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ST. TERESA OF AVILA AND THE PRACTICE OF PRAYER David G. Terrell July 24, 2010
Pope Paul III responded to charges of loss of spirituality in the early modern Roman Catholic Church by convoking the Council of Trent (1545-63) to review and standardize doctrines.1 While the Council failed to completely reform Christian morality, it did restore some of the Church’s spirit and energy.2 Much of this spiritual restoration came in the form of numinous experience related by individuals engaged in the ascetic practices of Catholic life, especially prayer.3 One of the approaches to such spiritual practices was labeled “apophatic” by an unidentified monastic writer known as the Pseudo-Dionysius in late fifth-century. Apophatic spirituality is transcendent and involves the use of altered states of conscience to experience an imageless and wordless rapture that eliminates all anthropomorphic notions of God or attempts to rationally understand God in favor of a direct acceptance of “the unknowable.”4 This essay will briefly examine the sixteenth century Catholic mystic, Teresa of Avila and her prayerrelated aspects of spiritual practices. Her writings on the practice of prayer will be examined in the light of their apophatic spirituality, gender and position relative to the Church organization.
Michael J. Call, "Boxing Teresa: The Counter-Reformation and Bernini's Cornaro Chapel" Woman's Art Journal ((Woman's Art, Inc.), Spring-Summer 1997: 34-39.), 34. 2 Robert E. McNally, "The Council of Trent, the Spiritual Exercises and the Catholic Reform" Church History ((Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of Church History) XXXIV, no. 1 (March 1965): 36-49), 36. 3 McNally, 37. Christopher M. Bellitto, "The Spirituality of Reform in the Late Medieval Church: The Example of Nicolas de Clamanges" Church History ((Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of Church History) LXVIII, no. 1 (March 1999): 1-13), 13. 4 Barbara Mujica, "Beyond Image: The Apophatic-Kataphatic Dialectic in Teresa de Avila" Hispania ((American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese) LXXXIV, no. 4 (December 2001): 741-748), 741-742.
2 Teresa of Avila (or, Teresa de Jesus) was the child of a wealthy conversa merchant family who joined the Carmelite religious order, against her father’s wishes in 1535.5 She experienced perennial poor health, including three years of debilitating paralysis that provided her opportunity for spiritual contemplation, during which she experienced a series of divine visions. She actively promoted her spiritual views, founding a branch of the Carmelite Order dedicated to a severe hermetic lifestyle.6 Teresa lived her religious live in the midst of masculine-dominated ideologies exemplified by the Council of Trent which directly targeted feminine religious, mandating their enclosure in monasteries; and limited the public religiosity permitted to women while increasing the attention paid to their lifestyles by male-dominated ecclesiastical and secular officials, including those of the Inquisition. In Spain, where Teresa was raised, the tradition of influential independent religious women (beatas), prominently seen in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, almost disappeared.7 This official suspicion of women’s religiosity arose around two generalizations. The first resulted from the overall lack of formal theological schooling among women. A woman—and, indeed, an unlettered man—who experienced a spiritual awakening did not possess the specialized theological vocabulary that would allow her to describe, explain and preach upon her personal experience to university-trained theologians. This situation was, in some respects, a struggle of epistemology between rational, learned theologians and non-rational, experientiallyminded seekers after God, who were dismissed for their lack of an informed theological
Jonathan W. Zophy, A Short History of the Renaissance and Reformation Europe (4th Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009), 260-261. 6 Kieran Kavanaugh, Teresa of Avila: The Way of Prayer, (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2003), 10-11. 7 Gillian T. W. Ahlgren, "Negotiating Sanctity: Holy Women in Sixteenth-Century Spain" Church History, ((Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of Church History) LVIV, no. 3 (September 1995): 373-388), 375-376.
3 vocabulary and inability to discuss doctrine in terms of classic theology.8 Women were thus sanctioned for their "holy ignorance" and illiteracy; unsurprising as the study of Latin was deemed illicit for women.9 Secondly, there was a significant gendered fear arising from poor masculine opinions of women’s moral strength. Women were assumed to be easily deluded by Satan or unable to find their own spiritual paths because of mental simplicity, ignorance, or inherent malice. It is telling, in this regard, that the Inquisition placed many women on trial—not just as alumbrados, “illuminated” practitioners of previously-rejected religious doctrines—but also as ilusas, demonically-influenced or demon-possessed persons who pretended to be holy; or as actual practitioners of dark magic.10 In spite of this hostile environment, Teresa was a prolific author; writing between 15,000 and 25,000 manuscripts.11 She admitted, in her writings, that three particular books influenced her early spiritual life: The Letters of Saint Jerome, Francisco de Osuna’s Third Spiritual Alphabet and St. Gregory’s Morals on Job.12 Using Gregory’s models of prayer and practice; Osuna’s conceptualization of the “prayer of recollection”13 and Job’s injunction to accept whatever experiences God chooses to inflict upon oneself (Job 2:10)14; Teresa worked to visualize Christ while in deep internal reflection.15
Ahlgren, 376-377. Electa Arenal, and Stacey Schlau. "Stratagems of the Strong, Stratagems of the Weak: Autobiographical Prose of the Seventeenth-Century Hispanic Convent," (Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (University of Tulsa) IX, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 25-42), 25. 10 Ahlgren, 376-377. 11 Kavanaugh, 14. 12 Kavanaugh, 16-17, 28-31. Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, (Vol. I, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, by Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, 5-365. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1565, 1976), 3.7, 4.6-7. 13 Kavanaugh, 17. Avila, Life, 5.8, 4.6-7. 14 Avila, Life, 5.8. 15 Avila, Life, 4.6-7.
4 In Teresa’s autobiographical The Book of Her Life, completed in 1565, she discusses her conceptualizations of prayer at length, in a book explicitly directed at her religious Sisters; as any public exercise of knowledge or theological knowledge was prohibited.16 Her style of prayer can be thought of a contemplative meditation that theologians have characterized as “the practice of interior prayer.”17 As mentioned, Teresa’s introduction to meditative prayer practices was Osuna’s Third Spiritual Alphabet. Summarized, Osuna encouraged the practice of recollection to promote an inward mental focus and tranquility, with the intent of realizing a personal relationship with one’s God. His approach deviated significantly from the standard devotional practice of the time, involving rote recitation of standard prayers. Teresa used the approach and, in 1554, a powerful spiritual experience drove her to intense mental prayer resulting in her experiencing the explicit and direct presence of God; mystical union that, for her, involved visual and audible revelatory experiences and rapturous emotional states. As her convent, in accordance with then-current sensibilities, allowed no time for personal contemplation, she abandoned the community, though a member for over two decades, and founded a new order that allowed women to strive for spiritual perfection through contemplative prayer.18 Teresa describes a series of prayerful practices that increasingly abandon intellectual rationalizations of a scripturally-described God for a non-rational, experiential visualization or imagining of a transcendent, personal, ineffable God. She divides this process into five general
Avila, Life, 11.1-20.29. Arenal and Schlau, 29. Kavanaugh, 19. 17 Kavanaugh, 10 18 Barbara Mujica, "Teresa of Ávila: A Woman of Her Time, a Saint for Ours," (Commonweal, February 2010: 1518), 16.
5 stages that Kevanaugh classifies under the headings of passive recollection, the prayer of quiet, the prayer of union, spiritual betrothal, and spiritual marriage.19 Teresa describes the process as a “journey on this road … to drink from this water of life” that requires one to have “love for one another,” a “detachment from all created things,” and “true humility” before setting out on the path to enlightenment. 20 In the pursuit of prayer through Passive Recollection, the prayer Teresa describes is begun through the prescribed forms: an examination of one’s conscience, an act of contrition and genuflection. However, she then exhorts the follower to a form of prayer that is not spoken aloud and has no fixed format but is rather a silent conversation; “… an intimate conversation between friends…”21 although she also guides one to avoid internal descriptions or dissertations on theological concepts and subtle intellectualizations but rather to “… turn your eyes from these exterior things in order to look at him (the Christ).”22 Therefore, the “recollection” Teresa describes is “a withdrawing of the senses from exterior things and a renunciation of them that, without one’s realizing it, the eyes close so as to avoid seeing them and so that the sight might be more awake to the things of the soul.”23 The follower is led into a communion with God, in solitude, that begins to abandon rationalization for emotional experience.24
Kavanaugh, 40-71. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, (Vol. II, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, by Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, 15-204. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1566, 1980), 21.2. 21 Avila, Life, 8.5. 22 Avila, Way, 26.3 23 Avila, Way, 28.6 24 Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, (Vol. II, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, by Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodrigues, 263-499. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1577, 1980), IV.1.7. Kavanaugh, 47
6 According to Teresa, the practice of passive contemplation eventually leads one towards the Prayer of Quiet. As she moves away from rational experience towards internalized, transcendent experience, Teresa begins to use metaphor and analogy to describe the mental states she desires to communicate. Her dominant metaphor is the watering of plants in a garden. As a child, she had ready access to such a garden and the imagery was probably readily understood by other women, the principal audience for her writings. She compares the beginning stages of this phase of spiritual evolution to bringing water from a distance, it being drawn from a well. The arduous travel to the well, the drawing of the water by hand, and the effort of returning the water to the plants is used to describe the soul’s initial efforts at communion with God. The practices of contemplation metaphorically begin the efforts to build an aqueduct that, once finished, will allow the waters to flow of their own accord—allowing the laborer time to rest and enjoy the garden.25 The essence of this practice was the settling of the followers’ minds that contemplation can become the dominant mental mode, eschewing mental intellectualization for observational contemplation; a “sleep of the faculties” in which “the will is completely occupied in God” and “the other faculties are free for the business and works of service of God.”26 The continued practice of Teresa’s practice of directed contemplation and the manifestation of virtues already mentioned, especially the service to others, eventually opens the seeker to momentary episodes of deep identification Kavanaugh labels as The Prayer of Union.27 The goal of union is reached by indirect methods in that one does not presume to ask for the state but rather acts in the world, as a proxy for Christ, while maintaining a prayerful state of silent contemplation until God is pleased to give the experience of union as an encouragement or
Avila, Interior Castle, IV.2.2-6. Avila, Life, 15.6-7. 27 Kavanaugh, 56-60.
7 blessing. According to Teresa, “True union can very well be reached, with God’s help, if we make the effort to obtain it by keeping our wills fixed only on that which is God’s will.”28 Teresa speaks of the Prayer of Union as a transitory experience and, beyond it, describes a state of consciousness in which the seeker is able to hold the experience for longer periods. She calls this stage of spiritual progress a “Spiritual Betrothal” in which the seeker (spoken of as feminine) is described as a woman engaged to be married after a period of introduction, familiarization and interpersonal satisfaction with the husband-elect.29 Here, Teresa begins to use language related to rapture and ecstasy, though she admits avoiding those words because they are words “that frighten.”30 She continues the use of metaphor, now related to marriage and the fires of romantic love, that melt the strongest soul, though made of spiritual iron.31 Teresa relates her view that God “wants the soul to understand more of what it enjoys in the union” and relates more about His nature to the seeker.32 The epitome of Teresa’s hierarchy of prayer is an enlightenment experience she describes as a Spiritual Marriage with the Trinitarian Godhead. She explains it as being an “intellectual vision” of the truth of the Trinity. Interestingly, she describes the three Persons of the Godhead as distinct personages with a single power, knowledge and purpose. The seeker receives communication from all three personages, who “will come to dwell with the soul that loves him and keeps his commandments.”33 As a result, Teresa indicates that the person so illumined becomes more focused on serving God in their daily practice and the revelatory experience
Avila, Interior Castle, V.33. Avila, Interior Castle, IV.4.4. 30 Teresa of Avila, Spiritual Testimonies, (Vol. I, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, by Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, 369-438. Washington, DG: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1565, 1980), 59.7-8. 31 Avila, Life, 18.7] 32 Avila, Spiritual Testimonies, 59.7-8. 33 Avila, Interior Castle, VII.1.5-10.
8 becomes a regular mode of life; “the soul finds itself in this company every time it takes notice. … never departing from the soul …”34 Teresa draws on a number of Biblical and other sources to liken the union she experienced with God to marriage because, to her mind, human sexuality provided the venue most closely approximating the surrender and cooperative synergy fundamental to her mystical experience. The experience she describes is less a union than emotions akin to the ecstasy of lovemaking and “annihilates rather than promotes rational thought.”35 Considering her writings about prayer, Teresa claims that the prayerful path to God begins with an intellectual ecstatic visualization of God. Teresa’s friend, John of the Cross, described such visions as able to touch “the substance of the soul” while Teresa tells us that the take place "in the center of the soul." Their language, though imprecise and metaphorical, suggests they are speaking of a permanently altered state of consciousness which, for a lack of terms, is described as "substance," "center of the soul," "beyond consciousness." All of which are used, not to describe experience or convey meaning, but rather to elicit the altered state in the seeker through contemplation.36 Teresa’s visions, experienced during her path of prayer, seem to be distinguishable into three types: corporal visions, which included a visual component; imaginary visions, in which images are imagined or fantasized; and, intellectual visions, in which images are perceived but not with the eyes.37 The sources of Christian mystical union are found in the New Testament, particularly in the writings of Sts. Paul and John. Strong opposition to the idea emerged after theology started
Avila, Interior Castle, VII.1.5-10. Mujica, Beyond Image, 744. 36 Louis Dupré, "The Christian Experience of Mystical Union," The Journal of Religion( (The University of Chicago Press) LXIX, no. 1 (January 1989): 1-13), 5. Mujica, Beyond Image, 743. 37 Mujica, Beyond Image, 747.
9 separating the universally-accessible experience of grace from the state of union attainable by the favored few. The tendency to separate faith from experience that seemed to accompany the rise of humanist thought marginalized mystical life into an exceptional, and therefore, suspected theological position.38 Teresa’s position, relative to the Church was made worse by its attitude toward women— that they lacked virtue and the ability to develop spiritually on their own.39 Her religious ecstasy was often attributed to the lens of that natural mental instability attributed to all women. Some of her male clerical advisors persecuted her until she doubted her own experiences. However, others supported her efforts and bolstered her self-confidence.40 In addition to the negative connotations given mystics and women in general, Teresa’s status as a conversa ; and, her manuscripts on "mental prayer" and the stories of her visions caused substantial agitation at a time when Spanish Christendom was intensely reacting against any form of religious heterodoxy, especially from women.41 However, Teresa's extensive and persuasive body of writings describing her spiritual manifestations, healings, visions, and mystical unions with God developed a large following throughout Europe. Using her mystic experiences as authorization the reforms she instituted in her Carmelite order increased the poverty and asceticism practiced by its members and demanded more autonomy for the order, none of which met with clerical approval, and social egalitarianism, which found enemies among ruling nobility. Her spiritual methods, stressing individual experience of God, exemplified the revolutionary possibilities inherent in such
Dupré, 1-2. Ahlgren, 387. 40 Mujica, Teresa of Ávila, 17. 41 Call, 35.
10 paradigms—in its ability to challenge the Church’s approved path to salvation without the imposition of the Church.42
David G. Terrell Herndon, Virginia
11 BIBLIOGRAPHY Ahlgren, Gillian T. W. "Negotiating Sanctity: Holy Women in Sixteenth-Century Spain." Church History, (Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of Church History) LVIV, no. 3 (September 1995): 373-388. Arenal, Electa, and Stacey Schlau. "Stratagems of the Strong, Stratagems of the Weak: Autobiographical Prose of the Seventeenth-Century Hispanic Convent." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (University of Tulsa) IX, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 25-42. Avila, Teresa of. Spiritual Testimonies. Vol. I, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, by Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, 369-438. Washington, DG: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1565, 1980. Avila, Teresa of. The Book of Her Life. Vol. I, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, by Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, 5-365. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1565, 1976. Avila, Teresa of. The Interior Castle. Vol. II, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, by Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodrigues, 263-499. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1577, 1980. Avila, Teresa of. The Way of Perfection. Vol. II, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, by Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, 15-204. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1566, 1980. Bellitto, Christopher M. "The Spirituality of Reform in the Late Medieval Church: The Example of Nicolas de Clamanges." Church History (Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of Church History) LXVIII, no. 1 (March 1999): 1-13. Call, Michael J. "Boxing Teresa: The Counter-Reformation and Bernini's Cornaro Chapel." Woman's Art Journal (Woman's Art, Inc.), Spring-Summer 1997: 34-39. Dupré, Louis. "The Christian Experience of Mystical Union." The Journal of Religion (The University of Chicago Press) LXIX, no. 1 (January 1989): 1-13. Kavanaugh, Kieran. Teresa of Avila: The Way of Prayer. Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2003. McNally, Robert E. "The Council of Trent, the Spiritual Exercises and the Catholic Reform." Church History (Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of Church History) XXXIV, no. 1 (March 1965): 36-49.
12 Mujica, Barbara. "Beyond Image: The Apophatic-Kataphatic Dialectic in Teresa de Avila." Hispania (American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese) LXXXIV, no. 4 (December 2001): 741-748. Mujica, Barbara. "Teresa of Ávila: A Woman of Her Time, a Saint for Ours." Commonweal, February 2010: 15-18. Zophy, Jonathan W. A Short History of the Renaissance and Reformation Europe. 4th Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009.
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