Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by Herself

The facts

Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) was a Spanish nun who was instrumental in opening St. Joseph's convent, as well as other convents throughout her lifetime.  She recorded the extraordinary events of her disconcerted life in her book, The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by Herself.

My experience

What I took away from this story is that Teresa of Ávila was literally tormented by her inability to reach perfection.  She mentally and emotionally battered herself over her weaknesses, faults, and fallibilities, including her insatiable appetite for reading and knowledge, which she considered woefully sinful.  (Yikes! I'm in trouble.) 

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, by Bernini
She worked anxiously - without satisfaction - to "repay the Lord" for His sacrifice. And she immersed herself in deep ritualistic prayer, sometimes for hours or days, in which one state of prayer often brought her to a condition of rapture or ecstasy and caused her to lose control of herself. (That explains the sculpture by Bernini.)

Most of the book focused on the different levels of intense prayer and soul separation (is that possible?), but it also included numerous occasions in which she had visions of and communications with Jesus and Mary, saw heaven, communicated with dead people - including her deceased parents and sister - and experienced what she believed to be a union with God.  (I didn't really get this.)  She also recounted visions of and experiences in hell and being tormented by devil(s). 

Saint Teresa

My opinion

Frankly, I am not a friend of mysticism.  It is not that I believe she is lying, but rather I think she and those who believed her were deceived, although some called her possessed.  In other words, God did not direct these events.

If they were - and if she were saved - she would have had the Light of God in her; and Scripture tells us that Darkness cannot reside with Light. While Satan may try to discourage a Christian, he cannot terrorize Christians with demons.  Evil spirits tormented Teresa and caused her fear and suffering, such as only an unsaved person would experience.

I also have a problem with people who claim they see and talk to the dead.  Scripture tells us that the dead cannot see or hear or talk.  If you are seeing dead people, it may be demons (who are capable of taking the form of loved ones in order to deceive and lead astray those who are not covered by God).

She claimed that God "took her soul to heaven," which she believed to be necessary in order for her to know where her true home was and what it was like.  But God does not take people to heaven to see what it is like so that they may understand what they must long for.  She had a similar opinion for why she went to hell: to see what God had saved her from.  (But all she had to do was read her Bible.)

St. Teresa's Transverberation - Josef de Obidos
Once she said that Jesus purposefully reminded her of her sin and caused her great shame, and I know this to be false because while we may always remember our sins, Jesus does not want us to be burdened by our past sinfulness; if we still live with shame for our sins which have been forgiven, then His sacrifice on the cross was worthless.

Often she spoke of doing penance for all of her evil deeds in order to "win this great blessing," but she did not need to continue doing penance for her sins.  Again, Christ already did it for her.

My question

Early on I began asking, "If these experiences are from God, as she believed them to be, then why did she go through this?  What was the purpose?"  She referred to herself as "favored" to suffer in this way.  A chapter near the end proposed to explain why, but my questions were not answered to my satisfaction.  She was in a miserable state constantly, and I do not see how her misery helps anyone, except that it underscores how much more we must suffer in hope of our salvation, which is not biblical.

In the end, only God knew her heart, but I imagine by this account that she needlessly suffered over herself, and it made me sad for her and to some degree angry that she was (I think) deceived in this way.

Although I have nothing but skepticism and opposition for my review, my final opinion overall is that it was not a waste of time, and I really did look forward to reading it.  I just did not agree with her.


Cleo said...

I can't really say much because I'm still only at 30%. I will say, however, that it is hard for Protestants to understand Catholics. At times, it's REALLY hard. And I'm sure vice versa, as well.

What I'm mulling over at this point is that all the references that you've mentioned in a negative light, she actually sees as a positive thing. So right now, I'm trying not to focus on the practical side, while trying to figure out why she sees some of these things as necessary or beneficial.

Not to trivialize her calling, but she was a nun and really, their whole focus must be to purify their spirits and to get closer to God, so I'm not surprised by many of her thoughts. In any case, I'm babbling without really knowing what I'm talking about, so hopefully someone will show up with a little more insight. I really enjoyed your review and your thoughts. It gives me something else to take away and mull over as I read.

Fanda Classiclit said...

I think it is hard for non Catholics to read this biography. Thus, your skepticism is understood, and I won't argue with you, as it will be tiring and time-wasting to argue about different views in our faiths. But I think we can see this as a struggle of a woman to reach a more intimate bond with her God. She had her own standard of perfection, and she knew she was far from that ideal. But instead of giving up, she humbly asked God to help and guide her. She taught us to not abondaning our prayers in hard times (when we feel that God isn't listening to us), but keep persisting in it, as God has His own time.

Ruth said...

She did believe herself to be favored in this way. But why was she chosen as a "favorite of God." I missed that part, or I did not understand her explanation.

I also do not understand or agree with soul separation and union with God. Those are huge declarations. I want to do more research on those. So far, nothing in Scripture supports these ideas.

I didn't want to get into the nun aspect. I just want to examine and discover the truth of her assertions, and Scripture is a good way to measure claims about spiritual things. I can't help it.

Ruth said...

Well, I'll tell you what: the one thing that I kept in the back of my mind, but did not write about, was her prayer life. It caused me to reflect on my own inadequate prayer life and want to focus more on improving that time. So, her commitment to prayer was formidable and exceptional.

I did feel sorry for her struggle and suffering for perfection, although she was grateful to suffer in this way.

Still, I am glad I did read it; but yes, if was confounding at times.

Anonymous said...

I am by no means a mystic so this stuff can be hard for me appreciate as well. However, the struggle against sin and the powers and principalities of this world (a.k.a Satan) is real. While despair over sin is a sin it happens to many of us. I find strength in reading the biographies of people who struggled against doubt and despair and sin (like Augustine). The only thing I know about Teresa of Avila is that she was extremely vain. I hope to get to this book soon (after I get through the Mount Everest of books on my table and floor)

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your discussion in this a very personal review. Sometimes it is difficult to understand a woman's mind and if possible a soul. There is a thin line between a mystical experience and a nervous collapse, depression due to a devestating desire to be perfect in the eye's of God. The way to God is like a can go north (+) or south (-),,,but the road is identical. You can take a wrong exit but getting back on track is part of the journey too. Theresa was just telling us about her difficulties reading the map to her salvation. I would not choose this type of book but was glad to listen to comments of other readers.

Ruth said...

I do enjoy reading true stories about people and their struggle against sin, but I cannot help measure their claims against Scripture. So while I don't think Teresa is lying - I take her words to be true - I think her experiences may not be from God. I only found one outside source that disputed her claims, while everything else talks about her story as if, "Yeah, this is totally normal." Although I did see several articles that call her cultist, but even that is accepted as normal.

I've also read in other sources that she was extremely beautiful, which may explain the vanity???

Anyway, I would not discourage you from reading it. I was glad I did.

Ruth said...

I read that claim, too: that Teresa was having a breakdown, or something to that regard. I don't even know if I would say that, but it is totally possible! After all, this is only her perspective.

I think I understand what you are saying about north and south and do agree that finding your way toward salvation is the journey. Everyone's spiritual journey is different, but I just want to make sure that when someone says they are talking to dead people, or seeing Jesus, or going to hell, that there is another explanation for it b/c I do not think God permits it. I think it is another of another source.

Anyway, that is what I want to confirm.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Wow, she sounds so much like Martin Luther! Desperately trying to atone for her sins, relying on her own works and perfection for her salvation, seeking to repay Jesus for his sacrifice... so similar to Luther's life as a monk. Interesting!

Ruth said...

I thought about this, and I remember from the movie: Martin Luther went out of his mind trying to save himself from his sin, even beating himself. And what I have read, this is very true. He was going crazy.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Yes, crazy is what happens when you repeatedly fast for days on end, whip yourself until you bleed, and spend your hours consumed with guilt. I think what really fascinated me with what you shared here about St. Teresa is that she did a lot of the same things. I tend to think of Luther as being a special case, but clearly being that focused on saving yourself through all those sorts of things was not actually that unusual back in those days. How sad.

Ruth said...

Have you ever read Luther's biography by Bainton, Here I Stand?

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Years ago, in high school.

Janet said...

I think it is important to use Scripture as a measure. I think there is much to learn about our own struggles against sin from others. This is going on my TBR stack (which is one of my own struggles!)

Ruth said...

Janet, I agree. Confessions by Augustine was also a great read about that struggle.