St. Teresa

We are going to Spain in February, for a short vacation. As we prepare, I am focusing on St. Teresa of Ávila, in part because of the opening lines of Middlemarch (which is my favorite book):

    • Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? Out they toddled from rugged Avila, wide-eyed and helpless-looking as two fawns, but with human hearts, already beating to a national idea; until domestic reality met them in the shape of uncles, and turned them back from their great resolve. That child-pilgrimage was a fit beginning. Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order.

Teresa was always in peril of her life. Even her ancestry was a danger to her, for her grandfather Juan was a Jew. The Inquisition (skeptical of his conversion) paraded Juan through Toledo in a yellow robe embroidered with lying tongues. Who knows whether inwardly he recited the Ave Maria or the Hebrew psalms of exile?

Juan fled to Ávila and raised his son to be as good a Catholic as a man could be. The family became wealthy and attained the minor nobility. But then his granddaughter Teresa arrived to challenge and perplex them. First she ran away to a nunnery–which was not so unusual–but she would not behave like a proper nun, saying the ritual Latin prayers prescribed by tradition and authority. Like her grandfather’s grandfathers, she felt compelled to struggle with ancient texts and apply their paradoxes to her own implacable conscience. Like a Protestant heretic, she held private dialogs with Jesus in the common tongue, often perceiving him as a bodily (if invisible) presence in the room beside her. Other spirits also visited her as she exercised her prodigious memory and imagination. Angels arrived frequently as intellectual presences and once as a visible form. On one unforgettable occasion, a seraph drove a fiery lance again and again through her heart and left her scorched and tingling.

Women who summoned spirits through private incantations were generally known as “witches.” Friends and elders warned Teresa that her visions could be diabolical, and privately she feared that they were. Yet her struggles with her conscience led inevitably to terrifying moments of insight, and her imagination made those moments tangible. It was not by choice that she was sensitive and receptive. But it was her choice to train her sensitivity through laborious intellectual and spiritual exercises. The results–audible conversations with invisible spirits, reports of fiery angelic penetrations–could hardly fail to provoke deep suspicion.

All of Spain’s most dangerous enemies acted rather like Teresa, whether they were Mayan priests in trances with bloody hearts in their hands, Protestants claiming brazenly that they conversed directly with God, witches fornicating with Satan, or mystical Jews and Moors enraptured by musty texts.

If her spiritual exercises weren’t bad enough, Teresa was driven to condemn the social order by force of her example. Daughter of a wealthy knight, she had run away to a convent for gentle ladies. It was a comfortable place where spinsters lived together in only partial seclusion. One spoke there in refined accents, relied on servants for manual labor, entertained visitors, and expected the deference of the poor. The cloister was decked in American gold; the porcelain Christ-child on the altar wore the finest Manila silks. But the real Jesus had consorted with poor fishermen and prostitutes. When Teresa vowed poverty, she meant it. She founded a new convent that was utterly humble, just a rough stone shed with straw on the floor. She walked barefoot and ministered to the poor and sick. Her closest confidants were a motley assortment of women and men from every social background.

Teresa was a tireless organizer as well as a mystic. She traveled thousands of miles, wrote innumerable letters, personally founded scores of reformed convents. She took flawed human material and built institutions. Yet the arrogant powers always circled her. Her friend John of the Cross was kidnapped, imprisoned in a Toledo monastery, and there viciously flogged every morning for favoring reforms like Teresa’s and for writing unpretentiously moving poetry on her model. She eluded the same enemies year after year, clearly driven by a compulsion that commanded respect against all odds.