Today is the birthday of Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a Spanish nun, theologian, mystic, writer of such spiritual classics as Interior Castle and Way of Perfection, one of only two female Doctors of the Church, and founder of the order of Discalced Carmelites. The term ‘discalced’ means without shoes and was chosen by Teresa to signify their poverty. She first joined a Carmelite convent at the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila but was disappointed with their spiritual lassitude and worldly ways, so she established the reformed Discalced order. She went on to found seventeen houses of the order for women throughout Spain, often facing severe opposition.
Teresa’s spirituality was a deeply contemplative type of mystical state resulting in union with God. Her mystical experiences connected her intensely and ecstatically with the divine love of God. She would often experience involuntary trance states and there were several reports of her levitating during Mass. At first her confessors feared she was under some demonic influence, but her eloquent accounts of her love for God convinced them that her visions and trances were authentic.
Bernini’s Vision of St. Teresa
Certainly among my Top 10 works of art is Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, a stupendously theatrical confection of Baroque art. Bernini uses sculpture, architecture, gilding, and lighting to involve the viewer in Teresa’s ecstatic vision. The subject of the sculpture is Teresa’s account of visions she experienced, when her mystical union with God reached such intensity that she saw an angel at her side, who pierced her with an arrow of God’s love. Here is her account:
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 this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God. It is not bodily pain, but spiritual, though the body has a share in it-indeed, a great share. So sweet are the colloquies of love which pass between the soul and God that if anyone thinks that I am lying I beseech God, in his goodness, to give him the same experience.”
(The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Trans. & Ed. by E. Allison Peers 192-193)
It has long been recognized that Teresa’s descriptions are often written in the language of eroticism and reflect a type of spirituality sometimes called bridal mysticism, wherein the soul is wedded to God in spiritual passion. Mystics often use this type of language because it is an experience that ordinary words cannot adequately convey. This piercing of the soul by God is known by the theological term of transverberation. It is a sublime event beyond normal human understanding which can only be comprehended through the language of the intensely physical sensation of passion.
In his sculpture Bernini has tried to translate this passion into marble to portray the depth of her spiritual experience. We see Teresa swooning in a fit of ecstasy, with her eyes closed and her lips parted as she sinks onto the cloud supporting her. The angel smiles sweetly as he prepares to plunge the arrow into her heart. It seems that a wind is blowing around both figures, and the angel’s garment wraps around him seductively while Teresa’s heavy robes billow and swirl in a way that heightens her dramatic earthly trance. Bernini’s skill allows us to see the different textures and weight of their garments and the feathery lightness of the angel’s wings.
The backdrop for the sculpture is dozens of gilded rays topped with a hidden window that allows light to stream down, creating a heavenly setting for the vision. The whole is encased within an aedicula, or shrine, framed by colored marble pillars topped with Corinthian capitals and roofed with an ornate curving broken pediment that invites the viewer to enter into the scene.
Among the many quotable writings of St. Teresa, here are two to reflect upon. One is like a prayer, the other reflects Teresa’s sensible advice.
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices.
“Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”