The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

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The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

Chapter 2

Describes how these virtues were gradually lost and how important it is in childhood to associate with people of virtue.

What I shall now describe was, I think something which began to do me great harm. I sometimes reflect how wrong it is of parents not to contrive that their children shall always, and in every way, see things which are good. My mother, as I have said, was very good herself, but, when I came to the age of reason, I copied her goodness very little, in fact hardly at all, and evil things did me a great deal of harm. She was fond of books of chivalry; and this pastime had not the ill effects on her that is had on me, because she never allowed them to interfere with her work. But we were always trying to make time to read them; and she permitted this, perhaps in order to stop herself from thinking of the great trials she suffered, and to keep her children occupied so that in other respects they should not go astray. This annoyed my father so much that we had to be careful lest he should see us reading these books. For myself, I began to make a habit of it, and this little fault which I saw in my mother began to cool my good desires and lead me to other kinds of wrongdoing. I thought there was nothing wrong in my wasting many hours, by day and by night, in this useless occupation, even though I had to hide it from my father. So excessively was I absorbed in it that I believe, unless I had a new book, I was never happy.

I began to deck myself out and to try to attract others by my appearance, taking great trouble with my hands and hair, using perfumes and all the vanities I could get -- and there were a good many of them, for I was very fastidious. There was nothing wrong with my intentions, for I should never have wanted anyone to offend God because of me. This great and excessive fastidiousness about personal appearance, together with other practices which I thought were in no way sinful, lasted for many years: I see now how wrong they must have been. I had some cousins, who were the only people allowed to enter my father's house:[66] he was very careful about this and I wish to God that he had been careful about my cousins too. For I now see the danger of intercourse, at an age when the virtues should be beginning to grow, with persons who, though ignorant of worldly vanity, arouse a desire for the world in others. These cousins were almost exactly of my own age or a little older than I. We always went about together; they were very fond of me; and I would keep our conversation on things that amused them and listen to the stories they told about their childish escapades and crazes, which were anything but edifying. What was worse, my soul began to incline to the thing that was the cause of all its trouble.

If I had to advise parents, I should tell them to take great care about the people with whom their children associate at such an age. Much harm may result from bad company and we are inclined by nature to follow what is worse rather than what is better. This was the case with me: I had a sister much older than myself,[67] from whom, though she was very good and chaste, I learned nothing, whereas from a relative whom we often had in the house I learned every kind of evil. This person was so frivolous in her conversation that my mother had tried very hard to prevent her from coming to the house, realizing what harm she might do me, but there were so many reasons for her coming that she was powerless. I became very fond of meeting this woman. I talked and gossiped with her frequently; she joined me in all my favourite pastimes; and she also introduced me to other pastimes and talked to me about all her conversations and vanities. Until I knew her (this was when I was about fourteen or perhaps more: by knowing her I mean becoming friendly with her and receiving her confidences) I do not think I had ever forsaken God by committing any mortal sin, or lost my fear of God, though I was much more concerned about my honour.[68] This last fear was strong enough to prevent me from forfeiting my honour altogether, and I cannot think that I would have acted differently about this for anything in the world; nor was there anyone in the world whom I loved enough to forfeit my honour for. So I might have had the strength not to sin against the honour of God, as my natural inclination led me not to go astray in anything which I thought concerned worldly honour, and I did not realize that I was forfeiting my honour in many other ways.

I went to great extremes in my vain anxiety about this, though I took not the slightest trouble about what I must do to live a truly honourable life. All that I was seriously concerned about was that I should not be lost altogether. My father and sister were very sorry about this friendship of mine and often reproved me for it. But, as they could not prevent my friend from coming to the house, their efforts were of no avail, for when it came to doing anything wrong I was very clever. I am sometimes astonished at the harm which can be caused by bad company; if I had not experienced it I could not believe it. This is especially so when one is young, for it is then that the evil done is greatest. I wish parents would be warned by me and consider this very carefully. The result of my intercourse with this woman was to change me so much that I lost nearly all my soul's natural inclination to virtue, and was greatly influenced by her, and by another person who indulged in the same kinds of pastime.

From this I have learned what great advantage comes from good companionship; and I am sure that if at that age I had been friendly with good people I should have remained sound in virtue. For, if at that time I had had anyone to teach me to fear God, my soul would have grown strong enough not to fall. Later, when the fear of God had entirely left me, I retained only this concern about my honour, which was a torture to me in everything that I did. When I thought that nobody would ever know, I was rash enough to do many things which were an offence both to my honour and to God.

At first, I believe, these things did me harm. The fault, I think, was not my friend's but my own. For subsequently my own wickedness sufficed to lead me into sin, together with the servants we had, whom I found quite ready to encourage me in all kinds of wrongdoing. Perhaps, if any of them had given me good advice, I might have profited by it; but they were as much blinded by their own interests as I was by desire. And yet I never felt the inclination to do much that was wrong, for I had a natural detestation of everything immodest and preferred passing the time in good company. But, if an occasion of sin presented itself, the danger would be at hand and I should be exposing my father and brothers to it. From all this God delivered me, in such a way that, even against my own will, He seems to have contrived that I should not be lost, though this was not to come about so secretly as to prevent me from gravely damaging my reputation and arousing suspicions in my father. I could hardly have been following these vanities for three months when I was taken to a convent in the place where I lived,[69] in which children like myself, though less depraved in their habits than I, were being educated. The reason for this was so carefully concealed that only one or two of my relatives and myself were aware of it. They had waited for an occasion to arise naturally; and now, as my sister had married, and I had no mother, I should have been alone in the house if I had not gone there, which would not have been fitting.

So excessive was my father's love for me, and so complete was the deception which I practised on him, that he could never believe all the ill of me that I deserved and thus I never fell into disgrace with him. It had not been going on for long; and, although they had some idea of what I had been doing, nothing could have been said about it with any certainty. As I had such concern for my good name,[70] I had made the greatest efforts to keep it all secret, and I had not considered that it could not be kept secret from Him Who sees all things. O my God, what harm is done in the world by forgetfulness of this and by the belief that anything can be kept secret which is done against Thee! I am sure that much wrongdoing would be avoided if we realized that our business is to be on our guard, not against men, but against displeasing Thee.

For the first week I suffered a great deal, though not so much from being in a convent as from the suspicion that everyone knew about my vanity. For I had already become tired of the life I had been leading; and even when I offended God I never ceased to be sorely afraid of Him and I tried to make my confessions as soon as possible after falling into sin. At first I was very restless; but within a week, perhaps even earlier, I was much happier than I had been in my father's house. All the nuns were pleased with me; for the Lord had given me grace, wherever I was, to please people, and so I became a great favourite. Although at that time I had the greatest possible aversion from being a nun, I was very pleased to see nuns who were so good; for in that house they were all very good -- completely blameless in their lives, devoted to their Rule and prudent in their behaviour. Yet in spite of this the devil did not cease tempting me and my friends outside tried to unsettle me by sending me messages. As that was not allowed, it soon came to an end, and my soul then began to return to the good habits of my earlier childhood and I realized what a great favour God does to those whom He places in the company of good people. It seems as if His Majesty was trying and trying again to find a way of bringing me back to Himself. Blessed be Thou, Lord, Who for so long hast suffered me! Amen.

If my faults had not been so numerous, there is one thing which I think might have served as an excuse for them: that my intimacy with this person was of such a kind that I thought it might end satisfactorily on her marriage;[71] and both my confessor and other persons told me that in many respects I was not offending God. There was a nun who slept with those of us who were seculars and it was through her that the Lord seems to have been pleased to begin to give me light, as I shall now explain.

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