The title words are how our earthly life was described by one of the foremost mystical theologians of the 16th century, a feisty yet devout saint who is also said to have complained to Jesus, who appeared to her in a vision, that considering the way he treated his followers, “It’s no wonder you have so few!”
Few of the central figures of the Catholic Revival of her day are at once as earth bound and spiritually high flying, so dyed-in-the-wool loyal to the Church yet so modern, as the woman baptized Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada (1515-1582), who founded the Discalced Carmelites, taking on as her junior partner another mystical giant of her time. Just as evangelical humanists in Europe were attempting to demolish the upward-worshipping arches of Europe’s medieval cathedral, Teresa of Ávila sought to reform the monastic life from within, to make it more prayerful.
Teresa was an unlikely Catholic mystic. Her paternal grandfather, Juan Sánchez de Toledo, was a marrano (a convert to Christianity who remained secretly Jewish), ultimately condemned by the Spanish Inquisition. However, her father, Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda, fully assimilated into Christian society and even acquired a knighthood to prove it.
Moreover, growing up in the tiny hamlet of Gotarrendura, Avila, a mostly mountainous central western province of Spain, Teresa was a callow youth who avidly read medieval tales of knights and primped to look the part of an attractive privileged young woman. She was delivered from a conventional path most likely by her mother’s death when Teresa was 14 and the marriage of her oldest sister, after which she was sent to be educated by the local Augustinian nuns. However, she returned home 18 months later when she became seriously ill. During this time she became devoted to the Virgin Mary and experienced the earliest instances of what she later described as religious ecstasy.
At home with her father, considered by biographers a saintly man and fond of serious books, she took up broad-based spiritual reading, including the letters of St. Jerome and other spiritual books similar to those Loyola read during his convalescence. Like Loyola, she included what she gathered from her reading in her own teaching about the spiritual life. Against her father’s wishes, however, and still in turmoil about taking the step, she left the family home to join the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation at Avila, in 1535, at the age of 20.
Reportedly in the next year she endured terrible inner struggles. Some say it was homesickness, others that it was something more. She was repeatedly beset by bouts of fever and fainting that some modern observers describe as “malaria,” although it probably wasn’t. She was taken to a healer whose cleansing treatment probably dehydrated Teresa and left her with pain, constant fever and ruined nerves and unable to eat or sleep. For three years she was never completely well, and instead of helping her spiritually, her sickness halted her private prayer; she wasn’t healthy enough to be alone.
She later wrote that she didn’t realize that “Prayer is an act of love; words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.” She criticized herself for her sinful “guise of humility” that made her undeserving of divine favor. In her words, she was like “a baby turning from its mother’s breasts; what can be expected but death?”
Drawing on readings of the devotional work Third Spiritual Alphabet by Francisco de Osuna, she began to attempt examinations of conscience, spiritual concentration and inner contemplation, rising from what she called the lowest stage, “recollection,” (or gathering oneself) to “devotions of silence” and even to “devotions of ecstasy,” in which she experienced perfect union with God, which she described as a rich “blessing of tears.”
Still, prayer was difficult.
“I was more anxious for the hour of prayer to be over than I was to remain there. I don’t know what heavy penance I would not have gladly undertaken rather than practice prayer,” she writes. “This intellect is so wild that it doesn’t seem to be anything else than a frantic madman no one can tie down. All the trials we endure cannot be compared to these interior battles.”
She was eventually delivered to mental prayer, which she describes this way:
“For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love of God is not great delight but desire to please Him in everything.”
In time, in the prayer of quiet, God’s presence overwhelmed her senses. Rapture filled her with glorious foolishness, prayers of union when she felt the sun of God melt her soul away. Sometimes her whole body was raised from the ground, and she called her sister nuns to sit on her and hold her down. Troubled by these events, she “begged God very much not to give me any more favors in public.”
If her inner life was a struggle, so was her external environment. The convent was a shock. What at first was attributed to homesickness, became a longing for a much more ascetic, prayerful and simple life.
Part of the problem was her surroundings. The 150 nuns in her cloister lived a very comfortable and spiritually lax life. It was not uncommon for convents to be residences for well-born women who, for one reason or another, were unmarriageable yet who retained servants and luxuries, which they brought in tow to the cloister. They even got vacations from the convent to cut down on community expenses. They styled their veils and wore jewelry. A steady stream of people of high social and political rank, including young men and Teresa’s own worldly relatives, visited the convent parlors, which came to resemble the social courts of the nobility. What spiritual life there was, she remarked, involved hysteria, weeping and exaggerated penance.
Teresa suffered from being too charming and likable, and she wanted to be liked. The convent encouraged her to receive visitors and teach them mental prayer. Their financial gifts helped the community, but their attention often distracted her with what she described as flattery and lured her into vanity and gossip rather than spiritual conversation.
When all seemed lost, she got help in voicing her turmoil and finding a practical response by Fr. Peter of Alcantara, a Franciscan who was later canonized. He met her early in 1560 and became her spiritual director. She resolved to start a reformed Carmelite convent, correcting the laxity she had found in so many. She tapped her friend Guimara de Ulloa, a woman of wealth, who supplied the funds for a new cloister, where she was allowed to reside in a new order, the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of the Primitive Rule of St. Joseph, at Avila, founded in 1562. It was four years before the superior general of the Carmelites gave approval and granted permission to found monasteries for men as well.
This was the beginning of a new adventure, which we shall review in the next entry.