Today is the feast day of Saint Teresa of Avila, who lived from 1515 to 1582. Teresa is well known for a number of reasons; she is one of only thirty-three Doctors of the Church, saints whose writings have been honored by Catholicism as timeless, exemplary teachings of the faith. Indeed, of the 33 doctors, only three are women (!), and Teresa was the first woman to have received this honor (other doctors of the church include St. Thomas Aquinas; St. Augustine; and Teresa’s colleague and confessor, St. John of the Cross). Teresa also is considered a hero of the faith because of her work as a reformer of the Carmelite Order (troublemaking that she shared with John of the Cross), leading to the formation of a separate order known as the Discalced Carmelites. “Discalced” literally means “shoeless,” referring to the members’ habit of wearing only sandals or going barefoot. As one Discalced Carmelite nun near Sligo once told me, “We rather think it means we’re the slipshod Carmelites.”
But Teresa is far and away best known (both inside and outside of Catholicism) as one of the towering genuises of western mysticism, as immortalized in her books, including The Interior Castle, The Way of Perfection, and The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila, by Herself. She wrote a number of other works as well; all of her writings combine a profound and single-minded love for her faith with an irrepressible zest and saltiness; she was truly as down-to-earth as she was lost in her mystical ecstasies. For her common sense and a no-nonsense approach to dealing with the flightiness of human nature, as well as a sense of humor, are just as important as the rarified theology and spiritual insights that underpin her astute descriptions of ecstasy and the progress of the soul devoted to union with God.
The astoundingly baroque work of art represented here is Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini’s seventeenth-century masterpiece “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” found in Rome’s Cornaro Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. This larger than life (11′ 6″) statue depicts a mystical experience described by Teresa in her autobiography:
Beside me on the left appeared an angel in bodily form . . . He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest ranks of angels, who seem to be all on fire . . . In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one can not possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it — even a considerable share.