The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

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The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

Chapter 30

Takes up the course of her life again and tells how the Lord granted her great relief from her trials by bringing her a visit from the holy man Fray Peter of Alcántara, of the Order of the glorious Saint Francis. Discusses the severe temptations and interior trials which she sometimes suffered.

Now when I saw that I could do little or nothing to stop myself from experiencing these violent impulses, I began to be afraid of them, for I could not understand how distress and contentment could go together. I already knew that it was quite possible for physical distress and spiritual contentment to exist together in the same person but it bewildered me to experience such excessive spiritual distress and with it such intense joy. Though I still did not cease striving to resist, I could do so little that it sometimes fatigued me. I used to seek the protection of the Cross and to try to defend myself against Him Who through the Cross became the Protector of us all. I saw that no one understood me, though I understood it very clearly myself; I did not dare, however, to speak of it save to my confessor, for to have done so would certainly have been to proclaim that I had no humility.

The Lord was pleased to grant me relief from a great part of my trials, and, for the time being, from all of them, by bringing to this place the blessed Fray Peter of Alcántara, whom I mentioned earlier when I said something about his penitential life: among other things, I have been assured that for twenty years he continuously wore a shirt made of iron.[234] He is the author of some little books on prayer, written in Spanish,[235] which are being used a great deal nowadays; as he was a man with great experience of prayer, his writings are very profitable for those who practise it. He kept the Primitive Rule of the blessed Saint Francis in all its rigour, as well as doing those other things of which something has already been said.

In due course that servant of God -- the widow of whom I have spoken and who was a friend of mine[236] -- learned that this great man was here. She knew of my necessities, for she was a witness of my afflictions and used to afford me great consolation, her faith being so strong that she could not but believe that what most people said was of the devil was really the work of the Spirit of God; and, as she is a person of very great intelligence and is also most discreet and was receiving many favours from the Lord in prayer, His Majesty was pleased to enlighten her upon matters of which learned men were ignorant. My confessors gave me permission to relieve my mind by talking to her about certain things, because for a multitude of reasons she was a suitable person for such confidences. She sometimes shared in the favours which the Lord was granting me and would receive counsels which were of great benefit to her soul. Well, when she learned that this holy man was here, she said nothing to me but obtained leave from my Provincial for me to stay with her for a week so as to give me a better opportunity of consulting him. So on this occasion of his first visit I had many talks with him, both in her house and in several churches, and later I had a great deal to do with him on many occasions. I gave him a summary account of my life and method of prayer with the greatest clarity of which I was capable; for I have always acted on the principle of speaking with the utmost clarity and truth to those whom I consult about my soul. I would always try to reveal to them its very first motions and tell them even the most dubious and suspicious things about myself: indeed, in discussing these matters with them I would put forward arguments which told against me. I was able, therefore, to reveal my soul to Fray Peter without duplicity or concealment.

Almost from the beginning, I saw that, out of his own experience, he understood me. And that was all I needed; for I did not understand myself then as I do now, and I could not describe what I was experiencing. Since that time God has granted me the ability to understand and describe the favours which His Majesty sends me. But just then I needed someone who had gone through it all himself, for such a person alone could understand me and interpret my experiences. He enlightened me wonderfully about them. I had been unable, at least as regards the visions which were not imaginary, to understand what they could all mean: I did not see how I could understand the nature of visions which I saw with the eyes of the soul, for, as I have said, I had thought that only visions which can be seen with the bodily eyes are of any importance, and of these I had none.

This holy man enlightened me about the whole matter, explained it all to me and told me not to be distressed but to praise God and be quite certain that it was the work of the Spirit; with the exception of the Faith, he said, there could be nothing truer, and nothing in which I could more confidently believe. He derived great happiness from what I said to him, was helpful and kind to me in every way and ever afterwards took a great interest in me and told me about his own affairs and undertakings. When he saw that I had desires which he himself had already carried into effect -- for the Lord had bestowed very resolute desires upon me -- and when he found, too, that I was so full of courage, he delighted in talking to me about these things. For if the Lord brings anyone to this state he will find no pleasure or comfort equal to that of meeting with another whom he believes He has brought along the first part of the same road -- for at this time I could not, I think, have gone much farther than that: please God I may still be as far advanced as I was then.

He had the greatest compassion on me. He told me that the trial I had been suffering -- that is to say, the opposition of good people -- was one of the severest in the world and that there would be many more such trials awaiting me. I should therefore have continual need of someone who understood me and there was no such person in this city, but he would speak to the priest to whom I made my confessions, and also to one of those who caused me the deepest distress -- namely, that married man of whom I have already spoken. The latter, just because he bore me the greatest goodwill, opposed me more than anyone else: being a holy and God-fearing[237] soul, and having so recently seen how wicked I was, he could not bring himself to have any confidence about me. The saintly man did as he had said he would: he spoke to them both and put reasons and arguments before them as to why they should be reassured about me and not cause me any more disquiet. My confessor hardly needed the advice. This gentleman, however, even when he had heard it, was not completely convinced, but it was sufficient to prevent him from frightening me as much as he had been doing.

We arranged -- Fray Peter and I -- that from that time onward I should write and tell him of anything that happened to me and that we should commend each other earnestly to God; for so great was his humility that he thought that there was value in the prayers of this miserable creature, which made me very much ashamed. He left me greatly comforted and very happy, telling me to continue confidently in prayer and not to doubt that the prayer came from God. For my greater security, I was to report any doubts I might have to my confessor; and, provided I did this, I should feel safe all my life. I was unable, however, to experience this feeling of complete security, for the Lord was leading me by the road of fear, with the result that, whenever I was told that the devil was deceiving me, I would believe it. In reality, none of my advisers was able to make me feel either afraid enough or secure enough to believe in him rather than in the feelings which the Lord implanted in my soul. So, although Fray Peter comforted and calmed me, I had not sufficient trust in him to be wholly without fear, especially when the Lord left me with the spiritual trials which I shall now describe. But, on the whole, as I say, I was greatly comforted. I was never weary of giving thanks to God and to my glorious father Saint Joseph, who seemed to me to have brought Fray Peter here, as he was Commissary General of the Custody[238] of Saint Joseph, to whom, as to Our Lady, I used often to commend myself. I had sometimes to endure -- and still have, though to a lesser degree -- the sorest spiritual trials, together with bodily pains and tortures, so severe that I could do nothing to ease them. At other times I suffered from more grievous bodily ills, and, if I had no spiritual distress, I bore these with great joy. It was when both kinds of distress came upon me together that my trials were so great and caused me such deep depression. I would forget all the favours that the Lord had bestowed upon me: nothing would remain with me but the mere recollection of them, like the memory of a dream, and this was a great distress to me. For, when a person is in this condition, the understanding becomes stupid; and so I was tormented by a thousand doubts and suspicions. I thought that I had not understood it properly, and that it might have been my fancy, and that it was bad enough for me to be deluded myself, without deluding good men as well. I felt I was so evil that I began to think that all the evils and heresies that had arisen were due to my sins.

This is a false humility; and it was invented by the devil so that he might unsettle me and see if he could drive my soul to despair. I have had so much experience by now of the devil's work that he sees I know his tricks and so he troubles me much less with this kind of torture than he used to. His part in it is evident from the disquiet and unrest with which it begins, from the turmoil which he creates in the soul for so long as his influence lasts, and from the darkness and affliction into which he plunges it, causing it an aridity and an ill-disposition for prayer and for everything that is good. He seems to stifle the soul and to constrain the body, and thus to render both powerless. For, though the soul is conscious of its own wretchedness and it distresses us to see what we are and our wickedness seems to us to be of the worst possible kind -- as bad as that which has just been described -- and we feel it very deeply, yet genuine humility does not produce inward turmoil, nor does it cause unrest in the soul, or bring it darkness or aridity: on the contrary, it cheers it and produces in it the opposite effects -- quietness, sweetness and light. Though it causes us distress, we are comforted to see what a great favour God is granting us by sending us that distress and how well the soul is occupied. Grieved as it is at having offended God, it is also encouraged by His mercy. It is sufficiently enlightened to feel ashamed, but it praises His Majesty, Who for so long has borne with it. In that other humility, which is the work of the devil, the soul has not light enough to do anything good and thinks of God as of one who is always wielding fire and sword. It pictures God's righteousness, and, although it has faith in His mercy, for the devil is not powerful enough to make it lose its faith, yet this is not such as to bring me consolation, for, when my soul considers God's mercy, this only increases its torment, since I realize that it involves me in greater obligations.[239]

This is an invention of the devil, and one of the most grievous and subtle and dissembling that I have found in him, and so I should like to warn Your Reverence of it, so that, if he should tempt you in this way, you may have some light, and may recognize his hand, if he leaves you sufficient understanding for doing so. Do not suppose that learning and knowledge have anything to do with this, for I am wholly destitute of both, and yet, after escaping from the devil's wiles, I see quite clearly that this is folly. What I have learned is that the Lord is pleased to give him permission and leave to tempt us, just as He gave him leave to tempt Job, although, being so wicked, I am not myself tempted as severely as that.

I have, however, been tempted in this way -- once, I remember, on the day before the vigil of Corpus Christi, a festival to which I am devoted, though not so much so as I ought to be. On that occasion the temptation lasted only until the day of the festival: on other occasions it has lasted for a week or a fortnight, or even perhaps for three weeks, or it may have been even longer. In particular it used to come during Holy Week, a time when I would derive great comfort from prayer. What happens on such occasions is that the devil suddenly lays hold on my understanding, sometimes by making use of things so trifling that at any other time I should laugh at them. He confuses the understanding and does whatever he likes with it, so that the soul, fettered as it is and no longer its own mistress, can think of nothing but the absurdities which he presents to it -- things of no importance, which neither keep the soul in bondage nor allow it to be free, and enslave it only in the sense that they stupefy it until its control over itself is gone. It has sometimes seemed to me, indeed, that the devils behave as though they were playing ball with the soul, so incapable is it of freeing itself from their power. Its sufferings at such a time are indescribable. It goes about in search of relief and God allows it to find none; it has only the reasoning power derived from its free-will, and it is unable to reason clearly. I mean that its eyes seem to be almost blindfolded: it is like someone who has gone along a particular road again and again, so that, even if it is night, and quite dark, he knows by the instinct which comes from experience where he is likely to stumble, for he has seen the road by day and is therefore on his guard against that danger. Just so the soul, in avoiding giving offence to God, seems to be walking by habit. This explanation, however, leaves out of account the fact that the Lord has it in His keeping, which is the thing that matters.

At such a time, faith, like all the other virtues, is quite numbed and asleep. It is not lost, for the soul has a firm belief in what is held by the Church; but, though it can testify with the mouth, it seems in other respects to be oppressed and stupefied, and it feels as if it knows God only as something of which it has heard from afar off. So lukewarm does its love become that, if it hears Him spoken of, it listens, believing that He is Who He is, because this is held by the Church, but it retains no memory of its own experiences of Him. To go and say its prayers, or to be alone, only causes it greater anguish, for the inward torture which it feels, without knowing the source of it, is intolerable; and, in my opinion, bears some slight resemblance to hell. Indeed this is a fact, for the Lord revealed it to me in a vision: the soul is inwardly burning, without knowing who has kindled the fire, nor whence it comes, nor how to flee from it, nor with what to put it out. In vain does it seek a remedy in reading: it might as well be unable to read at all. Once I chanced to take up the Life of a saint, to see if I could become absorbed in the reading of it and find comfort in thinking of the saint's sufferings. But I read four or five lines as many times, and, though they were in Spanish, I understood less of them at the end than at the beginning; so I gave it up. This happened to me on many occasions but I have a particular recollection of that one.

To engage in conversation with anyone is worse still, for the devil then makes me so peevish and ill-tempered that I seem to want to snap everyone up. I cannot help this, but if I can keep myself in hand I feel I am doing something, or rather that the Lord is doing something when His hand restrains anyone in this condition from saying or doing anything which may harm his neighbour or offend God. Then again, it is certainly useless to go to one's confessor. I will tell you what often happened to me. Saintly as were those whom I was consulting at that time, and am consulting still, they would say such things to me, and reprove me with such asperity that, when I spoke to them about it later, they were astonished at it themselves but said that they had been unable to do otherwise. For, although they had previously made up their minds not to speak to me like this, and afterwards would be sorry they had done so, and even feel scruples about it because of these bodily and spiritual trials which I was suffering, the resolutions they had made to comfort me with words of compassion would fall to the ground.

The words they used were not wrong -- not offensive, I mean, to God -- but they were the strongest words of displeasure permissible in a confessor. Their aim must have been to mortify me, and, although at other times I delighted in mortification and was well able to bear it, it was now pure torture to me. Then, too, I used to think I was deceiving them, so I would go and warn them most earnestly to be on their guard against me in case I might be doing so. I knew quite well that I would not deceive them intentionally, or tell them a lie, but I was thoroughly afraid. One of them, realizing how I was being tempted, once told me not to be distressed, for, even if I tried to deceive him, he had discernment enough not to allow himself to be deceived.[240] This was a great comfort to me.

Sometimes -- almost habitually, indeed, or at least very frequently -- I would find relief after communicating. There were times, in fact, when the very act of approaching the Sacrament would at once make me feel so well, both in soul and in body, that I was astounded. I would feel as if all the darkness in my soul had suddenly been dispersed and the sun had come out and shown me the stupidity of the things I had been saying and doing. At other times, if the Lord spoke only one word to me (if, for example, as on the occasion I have already described, He said no more than "Be not troubled: have no fear"), that one word completely cured me, or, if I were to see some vision, it was as if there had been nothing wrong with me. I rejoiced in God and made my complaint to Him asking Him how He could allow me to suffer such tortures but telling Him that I was well rewarded for them, since when they were over, I almost invariably received favours in great abundance. My soul seemed to emerge from the crucible like gold, both brighter and purer, to find the Lord within it. So trials like these, unbearable as they may seem, eventually become light, and the soul becomes anxious to suffer again if by so doing it can render the Lord greater service. And, however numerous may be our troubles and persecutions, if we endure them without offending the Lord, but rejoice to suffer for His sake, they all work together for our greater gain -- though I do not myself bear them as they should be borne, but in a way which is most imperfect.

On other occasions these temptations came to me in another fashion, as they do still. At such times as these I seem to have been totally deprived of the possibility of thinking a single good thought or of desiring to put it into practice. My soul and body seem to be completely useless and merely a burden to me. But I do not then have these other temptations and discomforts: only a feeling of dissatisfaction -- with what, I do not know -- so that there is nothing in which my soul can take pleasure. I used to try to occupy myself with the outward performance of good works, and I would half force myself to do these, and I know well how little a soul can do when it is without grace. This did not cause me great distress, for I derived some satisfaction from realizing my own baseness. At other times I find myself unable to formulate a single definite thought, other than quite a fleeting one, about God, or about anything good, or to engage in prayer, even when I am alone; yet none the less I feel that I know Him.

It is the understanding and the imagination, I think, which are doing me harm here. My will, I believe, is good, and well-disposed to all good things; but this understanding is so depraved that it seems to be nothing but a raving lunatic -- no body can repress it and I have not myself sufficient control of it to keep it quiet for a moment. Sometimes I laugh at myself and realize what a miserable creature I am and then I keep an eye on my understanding and leave it alone to see what it will do; and for a wonder -- glory be to God! -- it never occupies itself with evil things, but only with indifferent ones, looking round for things to think about here, there and everywhere. I then become more conscious of the exceeding great favour which the Lord bestows on me when He keeps this lunatic bound and allows me to enjoy perfect contemplation. I sometimes reflect on what would happen if people who think of me as good were to see me in this condition of distraction. I am deeply grieved when I find that my soul is in such bad company. I want to see it free, so I say to the Lord: "When, my God, shall I at last see all the faculties of my soul united in Thy praise and having fruition of Thee? Permit my soul no longer, Lord, to be dispersed in fragments, with each fragment seeming to go its own way." This is an experience I often have, but sometimes I know quite well that my poor bodily health is having a great deal to do with it. I often think of the harm wrought in us by original sin; it is this, I believe, that has made us incapable of enjoying so much good all at once, and added to this are my own sins, for, had I not committed so many, I should have been more nearly perfect in goodness.

There was another great trial, too, which I suffered. I used to think I understood all the books dealing with prayer which I read, and that, as the Lord had bestowed this gift of prayer upon me, I no longer needed them. So I left off reading them and read only lives of saints, for, as I find myself falling so far short of the saints in the service which they rendered to God, such reading helps me and spurs me on to do better. Then it would occur to me that it showed a great lack of humility to suppose that I had received that gift of prayer, and, as I could not succeed in persuading myself of the contrary, I was greatly distressed, until learned men, and the blessed Fray Peter of Alcántara, told me not to let it trouble me. I realize perfectly that, although in granting me favours His Majesty treats me as He does many good people, I have not yet begun to serve Him, and that I am nothing but imperfection except in desire and love, with regard to which I know well the Lord has helped me so that I may render Him some service. I do really believe I love Him, but my actions and the many imperfections which I find in myself discourage me.

At other times my soul is troubled by what I should call a kind of foolishness: I seem to be doing neither good nor evil, but to be following the crowd, as they say, without experiencing either suffering or bliss. I care not whether I live or die, nor whether I experience pleasure or pain: I seem to feel nothing. The soul appears to me to be like a little ass, feeding and sustaining its life by means of the food which is given it and which it eats almost unconsciously. For the soul in this state cannot do otherwise than feed on some of God's great favours; it does not mind living this miserable life and bears its existence with equanimity, but it is quite unconscious of any motions or effects which might help it to understand its condition.

This, it now seems to me, is like sailing with a very calm wind: one makes great headway, but without knowing how, whereas in these other experiences the effects are so noticeable that the soul almost immediately becomes conscious of its improvement, for the desires begin at once to be aroused and the soul is never fully satisfied. This is the result of the violent impulses of love, which I have already mentioned, in those to whom God gives them. It reminds me of little springs which I have seen gushing up and which keep on incessantly stirring up the sand all around them. This, I think, is a very lifelike illustration or comparison to apply to souls which attain to this state. Love is continually bubbling up in them and thinking of the things it will do: it cannot remain where it is, just as the spring-water seems unable to remain in the earth, but issues forth from it. Just so, as a general rule, is it with the soul: such is the love it has that it can find no rest, nor can it contain itself, and it has already saturated the earth around. It would like others to drink of its love, since it has itself no lack of it, so that they might help it to praise God. Oh, how often do I remember the living water of which the Lord spoke to the woman of Samaria! I am so fond of that Gospel. I have loved it ever since I was quite a child -- though I did not, of course, understand it properly then, as I do now -- and I used often to beseech the Lord to give me that water. I had a picture of the Lord at the well, which hung where I could always see it, and bore the inscription: "Domine, da mihi aquam."[241]

This love is also like a great fire, which has always to be fed lest it should go out. Just so with the souls I am describing: cost them what it might, they would always want to be bringing wood, so that this fire should not die. For my own part, I am the sort of person who would be satisfied if she had even straw to throw upon it, and it is sometimes -- often, indeed -- like that with me. Now I am laughing; now I am greatly troubled. An inward impulse moves me to serve God in some way, but I am useless except for decking images with branches of trees and flowers, or for sweeping or tidying an oratory or doing other trifling things which I am ashamed of. If I did anything in the way of penance, it was all so insignificant that, unless the Lord would take the will for the deed, I realized how completely worthless it was and scoffed at my own self. It is no small trial, then, for souls to whom God in His goodness grants an abundance of this fire of His love, that they should lack bodily strength to enable them to do anything for Him. It is a very great grief; for, when a soul lacks the strength to throw any wood on this fire, and is frightened to death lest it should go out, I think it becomes consumed itself and turns into ashes, or melts into tears and is burned up; and this, though delectable, is severe torture.

Let the soul give great praise to the Lord when it has progressed as far as this, and when He has granted it bodily strength to enable it to do penance, or given it learning and talent and freedom to preach, hear confessions and bring souls to God. It has no knowledge or understanding of the blessing it possesses if it has not learned by experience what it is to be able to do nothing in the Lord's service and always to be receiving so much from Him. May He be blessed for all things and may the angels glorify Him. Amen.

I do not know if I am doing right to say so much about trifles. As Your Reverence has again sent me a message telling me not to mind writing at length and to omit nothing, I am continuing to give a true and clear description of everything that I remember. But I cannot help omitting a great deal, for otherwise I should have to devote much more time to this (and, as I said, I have so little time) without perhaps doing any good by it.

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