The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

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The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

Chapter 5

Continues to tell of the grievous infirmities which she suffered and of the patience given her by the Lord, and of how He brings good out of evil, as will be seen from an incident which happened to her in the place where she went for treatment.

I forgot to tell how, in the year of my novitiate, I suffered long periods of unrest about things which in themselves were of little importance. I was very often blamed when the fault was not mine. This I bore very imperfectly, and with great distress of mind, although I was able to endure it all because of my great satisfaction at being a nun. When they saw me endeavouring to be alone and sometimes weeping for my sins, they thought that I was discontented and said so. I was fond of everything to do with the religious life but I could not bear anything which seemed to make me ridiculous. I delighted in being thought well of; I was particular about everything I did; and all this I thought was a virtue, though that cannot serve me as an excuse, because I knew how to get pleasure for myself out of everything and so my wrongdoing cannot be excused by ignorance. Some excuse may be found in the imperfect organization of the convent. But I, in my wickedness, followed what I knew to be wrong and neglected what was good.

At that time there was a nun who was afflicted by a most serious and painful illness: she was suffering from open sores in the stomach, which had been caused by obstructions, and these forced her to reject all her food. Of this illness she soon died. I saw that all the nuns were afraid of it but for my own part I had only great envy of her patience. I begged God that He would send me any illness He pleased if only He would make me as patient as she. I do not think I was in the least afraid of being ill, for I was so anxious to win eternal blessings that I was resolved to win them by any means whatsoever. And I am surprised at this; for, although I had not then, I think, such love for God as I have had since I began to pray, I had light enough to realize how trivial is the value of all things that pass away and how great is the worth of blessings which can be gained by despising them, for these are eternal. Well, His Majesty heard my prayer; for, before two years had passed, I myself had an illness which, though not of the same kind, was, I think, no less painful and troublesome. And this I suffered for three years, as I shall now relate.

When the time had come which I was awaiting in the place where, as I said, I was staying with my sister before undergoing my treatment, I was taken away, with the greatest solicitude for my comfort, by my father and sister and that nun who was my friend and had accompanied me when I had first left the convent because she loved me so dearly. It was now that the devil began to unsettle my soul, although God turned this into a great blessing. There was a priest[83] who lived in the place where I had gone for the treatment: he was a man of really good family and great intelligence, and also of some learning, though not a great deal. I began to make my confessions to him, for I have always been attracted by learning, though confessors with only a little of it have done my soul great harm, and I have not always found men who had as much of it as I should have liked. I have discovered by experience that if they are virtuous and lead holy lives it is better they should have none at all than only a little; for then they do not trust themselves (nor would I myself trust them) unless they have first consulted those who are really learned; but a truly learned man has never led me astray. Not that these others can have meant to lead me astray: it is simply that they have known no better. I had supposed that they did and that my only obligation was to believe them, as they spoke to me in a very broad-minded way and gave me a great deal of freedom: if they had been strict, I am so wicked that I should have looked for others. What in reality was venial sin, they would tell me was no sin at all; and the most grievous of mortal sins was to them only venial. This did me such harm that it is not surprising if I speak of it here to warn others against so great an evil, for I see clearly that in God's sight I have no excuse; the fact that the things I did were themselves not good should have been sufficient to keep me from doing them. I believe God permitted these confessors to be mistaken and lead me astray because of my own sins. I myself led many others astray by repeating to them what had been told me. I continued in this state of blindness, I believe, for more than seventeen years, until a Dominican Father,[84] who was a very learned man, undeceived me about certain things, and the Fathers of the Company of Jesus[85] made me very much afraid about my whole position by representing to me the gravity of these unsound principles, as I shall explain later.

After I had begun to make my confessions to this priest of whom I am speaking, he took an extreme liking to me, for at that time I had little to confess by comparison with what I had later -- I had not really had much ever since I became a nun. There was nothing wrong in his affection for me, but it ceased to be good because there was too much of it. He realized that nothing whatever would induce me to commit any grave offence against God and he assured me that it was the same with him, and so we talked together a good deal. But at that time, full of love for God as I was, my greatest delight in conversation was to speak about Him; and, as I was such a child, this caused him confusion, and, out of the great affection that he had for me, he began to tell me about his unhappy condition. It was no small matter: for nearly seven years he had been in a most perilous state because of his affection for a woman in that very place, with whom he had had a good deal to do. Nevertheless, he continued saying Mass. The fact that he had lost his honour and his good name was quite well known, yet no one dared to reprove him for it. I was sorry for him because I liked him very much: at that time I was so frivolous and blind that I thought it a virtue to be grateful and loyal to anyone who liked me. Cursed be such loyalty when it goes so far that it militates against loyalty to God! This is a bewildering folly common in the world and it certainly bewilders me. For we owe to God all the good that men show us, yet we consider it a virtue not to break off friendships with men even if they cause us to act contrarily to His will. O blindness of the world! May it please Thee, Lord, that I may be completely lacking in gratitude to the whole world provided that in no respect I lack gratitude to Thee. But exactly the reverse has been true of me, because of my sins.

I got to know more about this priest by making enquiries of members of his household. I then realized what great trouble the poor man had got himself into and found that it was not altogether his own fault. For the unhappy woman had cast a spell over him, giving him a little copper figure and begging him, for love of her, to wear it round his neck, and no one had been able to persuade him to take it off. Now, with regard to this particular incident of the spell, I do not believe there is the least truth in it. But I will relate what I saw, in order to warn men to be on their guard against women who try to do such things to them. Let them be sure that, if women (who are more bound to lead chaste lives even than men) lose all shame in the sight of God, there is nothing whatever in which they can be trusted. In order to obtain the pleasure of following their own will and an affection inspired in them by the devil, they will stop at nothing. Wicked as I have been, I have never fallen into any sin of this kind, nor have I ever tried to do wrong in this way; and, even if I could have done so, I should never have wanted to force anyone's affection in my favour, for the Lord has kept me from this. If He had forsaken me, however, I should have done wrong in this respect, as I have done in others, for I am in no way to be trusted.

When I heard about this spell I began to show the priest greater affection. My intentions here were good, but my action was wrong, for one must never do the smallest thing that is wrong in order to do good, however great. As a rule, I used to speak to him about God. This must have done something to help him, although I believe his liking for me did more; for, in order to please me, he gave me the little figure, which I at once got someone to throw into a river. When he had done this, he became like a man awakening from a deep sleep and he began to recall everything that he had been doing during those years. He was amazed at himself and grieved at his lost condition and he began to hate the woman who had led him to it. Our Lady must have been a great help to him, for he was most devoted to her Conception and he used to keep the day commemorating it as a great festival. In the end, he gave up seeing the woman, and never wearied of giving thanks to God for having granted him light. Exactly a year from the day when I first saw him he died. He had been active in God's service and I never thought there was anything wrong in the great affection that he had for me, although it might have been purer. There were also occasions when, if he had not had recourse to the presence of God, he might have committed the gravest offenses. As I have said, I would not at that time have done anything which I believed to be a mortal sin. And I think his realization that that was so increased his affection for me; for I believe all men must have greater affection for women when they see them inclined to virtue. Even in order to obtain their earthly desires, women can get more from men in this way, as I shall explain later. I am convinced that that priest is in the way of salvation. He died very devoutly and completely delivered from that occasion of sin. It seems that the Lord's will was that he should be saved by these means.

I remained in that place for three months, suffering the greatest trials, for the treatment was more drastic than my constitution could stand. At the end of two months, the severity of the remedies had almost ended my life, and the pain in my heart, which I had gone there to get treated, was much worse; sometimes I felt as if sharp teeth had hold of me, and so severe was the pain they caused that it was feared I was going mad. My strength suffered a grave decline, for I could take nothing but liquid, had a great distaste for food, was in a continual fever, and became so wasted away that, after they had given me purgatives daily for almost a month, I was, as it were, so shrivelled up that my nerves began to shrink. These symptoms were accompanied by intolerable pain which gave me no rest by night or by day. Altogether I was in a state of great misery.

Seeing that I had gained nothing here, my father took me away and once again called in the doctors. They all gave me up, saying that, quite apart from everything else, I was consumptive. This troubled me very little: it was the pains that distressed me, for they racked me from head to foot and never ceased. Nervous pains, as the doctors said, are intolerable, and, as all my nerves had shrunk, this would indeed have been terrible torture if it had not all been due to my own fault. I could not have been in this serious state for more than three months: it seemed impossible that so many ills could all be endured at the same time. I am astonished at myself now and consider the patience which His Majesty gave me to have been a great favour from the Lord, for, as could clearly be seen, it was from Him that it came. It was a great help to my patience that I had read the story of Job in the Morals of St. Gregory,[86] for the Lord seems to have used this for preparing me to suffer. It was also a help that I had begun the practice of prayer, so that I could bear everything with great resignation. All my conversation was with God. I had continually in mind these words of Job, which I used to repeat: Since we have received good things at the hand of the Lord, why shall we not suffer evil things?[87] This seemed to give me strength.

And now the August festival of Our Lady came round: I had been in torment ever since April, though the last three months were the worst. I hastened to go to confession, for I was always very fond of frequent confession. They thought that this was due to fear of death, and, in order that I should not be distressed, my father forbade me to go. Oh, what an excess of human love! Though my father was so good a Catholic and so wise -- for he was extremely wise and so was not acting through ignorance -- he might have done me great harm. That night I had a fit, which left me unconscious for nearly four days.[88] During that time they gave me the Sacrament of Unction, and from hour to hour, from moment to moment, thought I was dying; they did nothing but repeat the Creed to me, as though I could have understood any of it. There must have been times when they were sure I was dead, for afterwards I actually found some wax on my eyelids.

My father was in great distress because he had not allowed me to go to confession. Many cries and prayers were made for me to God. Blessed be He Who was pleased to hear them! For a day and a half there was an open grave in my convent, where they were awaiting my body, and in one of the monasteries of our Order, some way from here, they had performed the rites for the dead. But it pleased the Lord that I should return to consciousness. I wished at once to go to confession. I communicated with many tears; but they were not, I think, tears of sorrow and distress due only to my having offended God, which might have sufficed to save me, if there had not been sufficient excuse for me in the way I was misled by those who had told me that certain things were not mortal sins which I have since seen clearly were so. My sufferings were so intolerable that I hardly had the power to think, though I believe my confession was complete as to all the ways in which I was conscious of having offended God. There is one grace, among others, which His Majesty has granted me: never since I began to communicate have I failed to confess anything which I thought to be a sin, even if only a venial one. But I think that without doubt, if I had died then, my salvation would have been very uncertain, because my confessors, on the one hand, were so unlearned, and because I, on the other, was so wicked, and for many other reasons.

The fact is, when I come to this point, and realize how the Lord seems to have raised me from the dead I am so amazed that inwardly I am almost trembling. It would be well, O my soul, if thou wouldst look at the danger from which the Lord has delivered thee, so that if thou didst not cease to offend Him through love, thou shouldst do so through fear. He might have slain thee on any of a thousand other occasions and in a more perilous state still. I do not believe I am straying far from the truth when I say "a thousand", though I may be reproved by him who has commanded me to be temperate in recounting my sins, which I have presented in a light only too favourable. I beg him, for the love of God, to excuse none of my faults, for they only reveal the magnificence of God and His long-suffering to the soul. May He be blessed for ever. And may it please His Majesty that I be utterly consumed rather than cease to love Him.

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