Monday, March 14, 2005

The Ecstasy of St. Theresa

In her words:
It pleased our Lord that I should see the following vision a number of times. I saw an angel near me, on the left side, in bodily form. This I am not wont to see, save very rarely.... In this vision it pleased the Lord that I should see it thus. He was not tall, but short, marvellously beautiful, with a face which shone as though he were one of the highest of the angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Seraphim.... I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God.

Here's Bernini's rendition of the event:

And some interesting anecdotes:
While the visions are today the most famous part of her spiritual experience, she considered them inferior to the quiet sense of union with God that she was to achieve later in life. The visions were disorienting and an embarrassment, although she did her best to hide them from her sisters. They were also dangerous. It was not unusual for visionaries to wind up at the stake. Teresa's autobiography was already being examined by the Inquisition for signs of heresy; and as a woman and the descendant of Jews, she was especially suspect. Increasingly, those around Teresa tried to disassociate themselves from her. At the same time, Teresa felt drawn to a more strict life of poverty and self-denial.

In 1562 she began a reform of the Carmelite order (later known as the "Discalced" or barefoot, Carmelites) with a small convent, St. Joseph's, in Avila. Here she lived for four years; "the most restful years of my life". The convent had no endowment and subsisted on alms. One day Teresa went into a trance while holding a frying pan with a little oil in it, which worried her sisters. They weren't concerned about the trance, which they were used to, but were afraid that she might spill the oil. It was all they had. Here she wrote a treatise, The Way of Perfection, as a guide to the monastic life. Her cell did not have a table or chair so she wrote kneeling on the floor at a ledge under a window, with no re-reading or editing.

She was a great friend of St. John of the Cross, and they together attempted to reform the Carmelite Order, of which they both were members.

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