Toward the light

By

10 Jul 2024

St Teresa of Avila imagined the faith journey as one leading to an almost unbearable light where God is truly present deep within every soul treasured by the Creator.

In 2004, while browsing through a bookshop, I came across a new translation of St Teresa of Avila’s book The Interior Castle. Since we were about to embark on a pilgrimage which included the beautiful walled medieval town of Avila, I bought it and loved it, and it remains one of my favourite inspirational books.

Through the pages of the book, Teresa comes alive in the flowery language of her time, and the humour and graciousness of her personality. There was little doubt that she had skill and wit and was a woman of her time. In the intervening 20 years I have pondered many times the way in which I would respond to the life she had to lead in a patriarchal world that was deeply divided and threatened by the Spanish Inquisition.

She managed to navigate her way around the intellectual, political and faith life of the Church and kept the inquisitors at bay by clever strategies of self-deprecation and overt humility. In 1970 she was declared the first woman Doctor of the Church.

CULT OF RELICS

While touring the convent chapel of St Teresa in Avila, there was the shocking revelation of her finger in a glass cabinet kept as a relic. As this was my first trip to Europe, I was quite ignorant of the cult of relics. Our guide during the tour of the convent also pointed out the side room window through which Teresa climbed to enter the chapel so that she could become leader of the community. It was said her opponents had locked the church to prevent her leadership. Fact or fiction, it illustrates her legacy. Teresa was horrified that women placed in the convent by their families brought their servants with them. The inequity between women was abhorrent to her and her vision of the contemplative life. She, and her good friend St John of the Cross, set out to change the Carmelite order, male and female, and they founded the Discalced Carmelites, a reformed version that was true to the Carmelite rule.

In an era when women were either married or servants, Teresa was literate, a writer, a mystic and a leader of her time. She battled ill health for most of her life but her mystical life with Jesus, her Beloved, gives us her true legacy.

Aged 12, Teresa witnessed the death in childbirth of her mother who bore nine children by the time she was 30. Perhaps Teresa chose not to live that kind of life but to focus on different human qualities. She was put in a convent at 16 to keep her out of mischief until a suitable marriage could be arranged but she loved it and eventually convinced her father to let her remain.

MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE

When she was approaching 40, she had her first mystical experience. Coming out of her mystical experiences was painful physically, spiritually and emotionally. Her ecstasy has been captured in art with Bernini’s famous work showing her swooning with the effects of the ecstasy. In the convent chapel in Avila, which is purportedly built over her birthplace, there is an image above the altar that also shows her ecstasy with a vision of Mary, Mother of God, and St Joseph with Jesus Christ sitting in judgment. She began to levitate at times which was disconcerting to the other sisters so she tried to control it with her exuberance.

The Interior Castle was her last masterpiece which she was told to write by her spiritual director, Fr Jerónimo Gracián. Her use of the third person plus self-deprecation and overt humility were her safeguards against the Inquisition.

In one of her mystical experiences, she was given the image of a castle with seven rooms and in the innermost room the Beloved dwells. This was a dangerous analogy because the post-Reformation Church was suspicious of anything that was not aligned with the strict boundaries of the Church’s teaching and authority.

To evade inquisitory attention, Teresa had to make her teaching sound humble. The seven rooms of the castle imaged that God is truly present in each and every one of us, not only through the mediation of the Church. In fact, it is an extraordinary teaching. Through the description of the seven rooms of the castle she leads one through self-knowledge beginning in the semi-darkness of our own preoccupation with self, towards an almost unbearable light where God is truly present deep within every soul treasured by the Creator. In that place we are no longer an individual but part of the Creator.

Her joy in her Beloved and her integrity in spiritual life and leadership gives us a wealth of material to contemplate. Another of her books, The Way of Perfection, is helpful for spiritual development.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2024 edition of Madonna magazine.
Image: Ecstasy of St Teresa in the convent chapel built by architect and monk, Alonso de San Jose (1600–54). Photograph by Angela McCarthy.

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