Teresa of Avila: Defending the Sensuality

Today the Church commemorates Teresa of Avila (Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada), who was declared by Pope Paul VI on 27th. Sept. 1970 to be a Doctor Ecclesiae as the first woman in the history. To her many merits belong her viewing of praying as an existential relationship with God and her mysticism, which shall be both explicated below. Her mysticism opened a new way of experiencing the union with God, that is: to be in union with Jesus Christ in his humanity.

The Concept “Mystic”
First, it is perhaps useful to give a clarification to the concept “mystic”. The word “mystic” comes from the Greek adjective μυστικός, which means “involved in secrets”. Under this concept not the esotericism is meant, but the illumination of the secret of the life, that is, the last reality, which we call “God”. Until into 17th. century, this word had only been used as an adjective. Something is mystic, when it is produced by God himself in the heart of a human being, whom He reveals himself in steps. The Christian tradition talks about “cognitio Dei experimentalis” (knowledge of God through experience) which means that God gives himself to be experienced in the life of certain human being, this is only possible through the Grace of God. The experience of God should not be conceived too narrowly, it concerns not alone the sensual part of human being, but affects the whole domain of Faith.

Teresa’s mysticism
Teresa’ mysticism differs from the Franciscan mysticism which influenced her. In this regard, two books are to be mentioned: “Tercer Abecedario espiritual” by Francisco de Osuna OFM (ca. 1497-1542) and “Subida del Monte Sión” by Bernardino de Laredo OFM (1482-1540). Both describe how the soul reachs the highest step of union with God. In this period of contemplation, the soul must give up thinking about the humanity of Jesus Christ. The humanity of Jesus Christ is though in itself not an obstacle to a pure contemplation, but because the weakness of man the soul should contemplate on what is higher in its goodness, that is the Divinity, thus teaches Osuna; while Bernardino de Laredo stresses that the humanity of Jesus Christ should not be forgotten during the contemplation, one should say from time to time an oral prayer in regard of the humanity Jesu Christi. The aim of Bernadino is to avoid a dangerous situation of the so called “no pensar nada” (without any thoughts). But Teresa was not satisfied his explanation why the humanity Jesu Christi is important during the contemplation, as Bernadino still holds on fast on the opinion that the highest step of contemplation is mystic, passive and only in regard of the essence of the uncreated God, which is non-sensual.

Teresa’s emphasis on the humanity of Jesus Christ aroused the attention of inquisitors. Her name appeared in 1574 for the first time in a document of the inquisition. 1575/76 formal accusations reached her in Sevilla. But in the end she was able to defend herself against all suspicions of heresy.

An extensive explanation by herself to her mysticism of the humanity of Jesus Christ can be found in her Vida (The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus):

4. O Lord of my soul, and my Good! Jesus Christ crucified! I never think of this opinion, which I then held, without pain; I believe it was an act of high treason, though done in ignorance. Hitherto, I had been all my life long so devout to the Sacred Humanity–for this happened but lately; I mean by lately, that it was before our Lord gave me the grace of raptures and visions. I did not continue long of this opinion, and so I returned to my habit of delighting in our Lord, particularly at Communion. I wish I could have His picture and image always before my eyes, since I cannot have Him graven in my soul as deeply as I wish.
5. Is it possible, O my Lord, that I could have had the thought, if only for an hour, that Thou couldst be a hindrance to my greatest good? Whence are all my blessings? are they not from Thee? I will not think that I was blamable, for I was very sorry for it, and it was certainly done in ignorance. And so it pleased Thee, in Thy goodness, to succour me, by sending me one who has delivered me from this delusion; and afterwards by showing Thyself to me so many times, as I shall relate hereafter, that I might clearly perceive how great my delusion was, and also tell it to many persons; which I have done, as well as describe it as I am doing now. I believe myself that this is the reason why so many souls, after advancing to the prayer of union, make no further progress, and do not attain to very great liberty of spirit.
6. It seems to me, that there are two considerations on which I may ground this opinion. Perhaps I am saying nothing to the purpose, yet what I say is the result of experience; for my soul was in a very evil plight, till our Lord enlightened it: all its joys were but sips; and when it had come forth therefrom, it never found itself in that company which afterwards it had in trials and temptations.
7. The first consideration is this: there is a little absence of humility–so secret and so hidden, that we do not observe it. Who is there so proud and wretched as I, that, even after labouring all his life in penances and prayers and persecutions, can possibly imagine himself not to be exceedingly rich, most abundantly rewarded, when our Lord permits him to stand with St. John at the foot of the cross? I know not into whose head it could have entered to be not satisfied with this, unless it be mine, which has gone wrong in every way where it should have gone right onwards.
8. Then, if our constitution–or perhaps sickness–will not permit us always to think of His Passion, because it is so painful, who is to hinder us from thinking of Him risen from the grave, seeing that we have Him so near us in the Sacrament, where he is glorified, and where we shall not see Him in His great weariness–scourged, streaming with blood, faint by the way, persecuted by those to whom He had done good, and not believed in by the Apostles? Certainly it is not always that one can bear to meditate on sufferings so great as were those He underwent. Behold Him here, before His ascension into heaven, without pain, all-glorious, giving strength to some and courage to others. In the most Holy Sacrament, He is our companion, as if it was not in His power to withdraw Himself for a moment from us. […]
9. With so good a Friend and Captain ever present, Himself the first to suffer, everything can be borne. He helps, He strengthens, He never fails, He is the true Friend. I see clearly, and since then have always seen, that if we are to please God, and if He is to give us His great graces, everything must pass through the hands of His most Sacred Humanity, in whom His Majesty said that He is well pleased. I know this by repeated experience: our Lord has told it me. I have seen clearly that this is the door by which we are to enter, if we would have His supreme Majesty reveal to us His great secrets.
10. So, then, I would have your reverence seek no other way, even if you were arrived at the highest contemplation. This way is safe. Our Lord is He by whom all good things come to us; He will teach you. Consider His life; that is the best example. What more can we want than so good a Friend at our side, who will not forsake us when we are in trouble and distress, as they do who belong to this world! Blessed is he who truly loves Him, and who always has Him near him! Let us consider the glorious St. Paul, who seems as if Jesus was never absent from his lips, as if he had Him deep down in his heart. After I had heard this of some great Saints given to contemplation, I considered the matter carefully; and I see that they walked in no other way. St. Francis with the stigmata proves it, St. Antony of Padua with the Infant Jesus; St. Bernard rejoiced in the Sacred Humanity; so did St. Catherine of Siena, and many others, as your reverence knows better than I do.

The internal prayer
Given this theoretical foundation, we can proceed to her practical advices for praying:

1) Discipline and Commitment
One should force oneself to pray, even at time when one doesn’t feel up to it. It shows, the internal prayer is not just saying a few pious words, but the whole human being must be committed to it.

2) Use a book
One can use a text for meditation, for example a pericope of the Gospel, and then contemplate upon it, while trying to say “Du” to God, in order to establish a personal relationship with God.. As soon as one is aware of being distracted, one returns to the text and tries again to concentrate. The internal prayer can start with the contemplation of two basic questions: “Who is God for me?” and “Who am I?”. In regard of the first question the Gospel gives us a great help, while in regard of the second, the humility and the examining of one’s own internal life.

3) The Nature
To this point she writes: “It was a help to me also to look on fields, water, and flowers. In them I saw traces of the Creator–I mean, that the sight of these things was as a book unto me; it roused me, made me recollected, and reminded me of my ingratitude and of my sins. My understanding was so dull, that I could never represent in the imagination either heavenly or high things in any form whatever until our Lord placed them before me in another way”(Vida 9, 6).

4) The Presence of God in our Heart
A good start into an internal prayer is the consciousness of God, who lives in us. According to the Confessions of Augustine, we can find God’s presence in our Heart. As God is present in us, so we can prayer everywhere and any time.

5) Presence of Christ in the Eucharist
For Teresa of Avila, there is no difference between the Faith of a God who lives in us, that is the mystic presence of God, and the Faith of a present God in the Eucharist, that is the sacramental presence of God.

6) Pictures
She writes: “For how can we, by any efforts of ours, picture to ourselves the Humanity of Christ, and imagine His great beauty? No little time is necessary, if our conception is in any way to resemble it. Certainly, the imagination may be able to picture it, and a person may for a time contemplate that picture,–the form and the brightness of it,–and gradually make it more perfect, and so lay up that image in his memory” (Vida, 29,1).

7) Love
Praying is loving, says Teresa, and the benefit for the soul doesn’t consist in much thinking, but in much loving.

8.) To be consistent in everyday life
She mentions one obstacle in her life: while retaining the habit of praying orally, she gave up at various time the internal prayer and thus endangered her friendship with God.

9) Faithfulness and Resoluteness
To pray internally is just like staying with a friend, with whom we often meet, just to be with him, because we know that He loves us.

I hope that this summary I made from the introduction to Teresa of Avila’s Vida (German Translation) helps a little to clarify our understanding of mysticism and internal prayer, and hopefully it will also encourage you and me to read the writings of this great woman.

Dobhan, Ulrich OCD / Peeters, Elisabeth OCD: Einführung. in: Das Buch meines Lebens. Vollständige Neuübertragung. Gesammelte Werke Bd. I, Freiburg i.B.: Herder, 2001, 15-73.

Teresa of Avila: The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus. http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/8trsa10h.htm

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