The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

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The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

Chapter 7

Describes how she began to lose the favours which the Lord had granted her and how evil her life became. Treats of the harm that comes to convents from laxity in the observance of the rule of enclosure.

I began, then, to indulge in one pastime after another, in one vanity after another and in one occasion of sin after another. Into so many and such grave occasions of sin did I fall, and so far was my soul led astray by all these vanities, that I was ashamed to return to God and to approach Him in the intimate friendship which comes from prayer. This shame was increased by the fact that, as my sins grew in number, I began to lose the pleasure and joy which I had been deriving from virtuous things. I saw very clearly, my Lord, that this was failing me because I was failing Thee. The devil, beneath the guise of humility, now led me into the greatest of all possible errors. Seeing that I was so utterly lost, I began to be afraid to pray. It seemed to me better, since in my wickedness I was one of the worst people alive, to live like everyone else; to recite, vocally, the prayers that I was bound to say; and not to practise mental prayer or hold so much converse with God, since I deserved to be with the devils, and, by presenting an outward appearance of goodness, was only deceiving others. No blame for this is to be attributed to the house in which I lived, for I was clever enough to see to it that the nuns had a good opinion of me, though I did not do so deliberately, by pretending to be a good Christian, for in the matter of vainglory and hypocrisy -- glory be to God! -- I do not remember having even once offended Him, so far as I am aware. For if ever I perceived within myself the first motions of such a thing, it distressed me so much that the devil would depart confounded and I would be all the better for it; so he has very seldom tempted me much in this way. Perhaps, if God had permitted me to be tempted as severely in this respect as in others, I should have fallen here too, but so far His Majesty has kept me from this. May He be for ever blessed. In reality, therefore, I was very much troubled that they should have such a good opinion of me, as I knew what sort of person I was inwardly

This belief which they had that I was not so wicked was the result of their seeing me, young though I was and exposed to so many occasions of sin, withdrawing myself frequently into solitude, saying my prayers, reading a great deal, speaking about God, liking to have pictures of Him in a great many places, wanting an oratory of my own, trying to get objects of devotion for it, refraining from evil-speaking and doing other things of that kind which gave me the appearance of being virtuous. I myself was vain and liked to be well thought of in the things wont to be esteemed by the world. On account of this they gave me as much liberty as is given to the oldest nuns, and even more, and they had great confidence in me. For I did no such things as taking liberties for myself or doing anything without leave -- such as talking to people through crevices or over walls or by night -- and I do not think I could ever have brought myself to talk in such a way with anyone in the convent, for the Lord held me by His hand. It seemed to me -- for there were many things which I used to ponder deliberately and with great care -- that it would be very wrong of me to compromise the good name of so many of the sisters when I was wicked and they were good: just as though all the other things that I did had been good! In truth, though I often acted very wrongly, my faults were never so much the result of a set purpose as those others would have been.

For that reason, I think it was a very bad thing for me not to be in a convent that was enclosed. The freedom which the sisters, who were good, might enjoy without becoming less so (for they were not obliged to live more strictly than they did as they had not taken a vow of enclosure) would certainly have led me, who am wicked, down to hell, had not the Lord, through very special favours, using means and remedies which are all His own, delivered me from this peril. It seems to me, then, that it is a very great danger for women in a convent to have such freedom: for those who want to be wicked it is not so much a remedy for their weaknesses as a step on the way to hell. But this is not to be applied to my convent, where there are so many who serve the Lord in very truth and with great perfection, so that His Majesty, in His goodness, cannot fail to help them. Nor is it one of those which are completely open, for all religious observances are kept in it: I am comparing it now with others which I know and have seen.

This seems to me, as I say, a great pity; for, when a convent follows standards and allows recreations which belong to the world, and the obligations of the nuns are so ill understood, the Lord has perforce to call each of them individually, and not once but many times, if they are to be saved. God grant that they may not all mistake sin for virtue, as I so often did! It is very difficult to make people see this and the Lord must needs take the matter right into His own hands. Parents seem to give little thought to the placing of their daughters where they may walk in the way of salvation, but allow them to run into more danger than they would in the world; nevertheless, if they will follow my advice, they will at least consider what concerns their honour. Let them be prepared to allow them to marry far beneath their stations rather than put them into convents of this kind, unless they are very devoutly inclined -- and God grant that their inclinations may lead them into what is good! Otherwise they will do better to keep them at home; for there, if they want to be wicked, they cannot long hide their wickedness, whereas in convents it can be hidden for a very long time indeed, until, in the end, it is revealed by the Lord. They do harm not only to themselves but to everybody else; and at times the poor creatures are really not to blame, for they only do what they find others doing. Many of them are to be pitied: they wish to escape from the world, and, thinking that they are going to serve the Lord and flee from the world and its perils, they find themselves in ten worlds at once, and have no idea where to turn or how to get out of their difficulties. Youth, sensuality and the devil invite and incline them to do things which are completely worldly; and they see that these things are considered, as one might say, "all right". To me, in some ways, they resemble those unhappy heretics, who wilfully blind themselves and proclaim that what they do is good; and believe it to be so, yet without real confidence, for there is something within them which tells them they are doing wrong.

Oh, what terrible harm, what terrible harm is wrought in religious (I am referring now as much to men as to women) when the religious life is not properly observed; when of the two paths that can be followed in a religious house -- one leading to virtue and the observance of the Rule and the other leading away from the Rule -- both are frequented almost equally! No, I am wrong: they are not frequented equally, for our sins cause the more imperfect road to be more commonly taken; being the broader, it is the more generally favoured. The way of true religion is frequented so little that, if the friar and the nun are to begin to follow their vocation truly, they need to be more afraid of the religious in their own house than of all the devils. They must observe greater caution and dissimulation when speaking of the friendship which they would have with God than in speaking of other friendships and affections promoted in religious houses by the devil. I cannot think why we should be astonished at all the evils which exist in the Church, when those who ought to be models on which all may pattern their virtues are annulling the work wrought in the religious Orders by the spirit of the saints of old. May His Divine Majesty be pleased to find a remedy for this, as He sees needful. Amen.

Now when I began to indulge in these conversations, I did not think, seeing them to be so usual, that they would cause the harm and distraction to my soul which I found would be the case later. For I thought that, as in many convents it is such a common practice to receive visitors, I should take no more harm from it than would others whom I knew to be good. I did not realize that they were far better than I and that what was dangerous for me would not be so dangerous for others. Yet I have no doubt that the practice is never quite free from danger, if only because it is a waste of time. I was once in the company of a certain person, right at the beginning of my acquaintance with her, when the Lord was pleased to make me realize that these friendships were not good for me, and to warn me and enlighten my great blindness. Christ revealed Himself to me, in an attitude of great sternness, and showed me what there was in this that displeased Him.[94] I saw Him with the eyes of the soul more clearly than I could ever have seen Him with those of the body; and it made such an impression upon me that, although it is now more than twenty-six years ago, I seem to have Him present with me still. I was greatly astonished and upset about it and I never wanted to see that person again.

It did me great harm not to know that it was possible to see anything otherwise than with the eyes of the body. It was the devil who encouraged me in this ignorance and made me think that anything else was impossible. He led me to believe that I had imagined it all, and that it might have been the work of the devil, and other things of that kind. I always had an idea that it was not due to my fancy but came from God. However, just because the vision did not please me, I forced myself to give the lie to my own instinct; and, as I dared not discuss it with anyone, and after a time great importunity was brought to bear on me, I entered into relations with that person once again. I was assured that there was no harm in my seeing such a person, and that by doing so I should not injure my good name[95] but rather enhance it. On subsequent occasions I got to know other people in the same way; and I spent many years in this pestilential pastime, which, whenever I was engaged in it, never seemed to me as bad as it really was, though sometimes I saw clearly that it was not good. But no one caused me as much distraction as did the person of whom I am speaking, for I was very fond of her.

On another occasion, when I was with that same person, we saw coming towards us -- and others who were there saw this too -- something like a great toad, but crawling much more quickly than toads are wont to do. I cannot imagine how such a reptile could have come from the place in question in broad daylight; it had never happened before, and the incident made such an impression on me that I think it must have had a hidden meaning, and I have never forgotten this either. O greatness of God! With what care and compassion didst Thou warn me in every way and how little did I profit by Thy warnings!

There was a nun in that convent, who was a relative of mine; she had been there a long time and was a great servant of God and devoted to the Rule of her Order. She, too, occasionally warned me; and not only did I disbelieve her but I was displeased with her, for I thought she was shocked without cause. I have mentioned this in order to make clear my wickedness and the great goodness of God and to show how by this great ingratitude of mine I had merited hell. I also mention it in order that, if it is the Lord's will and pleasure that it shall be read at any time by a nun, she may be warned by me. I beg all nuns, for the love of Our Lord, to flee from such pastimes as these. May His Majesty grant that some of those whom I have led astray may be set in the right path by me; I used to tell them that there was nothing wrong in this practice, and, blind that I was, reassure them about what was in reality a great danger. I would never have deliberately deceived them; but, through the bad example that I set them, as I have said, I was the cause of a great deal of wrongdoing without ever thinking I could be.

In those early days, during my illness, and before I knew how to take care of myself, I used to have the greatest desire to be of use to others. This is a very common temptation in beginners; in my case, however, its effects were good. I was so fond of my father that I longed for him to experience the benefit which I seemed to be deriving from the practice of prayer myself, for I thought that in this life there could be nothing greater. So by indirect methods, and to the best of my ability, I began to try to get him to practise it. To this end I gave him books to read. Being very virtuous, as I have said he was, he took so well to this exercise that in five or six years (I think it must have been[96]) he had made such progress that I praised the Lord greatly and was wonderfully encouraged. He had to bear the severest trials of many different kinds and he bore them with the greatest resignation. He often came to see me, for he derived great comfort from speaking of the things of God.

But now that I had fallen away so far, and no longer practised prayer, I could not bear him to think, as I saw he did, that I was still just as I used to be; so I had to undeceive him. For I had been a year or more without praying, thinking that to refrain from prayer was a sign of greater humility. This, as I shall afterwards explain, was the greatest temptation I had: it nearly brought about my ruin. For during the time I practised prayer, if I had offended God one day, I would recollect myself on the following days and withdraw farther from occasions of sin. When that dear good man came to visit me, it was very hard for me to see him under the false impression that I was still communing with God as I had been doing before. So I told him that I was no longer praying, without telling him the reason. I made my illnesses an excuse; for, though I had recovered from that very serious illness, I have suffered ever since from indispositions, and sometimes from grave ones, even to this day. For some time my complaints have been less troublesome, but they have by no means left me. In particular, for twenty years I suffered from morning sickness, so that I was not able to break my fast until after midday -- sometimes not until much later. Now that I go oftener to Communion, I have to bring on the sickness at night, with feathers or in some other way, before I go to bed, which is much more distressing; but if I let it take its course I feel much worse. I think I can hardly ever be free from aches and pains, and sometimes very serious ones, especially in the heart, although the trouble which I once had continually now occurs only rarely, and I have been free for quite eight years from the paralysis and the feverish complaints from which I used often to suffer. Of these troubles I now make such little account that I often rejoice in them, thinking that to some extent they are pleasing to the Lord.

My father believed me when I told him that it was because of my health that I had ceased to pray, since he never told a lie himself, and, in view of the relations between us, there was no reason why I should have done so either. I told him, in order to make my story the more credible (for I well knew that I had no such excuse really), that it was as much as I could do to attend the choir offices. Not that this would be any sufficient reason for giving up something which needs no bodily strength, but only love and the formation of a habit; and the Lord always gives us an opportunity if we want one. I say always; for, though there may be times when we are prevented by various hindrances, and even by illness, from spending much time alone, there are plenty of others when we are in sufficiently good health to do so. And even despite illness, or other hindrances, we can still engage in true prayer, when there is love in the soul, by offering up that very impediment, remembering Him for Whom we suffer it and being resigned to it and to a thousand other things which may happen to us. It is here that love comes in; for we are not necessarily praying when we are alone, nor need we refrain from praying when we are not.

With a little care, great blessings can be acquired at times when the Lord deprives us of our hours of prayer by sending us trials; and this I had myself found to be the case when my conscience had been good. But my father, holding the opinion of me that he did and loving me as he did, believed everything I told him and in fact was sorry for me. As he had now reached such a high state of prayer he used not to stay with me for so long, but after he had seen me would go away, saying that he was wasting his time. As I was wasting mine on other vanities, this remark made little impression upon me. There were other persons, as well as my father, whom I tried to lead into the practice of prayer. Indulging in vanities myself though I was, when I saw people who were fond of saying their prayers, I would show them how to make a meditation and help them and give them books; for ever since I began to pray, as I have said, I had this desire that others should serve God. And now that I was no longer serving the Lord according to my ability, I thought that the knowledge which His Majesty had given me ought not to be lost and wanted others to learn to serve Him through me. I say this in order to show how great was my blindness, which allowed me to do such harm to myself and yet to try to be of profit to others.

It was at this time that my father was stricken by the illness of which he died. It lasted for some days. I went to look after him, more afflicted in soul than he in body, on account of my vanities, though, as far as I was aware, I was never in mortal sin during the whole of this wasted time of which I am speaking: if I had known myself to be so I would on no account have continued in it. I was greatly distressed by his illness and I believe I was able to return him some part of all he had done for me when I was ill myself. Distressed as I was, I forced myself into activity; and though in losing him I lost my greatest blessing and comfort, for he was always that to me, I was so determined not to let him see my grief for as long as he lived that I behaved as if I felt no grief at all. Yet so dearly did I love him that, when I saw his life was ending, I felt as if my very soul were being torn from me.

The Lord must be praised for the death which he died, for his desire to die, for the advice which he gave us after receiving Extreme Unction, and for the way he charged us to commend him to God, to pray for mercy upon him and to serve God always, remembering how all things come to an end. He told us with tears how deeply grieved he was that he had not served God better: he would have liked to be a friar -- and by that I mean to have joined one of the strictest Orders in existence. I am quite sure that a fortnight before his death the Lord had made him realize that he would not live much longer; for down to that time, ill though he was, he had not believed he would die. But during that last fortnight, though he got much better and the doctors told him so, he took no notice of them but occupied himself in putting his soul right with God.

His chief ailment was a most acute pain in the back, which never left him: at times it was so severe that it caused him great anguish. I said to him that, as he used to think so devoutly of the Lord carrying the Cross on His back, he must suppose His Majesty wished him to feel something of what He Himself had suffered under that trial. This comforted him so much that I do not think I ever heard him complain again. For three days he was practically unconscious; but, on the day of his death, the Lord restored his consciousness so completely that we were astonished, and he remained conscious until, half-way through the Creed, which he was repeating to himself, he died. He looked like an angel; and so he seemed to me, as one might say, both in his soul and in his disposition, for he was very good. I do not know why I have said this, unless it be to blame myself the more for my wicked life; for, after witnessing such a death and realizing what his life had been, I ought to have tried to do something to resemble such a father by growing better. His confessor, who was a Dominican[97] and a very learned man, used to say that he had not the least doubt he had gone straight to Heaven; he had been his confessor for some years and spoke highly of his purity of conscience.

This Dominican father, who was a very good man and had a great fear of God, was of the very greatest help to me. I made my confessions to him and he took great pains to lead my soul aright and make me realize how near I was to perdition. He made me communicate once a fortnight; and gradually, as I got to know him, I began to tell him about my prayers. He told me never to leave these off, for they could not possibly do me anything but good. So I began to take them up once more (though I did not flee from occasions of sin) and I never again abandoned them. My life became full of trials, because by means of prayer I learned more and more about my faults. On the one hand, God was calling me. On the other, I was following the world. All the things of God gave me great pleasure, yet I was tied and bound to those of the world. It seemed as if I wanted to reconcile these two contradictory things, so completely opposed to one another -- the life of the spirit and the pleasures and joys and pastimes of the senses. I suffered great trials in prayer, for the spirit was not master in me, but slave. I could not, therefore, shut myself up within myself (the procedure in which consisted my whole method of prayer) without at the same time shutting in a thousand vanities. I spent many years in this way, and now I am amazed that a person could have gone on for so long without giving up either the one or the other. I know quite well that by that time it was no longer in my power to give up prayer, because He who desired me for His own in order to show me greater favours held me Himself in His hand.

Oh, God help me! If only I could describe the occasions of sin during these years from which God delivered me, and tell how I plunged into them again and how He continually saved me from the danger of losing my entire reputation! I would show by my actions the kind of person I was; yet the Lord would hide the wrongs I did and reveal some small virtue, if I had any, and magnify it in the eyes of all, so that people invariably had a high opinion of me. For, although my vanities were sometimes crystal-clear, they would not believe them to be such when they observed other things in me which they considered good. This happened because He Who knows all things saw it to be necessary, in order that hereafter I might be given some credence when speaking of things that concern His service. His sovereign bounty regarded not my great sins but the desires which I so often had to serve Him and my grief at not having in myself the strength to turn the desires into actions.

O Lord of my soul! How can I magnify the favours which Thou didst bestow upon me during these years? And how, at the very time when I was offending Thee most sorely, didst Thou suddenly prepare me, by the deepest repentance, to taste Thy favours and graces! In truth, my King, Thou didst choose the most delicate and grievous chastisement that I could possibly have to bear, for well didst Thou know what would cause me the greatest pain. Thou didst chastise my faults with great favours. And I do not believe I am speaking foolishly, though well might I become distraught when I recall to mind my ingratitude and wickedness. In the condition I was in at that time, it was much more painful for me, when I had fallen into grievous faults, to be given favours, than to be given punishments. A single one of these faults, I feel sure, troubled and confounded and distressed me more than many sicknesses and many other grievous trials all put together. For these last I knew that I deserved and thought that by them I was making some amends for my sins, although my sins were so numerous that everything I could do was very little. But when I find myself receiving new favours, after making so poor a return for those I have received already, I experience a kind of torture which is terrible to me, as I think it must be to all who have any knowledge or love of God. We can deduce our own unworthiness by imagining a state of real virtue. This accounts for my tears and vexation when I took stock of my own feelings, and realized that I was in such a state as to be on the point of falling again and again, though my resolutions and desires -- at that time, I mean -- were quite steadfast.

It is a great evil for a soul beset by so many dangers to be alone. I believe, if I had had anyone with whom to discuss all this, it would have helped me not to fall again, if only because I should have been ashamed in his sight, which I was not in the sight of God. For this reason I would advise those who practise prayer, especially at first, to cultivate friendship and intercourse with others of similar interests. This is a most important thing, if only because we can help each other by our prayers, and it is all the more so because it may bring us many other benefits. Since people can find comfort in the conversation and human sympathy of ordinary friendships, even when these are not altogether good, I do not know why anyone who is beginning to love and serve God in earnest should not be allowed to discuss his joys and trials with others -- and people who practise prayer have plenty of both. For, if the friendship which such a person desires to have with His Majesty is true friendship, he need not be afraid of becoming vainglorious: as soon as the first motion of vainglory attacks him, he will repel it, and, in doing so, gain merit. I believe that anyone who discusses the subject with this in mind will profit both himself and his hearers, and will be all the wiser for it; and, without realizing he is doing so, will edify his friends.

Anyone who could become vainglorious through discussing these matters would become equally so by hearing Mass with devotion in a place where people can see him, and by doing other things which he is obliged to do under pain of being no Christian at all: he cannot possibly refrain from doing these through fear of vainglory. This is also most important for souls which are not strengthened in virtue; they have so many enemies and friends to incite them to do what is wrong that I cannot insist upon it sufficiently. It seems to me that this scruple is an invention of the devil, who finds it extremely valuable. He uses it to persuade those who are anxious to try to love and please God to hide their good desires, while inciting others, whose wills are evilly inclined, to reveal their wrong intentions. This happens so frequently that people now seem to glory in it and the offences committed in this way against God are published openly.

I do not know if the things I am saving are nonsense: if so, Your Reverence must erase them; if not, I beg you to help my simplicity by adding to them freely. For people trouble so little about things pertaining to the service of God that we must all back each other up[98] if those of us who serve Him are to make progress. People think it a good thing to follow the pleasures and vanities of the world and there are few who look askance at these; but if a single person begins to devote himself to God, there are so many to speak ill of him that self-defence compels him to seek the companionship of others until he is strong enough not to be depressed by suffering. Unless he does this he will find himself in continual difficulties. It must have been for this reason, I think, that some of the saints were in the habit of going into the desert. It is a kind of humility for a man not to trust himself but to believe that God will help him in dealing with those with whom he has intercourse. Charity grows when it is communicated to others and from this there result a thousand blessings. I should not dare to say this if I had not had a great deal of experience of its importance. It is true that of all who are born I am the weakest and wickedest; but I believe that anyone, however strong, who humbles himself and trusts not in himself but in someone who has experience, will lose nothing. As regards myself, I can say that, if the Lord had not revealed this truth to me and given me the means of speaking very frequently with people who practise prayer, I should have gone on rising and falling again until I fell right into hell. For I had many friends who helped me to fall; but, when it came to rising again, I found myself so completely alone that I marvel now that I did not remain where I was, and I praise the mercy of God, Who alone gave me His hand. May He be blessed for ever. Amen.

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