Category Archives: Teresa d’Avila

St Teresa of Avila – ‘The Patron Saint of Hysteria’

Popular Name: St. Teresa of Avila

Real Name: Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada
Country of Birth: Spain
Time-frame: 1515-1582
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.
Posted by Canterbury Atheists at 7:43 PM


Anonymous said…
Ja, your re-write of Teresa’s experience of Hell is hilarious, but, honestly, The Church doesn’t canonize every nun who says she has experienced ‘favours’ from God: Teresa’s mystical experiences were backed-up by a life that was lived in the service of God and others – she travelled extensively; founded numerous convents; wrote (under obedience to her Superiors) the ‘rambling’ accounts of her life and mystical experiences, etc. Such productivity is not usually associated with hysteria, neither is the remarakable alteration, for the good, in Teresa’s personality, which “coincided” with the start of her mystical experiences.
There are numerous inaccuracies in your portrayal of St Teresa and Christian mysticism; however, it is your using psycho-analysis, to back-up your criticism of her, which I take exception to: psycho-analysis is considered by many to be a psuedo-science and even – in its “talk cure” – to be akin to the Catholic confessional.
Yes, Bernini’s depiction of St Teresa’s ecstasy – at the paw of an angel – is definitely erotic, as are her writings on the subject, and that’s because mystical prayer is a profound experience of God which those who experience struggle to comprehend let alone describe. But, what you have failed to understand, or at least write about it, is that this ecstasy, like many of the other supernatural “favours” Teresa writes about, isn’t seen by Teresa, or The Church, as an end in itself: such favours have no intrinsic value – they are merely “side-effects” of a deepening prayer life. In fact, if all goes well, these ‘favours’ eventually disappear and one is left, as Teresa was, a better, stronger, happier, and saner human being.

Saint Teresa of Avila Mental Prayer

By Sister Helena of Mary, O.Carm 2009-02-02
The Carmelite Order celebrates the feast of St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila) October 15th. St. Teresa does not need any introduction. She is famous among the laity and a shining luminary in the Catholic Church. She is one of the three women Doctors of the Church, with St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Catherine of Siena, being the other two. She is known as the Reformer of Carmel, along with St. John of the Cross, and founded the Discalced Order of the Carmelite family. The Teresian reform is not the only reform in Carmel. There were other reforms including the Reform of Touraine in France (17th century) and the Mantuan reform in Italy, which effected many changes in the Order. But St. Teresa’s reform was the most well known partly because of her own charismatic personality and widespread influence. She was a very influential woman of her day and collaborated with powerful people .
She wrote books dealing with her Life and Prayer. To mention some of her famous works: The Life (autobiographical), The Way of Perfection (written for her Nuns) and The Interior Castle (on Prayer).
I got to know St. Teresa in 1984 after I graduated from College. I accidentally found a Carmelite Monastery on my way home and met the nuns there. That was the turning point for me because I ended up joining them in the cloister. I left the cloister since then to join an active Carmelite community but its influence on me is deep and the lessons I learned stayed with me. In our cell in the cloister, there were only two books allowed for postulants and novices to read: Works of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross. We called them Our Holy Parents. Our reading of them was not scholarly and critical but mostly meditative and contemplative. St. John’s works are deep and mystical and needed elaboration by the Novice Mistress, St. Teresa’s was confusing because of her disorganized presentation. But somehow both were nourishing and their counsels served as food for mental prayer.
My favorite reading is her Way of Perfection . It deals with the subject of prayer. I also like The Interior Castle when I am trying to analyze what mansion I may be in! Although the Way of Perfection was written for her nuns and is tailored to those living a solely contemplative lifestyle, one can use her counsels in this book to know about prayer and how to grow in the life of prayer. She summarized three preconditions for a life of prayer: Humility, Detachment and Charity. The entire book expounds on these three criteria.
One subject St. Teresa persistently wrote was how to pray . In her own life, she had a terrible time praying, to be specific 18 years, of not being able to pray. In her autobiography, she stated that she needed the security of a book to get her focused. Even though most of the time she did not read the book, she needed the security of having it with her for reassurrance. Because of her personal difficulties in praying, she is able to explain to us through her writings difficulties we ourselves often experience. She is very insistent about imagining Christ in His humanity. She  imagined him in those moments when he was most alone because she figured she will not be turned away when he is so abandoned.
I thought of presenting a little of her thoughts on Mental Prayer or meditation. I used the article presented by Fr. Sam Anthony Morello OCD “Lectio Divina and the Practice of Teresian Prayer” by ICS Publications.
Lectio Divina (or divine reading) is not particularly exclusive to Saint Teresa of Avila. It is an old form of monastic prayer used throughout many centuries. It is a monastic designation for meditative reading of the Scriptures. According to Fr. Morello’s book, there are four steps to lectio divina:
1. Lectio: Meaning “reading”, understood as the careful repetitious recitation of a short text of Scripture.
2. Meditatio: Meaning “meditation”, an effort to understand the meaning of the text and make it personally relevant to oneself.
3. Oratio: Meaning “prayer”, a personal response to the text, asking for the grace of the text.
4. Contemplatio: Meaning “contemplation.” It is gazing at length on something. The idea behind this element is that sometimes with God’s infused grace, one is elevated beyond meditation to an experiential contact with the divine presence, to God’s truth and benevolence.
Applying the Teresian flavor to the basic elements of lectio divina, we come to the following exercise:
1. Teresa’s “lectio” Reading the Word of God with Teresa
She counsels that when we start to pray, we must be aware of the following: who it is who is praying (we are creatures), who it is we are praying to (God), what we are praying for.
Attentiveness to what one is doing and saying is the first of Teresa’s advice.
2. Teresa’s “meditatio” -meditating with Teresa.
Saint Teresa counsels that one aid to prayer is to find a companion at prayer. She is referring to taking Christ as our companion in prayer. Whether one imagines Christ within oneself or before the Blessed Sacrament (although Jesus’ presence in the Blessed Sacrament is not imagined but a reality), or in the image of the crucifix. She teaches us to think of God as very near to us or as within us, dwelling in our depths. With Teresa we go where God is. Her advice is to locate God according to one’s inclinations. There is no one way we ought to pray. We pray as we can, not as we ought. Teresa also wants us to ‘think” of Christ. We address ourselves to him, or we try to “hear” his words in Scriptures addressed to us.
3. Teresa’s “Oratio” Prayerful expression with Teresa.
Teresa’s prayer is full of affectionate expression to Christ. It is the prayer that comes out of a heart that begins to be filled with love. The heart can express itself in a million ways. But here we implement the Teresian principle of making Christ the object of that prayer. You can utter words that come spontaneously to you. This is the part where prayer becomes a conversation.
4. Teresa’s “Contemplatio” Contemplating with Teresa.
After going through the steps of reading the text to feed the mind, meditating on the meaning of the text to move the heart and praying the words or other emotions that come to heart. Teresa describes a state of “resting” in the Lord. A new recollection of the soul, in its innermost core, is experienced. With Teresa, we rest in the presence and take a holiday from the work of meditation.
The fruits of contemplation for Teresa is shown in the growth of virtues. For her, the virtues are the flowers in the garden of the soul.
We have explained in summary the exercise of mental prayer according to Saint Teresa of Avila. We should endeavor to learn this exercise of mental prayer for our growth in the spiritual life.
We begin her novena tomorrow, October 6th, with the following short daily prayer:
“God our Father, by Your Spirit you raised up Saint Teresa of Jesus to show your Church the way to perfection. May her inspired teaching awaken in us a longing for true holiness. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen”

Interior Castle

St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle

October 14th, 2010 by Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur
October 15th is the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila. A Carmelite nun living in the 1500s, one of her most famous works is “Interior Castle” (known as “The Mansions” in her native Spain) which she wrote at the request of her confessor. A mystic who communed intimately with God, she had experienced a vision of “a most beautiful crystal globe, made in the shape of a castle, and containing seven mansions, in the seventh and innermost of which was the King of Glory, in the greatest splendour, illuming and beautifying them all. . . outside the palace limits everything was foul, dark, and infested with toads, vipers and other venomous creatures.” This castle became Teresa’s metaphor for the soul. Teresa truly believed that anyone who knew what treasures lay in the center of this castle would never want to sin because sin mires the soul in “misery and filth.” “Interior Castle” explores each of the seven mansions in great detail. Her intended audience was the sisters who made up her cloistered religious community, however her insights offer much to the world at large.
Teresa wrote reluctantly and felt that she had little to offer that had not already been said. She also emphasized that her description and her path to the center of this castle was not the only one. She believed that “Our Lord will be granting me a great favour if a single one of these nuns should find that my words help her to praise Him a little better.” She focuses on the beauty of the soul and laments that we spend so much attention on our physical body and so little on the divine spark that is within.
Teresa focuses on gaining self-knowledge, but not in the way we in the 21st century interpret that term. For her, self-knowledge means coming to know the soul within. It means understanding our dependence on God and gaining humility by acknowledging that we are nothing without Him. The route to self-knowledge and entry into the interior castle comes through prayer and meditation. As one progresses through the mansions, one comes to know and long for God more and more and to reject the world and its attractions. Teresa encourages the beginner in prayer “to labour and be resolute and prepare himself with all possible diligence to bring his will into conforming with the will of God.” She also offers encouragement: “If, then, you sometimes fall, do not lose heart or cease striving to make progress, for even out of your fall God will bring good.” Teresa also makes the point that prayer leads to action rooted in love. “True perfection consists in the love of God and of our neighbor, and the more nearly perfect is our observance of these two commandments, the nearer to perfection we shall be.”
As one makes her way ever deeper into the heart of the castle, increased spiritual consolations and trials become par for the course. Many (perhaps even most) do not reach the most inner mansions in this lifetime. Teresa is quick to point out, however, that “the Lord gives when He wills and as He wills and to whom He wills, and as the gifts are His own, this is doing no injustice to anyone.” Indeed she cautions her readers to never believe that they deserve any gift that the Lord bestows upon them, nor should we set out to obtain any consolations or mystical experiences because “the most essential thing is that we should love God without any motive of self-interest.”
Teresa was truly granted amazing gifts of insight and experience from God. While we may not fully share in her experience, “Interior Castle” offers a unique portrait of our souls and invites us into a deeper relationship with God.

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila

St Teresa of Avila is also the subject of some amazing works of art. There’s a mountain of major works of art featuring her, but let me point you to two of the best. First Peter Paul Rubens painting, Teresa of Avila. The painting features an older St. Teresa with a book and a feather pen in her hand. The feather pen references her writings, including an autobiography that she was forced to pen by her church authorities. As such, St. Teresa was compelled to write down and share her mystical experiences, just do it Tess. And wow, what experiences she had. Her three best books are must reading if you have an interest in spiritual mysticism. Check out The Interior Castle, The Way of Perfection and Teresa of Avila, autobiography.
Which brings us to the other amazing piece of art about St. Teresa of Avila. Gianlorenzo Bernini’s masterpiece – The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila. Bernini draws upon the writings in her autobiography to use as inspiration for his sculpture in marble.

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.[from Teresa of Avila, Autobiography, Chapter 29]

This amazing sculpture, can be viewed at Santa Maria della Vittoria, in Rome, Italy. When viewed after reflecting on her writing, & reading the words that inspired Bernini to create this massive work (11 1/2 feet high) in stone makes a powerful work even stronger. The face Bernini gives St. Teresa in this work just oozes profound joy, rapture, both sensual and spiritual, and in a word – Ecstasy.