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How Ecstasy Came to Saint Teresa of Avila

Saint Teresa

Born in 1515, granddaughter of a Jewish clothier converted to Catholicism, precocious child, passionate about the lives of saints and chivalrous novels, Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada joined the Carmelites of Avila at the age of 21. Nothing distinguishes her from the other nuns of this monastery, without history.

From ecstasy to transverberation

With an exalted character, Teresa of Avila wanted to devote herself to God alone and prayed that her soul would become "deaf, blind and mute to the outside world". Her devotions were so ardent that in 1538 she fell ill and spent three days in a coma: she was believed to be dead. Healed, she flees for a time the too intense prayers which compromise her health. But, in 1543, her father died: upset, she began to pray fervently. Twelve years later, the shock of a painting of Christ at the Column, crowned with thorns and being whipped, changed her life. She is 40 years old, an exceptional spiritual adventure begins.

During her prayers, as if transported outside herself, her senses suspended, Saint Teresa, according to her stories, comes into direct contact with God. When she receives Holy Communion, she feels her body rise from the earth: witnesses confirm the phenomenon. Worried, she consults clerics, fearing a demon trap.

Some discourage her, but her confessor supports her, only urging her to respond to divine favors with obedience, humility and penance. Reassured, however, she prays that her phases of levitation do not occur in public. Her visions multiply: she sees God, Father, Son and Spirit, as well as the Virgin and a crowd of saints, from Joseph to Peter. She talks with them. This closeness to the divine world becomes a mystical marriage. One day she heard the apparition say to her, "From now on, as a true Bride, you will be filled with zeal for my glory. I am now all yours, and you, by a blessed return, you are also all mine. Her directors of conscience make her write down her experiences.

This is how she describes her transverberation, an exceptional ecstasy during which an angel pierces her heart, a scene immortalized by a sculpture by Bernini (1644-1647), in the Roman church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.

Great obedience

Tradition reports prophecies, healings, miraculous conversions. At the same time, faithful to the principles of mortification and humility, Saint Teresa bleeds her body by wearing a hairshirt, nettles, ropes lined with bits of iron on her skin: she imposes vigils and excessive fasts on herself. But her devotion does not end there. Very active, in 1562 she founded a new convent in order to rehabilitate the severity of the original rule of the Carmelites, traveled through Castile from 1567 until her death in 1582, and created some fifteen convents.

Her zeal, explicitly directed against the Protestant reform, her severity towards her disciples who believe themselves to be the object of the same divine graces as her, her devotion to good works, the humility and obedience which she demonstrates, explain the very great place given to her by the Church. She has in fact always distrusted mystics she cannot control. Skeptical as a precaution, she seeks first to detect deception or the presence of nervous diseases, when people, even pious and virtuous, claim to experience religious ecstasies. It was only after having ensured, through long inquiries, the veracity of the testimonies and manifestations, that she recognized the miraculous nature of certain facts: Saint Teresa was canonized in 1622 and admitted among the doctors of the Church in 1970 only.

Exceptional power of expression

The doubts of rationalists are obviously even greater. For the Great Universal Dictionary of the 19th Century, published from 1863 to 1876 by Pierre Larousse, Saint Teresa “is only an ardent soul, a hallucinator endowed with the liveliest imagination and the most sincere faith: a physiologist would be quick to attribute her religious exaltation as well as her mystical love to a simple displacement of faculties. In her writings, which remain inimitable models, it would suffice to change the name of Jesus in order to have hymns of love more burning than the stanzas of Sappho".

In fact, it is easy to speak of hysteria, to insist on what can be erotic abandonment in the ecstasies of the saint - which the statue of Bernini clearly underlines. But Teresa’s style, her sincerity, her sensitivity make her writings texts of exceptional poetry and force, without it being possible to say whether their power of expression results from contact with the beyond through prayer or are the transcended frustrations of an exalted nun.