Doctor of Desire: St. Teresa of Avila

ecstasy st teresa
Image via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Traditional Medicine

A word on this series of articles: Progress worships herself. On her altars burn the superseded ideas and ideals of past generations.

Tradition worships not herself, but Truth. She has no acolytes, but rather fellow disciples. By definition, students (Latin: discipuli) are ignorant of what they need to learn, and so they save from the fire even those books they cannot yet decipher. To be a student is to need teachers, for students do not know what they do not know, and someone else must show the way.

In the modern, hectic quest for applicable knowledge, we forget to be students; we forget that no search engine is mighty enough to query a term we have not entered. We scoff when a child tells his instructor, “But I like doing it better this way,” all the while ignoring the very existence much less authority of our own tutors.

We should turn to the past not just when it suits us, but as a custom. We should learn from people long dead who cultivated these same fields. We should approach not as if judges or sages, but with the attitude of the student, “for those who despise wisdom and instruction are doomed” (Wis. 3:11). We should be guided to the best teachers from the past by the best teachers of the present.

Having tested and weighed their sanctity and wisdom, the Church proposes teachers (Latin: doctores) to us: thirty-six particular saints who contributed to the Christian tradition in ways too vital to forget. Though reckoned dead by the foolish, these doctors of the Church have much to teach if only we will listen. Each of the articles in this series represents an attempt to sit at their feet.

Teresa: Persona Semper Reformanda

For 16th century Europeans, Christendom seemed at an end: Turks were threatening from without, and within it was fracturing into a thousand denominations.

Some reformers believed the bark of Peter had foundered, wrecked by the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit, leaving Christians to salvage waterlogged practices and to debride barnacled beliefs.

Other reformers believed the ship still tacked toward heaven despite the corrupt helmsmen, the dead weight, and the constant need for repairs. Numbered among these is Teresa of Jesus, known to us also as St. Teresa of Avila.

Like her contemporary and fellow Spaniard Ignatius of Loyola, her reform started with herself: Around age 40, after two decades as a nun, she found herself convicted by Augustine’s Confessions, and she redoubled her efforts to live out her vows and to open her heart to God in true prayer.

For Teresa, reform meant committing to her radical hunger for God rather than continuing to fumble after lesser desires. In that quest, she turned to the older iteration of the Carmelite Order, one marked by unpadded austerity, dangerous poverty, profound meditation, and continuous penance.

Despite hostile reactions from many of her comfortable sisters, her zeal propagated itself within the order and led to a new rule and new monasteries. She went on to write books about spirituality – Interior Castle, The Way of Perfection, and Book of Her Life.  Teresa challenged her readers – and there have now been millions – to delve deep and to be not satisfied by anything but God.

Know Thyself

Teresa’s counsels were stern. No one could accuse her of making a mountain into a molehill. She took away everyone’s nice shoes and replaced them with rope sandals; she banned pleats in the habits; she did away with spacious suites at the convent for wealthier sisters (she had been using one herself).

Simplifying the details of daily life was of the utmost import, for human beings are frail and can be wrecked by frivolities and the cultivation of distraction. God is already present in the interior castle of your soul; wearing trendy clothes and entertaining distinguished visitors will not help you find Him, and might keep you just outside your own gate.

Would Teresa want everyone to live like her?

In one sense, no, she would not. Not every monastic order has the same charism or rule, and not every person has a vocation to monastic life. In another sense, however, she very much would like everyone to take their eyes off of themselves and make way for God.

In an interesting way, we can compare her reform of the Carmelites to the minimalism of Steve Jobs, a man who kept 100 black turtlenecks in his closet. He did not fuss with things like his uniform (Latin: habitus), and this helped free his mind to develop incredibly complex things that looked very simple. As he said of his computers, and Teresa might have said of the soul: “You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”

Raising Some Stakes

But what is essential? After we strip away the extras and simplify our lives, how should we proceed? Do Teresa’s writings provide a roadmap for deciding what to do with our lives? When she exhorts us to self-knowledge, is she recommending that we discover our unique desires and traits and so make all the right moves: the correct career, the best city, the right spouse.

You might think that Teresa would have much to say on the discernment of such big-ticket items. After all, whether or not you will wear shoes merits deliberation! Could the stakes be any higher?

Modern American spirituality lends itself to high-stakes thinking: If I just discern a little better, I can find God’s perfect plan for me! Coupled with the paralyzing number of choices in domain after domain (cereals, colleges, romantic partners), it is no wonder that discernment anxiety abounds.

But Teresa’s books suggest quite a different set of stakes. She proposes better questions than what choices should I make?

These include: Do you yearn to see the face of Christ, to know what color are His eyes? Do you address God as you would a servant or an acquaintance, and if so, how dare you talk to Him that way?  Do you credit yourself with your good deeds, or do you know you flourish because you are planted next to a flowing stream? Do you turn your full attention to the Lord, or are you spending yourself for something less? Do you trust Teresa when she advises the soul to “take no more notice of the will than it would of a madman”?

Decision-making and self-discovery are not the ends to which prayer is the means. Prayer is relationship with God; unity with God is the end.

One’s life choices start to look less ultimate and more transitory. Choosing between marriage and monasticism suddenly seems closer to choosing between a bagel and a bowl of cereal. Just as the choice of a breakfast is not a matter of personal identity, the choice of a career or even a spouse does not define you, nor will it fulfill you.

Your growing unity with God, your adoration of God, your ability to say thy will be done – these are matters of identity and destiny, and the rest is restlessness.

Put another way, Teresa exhorts you not to pay more attention to the setting of the jewel that is you than to the jewel itself. Who cares if you had cream cheese on your bagel or whether drank the milk left in the bowl?

God was at breakfast with you, and you probably ignored Him.

Satisfied Desire

So Teresa’s works shift emphasis from the what of discernment to the how of living: “Make many acts of love, for they set the soul on fire and make it gentle. Whatever you do, offer it up to God, and pray it may be for His honor and glory.” (Emphasis mine.)

If love of God and not desire-fulfillment is the core imperative, then Solzhenitsyn can be a free man in the gulag, Perpetua can sing on her way into the arena, an arranged marriage can lead to holiness, and any serf can be a saint.

A postmodern spirituality that cannot account for choice-poor individuals or for the millions who have failed or will fail utterly to fulfill their worldly ambitions is a strange artifact indeed. The notion that we will be saved by the maximizing of options is not only godless but futile: the pursuit of happiness apart from God has never worked.

In fact, in a paradox, the proliferation of options tends to leave us less satisfied with the choices we make. If you think your identity is grounded in your personal desires or appetites, your spirituality has nothing to do with Gethsemane or Christianity or Teresa of Avila. Indeed, Teresa believes your appetites are more likely to lead you away from God than toward Him.

A better spirituality can apply more broadly. The truest desire of every human person is known by settled divine science: it is the one true God, the Lord of all life Who is Love. You are radically oriented to Him, and your destiny is a unity with God as total as the river’s when it meets the sea.

So hollow out your desires as Jesus did, and make space for your destiny: “Father, I do not want this cross! Yet not my will, but your will be done.

Teresa’s reckoning with human desire was shaped by her meditations on her favorite saint, Joseph. Do we suppose Joseph betrothed himself in hopes of humiliation and celibacy? If Joseph had used his desires as a metric, would the story of salvation be the same?

Joseph’s dreams were not his own. He was certain God had spoken to Him, however, and he had no doubt that God knew better how to fulfill his deepest desires. Thus Joseph is the opposite of Adam, who failed to trust that God both understood and willed more for Adam than Adam could imagine or desire.

A line from one of Teresa’s most famous prayers is a recapitulation of this line of thinking:

He who has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.

(See the prayer in her original handwriting here.)

When done correctly, what appears as monastic abnegation is actually more fulfilling, not less, than the secular cycle of pleasure-seeking.  Teresa wrote in her autobiography that a soul who prays well “is not satisfied by the pleasures of the world and has no desire for them because it has within it that which satisfies it more: greater joys in God and desires to satisfy its desire, to have greater fruition and to be with Him -- that is what the soul seeks.”


Most people will not experience satisfaction of that deepest need without first passing through death. For a few people, however, that divine desire is not unrequited in this life.

Teresa’s descriptions of her relationship with Christ are almost distressingly conjugal. If you haven’t seen Bernini’s installment The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, you might be confused about this article’s title, and you might not realize that a Catholic cathedral’s chapel causes no small amount of scandal to unprepared tourists.

In the sculpture, and in the story on which it is based, Teresa is thoroughly enraptured by God, body and soul. Is it safe for us to look?

Cynics and secularists smile knowingly when they hear Teresa’s words, “The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.

They believe they have caught a saint in a not-so-subtle sublimation of repressed sexuality. They write essays about how clever Renaissance women found socially acceptable ways of expressing their forbidden lusts.

Yet there is a long tradition of comparing spiritual union with God to marriage. The prophet Hosea and the Old Testament book Song of Songs are examples, as is the portrayal of heaven in Revelation.

God invented marital sex as a gift to humanity. Through it, He shares his power to create and He grants fleeting glimpses of heaven. The ecstasy of divine unity is the original, and temporal sexual ecstasy is the shadow in the cave.

Jesus often explained heaven as not just any great party but as a wedding feast. We should not be surprised to see Teresa, who sought God so wholeheartedly, be granted a greater share in her rapturous destiny ahead of schedule.

Leave It Behind

If we can learn from Teresa, we will relax more about the everyday choices that seem to matter and become much more serious about our relationship with God in prayer. If we can humbly undertake rote prayer, Lectio Divina, and the sacraments, we will have a very good beginning.

If we can learn to contemplate, to be silent, and to fix our attention on God like we fix it on our phones, we will give God the space to live within us, and he will teach us what comes next. When we stop wondering what we truly desire and when we stop chasing phantom fulfillments, we will find ourselves more satisfied in Him than we could ever be elsewhere.

Teresa might leave you with a line from one of her lights, St. Augustine: You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

Afterword: Concurring Witnesses

St. Bonaventure: “In God alone is there primordial and true delight, and in all our delights it is this delight that we are seeking.”

St. John of Avila: “Turn yourself around like a piece of clay and say to the Lord: ‘I am clay, and you, Lord, the potter. Make of me what you will.’”

St. Ignatius of Loyola: “Few souls understand what God would accomplish in them if they were to abandon themselves unreservedly to Him and if they were to allow His grace to mold them accordingly.”

St. Josemaria Escriva: “‘Have a good time,’ they said, as usual. And the comment of a soul very close to God was, ‘What a limited wish!’”

John Senior: “The romantic dream that ‘consenting adults’ left to themselves will come to good is rotten nonsense, contradicted by the continuous experience of history and everyday life.”

12/21/2021 6:47:26 PM
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  • Kaitlyn Curtin
    About Kaitlyn Curtin
    Kaitlyn Dudley Curtin holds graduate degrees in Theology and in Education. She writes a monthly column on Patheos, “Strong Medicine: Scripts from the Doctors of the Church.” She keeps up a personal blog and recently contributed a chapter to Teresa Tomeo’s book "Listening for God." She and her school principal husband parent five lovely children in the upstate of South Carolina.