Saint Theresa : Religious Enthusiasm – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women

Héloïse : Love
Joan of Arc : Heroic Women
Saint Theresa : Religious Enthusiasm
Madame de Maintenon : The Political Woman
Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
Madame Récamier : The Woman of Society
Madame de Staël : Woman in Literature
Hannah More : Education of Woman
George Eliot : Woman as Novelist

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women
John Lord

Topics Covered
Pleasures of the body the aim of Paganism
Aim of Christianity to elevate the soul
Mistakes of monastic life
The age of Saint Theresa
Her birth and early training
Mediaeval piety
Theresa sent to a convent to be educated
Her poor health
Religious despotism of the Middle Ages
Their gloom and repulsiveness
Faith and repentance divorced
Catholic theology
Theresa becomes a nun
Her serious illness
Her religious experience
The Confessions of Saint Augustine
The religious emancipation of Theresa
Her canticles
Her religious rhapsodies
Theresa seeks to found a convent
Opposition to her
Her discouragements
Her final success
Reformation of the Carmelite order
Convent of St. Joseph
Death of Saint Theresa
Writings of Saint Theresa
Her submission to authority
Her independence
Compared with Madame Guyon
Her posthumous influence

Saint Theresa : Religious Enthusiasm

A. D. 1515-1582.

I have already painted in Cleopatra, to the best of my ability, the Pagan woman of antiquity, revelling in the pleasures of vanity and sensuality, with a feeble moral sense, and without any distinct recognition of God or of immortality. The genius of Paganism was simply the deification of the Venus Polyhymnia,–the adornment and pleasure of what is perishable in man. It directed all the energies of human nature to the pampering and decorating of this mortal body, not believing that the mind and soul which animate it, and which are the sources of all its glory, would ever live beyond the grave. A few sages believed differently,–men who rose above the spirit of Paganism, but not such men as Alexander, or Caesar, or Antony, the foremost men of all the world in grand ambitions and successes. Taking it for granted that this world is the only theatre for enjoyment, or action, or thought, men naturally said, “Let us eat and drink and be merry, for to-morrow we die.” And hence no higher life was essayed than that which furnished sensual enjoyments, or incited an ambition to be strong and powerful. Of course, riches were sought above everything, since these furnished the means of gratifying those pleasures which were most valued, or stimulating that vanity whose essence is self-idolatry.

With this universal rush of humanity after pleasures which centred in the body, the soul was left dishonored and uncared for, except by a few philosophers. I do not now speak of the mind, for there were intellectual pleasures derived from conversation, books, and works of art. And some called the mind divine, in distinction from matter; some speculated on the nature of each, and made mind and matter in perpetual antagonism, as the good and evil forces of the universe. But the prevailing opinion was that the whole man perished, or became absorbed in the elemental forces of nature, or reappeared again in new forms upon the earth, to expiate those sins of which human nature is conscious. To some men were given longings after immortality, not absolute convictions,–men like Plato, Socrates, and Cicero. But I do not speak of these illustrious exceptions; I mean the great mass of the people, especially the rich and powerful and pleasure-seeking,–those whose supreme delight was in banquets, palaces, or intoxicating excitements, like chariot-racings and gladiatorial shows; yea, triumphal processions to raise the importance of the individual self, and stimulate vanity and pride.

Hence Paganism put a small value, comparatively, on even intellectual enjoyments. It cultivated those arts which appealed to the senses more than to the mind; it paid dearly for any sort of intellectual training which could be utilized,–oratory, for instance, to enable a lawyer to gain a case, or a statesman to control a mob; it rewarded those poets who could sing blended praises to Bacchus and Venus, or who could excite the passions at the theatre. But it paid still higher prices to athletes and dancers, and almost no price at all to those who sought to stimulate a love of knowledge for its own sake,–men like Socrates, for example, who walked barefooted, and lived on fifty dollars a year, and who at last was killed out of pure hatred for the truths he told and the manner in which he told them,–this martyrdom occurring in the most intellectual city of the world. In both Greece and Rome there was an intellectual training for men bent on utilitarian ends; even as we endow schools of science and technology to enable us to conquer nature, and to become strong and rich and comfortable; but there were no schools for women, whose intellects were disdained, and who were valued only as servants or animals,–either to drudge, or to please the senses.

But even if there were some women in Paganism of high mental education,–if women sometimes rose above their servile condition by pure intellect, and amused men by their wit and humor,–still their souls were little thought of. Now, it is the soul of woman–not her mind, and still less her body–which elevates her, and makes her, in some important respects, the superior of man himself. He has dominion over her by force of will, intellect, and physical power. When she has dominion over him, it is by those qualities which come from her soul,–her superior nature, greater than both mind and body. Paganism never recognized the superior nature, especially in woman,–that which must be fed, even in this world, or there will be constant unrest and discontent. And inasmuch as Paganism did not feed it, women were unhappy, especially those who had great capacities. They may have been comfortable, but they were not contented.

Hence, women made no great advance either in happiness or in power, until Christianity revealed the greatness of the soul, its perpetual longings, its infinite capacities, and its future satisfactions. The spiritual exercises of the soul then became the greatest source of comfort amid those evils which once ended in despair. With every true believer, the salvation of so precious a thing necessarily became the end of life, for Christianity taught that the soul might be lost. In view of the soul’s transcendent value, therefore, the pleasures of the body became of but little account in comparison. Riches are good, power is desirable; eating and drinking are very pleasant; praise, flattery, admiration,–all these things delight us, and under Paganism were sought and prized. But Christianity said, “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Christianity, then, set about in earnest to rescue this soul which Paganism had disregarded. In consequence of this, women began to rise, and shine in a new light. They gained a new charm, even moral beauty,–yea, a new power, so that they could laugh at ancient foes, and say triumphantly, when those foes sought to crush them, “O Grave, where is thy victory? O Death, where is thy sting?” There is no beauty among women like this moral beauty, whose seat is in the soul. It is not only a radiance, but it is a defence: it protects women from the wrath and passion of men. With glory irradiating every feature, it says to the boldest, Thus far shalt thou come and no farther. It is a benediction to the poor and a welcome to the rich. It shines with such unspeakable loveliness, so rich in blessing and so refined in ecstasy, that men gaze with more than admiration, even with sentiments bordering on that adoration which the Middle Ages felt for the mother of our Lord, and which they also bestowed upon departed saints. In the immortal paintings of Raphael and Murillo we get some idea of this moral beauty, which is so hard to copy.

So woman passed gradually from contempt and degradation to the veneration of men, when her soul was elevated by the power which Paganism never knew. But Christianity in the hands of degenerate Romans and Gothic barbarians made many mistakes in its efforts to save so priceless a thing as a human soul. Among other things, it instituted monasteries and convents, both for men and women, in which they sought to escape the contaminating influences which had degraded them. If Paganism glorified the body, monasticism despised it. In the fierce protests against the peculiar sins which had marked Pagan life,–gluttony, wine-drinking, unchastity, ostentatious vanities, and turbulent mirth,–monasticism decreed abstinence, perpetual virginity, the humblest dress, the entire disuse of ornaments, silence, and meditation. These were supposed to disarm the demons who led into foul temptation. Moreover, monasticism encouraged whatever it thought would make the soul triumphant over the body, almost independent of it. Whatever would feed the soul, it said, should be sought, and whatever would pamper the body should be avoided.

As a natural consequence of all this, piety gradually came to seek its most congenial home in monastic retreats, and to take on a dreamy, visionary, and introspective mood. The “saints” saw visions of both angels and devils, and a superstitious age believed in their revelations. The angels appeared to comfort and sustain the soul in temptations and trials, and the devils came to pervert and torment it. Good judgment and severe criticism were lost to the Church; and, moreover, the gloomy theology of the Middle Ages, all based on the fears of endless physical torments,–for the wretched body was the source of all evil, and therefore must be punished,–gave sometimes a repulsive form to piety itself. Intellectually, that piety now excites our contempt, because it was so much mixed up with dreams and ecstasies and visions and hallucinations. It produces a moral aversion also, because it was austere, inhuman, and sometimes cruel. Both monks and nuns, when they conformed to the rules of their order, were sad, solitary, dreary-looking people, although their faces shone occasionally in the light of ecstatic visions of heaven and the angels.

But whatever mistakes monasticism made, however repulsive the religious life of the Middle Ages,–in fact, all its social life,–still it must be admitted that the aim of the time was high. Men and women were enslaved by superstitions, but they were not Pagan. Our own age is, in some respects, more Pagan than were the darkest times of mediaeval violence and priestly despotism, since we are reviving the very things against which Christianity protested as dangerous and false,–the pomps, the banquets, the ornaments, the arts of the old Pagan world.

Now, all this is preliminary to what I have to say of Saint Theresa. We cannot do justice to this remarkable woman without considering the sentiments of her day, and those circumstances that controlled her. We cannot properly estimate her piety–that for which she was made a saint in the Roman calendar–without being reminded of the different estimate which Paganism and Christianity placed upon the soul, and consequently the superior condition of women in our modern times. Nor must we treat lightly or sneeringly that institution which was certainly one of the steps by which women rose in the scale both of religious and social progress. For several ages nuns were the only charitable women, except queens and princesses, of whom we have record. But they were drawn to their calm retreats, not merely to serve God more effectually, nor merely to perform deeds of charity, but to study. As we have elsewhere said, the convents in those days were schools no less than asylums and hospitals, and were especially valued for female education. However, in these retreats religion especially became a passion. There was a fervor in it which in our times is unknown. It was not a matter of opinion, but of faith. In these times there may be more wisdom, but in the Middle Ages there was more zeal and more unselfishness and more intensity,–all which is illustrated by the sainted woman I propose to speak of.

Saint Theresa was born at Avila, in Castile, in the year 1515, at the close of the Middle Ages; but she really belonged to the Middle Ages, since all the habits, customs, and opinions of Spain at that time were mediaeval. The Reformation never gained a foothold in Spain. None of its doctrines penetrated that country, still less modified or changed its religious customs, institutions, or opinions. And hence Saint Theresa virtually belonged to the age of Bernard, and Anselm, and Elizabeth of Hungary. She was of a good family as much distinguished for virtues as for birth. Both her father and mother were very religious and studious, reading good books, and practising the virtues which Catholicism ever enjoined,–alms-giving to the poor, and kindness to the sick and infirm,–truthful, chaste, temperate, and God-fearing. They had twelve children, all good, though Theresa seems to have been the favorite, from her natural sprightliness and enthusiasm. Among the favorite books of the Middle Ages were the lives of saints and martyrs; and the history of these martyrs made so great an impression on the mind of the youthful Theresa that she and one of her brothers meditated a flight into Africa that they might be put to death by the Moors, and thus earn the crown of martyrdom, as well as the eternal rewards in heaven which martyrdom was supposed to secure. This scheme being defeated by their parents, they sought to be hermits in the garden which belonged to their house, playing the part of monks and nuns.

At eleven, Theresa lost her mother, and took to reading romances, which, it seems, were books of knight-errantry, at the close of the chivalric period. These romances were innumerable, and very extravagant and absurd, and were ridiculed by Cervantes, half-a-century afterwards, in his immortal “Don Quixote.” Although Spain was mediaeval in its piety in the sixteenth century, this was the period of its highest intellectual culture, especially in the drama. De Vega and Cervantes were enough of themselves to redeem Spain from any charges of intellectual stupidity. But for the Inquisition, and the Dominican monks, and the Jesuits, and the demoralization which followed the conquests of Cortés and Pizarro, Spain might have rivalled Germany, France, and England in the greatness of her literature. At this time there must have been considerable cultivation among the class to which Theresa belonged.

Although she never was sullied by what are called mortal sins, it would appear that as a girl of fourteen Theresa was, like most other girls, fond of dress and perfumes and ornaments, elaborate hair-dressing, and of anything which would make the person attractive. Her companions also were gay young ladies of rank, as fond of finery as she was, whose conversation was not particularly edifying, but whose morals were above reproach. Theresa was sent to a convent in her native town by her father, that she might be removed from the influence of gay companions, especially her male cousins, who could not be denied the house. At first she was quite unhappy, finding the convent dull, triste, and strict. I cannot conceive of a convent being a very pleasant place for a worldly young lady, in any country or in any age of the world. Its monotony and routine and mechanical duties must ever have been irksome. The pleasing manners and bright conversation of Theresa caused the nuns to take an unusual interest in her; and one of them in particular exercised a great influence upon her, so that she was inclined at times to become a nun herself, though not of a very strict order, since she was still fond of the pleasures of the world.

At sixteen, Theresa’s poor health made it necessary for her to return to her father’s house. When she recovered she spent some time with her uncle, afterwards a monk, who made her read good books, and impressed upon her the vanity of the world. In a few months she resolved to become a nun,–out of servile fear rather than love, as she avers. The whole religious life of the Middle Ages was based on fear,–the fear of being tortured forever by devils and hell. So universal and powerful was this fear that it became the leading idea of the age, from which very few were ever emancipated. On this idea were based the excommunications, the interdicts, and all the spiritual weapons by which the clergy ruled the minds of the people. On this their ascendency rested; they would have had but little power without it. It was therefore their interest to perpetuate it. And as they ruled by exciting fears, so they themselves were objects of fear rather than of love.

All this tended to make the Middle Ages gloomy, funereal, repulsive, austere. There was a time when I felt a sort of poetic interest in these dark times, and called them ages of faith; but the older I grow, and the more I read and reflect, the more dreary do those ages seem to me. Think of a state of society when everything suggested wrath and vengeance, even in the character of God, and when this world was supposed to be under the dominion of devils! Think of an education which impressed on the minds of interesting young girls that the trifling sins which they committed every day, and which proceeded from the exuberance of animal spirits, justly doomed them to everlasting burnings, without expiations,–a creed so cruel as to undermine the health, and make life itself a misery! Think of a spiritual despotism so complete that confessors and spiritual fathers could impose or remove these expiations, and thus open the door to heaven or hell!

And yet this despotism was the logical result of a generally accepted idea, instead of the idea being an outgrowth of the despotism, since the clergy, who controlled society by working on its fears, were themselves as complete victims and slaves as the people whom they led. This idea was that the soul would be lost unless sins were expiated, and expiated by self-inflicted torments on the body. Paul taught a more cheerful doctrine of forgiveness, based on divine and infinite love,–on faith and repentance. The Middle Ages also believed in repentance, but taught that repentance and penance were synonymous. The asceticism of the Church in its conflict with Paganism led to this perversion of apostolic theology. The very idea that Christianity was sent to subvert,–that is, the old Oriental idea of self-expiation, seen among the fakirs and sofis and Brahmins alike, and in a less repulsive form among the Pharisees,–became once again the ruling idea of theologians. The theologians of the Middle Ages taught this doctrine of penance and self-expiation with peculiar zeal and sincerity; and fear rather than love ruled the Christian world. Hence the austerity of convent life. Its piety centred in the perpetual crucifixion of the body, in the suppression of desires and pleasures which are perfectly innocent. The highest ideal of Christian life, according to convent rules, was a living and protracted martyrdom, and in some cases even the degradation of our common humanity. Christianity nowhere enjoins the eradication of passions and appetites, but the control of them. It would not mutilate and disfigure the body, for it is a sacred temple, to be made beautiful and attractive. On the other hand the Middle Ages strove to make the body appear repulsive, and the most loathsome forms of misery and disease to be hailed as favorite modes of penance. And as Christ suffered agonies on the cross, so the imitation of Christ was supposed to be a cheerful and ready acceptance of voluntary humiliation and bodily torments,–the more dreadful to bear, the more acceptable to Deity as a propitiation for sin. Is this statement denied? Read the biographies of the saints of the Middle Ages. See how penance, and voluntary suffering, and unnecessary exposure of the health, and eager attention to the sick in loathsome and contagious diseases, and the severest and most protracted fastings and vigils, enter into their piety; and how these extorted popular admiration, and received the applause and rewards of the rulers of the Church. I never read a book which left on my mind such repulsive impressions of mediaeval piety as the Life of Catherine of Sienna, by her confessor,–himself one of the great ecclesiastical dignitaries of the age. I never read anything so debasing and degrading to our humanity. One turns with disgust from the narration of her lauded penances.

So we see in the Church of the Middle Ages–the Church of Saint Theresa–two great ideas struggling for the mastery, yet both obscured and perverted: faith in a crucified Redeemer, which gave consolation and hope; and penance, rather than repentance, which sought to impose the fetters of the ancient spiritual despotisms. In the early Church, faith and repentance went hand in hand together to conquer the world, and to introduce joy and peace and hope among believers. In the Middle Ages, faith was divorced from repentance, and took penance instead as a companion,–an old enemy; so that there was discord in the Christian camp, and fears returned, and joys were clouded. Sometimes faith prevailed over penance, as in the monastery of Bec, where Anselm taught a cheerful philosophy,–or in the monastery of Clairvaux, where Bernard lived in seraphic ecstasies, his soul going out in love and joy; and then again penance prevailed, as in those grim retreats where hard inquisitors inflicted their cruel torments. But penance, on the whole, was the ruling power, and cast over society its funereal veil of dreariness and fear. Yet penance, enslaving as it was, still clung to the infinite value of the soul, the grandest fact in all revelations, and hence society did not relax into Paganism. Penance would save the soul, though surrounding it with gloom, maceration, heavy labors, bitter tears, terrible anxieties. The wearied pilgrim, the isolated monk, the weeping nun, the groaning peasant, the penitent baron, were not thrown into absolute despair, since there was a possibility of appeasing divine wrath, and since they all knew that Christ had died in order to save some,–yea, all who conformed to the direction of those spiritual guides which the Church and the age imposed.

Such was Catholic theology when Theresa–an enthusiastic, amiable, and virtuous girl of sixteen, but at one time giddy and worldly–wished to enter a convent for the salvation of her soul. She says she was influenced by servile fear, and not by love. It is now my purpose to show how this servile fear was gradually subdued by divine grace, and how she became radiant with love,–in short, an emancipated woman, in all the glorious liberty of the gospel of Christ; although it was not until she had passed through a most melancholy experience of bondage to the leading ideas of her Church and age. It is this emancipation which made her one of the great women of history, not complete and entire, but still remarkable, especially for a Spanish woman. It was love casting out fear.

Saint Teresa of Ávila Interceding for Souls in Purgatory by Peter Paul Rubens

Saint Teresa of Ávila Interceding for Souls in Purgatory by Peter Paul Rubens

After a mental struggle of three months, Theresa resolved to become a nun. But her father objected, partly out of his great love for her, and partly on account of her delicate and fragile body. Her health had always been poor: she was subject to fainting fits and burning fevers. Whether her father, at last, consented to her final retirement from the world I do not discover from her biography; but, with his consent or without it, she entered the convent and assumed the religious habit,–not without bitter pangs on leaving her home, for she did violence to her feelings, having no strong desire for monastic seclusion, and being warmly attached to her father. Neither love to God nor a yearning after monastic life impelled the sacrifice, as she admits, but a perverted conscience. She felt herself in danger of damnation for her sins, and wished to save her soul, and knew no other way than to enter upon the austerities of the convent, which she endured with remarkable patience and submission, suffering not merely from severities to which she was unaccustomed, but great illness in consequence of them. A year was passed in protracted miseries, amounting to martyrdom, from fainting fits, heart palpitations, and other infirmities of the body. The doctors could do nothing for her, and her father was obliged to order her removal to a more healthful monastery, where no vows of enclosure were taken.

And there she remained a year, with no relief to her sufferings for three months. Her only recreation was books, which fortified her courage. She sought instruction, but found no one who could instruct her so as to give repose to her struggling soul. She endeavored to draw her thoughts from herself by reading. She could not even pray without a book. She was afraid to be left alone with herself. Her situation was made still worse by the fact that her superiors did not understand her. When they noticed that she sought solitude, and shed tears for her sins, they fancied she had a discontented disposition, and added to her unhappiness by telling her so. But she conformed to all the rules, irksome or not, and endured every mortification, and even performed acts of devotion which were not required. She envied the patience of a poor woman who died of the most painful ulcers, and thought it would be a blessing if she could be afflicted in the same way, in order, as she said, to purchase eternal good. And this strange desire was fulfilled, for a severe and painful malady afflicted her for three years.

Again was she removed to some place for cure, for her case was desperate. And here her patience was supernal. Yet patience under bodily torments did not give the sought-for peace. It happened that a learned ecclesiastic of noble family lived in this place, and she sought relief in confessions to him. With a rare judgment and sense, and perhaps pride and delicacy, she disliked to confess to ignorant priests. She said that the half-learned did her more harm than good. The learned were probably more lenient to her, and more in sympathy with her, and assured her that those sins were only venial which she had supposed were mortal. But she soon was obliged to give up this confessor, since he began to confess to her, and to confess sins in comparison with which the sins she confessed were venial indeed. He not only told her of his slavery to a bad woman, but confessed a love for Theresa herself, which she of course repelled, though not with the aversion she ought to have felt. It seems that her pious talk was instrumental in effecting his deliverance from a base bondage. He soon after died, and piously, she declared; so that she considered it certain that his soul was saved.

Theresa remained three months in this place, in most grievous sufferings, for the remedy was worse than the disease. Again her father took her home, since all despaired of her recovery, her nervous system being utterly shattered, and her pains incessant by day and by night; the least touch was a torment. At last she sank into a state of insensibility from sheer exhaustion, so that she was supposed to be dying, even to be dead; and her grave was dug, and the sacrament of extreme unction was administered. She rallied from this prostration, however, and returned to the convent, though in a state of extreme weakness, and so remained for eight months. For three years she was a cripple, and could move about only on all-fours; but she was resigned to the will of God.

It was then, amid the maladies of her body, that she found relief to her over-burdened soul in prayer. She no longer prayed with a book, mechanically and by rote, but mentally, with earnestness, and with the understanding. And she prayed directly to God Almighty, and thereby came, she says, to love Him. And with prayer came new virtues. She now ceases to speak ill of people, and persuades others to cease from all detractions, so that absent people are safe. She speaks of God as her heavenly physician, who alone could cure her. She now desires, not sickness to show her patience, but health in order to serve God better. She begins to abominate those forms and ceremonies to which so many were slavishly devoted, and which she regards as superstitious. But she has drawbacks and relapses, and is pulled back by temptations and vanities, so that she is ashamed to approach God with that familiarity which frequent prayer requires. Then she fears hell, which she thinks she deserves. She has not yet reached the placidity of a pardoned soul. Perfection is very slow to be reached, and that is what the Middle Ages required in order to exorcise the fears of divine wrath. Not, however, until these fears are exorcised can there be the liberty of the gospel or the full triumph of love.

Thus for several years Theresa passed a miserable life, since the more she prayed the more she realized her faults; and these she could not correct, because her soul was not a master, but a slave. She was drawn two ways, in opposite directions. She made good resolutions, but failed to keep them; and then there was a deluge of tears,–the feeling that she was the weakest and wickedest of all creatures. For nearly twenty years she passed through this tempestuous sea, between failings and risings, enjoying neither the sweetness of God nor the pleasures of the world. But she did not lose the courage of applying herself to mental prayer. This fortified her; this was her stronghold; this united her to God. She was persuaded if she persevered in this, whatever sin she might commit, or whatever temptation might be presented, that, in the end, her Lord would bring her safe to the port of salvation. So she prayed without ceasing. She especially insisted on the importance of mental prayer (which is, I suppose, what is called holy meditation) as a sort of treaty of friendship with her Lord. At last she feels that the Lord assists her, in His great love, and she begins to trust in Him. She declares that prayer is the gate through which the Lord bestows upon her His favors; and it is only through this that any comfort comes. Then she begins to enjoy sermons, which once tormented her, whether good or bad, so long as God is spoken of, for she now loves Him; and she cannot hear too much of Him she loves. She delights to see her Lord’s picture, since it aids her to see Him inwardly, and to feel that He is always near her, which is her constant desire.

About this time the “Confessions of Saint Augustine” were put into Theresa’s hands,–one of the few immortal books which are endeared to the heart of Christians. This book was a comfort and enlightenment to her, she thinking that the Lord would forgive her, as He did those saints who had been great sinners, because He loved them. When she meditated on the conversion of Saint Augustine,–how he heard the voice in the garden,–it seemed to her that the Lord equally spoke to her, and thus she was filled with gratitude and joy. After this, her history is the enumeration of the favors which God gave her, and of the joys of prayer, which seemed to her to be the very joys of heaven. She longs more and more for her divine Spouse, to whom she is spiritually wedded. She pants for Him as the hart pants for the water-brook. She cannot be separated from Him; neither death nor hell can separate her from His love. He is infinitely precious to her,–He is chief among ten thousand. She blesses His holy name. In her exceeding joy she cries, “O Lord of my soul, O my eternal Good!” In her ecstasy she sings,–

“Absent from Thee, my Saviour dear!
I call not life this living here.
Ah, Lord I my light and living breath,
Take me, oh, take me from this death
And burst the bars that sever me
From my true life above!
Think how I die Thy face to see,
And cannot live away from Thee,
O my Eternal Love!”

Thus she composes canticles and dries her tears, feeling that the love of God does not consist in these, but in serving Him with fidelity and devotion. She is filled with the graces of humility, and praises God that she is permitted to speak of things relating to Him. She is filled also with strength, since it is He who strengthens her. She is perpetually refreshed, since she drinks from a divine fountain. She is in a sort of trance of delight from the enjoyment of divine blessings. Her soul is elevated to rapture. She feels that her salvation, through grace, is assured. She no longer has fear of devils or of hell, since with an everlasting love she is beloved; and her lover is Christ. She has broken the bondage of the Middle Ages, and she has broken it by prayer. She is an emancipated woman, and can now afford to devote herself to practical duties. She visits the sick, she dispenses charities, she gives wise counsels; for with all her visionary piety she has good sense in the things of the world, and is as practical as she is spiritual and transcendental.

And all this in the midst of visions. I will not dwell on these visions, the weak point in her religious life, though they are visions of beauty, not of devils, of celestial spirits who came to comfort her, and who filled her soul with joy and peace.

“A little bird I am,
Shut from the fields of air,
And in my cage I sit and sing
To Him who placed me there;
Well pleased a prisoner to be,
Because, my God, it pleases Thee.”

The Vision of St. Therese After the painting by Jean Brunet

She is bathed in the glory of her Lord, and her face shines with the radiance of heaven, with the moral beauty which the greatest of Spanish painters represents on his canvas. And she is beloved by everybody, is universally venerated for her virtues as well as for her spiritual elevation. The greatest ecclesiastical dignitaries come to see her, and encourage her, and hold converse with her, for her intellectual gifts were as remarkable as her piety. Her conversation, it appears, was charming. Her influence over the highest people was immense. She pleased, she softened, and she elevated all who knew her. She reigned in her convent as Madame de Staël reigned in her salon. She was supposed to have reached perfection; and yet she never claimed perfection, but sadly felt her imperfections, and confessed them. She was very fond of the society of learned men, from first to last, but formed no friendships except with those whom she believed to be faithful servants of God.

At this period Theresa meditated the foundation of a new convent of the Carmelite order, to be called St. Joseph, after the name of her patron saint. But here she found great difficulty, as her plans were not generally approved by her superiors or the learned men whom she consulted. They were deemed impracticable, for she insisted that the convent should not be endowed, nor be allowed to possess property. In all the monasteries of the Middle Ages, the monks, if individually poor, might be collectively rich; and all the famous monasteries came gradually to be as well endowed as Oxford and Cambridge universities were. This proved, in the end, an evil, since the monks became lazy and luxurious and proud. They could afford to be idle; and with idleness and luxury came corruption. The austere lives of the founders of these monasteries gave them a reputation for sanctity and learning, and this brought them wealth. Rich people who had no near relatives were almost certain to leave them something in their wills. And the richer the monasteries became, the greedier their rulers were.

Theresa determined to set a new example. She did not institute any stricter rules; she was emancipated from austerities; but she resolved to make her nuns dependent on the Lord rather than on rich people. Nor was she ambitious of founding a large convent. She thought that thirteen women together were enough. Gradually she brought the provincial of the order over to her views, and also the celebrated friar, Peter of Alcantara, the most eminent ecclesiastic in Spain. But the townspeople of Avila were full of opposition. They said it was better for Theresa to remain where she was; that there was no necessity for another convent, and that it was a very foolish thing. So great was the outcry, that the provincial finally withdrew his consent; he also deemed the revenue to be too uncertain. Then the advice of a celebrated Dominican was sought, who took eight days to consider the matter, and was at first inclined to recommend the abandonment of the project, but on further reflection he could see no harm in it, and encouraged it. So a small house was bought, for the nuns must have some shelter over their heads. The provincial changed his opinion again, and now favored the enterprise. It was a small affair, but a great thing to Theresa. Her friend the Dominican wrote letters to Rome, and the provincial offered no further objection. Moreover, she had bright visions of celestial comforters.

But the superior of her convent, not wishing the enterprise to succeed, and desiring to get her out of the way, sent Theresa to Toledo, to visit and comfort a sick lady of rank, with whom she remained six months. Here she met many eminent men, chiefly ecclesiastics of the Dominican and Jesuit orders; and here she inspired other ladies to follow her example, among others a noble nun of her own order, who sold all she had and walked to Rome barefooted, in order to obtain leave to establish a religious house like that proposed by Theresa. At last there came letters and a brief from Rome for the establishment of the convent, and Theresa was elected prioress, in the year 1562.

But the opposition still continued, and the most learned and influential were resolved on disestablishing the house. The matter at last reached the ears of the King and council, and an order came requiring a statement as to how the monastery was to be founded. Everything was discouraging. Theresa, as usual, took refuge in prayer, and went to the Lord and said, “This house is not mine; it is established for Thee; and since there is no one to conduct the case, do Thou undertake it.” From that time she considered the matter settled. Nevertheless the opposition continued, much to the astonishment of Theresa, who could not see how a prioress and twelve nuns could be injurious to the city. Finally, opposition so far ceased that it was agreed that the house should be unmolested, provided it were endowed. On this point, however, Theresa was firm, feeling that if she once began to admit revenue, the people would not afterwards allow her to refuse it. So amid great opposition she at last took up her abode in the convent she had founded, and wanted for nothing, since alms, all unsolicited, poured in sufficient for all necessities; and the attention of the nuns was given to their duties without anxieties or obstruction, in all the dignity of voluntary poverty.

I look upon this reformation of the Carmelite order as very remarkable. The nuns did not go around among rich people supplicating their aid as was generally customary, for no convent or monastery was ever rich enough, in its own opinion. Still less did they say to rich people, “Ye are the lords and masters of mankind. We recognize your greatness and your power. Deign to give us from your abundance, not that we may live comfortably when serving the Lord, but live in luxury like you, and compete with you in the sumptuousness of our banquets and in the costliness of our furniture and our works of art, and be your companions and equals in social distinctions, and be enrolled with you as leaders of society.” On the contrary they said, “We ask nothing from you. We do not wish to be rich. We prefer poverty. We would not be encumbered with useless impediments–too much camp equipage–while marching to do battle with the forces of the Devil. Christ is our Captain. He can take care of his own troops. He will not let us starve. And if we do suffer, what of that? He suffered for our sake, shall we not suffer for his cause?”

The Convent of St. Joseph was founded in 1562, after Theresa had passed twenty-nine years in the Convent of the Incarnation. She died, 1582, at the age of sixty-seven, after twenty years of successful labors in the convent she had founded; revered by everybody; the friend of some of the most eminent men in Spain, including the celebrated Borgia, ex-Duke of Candia, and General of the Jesuits, who took the same interest in Theresa that Fénelon did in Madame Guyon. She lived to see established sixteen convents of nuns, all obeying her reformed rule, and most of them founded by her amid great difficulties and opposition. When she founded the Carmelite Convent of Toledo she had only four ducats to begin with. Some one objected to the smallness of the sum, when she replied, “Theresa and this money are indeed nothing; but God and Theresa and four ducats can accomplish anything.” It was amid the fatigues incident to the founding a convent in Burgos that she sickened and died.

It was not, however, merely from her labors as a reformer and nun that Saint Theresa won her fame, but also for her writings, which blaze with genius, although chiefly confined to her own religious experience. These consist of an account of her own life, and various letters and mystic treatises, some description of her spiritual conflicts and ecstasies, others giving accounts of her religious labors in the founding of reformed orders and convents; while the most famous is a rapt portrayal of the progress of the soul to the highest heaven. Her own Memoirs remind one of the “Confessions of Saint Augustine,” and of the “Imitation of Christ,” by Thomas à Kempis. People do not read such books in these times to any extent, at least in this country, but they have ever been highly valued on the continent of Europe. The biographers of Saint Theresa have been numerous, some of them very distinguished, like Ribera, Yepez, and Sainte Marie. Bossuet, while he condemned Madame Guyon for the same mystical piety which marked Saint Theresa, still bowed down to the authority of the writings of the saint, while Fleury quotes them with the decrees of the Council of Trent.

But Saint Theresa ever was submissive to the authority of the Pope and of her spiritual directors. She would not have been canonized by Gregory XV. had she not been. So long as priests and nuns have been submissive to the authority of the Church, the Church has been lenient to their opinions. Until the Reformation, there was great practical freedom of opinion in the Catholic Church. Nor was the Church of the sixteenth century able to see the logical tendency of the mysticism of Saint Theresa, since it was not coupled with rebellion against spiritual despotism. It was not until the logical and dogmatic intellect of Bossuet discerned the spiritual independence of the Jansenists and Quietists, that persecution began against them. Had Saint Theresa lived a century later, she would probably have shared the fate of Madame Guyon, whom she resembled more closely than any other woman that I have read of,–in her social position, in her practical intellect, despite the visions of a dreamy piety, in her passionate love of the Saviour, in her method of prayer, in her spiritual conflicts, in the benevolence which marked all her relations with the world, in the divine charity which breathed through all her words, and in the triumph of love over all the fears inspired by a gloomy theology and a superstitious priesthood. Both of these eminent women were poets of no ordinary merit; both enjoyed the friendship of the most eminent men of their age; both craved the society of the learned; both were of high birth and beautiful in their youth, and fitted to adorn society by their brilliant talk as well as graceful manners; both were amiable and sought to please, and loved distinction and appreciation; both were Catholics, yet permeated with the spirit of Protestantism, so far as religion is made a matter between God and the individual soul, and marked by internal communion with the Deity rather than by outward acts of prescribed forms; both had confessors, and yet both maintained the freedom of their minds and souls, and knew of no binding authority but that divine voice which appealed to their conscience and heart, and that divine word which is written in the Scriptures. After the love of God had subdued their hearts, we read but little of penances, or self-expiations, or forms of worship, or church ceremonies, or priestly rigors, or any of the slaveries and formalities which bound ordinary people. Their piety was mystical, sometimes visionary, and not always intelligible, but deep, sincere, and lofty. Of the two women, I think Saint Theresa was the more remarkable, and had the most originality. Madame Guyon seems to have borrowed much from her, especially in her methods of prayer.

The influence of Saint Theresa’s life and writings has been eminent and marked, not only in the Catholic but in the Protestant Church. If not direct, it has been indirect. She had that active, ardent nature which sets at defiance a formal piety, and became an example to noble women in a more enlightened, if less poetic, age. She was the precursor of a Madame de Chantal, of a Francis de Sales, of a Mère Angelique. The learned and saintly Port Royalists, in many respects, were her disciples. We even see a resemblance to her spiritual exercises in the “Thoughts” of Pascal. We see her mystical love of the Saviour in the poetry of Cowper and Watts and Wesley. The same sentiments she uttered appear even in the devotional works of Jeremy Taylor and Jonathan Edwards. The Protestant theology of the last century was in harmony with hers in its essential features. In the “Pilgrim’s Progress” of Bunyan we have no more graphic pictures of the sense of sin, the justice of its punishment, and the power by which it is broken, than are to be found in the writings of this saintly woman. In no Protestant hymnals do we find a warmer desire for a spiritual union with the Author of our salvation; in none do we see the aspiring soul seeking to climb to the regions of eternal love more than in her exultant melodies.

“For uncreated charms I burn,
Oppressed by slavish fears no more;
For One in whom I may discern,
E’en when He frowns, a sweetness I adore.”

That remarkable work of Fénelon in which he defends Madame Guyon, called “Maxims of the Saints,” would equally apply to Saint Theresa, in fact to all those who have been distinguished for an inward life, from Saint Augustine to Richard Baxter,–for unselfish love, resignation to the divine will, self-renunciation, meditation too deep for words, and union with Christ, as represented by the figure of the bride and bridegroom. This is Christianity, as it has appeared in all ages, both among Catholic and Protestant saints. It may seem to some visionary, to others unreasonable, and to others again repulsive. But this has been the life and joy of those whom the Church has honored and commended. It has raised them above the despair of Paganism and the superstitions of the Middle Ages. It is the love which casteth out fear, producing in the harassed soul repose and rest amid the doubts and disappointments of life. It is not inspired by duty; it does not rest on philanthropy; it is not the religion of humanity. It is a gift bestowed by the Father of Lights, and will be, to remotest ages, the most precious boon which He bestows on those who seek His guidance.


Vie de Sainte Thérèse, écrite par elle-même; Lettres de Sainte Thérèse; Les Ouvrages de Sainte Thérèse; Biographie Universelle; Fraser’s Magazine, lxv. 59; Butler’s Lives of the Saints; Digby’s Ages of Faith; the Catholic Histories of the Church, especially Fleury’s “Maxims of the Saints.” Lives of Saint Theresa by Ribera, Yepez, and Sainte Marie.

Madame de Maintenon : The Political Woman

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women