The Mysticism of Teresa of └vila
The Mysticism of Teresa of Avila
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.
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
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
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.)