Section navigation

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

Category Articles
Date October 7, 2008

Introduction
Teresa of Avila calls for our consideration on several counts:

  1. Her writings are increasingly popular amongst unconverted but professing Protestants who find her ‘mystical spirituality’ attractive in their own ‘pursuit of God.’ We are thus alerted to a dangerous ‘enemy within the gates.’
  2. She is revered by Romanists as ‘a quintessential Catholic’, ‘a revolutionary mystic’, ‘a saint and doctor of the Church’, and a co-patron of Spain. This gives us an inkling of the influence she wields over Roman Catholic hearts.
  3. Her works, ‘long seen as merely devotional treatises . . . are now being mined more seriously for their theological content’ (Gillian Ahlgren). Her teaching now appears in books as ecumenically acceptable alongside that of Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Bullinger and other Reformers.
  4. As long as poor lost souls continue to drink in her deadly poison, we need to know how to point them to the water of life that alone can counteract it and save them from sin.
  5. God commands us to expose and condemn all teaching that robs him of his unique and incommunicable glory.
  6. Even a slight acquaintance with her writings should make us deeply thankful for our Biblical, Protestant and Reformed Faith. For these reasons alone she should be studied.

Her Life
The story of her life is most instructive. Born in 1515 into a devout Roman Catholic family in Castile, Spain, Teresa shared all the merit theology and religious fanaticism of her age and nation. With her younger brother, she tried to escape to ‘the Holy Land’ in the hope of being beheaded by Muslims. ‘When I read of the martyrdoms suffered by saintly women for God’s sake’, she explains, ‘I used to think they had purchased the fruition of God very cheaply, and I had a keen desire to do as they had done.’ Prevented by her parents, she devoted herself to religious games in which she was the heroine.

At sixteen she entered an Augustinian convent, where she suffered a severe illness and contemplated marriage; but learning of the ‘Church Father’ Jerome’s advocacy of female convent life, she entered the Carmelite Convent of Avila without her parents’ consent (1538). Distressed by both the nuns’ loose living and her own ‘prayer life’, she again fell dangerously ill, and in emotional turmoil became afraid to wake up in hell.

Burdened with guilt, she was introduced to the Third Spiritual Primer of the Franciscan monk De Osura, which was shot through with Islamic Sufi mysticism. Under its influence she strove hard to detach herself from everything but God, in the hope that he would reveal himself to her. ‘De Osura’s inspiration was to be the foundation of Teresa’s mystical and spiritual life’ (Caroline Marshall).

For twelve agonizing years she struggled under this legalistic delusion. Even her priestly confessors suggested that her strange notions came not from God but the devil. A change of direction was ushered in by a new Jesuit confessor, who recommended a more personal and emotional approach to her quest. The decisive moment came in 1555, when she saw a statue of what purported to be the suffering Saviour; her response was a broken heart. The numerous musical settings of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa [The Mother (of Jesus) stands weeping] in the Roman Catholic repertoire all seek to reproduce the kind of sympathetic suffering Teresa then felt.

Abject at her ingratitude at his sufferings, she pressed on. Her perseverance was rewarded four years later by her ‘transfixion’, in which a cherub allegedly pierced her heart with an arrow, leaving her with a burning, quenchless desire for marriage with God. Bernini’s famous Ecstasy of Saint Teresa solidifies this experience in a marble sculpture of great sensual power.

After encountering much opposition, but encouraged by the dubious blessing of Pope Paul IV, Teresa in 1563 opened the Reformed Carmelite Convent of St. Joseph [the Virgin Mary's husband], whom she had appointed ‘her spiritual father’ (Diarmaid MacCulloch). There in Avila her discalced [shoeless] nuns lived under the revived primitive rule of their order under a rigorous regime. With her zeal for reform burning at full intensity, she soon founded sixteen sister houses elsewhere in Spain. Determined to undertake something distinctive to recover Rome’s waning power under the Reformation onslaught, ‘she would pray the Church into new life, and she would create an army of women to do so’ (MacCulloch). This frenzy of activity, known in her circles as ‘the Teresian Reform’, incurred the wrath of the papal nuncio in Spain, who called her ‘a restless gadabout.’ She was even accused of heresy by certain inquisitors, whose paranoia dreaded female domination, but the support of King Philip II prevented them from proceeding against her.

As ‘repression and renewal went hand in hand’ within her immediate environment (Patrick Collinson), Teresa set down her ideals and experiences in writing. The Way of Perfection stresses her conviction that it was a prime duty of her nuns to save their church from Protestantism. Horrified by reports of Protestant destruction of church property in northern Europe, yet ignorant of their theology and unable to distinguish Lutherans from Calvinists, she urges all to practice radical poverty and ceaseless prayer as means to this end. In The Interior Castle, described by an admirer as ‘a classic of mystical thought’, Teresa’s interior wanderings approach halucinatory boundaries. Her soul is a crystal castle containing seven apartments, each within the other. In the central apartment lives God. To reach him she must forge her way through the other six [these are stages of prayer] till she is joined to her maker in complete union. The Biblical content in this highly imaginative journey is both minimal and misunderstood. [See page 275 of Tony Lane's Lion Christian Classics Collection].

By the late 1570s Teresa’s zeal had won over an influential ally, John of the Cross, who became a Carmelite monk. Together, they fought off much opposition to further their mystical aims, and in the end ‘managed to hang on inside the official Church’ (MacCulloch).

Towards the close of her earthly life, her Order of Discalced Carmelites won official recognition, and with its future security in mind, she penned The Book of Foundations, a constitution for the nuns to live by. She died in 1582.

Her Theology
Living under the dark shadow of the repressive Inquisition, forbidden by the Index of Prohibited Books to read the Word of God in her native tongue [she knew no Latin], terrorized by Spain’s frequent autos de fe [burnings of 'heretics'] and convinced that no-one’s wickedness could equal her own, Teresa was forced into the only route known to her and the mediaeval female mystics whose devotional writings she could read – that of vision-inspired mysticism. Out of this interior darkness, similar to that of ‘Mother’ Julian of Norwich and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, emerged a theology that cannot be pressed into the standard categories of Reformed Systematics. We shall therefore try to evaluate it in the light of Scripture as it presents itself to us.

Salvation
There is something peculiarly Spanish in Teresa’s Roman Catholicism, fostered as it is by deeply personal yearnings for union with an unknown God and informed by the mysticism of Judaism and Islam. Here is her version of it:

Originally created in pristine purity, ‘like a diamond or very clear crystal’, the soul by its fall into sin is now unrecognizable, like a diamond caked in mud or a crystal covered by black cloth. Yet its native beauty remains [echoes of Pelagius!], and to realize its God-intended potential it must return to its divine source, ‘the shining sun … in the centre of the soul.’ As it journeys inwards, knowledge of both self and God increases, till at journey’s end union with him perfects both. Throughout the entire journey, all depends on the power of the human will. Even though grace is ‘the initiating impetus for spiritual growth’, it is the individual’s response that ultimately and ‘essentially constitutes the whole of the Christian life’ (Gillian Ahlgren). In another of Teresa’s favourite images, the soul is God’s garden; and we must cultivate it ‘so that the Lord will take delight there.’ That is, the potential to attract God is embedded in all mankind, and by an ‘asceticism of love’ we must make him want to walk in us.

Only a few critical remarks are necessary. God does not dwell in any merely sinful heart. Neither does he call us to seek him within. The glory of the gospel is that he comes to us from outside; first in the person and work of his only-begotten Son, portrayed in the Word; then in the personal indwelling of his Holy Spirit, who takes of the things of Christ, shows them to his elect, and creates within them a new heart able to receive him. Furthermore, grace does not merely initiate the ‘good work’; it continues and perfects it. The whole process – from nature to grace to glory – is secured by God’s grace, not man’s will. Lastly, Scripture expressly informs us that we do not make ourselves attractive to God; he makes us attractive to himself, by clothing us with his own comeliness. In a tragic example of Roman Universalism, Teresa applies to all mankind what in the Song of Songs is confined to Christ’s chosen Bride.

The role of visions in Teresa’s theology is the fruit of Rome’s stubborn refusal to give her people God’s Word in their native tongue. For her, visions are God’s own substitute for his written Word. A ‘flash of spiritual insight’ is as much a message from him as any amount of Biblical instruction. Indeed, it does more than enlighten the mind; it inflames the heart with love pangs for God. The ultimate experience comes when the soul, ‘immersed’ in a ‘mansion in an intellectual vision’, meets all three persons of the Godhead in a ‘cloud of great clarity.’ Teresa’s boast: ‘this is no imaginary vision’ indicates how completely captivated she was by her delusions. Even the apostles never attained such heights!

Teresa’s claim to have been converted by gazing on a statue of Christ, though every bit as real and vivid to her as Luther’s conversion through the Word, was unquestionably spurious. God simply does not convert sinners in this way. Is he expected to draw them to himself in the very act of disobeying the second commandment, as they prostrate themselves before such idol images? When the Holy Spirit enters the heart, one of his first works is to convince people of the sin of breaking God’s law, and to turn them away from such vanities. Furthermore, not one conversion recorded in Scripture springs from ‘sympathetic suffering with Christ’ created by gazing on a lying depiction of him. Yet who has not heard of professedly evangelical Christians claiming to have been converted by seeing a vision of Christ at the foot of the bed, or in a coal cellar or cathedral? O to be on our guard against Satan’s lying wonders!

We may safely conclude that Teresa’s doctrine of salvation is based on works. By contrast, salvation that is of the Lord is by grace through faith, ‘not of works, lest any man should boast.’

The Church
It remains for us to consider Teresa’s teaching on the church in which she was reared and to which she devoted her life. Her view of it was frankly sacramental. That is, through its ministry the seven [not two] sacraments become channels of grace to all within its communion. In this connection she inherited a long-standing tradition of female mystical experiences triggered off by attendance at mass, the central sacrament of all. Reception of the wafer god [the people, as distinct from the 'clergy', were forbidden the cup] was to her a profoundly emotional experience of consuming his broken body, re-crucified for her.

Her dedication to convent life, too, formed part of her allegiance to a church that without divine warrant robbed thousands of families of the beauties of family life ordained and blessed by God. The rigours of life behind convent walls have nothing to do with self-denying imitation of Christ. Only by gradual transformation into his likeness are we made wholesome leaven ‘in the world’, without being ‘of it.’ True, Teresa was not blind to the crying need for reform within her church, and she made strenuous efforts to remedy some of its defects. But she lacked both the divine authority and divine blessing needed to succeed. All church reformation must affect God’s people as a whole, not an enclosed and exclusive community. Besides, it always occurs through obedience to God’s own appointed means, not through man-made rules and regulations. One writer concludes: ‘Teresa maintained a strong loyalty to the Church … as the most powerful symbol of universal salvation offered in Christ.’ This fair assessment is condemnation enough.

Conclusion
The fanatical fervour that drove such Jesuits as Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier to extreme feats of proselytism and the Spanish Inquisition to diabolical acts of cruelty also gripped this mystic nun. Her ‘mystical visions of Christ, angels and saints in her search for the profound love of God’ (Michael Collins) along with her falling into trances while praying, mark her out as a poor lost soul, duped by Satan’s lying wonders and an active tool in his hand. While we warn precious souls against such soul-destroying, experience-based deceptions, we feel nothing but compassion for them, and long for them to know the liberating wonders of God’s saving grace, channelled to us through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, and received by faith alone. O that they would come to know, by the teaching of the Holy Spirit, the riches that lie concealed in the words: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.’


Taken with permission from Peace & Truth, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union, 2008:3.

www.sgu.org.uk