Teresa of Ávila, Part II: Conversion

Mystics and Non-Dual Thinkers: Week 3

Teresa of Ávila, Part II: Conversion
Monday, July 27, 2015

Teresa eventually returned to the convent, but she fell back into superficial socializing and neglected the discipline of contemplative prayer. Mirabai Starr says that though Teresa used the excuse of her poor health “a more hidden reason was that she did not feel worthy to engage in intimate dialogue with the Friend. . . . Perhaps even deeper lay the sense that if she truly surrendered to the inner void, she might never return to ordinary consciousness.” [1] Teresa left the convent to care for her dying father, but remained detached from his experience and her own feelings. For almost two decades she kept her heart walled off spiritually and emotionally.

When Teresa was about forty, she experienced a sudden conversion while walking by an image of Christ tied to the pillar. Twenty years of indifference ended dramatically, followed by many trials, stages, and eventually moments of unitive encounter where Teresa felt lifted out of herself and enjoying God’s presence. She begged God not to give her such favors in public.

One of Teresa’s mystical experiences was captured in marble by Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  In this “unabashedly sensual image” Carol Flinders sees “the nun swooning blissfully backward while a clearly delighted androgynous angel plunges a flaming sword into her, leaving her on fire with love for God.” [2] James Finley describes the golden arrow being continually thrust into Teresa’s heart and then pulled out. He says, “In the sexual imagery of this golden arrow, all that is outside goes inside and all that is inside is pulled outside until the distinction between outside and inside no longer applies. You can no longer find the place where you stop and God begins. You can no longer find the place where God stops and you begin. Nor are you inclined to try.” [3]

After some time, the raptures ended. When her friends asked about it, Teresa responded that she’d found a better way to pray. She no longer needed ecstasies; yet, as Flinders writes, “she remained grateful always for having had them because they had given her the detachment that her work would require—detachment from all things, including the admiration and affection of others she had always needed so desperately. She would never again look outside herself for joy or security because she had found the source of all joy and security within. . . . One cannot break attachments by force, Teresa discovered; they are the expression of an inner hunger. When that hunger is assuaged, attachments will fall away with almost no effort on our part.” [4]

In the last twenty years of her life, in spite of poor health, and with the help of her friend and fellow mystic, John of the Cross, Teresa reformed the Carmelite Order, taking it back to its origins of simplicity, poverty, and contemplative prayer. She traveled by carriage all over Spain, founding seventeen Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelite houses. She wrote several great spiritual classics along with poetry and hundreds of letters. She thus managed to function as a spiritual teacher, even though as a woman she was forbidden to preach or even comment on Scripture. Thankfully, she avoided being burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition for being of Jewish origin (or of a converso family), and for practicing mental and contemplative prayer, and experiencing raptures—all of which were unmediated by the official priesthood. In the end, Teresa was canonized in 1622 and declared the first woman Doctor of the Church in 1970.

Gateway to Silence:
“God alone is enough.”  —Teresa of Ávila

[1] Mirabai Starr, Saint Teresa of Ávila (Sounds True: 2013), 13.
[2] Carol Lee Flinders, Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics (Harper San Francisco: 1993), 10-11.
[3] James Finley, Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate . . . Seeing God in All Things (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010), CD, DVD, MP3 download.
[4] Flinders, Enduring Grace (Harper San Francisco: 1993), 171-172

Image credit: St. Teresa of Ávila (detail) by Fray Juan de la Miseria, 16th c.