Few reach the mystical stage of prayer that St. Teresa of Avila did. I sometimes wonder if this is according to the divine will, or is it because we are reluctant to allow God to lead us to higher mystical states of union with Him? One of the most beloved saints in the history of the Church, Teresa exemplifies the heart of a warrior for Christ. She allowed herself to become intoxicated with God but her feet were planted on the earth in service to the Church. She is an iconic contemplative in action.
Born in Avila, Spain in 1515, she died in Alba de Tormes, Salamanca in 1582 at age 67. The Church will celebrate the 5th Centennial of this renowned Doctor of the Church next year, 2015. Teresa’s eloquent writings such as The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle are perennial classics on the interior life. Hers were the first writings that my spiritual director suggested at the time of my conversion 25 years ago. As I read her texts I was captivated by her lofty but practical expression of the life of grace.
St. Teresa’s incorrupt heart and transverberation
In 2007, three Carmelite nuns, two priests and a band of pilgrims from Los Angeles prayed the Liturgy of the Hours aloud as our bus traveled along the dusty road leading to Alba de Tormes. We prayed with joyful anticipation of soon arriving to the Church where St. Teresa is entombed so that we could venerate this beloved saint. Upon entering the Church we found her tomb encased high above the main altar, we knelt and prayed silently. It was natural to lift our hearts to God in gratitude for our Carmelite pilgrimage through France and Spain, and to implore Teresa to intercede for the intentions we carried in our hearts. For me, it was like meeting an old friend.
Although Teresa was ill, she set out for Alba de Tormes in the autumn of 1582 in response to a friend who invited her to visit. Teresa’s health grew worse on the journey there, and when they arrived at the convent she was in the state of exhaustion and would never recover. Shortly afterward, Father Antony Heredia administered the Sacrament of Extreme Unction (1582 term), and asked where she would like to be buried, to which she replied, “Would they deny me a little ground for my body here?” Then she sat up as she received the Sacrament and exclaimed, “O Lord, now is the time that we shall see each other!” She was buried at Alba de Tormes but three years later the body was secretly removed to Avila by decree of a chapter of Reformed Carmelites. The following year, the Duke of Alba de Tormes procured an order from Rome to return her body to Alba de Tormes, where it remains.
Preserved and displayed in a stunning reliquary in the Church’s museum in Alba de Tormes is Teresa’s incorrupt heart. Visible to the naked eye is a puncture wound in her heart. This is evidence of a rare mystical grace called the transverberation. St. Teresa describes the grace:
I saw an angel beside me toward the left side, in bodily form. He was not very large, but small, very beautiful, his face so blazing with light that he seemed to be one of the very highest angels, who appear all on fire. They must be those they call Cherubim…I saw in his hands a long dart of gold, and at the end of the iron there seemed to me to be a little fire. This I thought he thrust through my heart several times, and that it reached my very entrails. As he withdrew it, I thought it brought them with it, and left me all burning with a great love of God. So great was the pain, that it made me give those moans; and so utter the sweetness that this sharpest of pains gave me, that there was no wanting it to stop, nor is there any contenting of the soul with less than God”. (St. Teresa, Life…Chapter 19).
It is said that this grace marked Teresa’s entrance into the mystical state of spiritual marriage as in the 7th Mansion described in her book The Interior Castle. St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross use the term mystical marriage to describe spiritual union with God, the most exalted condition attainable by the soul in this life. Sometimes referred to as transforming union, St. Teresa also called it the seventh resting-place of the interior castle spoken of in the last treatise she wrote before her death.
In 2007 when I observed the miracle of God’s grace—the 455-year-old incorrupt heart of St. Teresa and the visible puncture wound of the transverberation, I was joyfully awe-struck. God knows that we sometimes need wondrous signs to remind us that His ways transcend everything!
St. Teresa’s glimpse of hell
The Lord formed the heart of His beloved St. Teresa into the heart of a warrior. He gave her a glimpse of the underworld and allowed her to undergo intense spiritual combat. In her own words:
One day, while I was in prayer, I suddenly found myself plunged into hell. The Lord had long ago begun to grant me exalted states of prayer. I didn’t know how I had ended up here. Then I realized that the Lord wanted me to catch a glimpse of where the life of sin leads.
The entrance to hell looked like a long, narrow alley or a low, dark furnace. The floor was covered with filthy mud that emitted a noxious stench. It was swarming with disgusting vermin. There was a small hole, like a cupboard, scooped out of the wall at the end of the alley. I found myself stuffed into it.
I experienced a fire in my soul that I could ever begin to describe. I have suffered grave physical ailments in this lifetime. Doctor’s have told me that the excruciating pain I have endured is the worst a human being can bear here on earth. And the devil has also caused me terrible suffering. But nothing compared to what I experienced in hell. Yet even this paled compared to the anguish of my soul. I was strangled and suffocating. The agonizing despair was so intense that it’s impossible to find words strong enough to describe it. It would be inadequate to say that it’s as if the soul were being unrelentingly torn from the body. The truth is, the soul herself is tearing herself into pieces. I simply don’t know how to convey the fury of that inward fire and hopeless misery. (Theresa of Avila, The Book of My Life, XXXII)
We may wonder why the Lord would allow St. Teresa to endure such suffering. The saint has recorded the good fruit of her mystical experience. It may be more enjoyable to read Teresa’s ecstasies of divine love but considering her account of hell may help us avoid it and enkindle a keen awareness of the truth of divine justice and mercy. In her own words:
It astonishes me that even after I had read books that described the horrors of hell, I didn’t take them seriously. What was I thinking? How could I possibly have found pleasure in anything that was leading me to that dreadful place? It is clear to me now that you have loved me more than I loved myself. How many times, my Beloved, had you freed me from that dark prison, only to have me defy you by locking myself up all over again?
This is what makes me so sad for all the souls who have fallen into disgrace. I want to help them return. Especially those who have been baptized and are already lovers of Christ. I would willingly suffer a thousand deaths if it meant I could set even one such soul free from such terrible torture.
This vision also makes me wish that we would all do everything in our power to avoid this outcome for ourselves. Let us neglect nothing. And may it be the Lord’s will to give us the grace to serve him in all ways. (Theresa of Avila, The Book of My Life, XXXII)
May the fire of divine charity that formed St. Teresa’s heart into an abode of heroic love enkindle ours as we persevere to overcome evil by doing good!
St. Teresa, pray for us. Amen.
image: Saint Theresa, church window, Convento de Sta Teresa, Ávila de los Caballeros, Spain via Håkan Svensson / Wikimedia Commons