: St. Teresa of Avila
Real Name: Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada
Country of Birth: Spain
Claim to fame: Mystical cloistered Discalced Carmelite reformer and nun. Foundress of St. Joseph’s convent in Avila, the first reformed Carmelite convent.
Quote: “This prayer is a glorious foolishness, a heavenly madness where the true wisdom is learned; and it is for the soul a most delightful way of enjoying”
History: Born into a family of 10 kids, when her mother died her father shipped her off to be looked after by Augustinian nuns at age 13. She decided, against her fathers wishes to become a nun, but life must have been fairly rudimentary in the nunnery game, and she soon fell seriously ill. Worried at the lack of treatment his daughter was getting at the hands of the Church, her father decided to take Teresa to a ‘health spa’ to recover. But rather than getting better her health deteriorated to the point she lapsed into a coma and when she regained consciousness found she had temporary paralysis of her legs.
At the age of 39, her biological clock ticking away, Teresa began to have visions of Christ and vivid experiences of ”mystical marriage” with Him and of His presence within her. The last film in the U.K to be banned for blasphemy ”Visions of Ecstasy,”(1989) depicted the supposed ”erotic imaginings” of St. Theresa of Avila during these visions. Her life was hence-forth littered with visions & raptures described by one writer in this way: “Her record of raptures and visions answers to nothing, in the experience of most modern Christians”.
She claimed to have the gift of ‘extraordinary favours’(which she was able to bestow on others, whilst still suffering ill-health herself? ) and ‘dominion over demons’. During her ‘visions’ she became a regular visitor to hell (yes, ‘the’ hell), the description of one such ‘trip’ is outlined in her autobiography….
“Oh, my goodness! I see–oh, it’s a stench! The odor is so horrible! I see a huge pit, and it’s real burning. The walls are orange and burning hot. Oh! Oh, and I see these horrible creatures; they’re clinging to the sides of the rocks. Some have wings on them with horrible–they look almost human, half human, half animal, but they have pointed ears. And they have … “oh, my God! Please, Blessed Mother, take me out of here!” Oh, my God, they have feet that look like claws and arms with hair, but they also–the fingers have long fingernails; they’re like claws. And they have the most horrible grinning expressions on their faces. Now I see, I see bodies of humans falling, falling. As they fall they’re starting to glow. They’re glowing like an orange color, like coals. And they’re screaming, “Help! Mercy! Mercy! Too late! Too late!” Oh!”Oh, my God! And I see they’re going so fast. I don’t know where they’re falling from. They seem to be raining, like almost from the sky into this pit. And I see–oh, my God! I see some are priests. Oh! Oh, and I see one, he has oh, my God!-a cardinal’s hat on his head. And there are three. Now I can count them, there are three. They have mitres on their heads. Oh, my God! Oh, it’s so horrible! The heat is so great, and the stench! I feel like I’m just burning”….
Even in the 19th century, when psychiatry was in its infancy, it was obvious to those who read her ‘rambling’ autobiography Teresa was suffering what would now be termed ‘mental health issues’. Sigmund Freud’s colleague, Joseph Breur, dubbing her ‘the patron saint of hysteria’ after finishing her story (an herculean effort in itself, the book being almost unreadable to anyone, in any age, past or present)I’m sure there’s plenty of hospital staff that hears this sort of thing, shortly prior to sedating the patient. The Robbins & Roth Study of 1999 reported 28% of all patients with psychotic symptoms, involved delusions & hallucinations with religious connotations – so we what we see here is not unusual, nor is it divine.
In her most famous vision, the subject of the statue by Bernini (main photo above): “I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form … He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire … In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by the intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God.”.
The most popular modern-day diagnosis of Teresa’s mental condition is contained in the pages of ‘Psychology of The Future’ by Stanislav Grof.
He describes her as a ‘severe hysterical psychotic’, one which seems fair given the nature of her visions & founded also in her claims she was able to physically levitate and ‘fly around my room’ (claims the Catholic Church backs-up) Her psychosis was similarly highlighted in ‘Saints and Madmen’ (by Russell Shorto)
Another re-occurring theme in the analysis of St Teresa’s life is: sexual repression (the topic of the fore-mentioned British movie) By all accounts Teresa was a beautiful woman, with many admirers. Her sexual desires unable to find a physical outlet, she finds ‘pleasure’ and ‘release’ in her visions.
In her autobiography she wrote “During ecstasy the body stops moving, breathing becomes slower and weaker, you only sigh and pleasure comes in waves…”. For all intents and purposes, she is describing an orgasm. Many interpret her most famous vision (above) as having strong sexual connotations, and the angels golden spear to be phallic symbolism.
Others modern psychiatrists like Dewhust & Beard (‘Handbook of Health & Religion), attribute her visions to temporal lobe epilepsy. Just may be, the Catholic Church does have a sense of humour after all, or begrudgingly agree with the diagnosis – St Teresa just happens to be ‘The Patron Saint of headache sufferers’!
Even Teresa herself considered she was “mad” at times, an opinion shared by many of her fellow nuns, villagers surrounding her monastery etc. In one examination of her powers the two priests involved concluded she was ‘deluded’- but not enough to prevent beatification. In many of the Catholic Churches official writings they do point to her issues, framing them as “mental agonies”.
Morbidly, her body was exhumed several times after her death, and the Church reports of the time describe her corpse as ‘sweet-smelling, firm, and incorrupt’( if you are thinking of becoming a saint, it would help to remember this) Her heart, hands, right foot, right arm, left eye and part of her jaw are on display in various sites around the world. She was canonised by Gregory XV in 1622, and in 1969 proclaimed a Doctor of the Church for her writings (the first female)
This article is part of my series on ‘Churches of Christchurch’ in which I investigate the lives of the Saints, exploring the real stories behind the names synonymous with some of our cities most famous landmarks. We look behind the official church rhetoric, and examine more closely their often flamboyant & sometimes disturbing lives.