ST. TERESA IN HER WRITINGS
by Father Michael Buckley, OCD
I never knew, or saw, Mother Teresa while she lived on earth. but now that she lives in heaven I do know her, and I see her almost continuously in the two living images of herself which she left us-- her daughters and her books." Thus wrote Luis De Leon in 1588, the year in which he brought out, in Salamanca, the first edition of St. Teresa's works. The renowned editor and humanist had an advantage over us in that, even if he did not meet the great Teresa, he might easily and must surely have spoken to many who had known her personally and who remembered every aspect of her magnetic personality. He is writing only six years after her death. Since then, nearly four centuries have rolled by, every year of which have raised the barrier of time between us and Teresa. Yet the truth remains valid in our case, also; we can still see her in the two living images of herself which she left us, namely in her daughters and in her books. In this article I wish to speak only about her books.
In a certain sense, of course, we have an advantage over the first editor. He survived her only nine years. Already in his time her books were being read and were valued but only by a limited number in her own land and among her acquaintances. We, however, are able to take an extended backward glance, covering four centuries, and see how her books have withstood the test of time. Many books, highly popular in their own day, have withered with the passage of time and faded from notice. Not so Teresa's. Time has set its seal on them. Now her works are read and appreciated, not only in her own land and language, and by a restricted audience, but in a vast number of translations and by a wide diversity of people. The years certainly have not diminished her appeal as a spiritual writer; she is universally recognized as an eminently sure guide in the sometimes tortuous ways of prayer.
II. LITERARY QUALITIES
The wonder of it is - to put it bluntly - that her works are readable at all. She had no literary training in the accepted sense, though it is quite obvious that she had a cultural awareness and natural ability which were far above the normal. She began to write her first book at the age of 47. Already this book shows very marked literary quality and a certain maturity, though not, of course, to the same extent as some of her later works. She had no literary preparation in the technical sense. Besides, note the list of her defects as a writer, supplied by herself, in various asides throughout her works. Her memory is faulty: "As l have a poor memory, I expect many important things will be omitted, and others will be put in which might well be left out: just as might be expected, in fact, from one of my witlessness and stupidity."(1) Her work may be disconnected: "It is a long time since I wrote the last chapter, and I have had no chance of returning to my writing, so that, without reading through what I have written I cannot remember what I said. However - it will be best if I go right on without troubling about the connection."(2) She had no proper leisure for writing: "I am almost stealing the time for writing and that with great difficulty, for it hinders me from spinning and I am living in a poor house and have numerous things to do."(3) She had not the requisite health nor the intelligence: "For the love of God, let me work at my spinning wheel - I am not meant to write. I have neither the health nor the intelligence for it."(4) We are warned against interpreting these protestations at their face value by the fact that, just after making this last remark, she put aside her spinning wheel for a while and wrote the Interior Castle!
Yet, when all is said, we are certainly justified with Allison Peers in seeing in her writings a certain "sweet disorder:" errors, digressions, disconnected remarks, ellipses, irrelevant asides, even spelling mistakes! The strange thing is that, in spite of these, Teresa, who made no pretense of scholarship, and no conscious effort at style, should be regarded as a writer of classics in the Spanish language, and gems in the vast literature of Christian devotion. How is it that she, whose chief claim to fame rests upon her holiness in life, and the power and clarity of her teaching, should also have attracted the attention of the stylists? In answer, one who has made a most competent and reverent study of hers simply says: "She was just herself." It is an echo of the well known phrase: the style is the man. Teresa's style is characterized by vigor and virility of language, by terseness (she can demonstrate word economy to marked degree), by vivid metaphors, extended similes, allegories, sparkling images and illustrations. And she can adapt her style to her subject with amazing dexterity. But in all this, Teresa was just being herself. Her marvelous forcefulness, her vivacity, her resource, her vast sympathy - yes, and her gentle and sometimes chiding humor, too: all these manifest themselves in her writings in the most natural way. As an author, she was a "natural" if ever there was one. If her style is fascinating, it is because her personality is fascinating. To study her style is to study herself; that is why Luis de Leon was right in stating that we see her almost continuously in the living image of herself which she left us in her books.
I am inclined to think that the Saint herself would regard the content of her books as of more importance than any questions of their style. (Can you not easily imagine her gently chiding anyone who would claim for her a place in the Hall of Fame by reason of her style: May the Lord help your head!) And in content her writings are a treasure of wisdom of both divine and human origin. All of her works may be designated as treatises on prayer. In all of them, including the letters and the Book of Foundations, which might seem to be the least connected with it, we find the personal advice, the descriptions, the explanations by which she charts the way of approach to God by prayer. Similarly, the vast knowledge of psychology which she displayed, gives her a unique place among spiritual authors, particularly in that age. We had to wait until our own time, when psychology is so far advanced and has been extensively applied to the spiritual life, to discover and apply what she found and describes spontaneously regarding the psychology of the human soul.
Let us pass briefly in review of her various works with an eye to their content. We shall describe only her four major works.
IV. OTHER WORKS
Which is not to say that her other works are unworthy of attention. Think, for instance, of the wealth of information concerning her life and her work of reform which we get in the wonderful collection of her letters - there are about 500 extant. Some would even say she is at her best and most natural in her letters: there her so-called defects of style are least noticeable, and her character shines through in all its depth and attractiveness. Or think of those two little works: the Exclamations of the Soul to God and the Conceptions of the Love of God. The former consists of seventeen short meditations, composed, Luis de Leon informs us, "according to the spirit communicated to her by Our Lord after Holy Communion," on various days during 1569. Father Silvero, OCD calls them white-hot embers from the fire of the Saint's love." The Conceptions consist of seven chapters of a devotional commentary ostensibly on some verses of the Song of Songs which occur frequently in the Divine Office. When Teresa, in 1572 it seems, presented the manuscript to her confessor, Father Diego Yanguas, OP, he told her to cast it into the fire which she did. It was not considered prudent at the time, even for men, to comment on the Song of Songs. The little tract survived because some Sisters had made a copy of it before it was destroyed. Luis de Leon, who had been imprisoned himself for, among other things, translating the Song of Songs into the vernacular, did not include the Conceptions in the first edition. It was edited for the first time in 1611 by Fr. Jerome Gracian, OCD. Her letters and her minor works certainly repay study. But our concern is with four major works, as I said.
Her first work, in the order of time, was the Life. Very likely it was in 1561 that her confessor, Father Pedro Ibanez, OP, perhaps in agreement with Garcia de Toledo, OP, ordered her to write it. At the end of June, 1562 she presented the book to Father Garcia De Toledo, OP. Thus the first recension of the work came into being. At the end of the year 1562, again by order of her confessor, she made a new copy of the book, this time adding the description of the foundation of St. Joseph's. Later still she was asked to present a copy to Father John of Avila for his approval, and for him Teresa wrote a final draft of the book which she completed in I565. The manuscript is in the Escorial. The work is in the nature of an autobiography and gives us all the information Teresa wished to give us of her external life from her birth, l515, up to the time it was written. But it could well be termed a spiritual autobiography, because it contains much matter relating to prayer, particularly those states of prayer which up to that time she had herself experienced. Teresa sometimes refers to the book under a second or alternative title: The Book of the Mercies of God.(5) It is fundamental to the correct understanding of the Saint, and it is the best introduction to her other works, since it gives us an insight to her character which can be obtained in no other way. One trait which she clearly manifests in it is her solicitude for beginners in the spiritual life. She knows well the trials of beginners in the way of prayer, the pitfalls and temptations. She lays bare her own faults in order to show that she understands and that she has experienced all these things herself.(6) Thus by her motherly tenderness, wide experience and common sense, she gives courage and comfort to those who are taking their first steps on the way of prayer.
The forty chapters which go to make up the Life fall rather conveniently into four parts. (1) Chapters 1 to 10 recount in ordinary autobiographical fashion, the events of her life from her birth, 1515, until about the year 1555, her "conversion." (2) Chapters 11 to 22 are a digression which amounts to a treatise to mental prayer. Here she uses the symbol of the four waters for the first time to describe different stages of prayer. (3) Chapters 23 to 31: after picking up the threads of the autobiography she digresses again and speaks in terms of locutions, intellectual and imaginative visions. (4) Chapters 32 to 40: the main theme here is the foundation of the first house of the Reform, St. Joseph's, Avila, and the circumstances that led up to it.
VI. WAY OF PERFECTION
All of the literary works of St. Teresa flowed from the Life, but each in a different way. The Way of Perfection, next in chronological order, was written because the Sisters just then were not allowed to read the Life, which was being censored by her confessors and theologians. So in 1566 she consented, at the request of her confessor and of the sisters, to compose another work, which, as she said, would treat of "certain things about prayer," and "something concerning the way and method of life which fittingly should be practiced in this house."(7) It would seem the book was completed by 1566.
This, the Escorial Recension, is the original draft, written in a very homely and motherly fashion for the little group of Sisters at St. Joseph's. Later, in 1569, when four other foundations of the Reform had been made, Teresa rewrote the whole book. She had the original manuscript as a guide, but she felt free to depart from it on numerous occasions. The changes were made chiefly in view of the wider and less familiar audience for which it was destined. The result (the Vallodolid Recension) was a mature and better work, even if it had lost some of the freshness of the original. As a rule, editors, while following the Vallodolid manuscript, incorporate or add as footnotes phrases and passages from the Escorial manuscript.
The book as whole is well arranged. Allison Peers is inclined to think that it is "the most vigorous of her books, written when she was at the very height of her powers." And he adds: "There is not a chapter in the book that fails to give the receptive reader the impression that he is being taken in hand by the surest-footed of guides familiar with every inch of the road."(8) The Way of Perfection is certainly the best-known of her works, full of practical guidance in the way of prayer and not alone for nuns. The spiritual commentary on the Pater Noster, which occupies the latter part of the book, is deservedly famous, a gem of its kind. Peers remarks that once she begins to comment on the Pater, "so sensitive is she to the atmosphere of her theme, that almost immediately her style becomes transformed."(9)
The book may be divided as follows: (1) Chapters 1 to 3, a Preamble in which she discourses on the purposes of the Carmelite life as she has envisaged it at St. Joseph's. (2) Chapters 4 to 15 deals with the prerequisites for union with God, namely mutual love, detachment, humility. (3) Chapters l6 to 25, the meaning of prayer and contemplation. And (4) Chapters 26 to 42, by means of a commentary on the Pater Noster she continues to speak of the different states of prayer, including contemplative prayer (recollection and quiet).
The Book of the Foundations, describing the establishment of the various houses of the Reform, was written in parts, at various intervals. It was begun by order of her confessor, Father Jeronimo Ripalda, S.J. at Salamanca in 1573. At this time only the first nine chapters were written. She resumed the work again at Toledo in 1576 at Father Gracian's request and brought it as far as Chapter 27. The last four chapters which bring the narrative down to April 19, 1582, the year of her death, were written more or less at the same time as the events they describe. In this book she is largely concerned with external events, yet it affords her an opportunity for her usual digressions, in which she discusses spiritual matters and gives many wise and practical counsels, a number of them relating to the government of her houses.
In this familiar book she indulges her flair for discussing things as they occurred to her. Hence, she provides a fund of stories and anecdotes concerning the wide variety of people, high and low, with whom she came in contact in her work as foundress. These stories are as varied in tone as the people to whom they relate; sometimes they pull at our heart strings; sometimes they are in exquisite humorous vein. There is a story of the vivacious Casilda de Padilla and her stratagems to enter the religious life;(10) we get an account of Beatrice of the Incarnation, heroic in suffering;(11) of Catalina Godinez, exposing her moistened face to the sun to escape offers of marriage;(12) and we hear the story of a lady hermit - Catalina de Cordona - who lived in amazing austerity.(13) These and many others crowd the canvas of this charming book.
VIII. INTERIOR CASTLE
St. Teresa's fourth major work, the Interior Castle, is considered by some to be her masterpiece. She wrote it at the request of Father Jerome Gracian, and her confessor Don Alonso Velazquez. It was begun in June, 1577, and finished in November of that year. We know, however, that Teresa completed the work effectively in three of these six months, a truly extraordinary achievement considering the complexity and profundity of the subject. Some of her contemporaries were of the opinion that she wrote it in a state of ecstasy. She certainly was in a state of intense concentration. One witness said, "I often saw her as she wrote, which was generally after Communion. She was very radiant and wrote very rapidly, and as a rule she was so absorbed in her work that even if we made a noise she would never stop, or so much as say, we were disturbing her." In style, the book is superior to her other books; its construction is direct and simple, and there are few digressions. It is the most complete survey of the spiritual life which we have from her pen, a description of contemplation in the fuller form which she had come to know and experience since her early works. The contemplative way is pictured as a progress from the outward courtyard of a castle through a series of seven mansions to the innermost where God dwells and is encountered. The various mansions are the stages of approach to God through states of prayer, each succeeding the other.
The book falls readily into the following divisions: (1) The first three mansions. These are the mansions traversed by beginners in the spiritual life, the mansions of humility, practice of prayer, meditation, and exemplary life. Strange, perhaps at first sight, is that Teresa, in this last work in which she soars so high, should devote so much attention to the problems of beginners. Yet it is not so strange, knowing as we do how concerned she was with beginners throughout her life. (2) In the fourth mansion we join those who are already proficient in prayer. After purification, God's action in the soul becomes more intense, and the soul is led gradually into the prayer of quiet. (3) The last three mansions pertain to the unitive way, and treat of the various degrees of union and passive prayer, through betrothal to spiritual marriage (seventh mansion). This last mansion (seventh) may be called the end of journey of prayer, a union with God which takes place in the center of the soul, a state of quasi-permanent peace.
In this treatise, Teresa is at her most sublime. She writes of spiritual realities whose descriptions would baffle the best-trained theologian, yet she manifests a sureness of touch born of genuine mystical experience. And still through it all, she remains her practical self, with a mother's understanding and care for those who remain in the lower levels of discursive prayer, in spite of their sincere striving after higher things. And that, perhaps, is the lasting and eminently consoling picture of the great Teresa that remains with us after pursuing all her works: her gaze fixed on heaven, yet her two Castillian feet firmly planted on the soil.
In the foregoing, we have attempted a sketch of the writings of St. Teresa - a sketch intended only as an introduction whose purpose is to impart an idea, perhaps a certain foretaste, of what is in store for those who wish to partake of the "food of her heavenly doctrine," as the Church prays on her feast. "It is remarkable that we read Dostoevsky and Kafka, Pascal and Kierkagard, and we are right to do so. But why do we not soak ourselves in the writings of Teresa? A really Christian outlook is hardly possible without them."
These are the words not of a Catholic, but of a Protestant theologian, Walter Rigg. And they are symbolic of the wider appeal of the writings of St. Teresa of Avila.
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of
Life, Decree, Foreword, and Articles 2, 4, 5 and
2. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, volumes 1, 2, and
3. ICS Publications.
1. Foundations, Prologue
2. Way of Perfection, Chapter 19
3. Life, Chapter 10.
4. Life, Chapter 10.
5. Letter 388.
6. Life, Chapter XI.
7. Way of Perfection, Prologue
8. Mother of Carmel, 1945
9. St. Teresa of Jesus, 1953.
10. Chapter 11
11. Chapter 12
12. Chapter 22
13. Chapter 28
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