstasies, there is that hallmark of the Kingdom of God, which is the presence of God realised in this life, not only as a hoped-for prospect in a life-to-come. Like Jesus, and like St Paul, Teresa knew the reality of God within the present moment. She recalled that her initial motive for entering the convent at 16 was to escape the threat of hell; but her mature writings describe the joy of a soul united with God. Teresa claimed to know the way - a knowledge given by the grace of her Lover - to the centre of her "interior castle", where he dwells.

Many English-speakers are now familiar with just one of Teresa's writings - a brief poem which reads almost like a note to herself, kept within the pages of her Bible. Nada te turbe ("may nothing disturb you"), paraphrased as a Taizé chant. The lines capture her capacity for simplicity, strength, lack of pretension, and absolute faith in God.

Nada te turbe,
nada te espante,
todo se pasa,
Dios no se muda;
la paciencia
todo lo alcanza;
quien a Dios tiene
nada le falta:
Sólo Dios basta.

May nothing upset you,
nothing frighten you,
everything passes,
God doesn't change;
patience will accomplish
whoever possesses God,
lacks for nothing:
only God suffices.


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