The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

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The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

Chapter 27

Treats of another way in which the Lord teaches the soul and in an admirable manner makes His will plain to it without the use of words. Describes a vision and a great favour, not imaginary, granted her by the Lord. This chapter should be carefully noted.

Returning to the account of my life, I have already described my great distress and affliction and the prayers that were being made for me that the Lord would lead me by another and a surer way, since, as they told me, there was so much doubt about this one. The truth is that, though I was beseeching God to do this, and though I wished very much I could desire to be led by another way, yet, when I saw how much my soul was already benefiting, I could not possibly desire it, except occasionally when I was troubled by the things that were being said to me and the fears with which I was being inspired. Still, I kept on praying for it. I realized that I was completely different; so I put myself into God's hands, for I could do nothing else: He knew what was good for me and it was for Him to fulfil His will in me in all things. I saw that this road was leading me towards Heaven, whereas formerly I had been going in the direction of hell. I could not force myself to desire this change or to believe that I was being led by the devil; I did my best to believe this, and to desire the change, but it was simply impossible. To this end I offered up all my actions, in case any of them might be good. I begged the Saints to whom I was devoted to deliver me from the devil. I made novenas and commended myself to Saint Hilarion and to Saint Michael the Angel, for whom, with this in view, I conceived a fresh devotion, and I importuned many other Saints so that the Lord might show me the truth -- I mean so that they might prevail with His Majesty to this purpose.

At the end of two years, during the whole of which time both other people and myself were continually praying for what I have described -- that the Lord would either lead me by another way or make plain the truth: and these locutions which, as I have said, the Lord was giving me were very frequent -- I had the following experience. I was at prayer on a festival of the glorious Saint Peter when I saw Christ at my side -- or, to put it better, I was conscious of Him, for neither with the eyes of the body nor with those of the soul did I see anything. I thought He was quite close to me and I saw that it was He Who, as I thought, was speaking to me. Being completely ignorant that visions of this kind could occur, I was at first very much afraid, and did nothing but weep, though, as soon as He addressed a single word to me to reassure me, I became quiet again, as I had been before, and was quite happy and free from fear. All the time Jesus Christ seemed to be beside me, but, as this was not an imaginary vision,[210] I could not discern in what form: what I felt very clearly was that all the time He was at my right hand, and a witness of everything that I was doing, and that, whenever I became slightly recollected or was not greatly distracted, I could not but be aware of His nearness to me.

Sorely troubled, I went at once to my confessor, to tell him about it. He asked me in what form I had seen Him. I told him that I had not seen Him at all. Then he asked me how I knew it was Christ. I told him that I did not know how, but that I could not help realizing that He was beside me, and that I saw and felt this clearly; that when in the Prayer of Quiet my soul was now much more deeply and continuously recollected; that the effects of my prayer were very different from those which I had previously been accustomed to experience; and that the thing was quite clear to me. I did nothing, in my efforts to make myself understood, but draw comparisons -- though really, for describing this kind of vision, there is no comparison which is very much to the point, for it is one of the highest kinds of vision possible. This was told me later by a holy man of great spirituality called Fray Peter of Alcántara,[211] to whom I shall afterwards refer, and other distinguished and learned men have told me the same thing. Of all kinds of vision it is that in which the devil has the least power of interference, and so there are no ordinary terms by which we women, who have so little knowledge, can describe it: learned men will explain it better. For, if I say that I do not see Him with the eyes either of the body or of the soul, because it is not an imaginary vision, how can I know and affirm that He is at my side, and this with greater certainty than if I were to see Him? It is not a suitable comparison to say that it is as if a person were in the dark, so that he cannot see someone who is beside him, or as if he were blind. There is some similarity here, but not a great deal, because the person in the dark can detect the other with his remaining senses, can hear him speak or move, or can touch him. In this case there is nothing like that, nor is there felt to be any darkness -- on the contrary, He presents Himself to the soul by a knowledge brighter than the sun. I do not mean that any sun is seen, or any brightness is perceived, but that there is a light which, though not seen, illumines the understanding so that the soul may have fruition of so great a blessing. It brings great blessings with it.

It is not like another kind of consciousness of the presence of God which is often experienced, especially by those who have reached the Prayer of Union and the Prayer of Quiet. There we are on the point of beginning our prayer when we seem to find Him Whom we are about to address and we seem to know that He is hearing us by the spiritual feelings and effects of great love and faith of which we become conscious, and also by the fresh resolutions which we make with such deep emotion. This great favour comes from God: and he to whom it is granted should esteem it highly, for it is a very lofty form of prayer. But it is not a vision. The soul recognizes the presence of God by the effects which, as I say, He produces in the soul, for it is by that means that His Majesty is pleased to make His presence felt: but in a vision the soul distinctly sees that Jesus Christ, the Son of the Virgin, is present. In that other kind of prayer there come to it influences from the Godhead; but in this experience, besides receiving these, we find that the most sacred Humanity becomes our Companion and is also pleased to grant us favours.

My confessor then asked me who told me it was Jesus Christ. "He often tells me so Himself", I replied; "but, before ever He told me so, the fact was impressed upon my understanding, and before that He used to tell me He was there when I could not see Him." If I were blind, or in pitch darkness, and a person whom I had never seen, but only heard of, came and spoke to me and told me who he was, I should believe him, but I could not affirm that it was he as confidently as if I had seen him. But in this case I could certainly affirm it, for, though He remains unseen, so clear a knowledge is impressed upon the soul that to doubt it seems quite impossible. The Lord is pleased that this knowledge should be so deeply engraven upon the understanding that one can no more doubt it than one can doubt the evidence of one's eyes -- indeed, the latter is easier, for we sometimes suspect that we have imagined what we see, whereas here, though that suspicion may arise for a moment, there remains such complete certainty that the doubt has no force.

It is the same with another way in which God teaches the soul, and addresses it without using words, as I have said. This is so celestial a language that it is difficult to explain it to mortals, however much we may desire to do so, unless the Lord teaches it to us by experience. The Lord introduces into the inmost part of the soul what He wishes that soul to understand, and presents it, not by means of images or forms of words, but after the manner of this vision aforementioned. Consider carefully this way in which God causes the soul to understand what He wills, and also great truths and mysteries; for often what I understand, when the Lord expounds to me some vision which His Majesty is pleased to present to me, comes in this way; for the reasons I have given, I think this is the state in which the devil has the least power of interference. If the reasons are not good ones, I must be suffering from deception.

This kind of vision and this kind of language are such spiritual things that I believe no turmoil is caused by them in the faculties, or in the senses, from which the devil can pluck any advantage. They occur only from time to time and are quickly over; at other times, as I think, the faculties are not suspended, nor is the soul bereft of its senses, but these remain active, which in contemplation is not always the case -- it happens, indeed, very seldom. When it is the case, I believe that we ourselves do nothing and accomplish nothing -- the whole thing seems to be the work of the Lord. It is as if food has been introduced into the stomach without our having eaten it or knowing how it got there. We know quite well that it is there, although we do not know what it is or who put it there. In this experience, I do know Who put it there, but not how He did so, for my soul saw nothing and cannot understand how the operation took place; it had never been moved to desire such a thing, nor had it even come to my knowledge that it was possible.

In the locutions which we described previously, God makes the understanding attentive, even against its will, so that it understands what is said to it, for the soul now seems to have other ears with which it hears and He makes it listen and prevents it from becoming distracted. It is like a person with good hearing, who is forbidden to stop his ears when people near him are talking in a loud voice: even if he were unwilling to hear them, he could not help doing so. As a matter of fact he does play a part in the process, because he is attending to what they are saying. But in this experience the soul does nothing, for even the mere insignificant ability to listen, which it has possessed until now, is taken from it. It finds all its food cooked and eaten: it has nothing to do but to enjoy it. It is like one who, without having learned anything, or having taken the slightest trouble in order to learn to read, or even having ever studied, finds himself in possession of all existing knowledge; he has no idea how or whence it has come, since he has never done any work, even so much as was necessary for the learning of the alphabet.

This last comparison, I think, furnishes some sort of explanation of this heavenly gift, for the soul suddenly finds itself learned, and the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, together with other lofty things, is so clearly explained to it that there is no theologian with whom it would not have the boldness to contend in defence of the truth of these marvels. So astounded is the soul at what has happened to it that a single one of these favours suffices to change it altogether and make it love nothing save Him Who, without any labour on its part, renders it capable of receiving such great blessings, and communicates secrets to it and treats it with such friendship and love as is impossible to describe. For some of the favours which He bestows upon it, being so wonderful in themselves and granted to one who has not deserved them, may be regarded with suspicion, and they will not be believed save by one who has a most lively faith. So unless I am commanded to say more I propose to refer only to a few of those which the Lord has granted me; I shall confine myself to certain visions an account of which may be of some use to others, may stop anyone to whom the Lord gives them from thinking them impossible, as I used to do, and may explain to such a person the method and the road by which the Lord has led me, for that is the subject on which I am commanded to write.

Now, returning to this method of understanding, the position seems to me to be that the Lord's will is for the soul to have at any rate some idea of what is happening in Heaven, and, just as souls in Heaven understand one another without speaking (which I never knew for certain till the Lord in His goodness willed me to see it and revealed it to me in a rapture), even so it is here. God and the soul understand each other, simply because this is His Majesty's will, and no other means is necessary to express the mutual love of these two friends. Just so, in this life, two persons of reasonable intelligence, who love each other dearly, seem able to understand each other without making any signs, merely by their looks. This must be so here, for, without seeing each other, we look at each other face to face as these two lovers do: the Spouse in the Songs, I believe, says this to the Bride: I have been told that it occurs there.[212]

O wondrous loving-kindness of God, Who permittest Thyself to be looked upon by eyes which have looked on things as sinfully as have the eyes of my soul! After this sight, Lord, may they never more accustom themselves to look on base things and may nothing content them but Thee. O ingratitude of mortal men! How far will it go? I know by experience that all I am saying now is true and that what it is possible to say is the smallest part of what Thou doest with a soul that Thou leadest to such heights as this. O souls that have begun to pray and that possess true faith, what blessings can you find in this life to equal the least of these, to say nothing of the blessings you may gain in eternity?

Reflect -- for this is the truth -- that to those who give up everything for Him God gives Himself. He is not a respecter of persons.[213] He loves us all: no one, however wicked, can be excluded from His love since He has dealt in such a way with me and brought me to so high a state. Reflect that what I am saying is barely a fraction of what there is to say. I have only said what is necessary to explain the kind of vision and favour which God bestows on the soul; but I cannot describe the soul's feelings when the Lord grants it an understanding of His secrets and wonders -- a joy so far above all joys attainable on earth that it fills us with a just contempt for the joys of life, all of which are but dung. It is loathsome to have to make any such comparison, even if we might enjoy them for ever. And what are these joys that the Lord gives? Only a single drop of the great and abundant river which He has prepared for us.

It makes one ashamed, and certainly I am ashamed of myself: if it were possible to be ashamed in Heaven, I should be more so than anyone else. Why must we desire so many blessings and joys, and everlasting glory, all at the cost of the good Jesus? If we are not helping Him to carry His Cross with the Cyrenean, shall we not at least weep with the daughters of Jerusalem?[214] Will pleasures and pastimes lead us to the fruition of what He won for us at the cost of so much blood? That is impossible. And do we think that by accepting vain honours we shall be following Him Who was despised so that we might reign for ever? That is not the right way. We are going astray, far astray: we shall never reach our goal. Proclaim these truths aloud, Your Reverence, since God has denied me the freedom to do so myself. I should like to proclaim them for ever, but, as will be seen from what I have written, it was so long before God heard me and I came to know Him that it makes me very much ashamed to speak of it and I prefer to keep silence; so I shall only speak of something about which I meditate from time to time.

May it please the Lord to bring me to a state in which I can enjoy this blessing. What will be the accidental glory and what the joy of the blessed who already have fruition of it when they see that, late as they were, they left nothing undone that they could possibly do for God, and kept back nothing, but gave to Him in every possible way, according to their power and their position; and the more they had, the more they gave! How rich will he find himself who has forsaken all his riches for Christ! What honour will be paid to those who for His sake desired no honour but took pleasure in seeing themselves humbled! What wisdom will be attributed to the man who rejoiced at being accounted mad, since madness was attributed to Him Who is Wisdom itself. How few such, through our sins, are there now! Alas, alas! No longer are there any whom men account mad because they see them perform the heroic deeds proper to true lovers of Christ. O world, world How much of thy reputation dost thou acquire because of the few there are who know thee!

For we believe that God is better pleased when we are accounted wise and discreet. That may be so: it all depends on what we mean by discretion. We at once assume that we are failing to edify others if each one of us in his calling does not comport himself with great circumspection and make a show of authority. Even in the friar, the cleric and the nun we think it very strange and a scandal to the weak if they wear old, patched clothes, or even (to such a pass has the world come and so forgetful are we of the vehement longings which the saints had for perfection) if they are greatly recollected and given to prayer. The world is bad enough nowadays without being made worse by things like this.[215] No scandal would be caused to anyone if religious put into practice what they say about the little esteem in which the world should be held, for the Lord turns any such scandals as these to great advantage. If some were scandalized, too, others would be struck with remorse; and we should at least have a picture of what was suffered by Christ and His Apostles, which we need now more than ever.

And what a grand picture of it has God just taken from us in the blessed Fray Peter of Alcantara![216] The world is not yet in a fit state to bear such perfection. It is said that people's health is feebler nowadays and that times are not what they were. But it was in these present times that this holy man lived; and yet his spirit was as robust as any in the days of old, so that he was able to keep the world beneath his feet. And, although everyone does not go about unshod[217] or perform such severe penances as he did, there are many ways, as I have said on other occasions, of trampling on the world and these ways the Lord teaches to those in whom He sees courage. And what great courage His Majesty gave to this holy man to perform those severe penances, which are common knowledge, for forty-seven years! I will say something about this, for I know it is all true.

He told this to me, and to another person from whom he concealed little[218] -- the reason he told me was his love for me, for the Lord was pleased to give him this love so that he might stand up for me and encourage me at a time of great need, of which I have spoken and shall speak further. I think it was for forty years that he told me he had slept only for an hour and a half between each night and the next day, and that, when he began, the hardest part of his penance had been the conquering of sleep, for which reason he was always either on his knees or on his feet. What sleep he had he took sitting down, with his head resting against a piece of wood that he had fixed to the wall. Sleep lying down he could not, even if he had so wished, for his cell, as is well known, was only four and a half feet long. During all these years, how ever hot the sun or heavy the rain, he never wore his hood, or anything on his feet, and his only dress was a habit of sackcloth, with nothing between it and his flesh, and this he wore as tightly as he could bear, with a mantle of the same material above it. He told me that, when it was very cold, he would take off the mantle, and leave the door and window of his cell open, so that, when he put it on again and shut the door, he could derive some physical satisfaction from the increased protection. It was a very common thing for him to take food only once in three days. He asked me why I was so surprised at this and said that, when one got used to it, it was quite possible. A companion of his told me that sometimes he would go for a week without food. That must have been when he was engaged in prayer, for he used to have great raptures and violent impulses of love for God, of which I was myself once a witness.

His poverty was extreme, and so, even when he was quite young, was his mortification: he told me that he once spent three years in a house of his Order and could not have recognized a single friar there, except by his voice, for he never raised his eyes, and so, when he had to go to any part of the house, could only do so by following the other friars. It was the same thing out of doors. At women he never looked at all and this was his practice for many years. He told me that it was all the same to him now whether he saw anything or not; but he was very old when I made his acquaintance[219] and so extremely weak that he seemed to be made of nothing but roots of trees. But with all this holiness he was very affable, though, except when answering questions, a man of few words. When he did speak it was a delight to listen to him, for he was extremely intelligent. There are many other things which I should like to say about him but I am afraid Your Reverence will ask why I am starting on this subject -- indeed, I have been afraid of that even while writing. So I will stop here, adding that he died as he had lived, preaching to, and admonishing, his brethren. When he saw that his life was drawing to a close, he repeated the psalm "Laetatus sum in hic quae dicta sunt mihi",[220] and knelt down and died.

Since his death it has been the Lord's good pleasure that I should have more intercourse with him than I had during his life and that he should advise me on many subjects. I have often beheld him in the greatest bliss. The first time he appeared to me he remarked on the blessedness of the penance that had won him so great a prize, and he spoke of many other things as well. One of his appearances to me took place a year before his death. I was away at the time; and, knowing he was soon to die, I told him so, when he was some leagues from here. When he expired, he appeared to me and said that he was going to rest. I did not believe this, but repeated it to a number of people and in a week came the news that he was dead -- or, to put it better, that he had entered upon eternal life.

See, then, how this austere life has ended in great glory. He is a much greater comfort to me, I think, than when he was on earth. The Lord once told me that no one should ask Him for anything in his name and not be heard. Many things which I have commended to him so that he should ask the Lord for them I have seen granted. Blessed be He for ever! Amen.

But what a lot I have been saying in order to incite Your Reverence to pay no esteem to the things of this life, as though you did not know this already and had not already determined to forsake everything and put your determination into practice. I see so many people in the world going to perdition that, although when I speak in this way I may succeed only in tiring myself by writing, it is a comfort to me, for everything I say tells against myself. May the Lord forgive me for anything in which I have offended Him in this matter, and may Your Reverence also forgive me, for I am wearying you to no purpose. It looks as if I want to make you do penance for the sins which I have myself committed.

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