Teresa of Avila and The book of the Life|
Por Isaías A. Rodríguez
Some say that after the Virgin Mary, no other woman has influenced
the Church as much as Saint Teresa of Jesus. Here are some of the words that usually
accompany the name of the saint, - ecstasy, poet, mystic, religious, God, feminist,
passion, reformer, meditation, visionary, delirium, wisdom ... She is a sure point
of reference on the spiritual path.
There were times when there were still
scholars and doctors who asked themselves if the woman was "a human being", when
Teresa de Jesús, with as much passion as intellectual clarity, undertook the reform
Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada was born on March 28, 1515. She
was the fifth of twelve brothers; the two older ones, from a previous marriage
of their father, who when he became a widower married in second marriage with
Beatriz de Ahumada. In addition to the children, Teresa's house was full of books,
one of Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda's greatest hobbies. From there, he knew from a
very young age the cavalry deeds and especially the life of the saints.
much did her rapport with these stories come, that at the age of seven he tried
to escape with her brother Rodrigo to become a martyr in Moorish lands. Her adventure
ended before he could cross the walls of the city surprised by her uncle. Frustrated
her dream of martyrdom, the brothers spent their afternoons playing at being hermits
in the home garden.
Her joy and restless spirit suffered a severe setback
in 1528 with the death of her mother, when she was just 13 years old. But far
from being discouraged, Teresa then asked the Virgin to adopt her.
became complicated again with the arrival of adolescence. At the age of 16, her
father decided to intern her in the school of the Augustinians, Santa María de
la Gracia (1531-1532), when he saw that the young woman flirted with one of her
cousins. His idea was not that his daughter were a nun. In fact, when Teresa proposed
that option to him in 1535 - at the age of 20 - his father opposed it.
Teresa, who had always been a determined woman, fled the house and entered the
Carmelite convent of La Encarnación, where she lived for 27 years. After entering
the order, fell ill, went into a deep coma and was shrouded in open burial three
days, and then three years unable to walk. In our times, this situation would
be considered as an unequivocal sign of non-vocation to religious life. In Teresa
it was all the opposite. In the midst of suffering God gave her the prayer
of stillness and sometimes with the prayer of union (4, 7).
she returns to the convent she spends three years in the infirmary. The medical
care is totally insufficient. She resorts to heaven and especially to St. Joseph,
through whose intercession she regained health (6.5). The recovery of health instills
in Teresa the desire to live, to relate, and to go from "vanity to vanity". It
is the stage from 26 to 35 years (1541-1550).
The death of his father
Alonso provokes a very deep loneliness: "Great evil, a single soul" (7, 20). Feels
in that moment how God wakes her up and gives her light in the midst of darkness.
The reading of the Confessions of Saint Augustine and the unexpected
encounter with a much wounded image of Christ (9, 1), in Lent of 1554, led to
the age of 39, what is known as his "conversion". The encounter with the Christ
left her totally disturbed (9, 1). "I wanted to cleanse him of that painful sweat
... and threw myself close to him, with great tears, I begged him to strengthen
me once and for all so as not to offend him" (9,1). The result was: "It seems
to me that my soul gained great strength" (9, 9); she has "the new feeling of
the presence of God in her" (10, 1). "He was inside me or I was all engulfed in
him" (10, 1). From here, Teresa understood the centrality of Jesus Christ in her
life. "Christ is the doorway to all the secrets of God" (22, 6).
although it is the one [conversion] that almost all writers talk about, it was
not Teresa's definitive "conversion" that would arrive two years later, around
the feast of Pentecost in 1556, at 41 years of age. He recounts extensively in
chapters 23 and 24. Let's see only a few passages: "I started the hymn [Veni,
Creator] and, as I was praying it, I had a rapture so sudden that it almost took
me away from me [...]. I understood these words: I no longer want you to have
conversation with men, but with angels [...]. That has been fulfilled well, that
I have never been able to settle in friendship or have consolation or particular
love, but rather to people who understand God and seek to serve Him "(24, 5).
From there follows a series of mystical experiences and visions. One of
the most determinant of his life took place in the autumn of 1560. It is a vision
of hell. This experience motivates her to be more faithful to her religious vocation
and to create a convent with a new style of serving God and living the fraternity,
which will be the convent of San José, in Ávila.
After this convent come
many more, until completing 17. Not without difficulties and even much hostility,
also from the Inquisition itself, which considered her suspected of belonging
to the sect of the illuminated. The alumbradismo more than an intellectual
or theological heresy, was a pseudomistica. The whole society was very sensitive:
there had been flagrant cases of deceit and falsehood, such as the falsified Magdalena
de la Cruz, or that of Blessed Piedrahita, or Sister María de San Domingo. What
the alumbrado wanted was to present himself as a saint, gain relevance
in society, create fame and then, with that fame, do what he wanted: get a good
position, get close to the greats of Spain get economic benefits and even more
obscene and bastard things, how to achieve sexual favors.
In that Spain
nobody was free of suspicion. Who would not be, if even Bartolomé de Carranza,
archbishop of Toledo and primate of Spain, had been imprisoned! He was the patriarch
of all Spain, because to the territory of the Iberian Peninsula you had to add
America, Naples, Sicily, Genoa ... Not even free from suspicion was Fray Luis
de León, one of the most eminent theologians of the time. By translating the Song
of Songs from Hebrew, bypassing the prevailing ecclesiastical norm of respecting
the Vulgate, he spent five years of imprisonment. Both were imprisoned
by Inquisitor Rodrigo de Castro Osorio, a cold, calculating, absolutely aseptic,
rationalist man. He did what the inquisitor general, Diego de Espinosa, did not
even dare to do.
Teresa died on October 4, 1582, aged 67, in Alba de Tormes.
She was beatified by Paul V on April 23, 1614 and canonized by Gregory XV in 1622.
Paul VI appointed her doctor of the Church in 1970; the first, of the current
three. The other two are: St. Catherine of Siena and another Discalced Carmelite,
St. Therese of the Child Jesus.
Jesus Sanchez Adalid (priest novelist)
has said that the life of St. Teresa is exciting; on her many novels could be
written. Teresa brings together all the reality of the sixteenth century: the
beginning of the Golden Age of Spanish letters, the Counter-Reformation, the discovery
of overseas territories, the Mediterranean wars, the battle of Lepanto, the siege
of Malta, the looting of Rome. All that is in Teresa's mind.
Leaving aside the poems, in general od popular roots and improvised, sung
and even danced, in the rest of his literary production we can differentiate,
on the one hand, Life with autobiographical story; the Way of Perfection,
which is aimed at religious communities; and those in which he recounts his inner
experience, such as the Meditations on Songs and The Interior castle.
And book of The Foundations.
The book of Life
When the book of Life fell by chance into the hands of Edith Stein in the
summer of 1921 - the well-known Jewish philosopher, a disciple of Husserl - in
the house of her friend Hewig Conrad Martius one night after the death of a mutual
friend, she opened the book and could not close it all night, until it was finished.
At that moment he exclaimed: "This is the truth". Her conversion to Christianity
led her to become a Carmelite nun. Today we venerate her as Saint Teresa Benedicta
de la Cruz.
In the field of literature, Fernando Lázaro Carreter affirms
that Teresa of Avila, with the book of her Life, "also founded in the letters",
because it initiates in the history of Spanish literature the genre of the "autobiography
of the spirit". In the case of Teresa, the autobiographical perspective is not
only a literary genre, but a confessional choice. She places in the foreground
the personal testimony of the lived experience, reflected and assimilated.
Alonso said that "Teresa is the people and speaks like gold."
Unamuno affirmed that "the Spanish language enjoyed and knew God by Teresa de
The book of Life was written by the saint twice. The first, in
the magnificent palace of Luisa de la Cerda, Toledo (1562), at 47 years old. The
second, in the very poor cell of the recently founded convent of San José (1565)
at 50. Lost the first manuscript, we only have the second one.
intentionally anonymous: without cover, without author's name, without title or
date or place of composition, without names of agents or recipients; the only
ones mentioned throughout the work, Fray Pedro de Alcántara, Father Francisco
de Borja, and the "Father Maestro Juan de Ávila"; in anonymity also the letter
sending the manuscript on the last page. And she asks that before giving it to
Maestro Juan de Ávila, a copy of the book is made so that no one recognizes his
When it was edited, Fray Luis de León entitled it: The
Life of Mother Teresa of Jesus and some of the mercies that God made to her, written
by herself at the behest of her confessor, to whom she sent and directed it.
"Towards the end of her life, the author writes: "I entitled this book 'of the
mercies of God'" (Cta. 415.1: of 1581), and in other places she speaks of it as,
Book of Life; Big Book; My soul.
Teresa writes her book at the
suggestion of Inquisitor Soto, "he told her in 1564 to write everything and all
her life, without leaving anything, to the Maestro de Ávila who was a man who
understood much about prayer".
The manuscript was denounced to the Inquisition
in 1574 by the intriguing princess of Éboli, Mrs. Ana de Mendoza, who mocked the
book, read it to her maids and friends, and put it in the hands of the inquisitors,
accusing it of being a heresy.
Finally it is Domingo Báñez who delivers
the manuscript in Madrid to Inquisitor Soto, the same one who had suggested to
the Saint to write it in 1564. The Inquisition asks Báñez to censor the manuscript.
He read it, wrote down and approved. He feels a little disgusted with the "visions
and revelations" (as the saint herself was sometimes discomforted by extraordinary
phenomena); but he is firmly persuaded that he is not a "deceiver" woman; "She
speaks so plainly, good and bad, and with so much desire to succeed, that he does
not doubt her good intentions". But he adds: "That it was not convenient for her
to go public in this book while she lived, but to keep it in the Holy Office until
we see her rest of the story of this woman." It was strangely kept by the Inquisition,
until after Teresa´s death. Anne of Jesus got it back in 1586 and placed in the
hands of Fray Luis de León who edited it for publication two years later in Salamanca
1588. The autograph is in the Escorial.
For this reason, Father Gracián,
a Carmelite, adviser to the saint, considers it definitively lost and suggests
that she write it again, but without autobiographical references. The saint obeys
and, surprise! Composes the Interior Castle.
Also in 1588, the
book reappears in Barcelona in a pirate edition, "Jaime Cendrat's house". And
before a year has passed, Fray Luis reissues it in Salamanca, by Guillermo Foquel
himself, in 1589. It is translated into Italian (Rome 1599), into French (Paris
1601), into Latin (Mainz 1603), etc. The Teresian autograph has been reproduced
twice in facsimile; in Madrid, in 1873-74, "by the Catholic Fototipográfica society,
under the direction of Dr. Vicente de la Fuente"; and in Burgos in 1999, under
the direction of Tomás Álvarez: three volumes; facsimile the first, "paleographic
transcription the second" and "historical note the third" (Edit Monte Carmelo).
The initial years of the existence of Life were, therefore, hazardous.
"The truth suffers, but does not perish," Teresa wrote in a letter to the Carmelites
of Seville (3-5-1579) with a great phrase of the many that come out suddenly when
taking the pen.
So Teresa writes by mandate of her confessors, but it
is enough to be a little attentive to the reading of the work so that one immediately
realizes that she is pretending something else. In the last lines of the work
we discover the character of the book: to communicate "this my ruined life" (40,
24). With this he wants "that for me something should be praised to the Lord"
(40, 24) and she wishes to "engross the souls of such a high good" (18, 8).
book of Life is not an autobiography - in the strict sense of gender - although
it evidently speaks of herself in relation to other people and to God in the context
of her place and time. To be a biography, there is a lack of facts and a description
of the general environment, even if it gives extraordinarily eloquent brushstrokes.
It is a prayer book where Teresa speaks and writes also for that God who has made
Teresa's little story a story of salvation. She is praying when she narrates.
Discovers her inner motives, her soul. In fact, when she gives the book to her
confessor, she says: "Here I give you my soul." It´s her soul, her personality,
what she is stripping. What she claims to emphasize in her writing is not her
external life, but the action of God in her. God has always been present in her
Teresa's work is narrative theology, speaking of God in the thread
of some facts and not so much according to a doctrinal scheme. Jesus is the center
that places everything, a focus of light that illuminates everything, a friend
that never fails. Without the reality of Jesus, the life of Teresa and that of
the book of Life would be like an illusory unfolding. She is called Teresa de
Jesus and he shows himself as Jesus of Teresa.
The book of Life is the
most personal, the most alive, dynamic and communicative coming from the pen of
the mother. It is the one who best identifies with Teresa and who best presents
her to us. Despite the centuries that separate us from its writing, continues
talking today. It speaks of God, of the supreme and personal Reality, of the most
sacred humanity of Jesus Christ, of Truth and of Mercy. And it does with humility
and gratitude. Teresa is aware that the gifts received from God are not exclusively
personal, but have an orientation towards the common good of the Church.
the light received in the vital encounter with Jesus Christ (9, 1), Teresa reads
her life as providentially guided by God; she is and feels herself an immediate
recipient of God's love. Writes as she says in the prologue "to the glory and
praise of the Lord." Teresa wants to speak well of God, to "bless" him, and to
evangelize others, to show that God is good, heals, forgives, encourages, saves.
The existence of Teresa is deeply penetrated by the apostolic and evangelizing
dimension. Her Life is a testimony of the power and goodness of God.
of the values received and transmitted by Teresa is that of friendship: human
and divine. Her idea of God is that of a God-friend. Jesus Christ: "What a good
friend you are, Lord!" (8, 6). "He is a true friend" (22, 6).
of prayer as: "Nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means
taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us" (8, 5). "God
deals with the soul with so much friendship and love that you do not suffer to
write" (27, 9).
Division of the book:
1. Narrative chapters
from 1 to 10: Period of her life. Memory of the family home (1-3).
gets inspiration from the reading of patristic wisdom:
St. Jerome (3,
4 and 7). Reading his letters is what encourages her to take the final
step. She received the advice and text from his uncle Pedro Sánchez de Ahumada.
The radicalism of Jerome must have shaken her to the point of daring to take such
an important step. It may be that the reading of Jerome also put her in touch
with models and characters of the female monasticism he directed, that is, the
presence of women in the spiritual life. Through the letters she also knew the
world of the desert.
St. Gregory the Great (5, 8; 30, 10; 31, 11).
The Morales about Job. A work of great influence on medieval and modern
spirituality, and read by Teresa in the Castilian version of Alonso Álvarez de
Toledo (1527), where she not only could connect with the suffering biblical figure
of Job, but also receive important spiritual contents and even teaching for the
life of prayer.
St. Augustine (9, 7-10; 13.3; 40.6). The confessions.
Teresa has seen herself in at the model of the converted sinner that was offered
here. Teresa situates the reading of Augustine at the moment of what is considered
his first conversion (1554), being already a nun in the Incarnation of Ávila (9,
7) and having access to a Spanish version of the Augustinian book by Sebastián
Toscano and published in Salamanca. In that reading, she observes the coordinate
of grace/sin, divine call/infidelity that responds to a scheme inaugurated by
Augustine with such success and that Teresa tries to repeat, at least in what
is considered the first part of his autobiographical writing (1-9). ). Not only
was she attracted by the example of the holy converts (King David, Paul, Magdalene),
but also in Augustine she had something specific, that of a text where the successive
steps of his encounter with Christ were told in detail, as also happened to Teresa.
"I am very fond of St. Augustine, because the monastery where I was secular
was of his order and also because I was a sinner, that in the saints that after
being so the Lord returned to Himself I found much consolation" (9, 7).
can lead us to think that our writer in certain moments loads the inks too much
and that in her look towards the past she can exaggerate by wanting to transmit
a posteriori what really was not so much. She was not a sinner like Augustine
and did not need such a radical conversion.
Another aspect that Teresa may
have received from the Augustinian saying is the dialogical meaning of her written
narrative, as she already states from the beginning. She has in mind some specific
recipients of his writing, the group of people whose opinion she has subjected
his spiritual life and, above all, the Dominican García de Toledo, whom he addresses
from time to time, as if the story was organized in a form of continuous conversation.
But the dialogical sense reaches in her mind, in addition to those possible readers,
a more important interlocutor, because her personal history conceives it as a
drama that is resolved between a YOU and a ME. This interlocutor always present
is God. And that is why, very often, the story changes tone and becomes a climate
of prayer that allows a spontaneous exit of acclamations, invocations, thanksgiving,
petitions, etc. In other words, she is praying.
Therefore, it can be said
that Life is a prayer book where she also speaks and writes for that God who has
made Teresa's little story a story of salvation.
John Cassian, the
monk of Marseille, transmitted the spirituality of Eastern monasticism in the
West through two titles: The Institutions and Monastic Collations.
The primitive monasticism (Antonio, Paul hermit, Euphrosyne, Hilarion ...) always
fascinated Teresa, if only because of what had happened to the Carmelite tradition
that, being a medieval order that arose in Palestine, was looking for more ancient,
oriental backgrounds and biblical, especially in the world of the inhabitants
of the desert.
In Cassian's Collations, as Maria Bautista says in the
process of beatification, she liked to read, even at night, the anecdotes and
lives of the ancient Fathers of the Desert, of which she certainly did not take
the extreme nature of many of their vital options. It also receives light, through
the exercise of the interiority of Francisco de Osuna, (4, 7). For the practice
of the sacraments (4.7, 5.9, 6.2-4). For the devotion and devotions of the Church
(6, 6: devotion to the Virgin (1, 1) (1, 6) to Saint Joseph (7, 8), all wrapped
up in the transcendent love of the prayer life.
2. Doctrinal chapters
from 11 to 22: the initiation and configuration of the experience with
Christ (These chapters are added later to give an understanding of the graces
that will follow from chapters 23-31).
What can she do for the Lord? "To be
as such" is the Lord's will, and he loves her as "servant of the Lord" (11, 1).
Vegetable garden and watering method:
a. Extracting water from the well
with cauldron (ascetic phase) (11-13). Four tips: decentering from things and
focusing only on Jesus Christ; the cross from the beginning; avoid mirages; the
b. To draw water from the well by turning the crank of a
water wheel and by aqueducts: (mystical phase: prayer of stillness, "recollection
prayer", "prayer of divine tastes" (14-15).) This is a phase that no one "can
gain through any efforts they can make" (14, 2) .When the downs come "do not abandon
the prayer" (15, 3). "If you do not leave it, God will bring you to the port of
salvation" (15, 3).
c. To channel the water of the river or of the font (spring)
(mystical phase: the faculties can no longer work (16-17).) We must leave ourselves
completely in the arms of God (17, 2).
d. The water irrigates the garden as
rain from heaven (mystical phase: union prayer) (18-19). Irruption of God's communication:
rapture. The soul is conscious of living on earth, but she finds herself as dead.
The effects of this prayer are presented in chapter 19. And it speaks of "tears
of joy" (19, 1), of "courage" (19, 2), of the understanding of one's own life
in the light of the mercy of God (19, 5). The fruit of this prayer is the "deep
humility" and perceives how absurd it is to dedicate life to money and pleasure
3. Chapters from 23 to 31: the new life of extraordinary graces.
New book, because the protagonist will be God himself (23, 1).
entrance of Teresa into the mysterious world of mystical experience occurs at
the beginning of 1554, at 39 years of age; this is how she exposes it in Life
(cc 23 to 31). From the sporadic mystical experiences and very brief previous
ones (10, 1), Teresa went to mystical states where "Her Majesty began to give
me very ordinary prayer of stillness, and often of union, which lasted a long
time" (23, 2).
"The Lord said to me: do not be sorry, for I will give you
a living book" (26, 6). In this way she puts into the mouth of God one of the
sharpest and very few criticisms against the inquisitorial policy that were launched
from within the Spanish monarchy (Teófanes Egido).
Let's say something about
the grace of the transverberation. Teresa will refer to that mystical phenomenon
several times. Let's see what she says in Life, since it is the most brilliant
description (29, 13-14):
- "The Lord wanted me to see this vision sometimes
..." A celestial being intervenes, an angel "very beautiful", "face so fiery ..."
and brandishes in his hand a "long golden dart", and "at the end of the iron seemed
to have a little fire" "seemed to put (the dart) by the heart sometimes and that
I came to the bowels" with love and pain, in the soul and body, "and left me all
burned in great love of God." With "great pain", "very great pain", "he made me
give those moans". But "not corporal pain but spiritual, although the body does
not stop participating something, and even a great deal". "The days that this
lasted, I walked as if in a daze: I desired neither to see or to speak, but to
clasp my suffering close to me, for to me was greater glory than all creation."
"The loving exchange that takes place between the soul and God is so sweet
that I bet Him in His goodness to give a taste of this love to anyone who thinks
I am lying.
All this is lived by the wounded person, in full consciousness,
without ecstasy. Teresa will repeat that the wound "is not where the pain is felt
here, but in the very deep and intimate soul". Teresa being a person who has suffered
and used to great pain, she cannot help it then but give great cries. "I saw a
person that I truly thought was dying ..." But the wound was not for death but
for the crucible of love. It serves to drain the spirit of all impure scum and
prepare it for the final encounter with God.
Few mystical episodes of Saint
Teresa have had the resonance that in the most varied sectors has had the grace
of the dart.
3. Chapters 36 to 40: how she lives then and contemplates
the eschatological horizon of his life.
Vision of the blessed in heaven
(38, 1; 39; 22-23).
Vision of the Holy Spirit (38, 9-11).
"in the breasts of the Father" (38, 17-18).
Vision of the souls that are condemned
Vision of the devil (38, 23).
Vision of the souls that are
saved (38, 27-31).
God responds to your requests (39, 1-5).
of the mystery of the Trinity (39.25).
Vision of the ascent to the heaven
of the Virgin (39, 26).
She longs for consummate union with the Lord,
but she knows how to wait. Triple lesson: a) The discovery of the "divine truth"
that entails the desire not to speak but of very true things (40, 3). b) The meeting
of the wonderful and clear light of Christ (40, 5-6). c) The verification that
God is "like a very clear diamond" and this diamond is "much greater than the
whole world" and that "everything we do is seen in this diamond", because "he
encloses everything in himself" that "there is nothing that comes out of this
greatness" (40, 10). "May it please the Lord that I did not err in doing so since
my intention and desire to succeed was to do what is right and to obey and that
through me He might receive some praise, which is what I have been beseeching
Him for many years. Since I do not have the deeds that praise Him, I have dared
to recount this dissipated life off mine" (40, 24).
Evaluation of the
The great Theresianist, Tomás Álvarez, makes the following evaluation
of the book of Life. "It is the most dense and richest of the Teresian writings.
And it occupies a position of high value in the concert of Christian spirituality
or even universal. Among the most valuable aspects of the book we can highlight
two: one literary and the other doctrinal. Namely:
On a merely literary
level, Life is an incomparable document of the Castilian language at the
middle of the 16th century. Teresa is a faithful witness of the evolution of the
language at that time. Her narration, and even the graphic picture of the autograph,
is a true reflection of the language spoken by the people in the heart of Castile,
at a time when almost all of the books reflect rather the cultured language with
its Latinizing propensity. The inflections of the story, the assembly of the narrative
planes - the external and the mystical introspective - the pathos of the story
in certain trances, make it absolutely original.
But its religious value
is much higher. The story of Teresa testifies with force and clarity the presence
of God in her life. Affirming that loving presence is the supreme reason of the
entire book. For that, she writes, not to make literature, but to inform the reader
-believer or not- that God has made Himself unequivocally present in her life.
Suffice any passage: "I often marveled to think of the great goodness of god and
my soul delighted in seeing His amazing magnificence and mercy. May He be blessed
by all, for I have seen clearly that He does not fail to repay, eve in this life,
every good desire"(4, 10)".
Diccionario de Santa Teresa, 2ª edición, Monte Carmelo, 2006, Burgos.
Tomás: St. Teresa of Avila, 100 Themes on Her Life and Work, -translated
by Kieran Kavanaugh, ICS Publications, Washington, DC. 2011.
de Pablo: El teresianismo, teología, espiritualidad y moral, Monte Carmelo,
Sancho, Javier y Cuartas Rómulo: El Libro de la Vida de Santa
Terea de Jesús, Actas del I Congreso Internacional Teresiano, CITeS, Monte
Carmelo, 20112, Burgos.
The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila,
translated by Kieeran Kavanaugh and Oilio rodrígue, Volume I, ICS Publications
Washington, DC. 1976