Teresa: The Homeliness of Mysticism
By Gabriel Blanchard
The term "mystic" tends to make us think of unearthliness, but St. Teresa's life and work were just the opposite.
Born in sixteenth-century Spain, St. Teresa of Ávila is one of the most widely recognized mystics in Christian history. Her autobiography and her volumes of spiritual guidance, composed for the sisters under her care, remain some of the most celebrated Spanish literature in history, and earned her the title “Doctor of the Church” from the Vatican in 1970. Foundress of a new and more austere branch of the Carmelite Order, Teresa experienced multiple visions and ecstasies throughout her monastic career, while at the same time traveling throughout the country spreading her reforms, in the face of opposition from fellow Carmelites and even the suspicion of the Inquisition.
It is easy to see her formidable confidence and intelligence as something alien to our own experience—perhaps almost as alien as her ecstasies. Nor does the term mystical theologian have the most approachable ring to it. But St. Teresa was a surprisingly earthy, humorous figure, even in her devotions. A famous story recounts her being thrown from a cart she was riding in, due to a rough patch in the road; as she was dusting herself off, she heard an inner voice from God saying, “Do not be upset, My daughter, for I this is how I treat all My friends.” The saint wryly replied, “And that is why You have so few.”
Her written works—particularly The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle—remain classics of Christian mysticism, partly because (like the writings of her friend and companion in reform, St. John of the Cross) they apply this same hard-headed wit to the spiritual life. The first is inspired in part by the earlier Imitation of Christ, and deals with spiritual growth in prayer. The latter details various stages in the spiritual life, what she calls different “mansions” in the spiritual castle of the soul, taking up the language of Christ in the Gospel of John: In my Father’s house are many mansions.
Far from being ethereally vague, they are practical, almost scientific-sounding guides to prayer, self-discipline, and virtue, illuminated clearly by an experienced mind that is attentive to the subtleties of the soul. St. Teresa’s cognizance of the body’s affect on the spirit may strike us as particularly homely, even motherly—for example, for all the severities imposed by her reformed monastic rule, she advised that nuns who showed signs of depression should be given steak. The dichotomy between the humdrum and the spiritual seems not to exist for her; perhaps this is because she orients both to the service of heaven.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this post and want to read more, check out our brief analysis of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or our discussion of the virtue of temperance. You may also be interested in our weekly podcast, Anchored.