The Mysticism of Teresa of Avila

Di Allen-Thompson

Atlantic University

Ed. Note: Although the following essay is not connected to one specific book, it gives information showing how the book featured in this issue, Meditations with Teresa of Avila, is more important than might be surmised.


Much has been written about and by Saint Teresa of Avila and her mystical nature.  This paper focuses primarily on her own 16th century writings translated from the Spanish from her autobiography, The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila, by Herself--translated by J. M. Cohen. Cohen's translated edition was originally published in 1957.  Supplemental material came from Teresa of Avila's later work, Interior Castle.  Several articles from the internet were used to complement these original sources.  An analysis of these works were compared to course material for the Atlantic University course HMT-540, Spiritual Crisis, most specifically the Christina and Stan Grof book, The Stormy Search for the Self and Kay Redfield Jamison's text, Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.  A comparison of the content of these texts and articles shows the close relationship between the Christian mystical experiences of Teresa of Avila and the shamanic journey in many other cultures throughout history and the artistic and ingenious personalities of some of those people suffering from mental illness.  The rich, deep and expansive nature of Teresa of Avila's experiences has much to offer for the contemporary student of mysticism and the ways of the mystic.

The life of Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, later to become known as Saint Teresa of Avila, is very well documented by Teresa herself, and many, many others.  The more one reads her own words, and the words of her biographers and translators, the more the contemporary reader is captivated by this energy-filled, wise, and visionary sixteenth century woman. 

Teresa of Avila was born in March of 1515 in Gotarrendura, in the province of Avila, Spain (Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia, ) to a father who was rather wealthy and a mother who felt passionately that her daughter should be raised as a devout Christian  (Williams, 2003). Teresa appears to have had a vigorous imagination and an authentic sense for adventure.

Probably the best-known story of Teresa's childhood is the attempt she made, accompanied by her elder brother Rodrigo, to run away to 'the land of the Moors' in search of martyrdom, at the age of seven.  She had been reading too many saints' lives, she says; but there is a hint too of her mother's obsession with romantic fiction and tales of chivalry. (Williams, 2003, pp.3-4)

High spirits coupled with intelligence, good looks and a love for elegant clothing and chic jewelry were the outward manifestations of a vivacious personality that led Teresa to her involvement "in a flirtation serious enough to cause a mild scandal to the town and much anxiety to her father"(Williams, 2003, p. 4).  Her father, Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda, thought she needed the environment of a convent to curb his daughter's spirited sixteen-year-old ways.  After eighteen months in the convent, and although motivated more by fear than any love of God, she began to think that she could become a nun (Williams, 2003, p. 4).

 Teresa subsequently became quite physically ill.  While recovering at the home of an uncle, she made up her mind to pursue life in the convent.  Archbishop Rowan Williams indicated that this decision came only after some very demanding reading and deep reflection.  In secret then, and unbeknownst to her father, she entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Avila.  After a short time there, she again became quite sick, one source says from malaria, (Biography Online, n.d.) and it became essential that she convalesce a second time at her uncle's home.  Apparently the medical treatment she received was more problematic than the illness and she soon slipped into a coma; it was thought that she would not recover (Williams, pp. 3-4).  She did but not without enduring much pain--physical, mental and spiritual--and as with the Shamanic crisis, her physical illness may have triggered her ensuing spiritual crises. 

In some instances, the "shamanic disease" can be triggered by a physiological crisis... within hours or days, the future shaman develops a deep alteration of consciousness during which he or she loses contact with the everyday reality and may appear to external observers to be dying or going crazy. (Grof and Grof, 1990, p. 117)

After her apparent recovery, and in the early experience of her convent life--referred to in her autobiography, The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila, by Herself--translator J.M. Cohen states that, we see "how a self-willed and hysterically unbalanced woman, who seemed on the way to becoming a worldly nun of the conventional sort, was entirely transformed by profound experiences" (Teresa of Avila, 1957, p.289).

Documented Mystical Experiences

   "'The Mystical' is finally, it seems, the judgment that ordinary consciousness is being interrupted in such a way that we are given a direct awareness of sacred realty, however that reality is described" (Williams, 2003, p. 186).  And Teresa of Avila described many, many of her experiences of a mystical nature in her autobiography.  She emphasized over and over that these were her experiences of God though she felt others could benefit from her descriptions of her encounters with the divine.  In both her autobiography--published several times over the centuries and by several different translators--The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila, by Herself, (Cohen translation, Kindle Edition, 1957) and in her later book, Interior Castle or The Mansions, translated by E. Allison Peers (Kindle Edition, 2008), Teresa writes extensively of this phenomenon she experienced.  In her autobiography she writes about what she terms the four stages of mental prayer, and amplifies that prayerful process at length in her book the Interior Castle--the soul's journey toward union with God.  She used the metaphor of the seven mansions of the castle.  She depicts both the prayer process and the movement through the mansions as progressive experiences of going deeper into the soul and closer into union with God. 

It seems clear however, that Teresa of Avila spent many years in an unfolding spiritual emergence and intermittently experiencing spiritual crises.  Throughout her autobiography she wrote of having feelings similar to those that are described by Grof and Grof in the Stormy Search for the Self, "feelings of fear, a sense of loneliness, experiences of insanity, and [had] a preoccupation with death" (1990, p. 47).  Her deeply poetic but sometimes haunted words, her masterful phrasing and use of vivid and often tormented metaphor, call to the mind similar writing by more contemporary souls experiencing similar encounters with the divine.  This poem written by twentieth century poet, Theodore Roethke, quoted in the text Touched With Fire, by Kay Redfield Jamison (1993, p. 115) mirrors so well the words and feelings of Teresa of Avila:

What's madness but nobility of soul.

At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!

I know the purity of pure despair,

My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.

That place among the rocks--is it a cave,

Or winding path?  The edge is what I have.

          In one of the first descriptions she related of her mystical experiences from her autobiography, Teresa of Avila writes about a vision in which she encountered her Christ:

I saw Him with the eyes of my soul more clearly than I could ever have seen Him with the eyes of the body, and the vision made such an impression on me that, although it was more than twenty-six years ago, I seem to see His presence even now.... I was much harmed at that time by not knowing that one can see things with other eyes than those of the body. (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 993 in 12 pt. font).

Though Teresa of Avila was a devout Catholic Christian, she described experiences quite similar to those found in the shamanic journey in that "during unusual states of consciousness one can make beneficial visionary journeys to other realms and dimensions of reality" (Grof & Grof, 1990, p. 116).  She portrayed this inner landscape: "The soul is then so suspended that it seems entirely outside itself.  The will loves; the memory is, I think, almost lost... I mean that it does not work, but stands as if amazed at the many things it understands" (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 1315-1320 in 12 pt. font).  Teresa of Avila organized her understanding of her mystical experiences in her autobiography into the four stages of mental prayer.  She later expounded on this organization in her seminal work, Internal Castle or The Mansions.  One of Teresa's most poignant observations of her mystical experience, reminds us again of the heroes journey--the shamanic journey--she says they are "like nothing else but an almost complete death to all the things of this world" (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 2054-1320 in 12 pt. font).  She further stated that the "soul does not know what to do; it cannot tell whether to speak or be silent, whether to laugh or weep.  It is a glorious bewilderment, a heavenly madness, in which true wisdom is acquired... " (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 2059 in 12 pt. font).  Again let us compare to the journey of the shamanic crisis where "In this process of death and rebirth, shamans experience their own divinity and attain profound insights into the nature of reality" (Grof & Grof, 1990, p. 119). 

While immersed in one of these encounters of unity--which she speaks of often in her autobiography--she says that she "was indeed amazed... very often... bewildered and intoxicated with love, and yet could never understand how it was... in effect the faculties are in almost complete union... [and] retain only the power of occupying themselves wholly with God" (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 2064-2069 in 12 pt. font). 

 Five years before Teresa of Avila died at the age of sixty-seven, she wrote Interior Castle or The Mansions.  In this book she illustrates her vision of the spiritual path using a visual metaphor of a castle encompassing seven mansions, each mansion contained many rooms.  Translator E. Allison Peers described the vision Teresa was given by God: "He showed her a most beautiful crystal globe, made in the shape of a castle, and containing seven mansions, in the seventh and innermost of which was the King of Glory, in the greatest splendor, illumining and beautifying them all" (Teresa of Avila, translator Peers, Kindle edition 2010, location, 94, 12 pt. font). 

Theresa was not sure of writing yet another book, thus interrupting her reform work with the many convents she was founding.  However, she reluctantly completed this work:

For the love of God, let me get on with my spinning and go to choir and do my religious duties like the other sisters.  I am not meant for writing; I have neither the health nor the wits for it.  [Peers comments], such was the origin of the Interior Castle, one of the most celebrated books on mystical theology in existence... .The mystical figure of the Mansions gives it a certain unity... The lines of the fortress of the soul are clearly traced and the distribution of its several parts is admirable in proportion and harmony.  (Teresa of Avila, translator Peers, Kindle edition 2010, location, 119, 12 pt. font)

Developmental Crises

          Though Teresa of Avila sees the ultimate goal in life as that of union, being one with God, being one with the universe, the process for her was not without its ups and downs, its anguish and torment from within her soul and from without--the people in her environment--having the feeling sometimes of living and having to cope in two worlds.

On one side God called me, and on the other I followed the world.  All divine things gave me great pleasure; yet those of the world held me prisoner.  I seem to have wanted to reconcile two opposites as completely hostile, to one another, as the spiritual life and the joys, pleasures, and pastimes of the senses.... and so I could not shut myself inside myself--which was my whole method of procedure in prayer--without shutting out a thousand vanities in within me.... I am astonished that anyone could have suffered so much. (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 1079-1083 in 12 pt. font)

          Again, Teresa described experiences that compare closely with the shamanic crisis--"The visionary adventure begins with a gruesome journey into the underworld, the realm of the dead... followed by an ecstatic experience of an ascent into the celestial regions... [and finally] a return and the integration of the extraordinary adventure into everyday life" (Grof & Grof, 1990, p. 118).  She described one event that closely resembles the journey into the underworld, she found herself "plunged... into hell... the ground appeared to be covered with a filthy wet mud, which smelt abominably and contained many wicked reptiles" (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 4271 in 12 pt. font).  And in the second phase of the ascent into heaven she related that "I seemed to be raised to Heaven,... I was quite lifted out of myself, finding altogether too great a favour" (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 5186-5191 in 12 pt. font).  One sees that she also arrived at the third shamanic phase of return.  Bishop Rowan Williams quoted Teresa when she wrote in her book Interior Castle, "If, by the exercise of the monastic life, we are equipped to respond obediently to the call away from solitude to charity, we shall be on the way to the only 'union' with God that really matters. (5.13)" (Williams, 2003, pp. 140-141). 

Mental and Emotional Challenges

          The path of the mystic was at times a real torment to Teresa.  "Sometimes I really think that if things continue as they are at present, it must be the Lord's will to end them by putting an end to my life.  The pain seems to me enough to cause death... " (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 2576 in 12 pt. font).  She continued with her lament of the effects of those mystical experiences: "If there can be any comfort for one in this condition, it is to talk with some person who has passed through the same torment.  Then she finds that, despite her complaints, nobody seems to believe her" (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 2576-2581 in 12 pt. font).  And yet, despite this anguish, Teresa continued on her quest of self understanding--self exploration.  The fruits of her journey resulted in statements such as this:

"How what is called union takes place and what it is I cannot tell.  It is explained in mystical theology, but I cannot use the proper terms; I cannot understand what mind is, or how it differs from soul or spirit.  They all seem one to me, though the soul sometimes leaps out of itself like a burning fire that becomes the whole flame... it is the soul's feeling when it is in divine union.  (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 2234 in 12 pt. font).

For Teresa, there was great stress in returning from her experiences with the divine to the tasks of everyday life.  Her ambivalence is great; why not remain in this blissful state of union?  "The soul looks down on those below, like one in a safe place who fears no dangers now... .This is clearly shown by the soul's contempt, in this state, for the things of this world, which it values at nothing"(Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 2644 in 12 pt. font).  And yet despite this apparent split in the experience of life, she came to believe something that she did not previously know or understand, "that God is present in all things" (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 2324 in 12 pt. font).  

Again, it was her experience that the lines between reality and dreaming were difficult to draw, "Occasionally, when the prayer has ended, I have been so beside myself as not to know if it has been a dream or if the bliss I have been feeling has been a reality" (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 2338 in 12 pt. font).  She continued her struggle between the mystical world she so often inhabited and the daily tasks of self care.  "Oh how it pains the soul... to return to the business of the world, to look at the disorderly farce of this life, to waste time attending to such bodily needs as those of eating and sleeping" (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 2742 in 12 pt. font). 


Coping Strategies and Support System

          Teresa of Avila related that many times her support and ability to cope with such magnificence and the angst of leaving that realm of consciousness and then negotiating the process of return came from the experience itself. 

After this prayer of union, the soul is left with a very great tenderness, so much so that it would gladly dissolve, not in grief but in tears of joy.  Quite unawares, it finds itself bathed in them, and does not know how or when it wept.  But it has great delight in seeing the force of the fire assuaged by water, which yet makes it burn the more.  (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 2338 in 12 pt. font).

Teresa did not only depend on herself and her prayerful experiences to sooth and support her through these tumultuous periods of doubts from within and without.  She developed relationships with other priests and lay people and nuns who became her mentors and sounding boards.  (Williams, 2003)  Despite the welcomed support she received from several special mentors, many in her sphere were quite skeptical of her visions.  They "told me--as they often did--that my visions were of the devil and were all imaginary" (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 3695 in 12 pt. font).  

In fact, her way of being in the world was on occasion a great burden for one of her mentors.  "He suffered all sorts of severe trials too, on my account... he was frequently warned to be on his guard against me, and not to let the devil deceive him into believing anything that I said" ((Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 3709-3714 in 12 pt. font).  When she despaired that no one understood her, it was then in her relationship with one Friar, Peter of Alcantara, that she found someone who did.  She also relied on the friendship of the laity to help see her through these spiritual crises and mental tortures.  She remained steadfast to her journey despite the worst of times.  "... this intellect of mine is so wild that it seems like a raving lunatic.  Nobody can hold it down, and I have not sufficient control over it myself to keep it quiet for a single moment" (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 4004 in 12 pt. font).  But through the process of it all, it was her own experience that saw her through her trials.  "Thus the soul is transformed; its desires are changed, and its fortitude is increased" (Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 5585 in 12 pt. font). 

Teresa of Avila managed to complete her return to everyday life while maintaining an active prayer life. She engaged in her mystical experiences despite the fact the "pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans.  The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease... "(Teresa of Avila; Cohen, translator, Kindle Edition, 1988, location 3852 in 12 pt. font).  She drew strength from her experiences and those  became the motive for her many reform efforts within the Carmelites.  She gave back to her world in service to others through these reforms and through her many writings.  As Grof and Grof say, "when appropriate, use your experience to help others." (1990, p. 227)  This remarkable woman faced her transformation with openness, curiosity and determination--and "when the final ordeal [was] completed [she returned] to the place from which... she began.  The setting and the cast of characters there [were] the same; however, the hero [was] very different" (Grof & Grof, 1990, p. 213). 

One gets the very strong sense that Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, though many times mentally and spiritually tortured, though many times enthralled by the ecstasy of rapture in unity with God, was a woman inordinately successful in living in this physical world.  "Between 1567 and her death in 1582, she established fourteen [Carmelite convents] houses... .It is a quite extraordinary record of almost ceaseless work and travel (Williams, 2003, p. 9)  Her mystical nature and her willingness to document her journey left a legacy that has lasted into the sixth century after her death.  Teresa of Avila was a grounded and remarkable mystic.




Avila, T. (1957). The Life of Teresa of Avila by Herself. (J. M. Cohen, Trans.). London: Penguin Books. Kindle Edition (1988). (Original completed work 1565)        

Avila, T. (2008). Interior Castle or The Mansions. (E. A. Peers, Trans.). Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, LLC.  Kindle Edition (2010).  (Original publication 1588, Salamanca, Spain).

Williams, R. (2003).  Teresa of Avila.  (3rd ed.).  London: Continuum.

Grof, C. and Grof, S. (1990). The Stormy Search for the Self. New York: Penguin Group

Jamison, K. R. (1994)  Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.  New York: The Free Press

Teresa of Avila (n.d.) Retrieved from Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia 

Biography Online: Biography of Teresa St Teresa of Avila (n.d.)  Retrieved from