Introduction to the works of St. Teresa

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The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

General introduction to the works of St. Teresa

Nearly four centuries have passed since St. Teresa began to write, and, both in her own country and abroad, her fame is still widespread and still growing. Her purely human qualities and gifts, the saintliness of her life by which they were illumined and overshadowed, the naturalness and candour of her manner and style -- these are some of the reasons why her name is not only graven upon the enduring marble of history but taken on the lips of generation after generation with reverence and love.

She is a mystic -- and more than a mystic. Her works, it is true, are well known in the cloister and have served as nourishment to many who are far advanced on the Way of Perfection, and who, without her aid, would still be beginners in the life of prayer. Yet they have also entered the homes of millions living in the world and have brought consolation, assurance, hope and strength to souls who, in the technical sense, know nothing of the life of contemplation. Devoting herself as she did, with the most wonderful persistence and tenacity, to the sublimest task given to man -- the attempt to guide others toward perfection -- she succeeded so well in that task that she is respected everywhere as an incredibly gifted teacher, who has revealed, more perhaps than any who came before her, the nature and extent of those gifts which the Lord has laid up in this life for those who love Him. In past ages, of course, there had been many writers kindled with Divine love to whom He had manifested His ineffable secrets, but for the most part these secrets had gone down with them to the grave. To St. Teresa it was given to speak to the world, in her diaphanous, colloquial language and her simple, unaffected style, of the work of the Holy Spirit in the enamoured soul, of the interior strife and the continual purgation through which such a soul must pass in its ascent of Mount Carmel and of the wonders which await it on the mountain's summit.

So she leads the soul from the most rudimentary stages of the Purgative Way to the very heights of Union, bringing it into the innermost mansion of the Interior Castle, where, undisturbed by the foes that rage without, it can have fruition of union with the Lord of that Castle and experience a foretaste of the Beatific Vision of the life to come. But, despite the loftiness and sublimity of these themes, she is able to develop them without ever losing the most attractive of her qualities as a writer -- simplicity. Continually she finds ready to hand apt and graphic comparisons, intelligible even to the unlearned. No mystical writer before her day, from the pseudo-Dionysius to Ruysbroeck, nor any who has written since, has described such high matters in a way so apt, so natural and to such a large extent within the reach of all. The publication of her treatises inaugurated for the mystics an epoch of what may almost be termed popularity. Those who love the pages of the Gospels, and whose aim in life is to attain the Gospel ideal of Christian perfection, have found in her works other pages in which, without any great effort of the intellect, they may learn much concerning the way. Her practical insistence upon the virtuous life, her faithfulness to the Evangelical counsels and the soundness of her doctrine even in the most obscure and recondite details -- all these will commend her to them. Many, indeed, are the fervent lovers of Our Lord who have gone to the school of love kept by the Foundress of Ávila.

As a result, her works are read and re-read by Spaniards to this day and translated again and again into foreign languages. Probably no other book by a Spanish author is as widely known in Spain as the Life or the Interior Castle of St. Teresa, with the single exception of Cervantes' immortal Don Quixote. It is surely amazing that a woman who lived in the sixteenth century, who never studied in the Schools or pored over tomes of profound learning, still less aspired to any kind or degree of renown, should have won such a reputation, both among scholars and among the people. We cannot expect to find the reason for this in the purely scientific or literary merits of her writings: we must look for it by going deeper.

Essentially, her popularity has been due to Divine grace, which first inspired her to lay aside every aim but the quest for God and then enabled her to attain a degree of purity in her love for Him which sustained and impelled her. Before everything else it is the intense fervour of this love which speaks to lovers everywhere, just as it is the determination and courage of her virile soul which inspires those who long to be more determined and courageous than they are. But next to this, it is the purely human quality of her writings which makes so wide an appeal. Her methods of exposition are not rigidly logical -- but neither are the workings of the human heart. Her books have a gracioso desorden [Herrick's "sweet disorder"] which the ordinary reader finds attractive, even illuminating. Her disconnected observations, her revealing parentheses, her transpositions, ellipses and sudden suspensions of thought make her, in one sense, easier to read, even if, in another, they sometimes make her more difficult to interpret. Even setting aside her lack of technical training as a writer, her robust and highly individual temperament would have led her into rebellion against academic mechanism of conventionality and style in language, had any attempt ever been made to force these upon her. Where she uses or imitates the phraseology of Holy Scripture she does so unconsciously. Often she never even re-read what she wrote; who that is not a professional writer, but just a man in the street, or a woman in the kitchen, can help loving her?

Her books were written at the command of her confessors -- that is to say, under obedience. It seemed ridiculous to her that a person so imperfect and devoid of talent as herself -- and a woman into the bargains -- could possibly write anything that would edify others. She was much better employed, she herself thought, at the spinning-wheel, and it irked her to leave such a profitable occupation as spinning to take up her pen. "For the love of God," she once exclaimed, when importuned to write, "let me work at my spinning wheel and go to choir and perform the duties of the religious life, like the other sisters. I am not meant to write: I have neither the health nor the intelligence for it."[45] The following passage gives as vivid an idea as any of the spirit in which she wrote:

The authority of persons so learned and serious as my confessors suffices for the approval of any good thing that I may say, if the Lord gives me grace to say it, in which case it will not be mine but His; for I have no learning, nor have I led a good life, nor do I get my information from a learned man or from any other person whatsoever. Only those who have commanded me to write this know that I am doing so, and at the moment they are not here. I am almost stealing the time for writing, and that with great difficulty, for it hinders me from spinning and I am living in a poor house and have numerous things to do.[46]
But, even had she left no such personal testimony, her writings would have shown how little she trusted for inspiration to her reading and how completely devoid she was of any constructional instinct or sense of literary proportion. Her ideas and sentiments spring spontaneously to her mind and spirit. Her pen runs freely -- sometimes too freely for her mind to keep pace with it. Her memory, as she frequently confesses, is poor and her few quotations are seldom entirely accurate. But she is, without the slightest doubt, a born writer; and, when a person belonging to that rare and fortunate class knows nothing of artifice, casts aside convention, and writes as the spirit dictates, the result can never be disappointing.

Mysticism, furthermore, is in part an experimental science; and he who has the profoundest and most continuous experiences of Divine grace is the best qualified to speak of them. St. Teresa is remarkable both for the intensity and for the continuity of her mystical experiences, and she had a quickness of mind, a readiness of expression and a wealth of imagination which particularly well fitted her for describing them. Her descriptions are incomparably more vivid and intelligible than those of many professed students of mystical theology who have grown grey in the study of it. This superiority much more than compensates for any of her stylistic idiosyncrasies which may scandalize the literary preceptist. Had she not boldly snapped asunder the bonds of logic and literary rule, she would have been powerless to take wing and give us those finest of passages which describe the summit of Mount Carmel. We should have gained one more methodical writer aspiring to a "golden mediocrity" -- but we should have lost work of a sublime beauty bearing the ineffaceable hallmark of genius.

But in any case she could never have written impeccable manuals or methodically ordered "guides" to the ascetic or the mystical life: her genius resembles the rushing torrent, not the scientifically constructed canal. She cannot even be said to separate asceticism from mysticism: the Way of perfection is an ascetic treatise which mystical ideas are constantly invading; while the Interior Castle, though fundamentally mystical, does not hesitate to lay down and develop ascetic principles. Here, again, she conforms, not so much to what is logical as to what is natural and human. Any divisions which she makes and adheres to are those made by nature and observable in life. By any and every test, she is a writer to be read by the many, by the people.

If obedience was St. Teresa's primary motive for writing, a secondary motive was to give an accurate and detailed account of her spiritual progress, as in the Life, or, as in most of her other books, to guide her spiritual daughters.

The seventeenth-century Carmelite, Fray Jerónimo de San José, a historian of the Discalced Reform and author of one of the earliest biographies of St. John of the Cross, makes the following enumeration of her writings:

Our Mother St. Teresa wrote five books and seven opuscules. The books are: The Book of her Life, The Way of perfection, The Mansions,47 The Foundations and Meditations on the Songs. The opuscules are: Method for the visitation of her convents, Exclamations, Spiritual Maxims, Relations of her spirit, Favours granted her by the Lord, Devout verses which she composed, Letters to different persons. So that, between books, opuscules and treatises, the number of books written by the Saint amounts in all to twelve.[48]
In addition to these works, several more have been credited to St. Teresa, though hardly on sufficient evidence. From a reference in the Foundations to "a tiny little book" in which she "believed she said something about" melancholy,[49] it has been inferred that a book of hers on this subject has been lost: the reference, however, might well be to the Way of Perfection, which says a good deal about this, and, though the Way of perfection might hardly be thought "tiny", she refers to it elsewhere as "little" by contrast with her considerably larger Life.

Another book, which certainly exists, was thought to be the work of St. Teresa as long ago as 1630, when it was included by Baltasar Moreto in an edition of her works published in that year at Antwerp. The only reason for its inclusion appears to have been that it was found among some papers which had belonged to her, and afterwards became the property of Doña Isabel de Avellaneda, wife of Don Iñigo de Cárdenas, President of the Council of Castile. Its title is Seven Meditations on the Paternoster. It is a pious commentary on the Lord's Prayer, the seven petitions of which are treated as meditations, each intended to be read on a different day of the week, under the headings: Father, King, Spouse, Shepherd, Redeemer, Physician, Judge. The author was both a learned and a spiritually-minded person, well versed in Holy Scripture and with a decided literary bent. The most superficial examination reveals it to be clearly non-Teresian. Its style is quite unlike that of the Saint and it bears the marks of a careful revision entirely foreign to her habits and character. Her earliest biographers make no mention of it and her Order has never believed it to be hers. "I consider it quite certain that the treatise is not by our Holy Mother," says P. Jerónimo de San José, and gives the fullest reasons for his opinion.[50] "All who read it carefully," he adds, "and even those who read it without great care, will think likewise."

P. Ribera, St. Teresa's first biographer, and a particularly conscientious one, tells us that, when very young, in collaboration with her brother Rodrigo, she wrote a book on chivalry. "She had so excellent a wit, and had so well absorbed the language and style of chivalry, that in the space of a few months she and her brother Rodrigo composed a book of adventures and fictions on that subject, which was such that it attracted a great deal of comment."[51] This story is confirmed by Gracián in his notes to Ribera's book and has been frequently repeated and taken as accurate by later writers. There would be nothing intrinsically improbable in the idea that a writer with the initiative and imagination of St. Teresa, who, we know (for she tells us herself in great detail),[52] was attracted in her youth by romances of the Amadis type, should try to produce something of the sort herself by way of recreation, and we may be sure that, if she did so, the book in question would be well worth reading. P. Andrés de la Encarnación, an eighteenth-century editor and critic of St. John of the Cross,[53] took the suggestion very seriously, and debated where the book was to be found, and whether or no, supposing it were found, it ought to be published.[54] For ourselves, we suspect that, if it was ever written at all, it was soon destroyed by its own authors, either because of the nature of its contents or for fear that it would fall into the hands of their father, the austere Don Alonso, who for such an indiscretion would no doubt have meted out anything but a reward.

By great good fortune, the originals of nearly all St. Teresa's principal works have come down to us, together with those of a fair number of her letters and some account books bearing her signature. This fortune we owe to the great esteem shown for St. Teresa and her Reform by King Philip II, who, when collecting books and manuscripts for the library which he proposed to establish in his newly built palace-monastery at El Escorial, asked P. Doria (Fray Nicolás de Jesús María),[55] at that time Vicar-General of the Discalced Carmelites, if he could obtain for him any of St. Teresa's autographs. As a result, four of these are now to be found in the Escorial Library: namely, the Life, the Way of perfection, the Foundations and the Method for the visitation of her convents. The autograph of the Interior Castle is preserved in the Discalced Carmelite convent at Seville, and a second autograph of the Way of perfection, to be referred to later, has long been in the possession of the convent of the Discalced nuns at Valladolid. As a considerable number of facsimile reproductions of these manuscripts have been published, the careful study of the Teresian writings in their original state has been brought within the reach of all who are qualified to undertake it.

Needless to say, a great many copies of the Saint's writings were made very soon after her death, and, needless to say, too, these copies contained numerous errors. To put an end to this circulation of defective versions of their Mother Foundress' works, the Discalced Carmelites took steps towards the preparation of a complete edition. A beginning had been made with their publication even in her own lifetime. A great friend of hers, Don Teutonio de Braganza, Archbishop of Évora, undertook to bring out an edition of the Maxims and Way of perfection, based upon a corrected manuscript (still extant) which she herself sent him, in 1579: this was approved by the ecclesiastical censor in 1580 and published at Évora in 1583. At Salamanca, in 1585, P. Gracián (Fray Jerónimo de la Madre de Dios)[56] at that time Provincial of the Reform, republished the Way of perfection, which no doubt was given precedence over the other works on account of its practical utility in the training of religious. An impetus must have been given to these activities by St. John of the Cross, who, just about this time, wrote as follows in the commentary to his Spiritual Canticle:

But since my intent is but to expound these stanzas briefly, as I promised in the prologue, these other things must remain for such as can treat them better than I. And I pass over the subject likewise because the Blessed Teresa of Jesus, our mother, left notes admirably written upon these things of the spirit, the which notes I hope in God will speedily be printed and brought to light.[57]
St. John of the Cross was in fact present at the meeting of the General Chapter in 1586 which decided to publish the Saint's complete works. The editorship was entrusted, not to a Carmelite, but to an Augustinian -- one of the leading men of letters in Spain, the Salamancan professor Fray Luis de León. The volume, of over a thousand octavo pages, was published at Salamanca in 1588, and includes the following works, printed in the order here given: Book of her life; some of the Relations; Way of perfection; Maxims; Interior Castle; Exclamations. The principal omission, it will be observed, is the Foundations: so many of the people mentioned in it were still living that its publication was thought to be premature.

On the whole, as one would expect of an editor who, besides being himself an author, had had a lifetime of academic experience, Fray Luis de León acquitted himself remarkably well. The edition has some omissions and variant readings of such length or importance that they can hardly have been due to accident, besides a considerable number of errata, notably in punctuation -- and, owing to St. Teresa's often compressed and elliptical style, a misplaced comma is sometimes enough to alter the sense of an entire passage. None the less, judged by the standards of its day, the edition is a distinctly good one.

It was reprinted, at the same press, in the following year, after which date further editions came quickly. The works, in a more or less complete state, were published at Saragossa in 1592; at Madrid, in 1597 and 1615; at Naples, in 1604; at Brussels, in 1604; at Brussels, in 1610; at Valencia, in 1613 and 1623. The Brussels edition was the first to include the Foundations. The editio princeps was reprinted at Madrid in 1622 and 1627 and at Saragossa in 1623. In 1630, at Antwerp, Baltasar Moreto published an edition already referred to as including the apocryphal Seven Meditations. A single-volume edition, in 1635, and a two-volume edition, in 1636, came out in Madrid.

This rapidly increasing circulation of St. Teresa's works, however, was not altogether welcomed by her Order, for the printers' errors in each edition were handed down to the next, often with considerable additions, while undue liberties were sometimes taken with the text by editors less conscientious than Fray Luis de León. It was in about 1645 that P. Francisco de Santa María, the historian of the Discalced Reform, obtained permission from his superiors for a new collation of the printed works and the autographs, with a view to the preparation of a more reliable edition than any yet published. The collation was entrusted to a number of friars and the new edition -- the second which may be described as "official" -- was eventually published in Madrid in 1661.

We need not follow through the centuries the long tale of editions of the Saint's works -- still less enumerate the editions of individual works which will be referred to later in the introductions to each. It must suffice, in this brief survey, to remark on the continuity with which St. Teresa was read even during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when mysticism was little in favour, and to mention a few of the editions which may be considered of outstanding interest.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the Order determined upon still another "official" edition and entrusted the work of preparing one to that excellent critic already referred to, P. Andrés de la Encarnación, who enlisted the aid of a competent palaeographer, a companion worthy of himself, P. Manuel de Santa María. The results of their researches, both on St. Teresa and on St. John of the Cross, remained in manuscript; and the three volumes of Memorias historiales, in the National Library of Spain, at Madrid, are a major source for critical work on the Reformers of Carmel. As many of the archives which the two Fathers used are no longer in existence, their work has preserved much that would otherwise have been irretrievably lost, including part of the magnificent collection which we have of Teresian letters. In their work upon the texts, they detected more than seven hundred errors in the Life of 1627 and twelve hundred in Moreto's edition of the Foundations. It is a pity that the Order found the task of publishing a new edition too much for it and was content to reprint, in 1778, an edition of 1752, adding to it a volume containing eighty-two previously unpublished letters. In 1793 appeared another edition, which included a further volume of letters and eighty-seven fragments, and was the last to be published by the Order for a hundred and twenty years. Not until 1851, when the religious persecutions of the early years of the nineteenth century were over, was this edition reprinted, and ten years later came the edition of Don Vicente de la Fuente, which forms part of the monumental series of Spanish classics known as the "Biblioteca de Autores Españoles."

The strides made in Spain, during the last half century, by Teresian criticism, and indeed by Spanish criticism in general, make it possible for Spaniards to look back from a great distance at the work of La Fuente, both here and in his later six volume edition of 1881, and find in it faults of many kinds: innumerable textual errors, frequent inaccuracies of fact, exaggerations in judgment and an undue dogmatism of tone. This Aragonese editor, though learned and devout in a high degree, had the temperamental bluntness and stubbornness traditionally associated with Aragon, and from this his work frequently suffered. None the less, his edition remained unsuperseded for over half a century -- until, in fact, in the year of the quatercentenary of St. Teresa's birth, appeared the first volume of the definitive Carmelite edition [which we owe to the indefatigable P. Silverio de Santa Teresa.]

[This edition, consisting of nine volumes (1915-24) of which the last three comprise the largest collection yet made of the Saint's letters -- four hundred and fifty in all -- concentrated upon the preparation of as correct as possible a text, using the autographs, or photostats of them, where previous editors had relied on copies. The notes to the text, which are not the strongest point of the edition, are brief and in the main factual, though occasionally they sin through the discursiveness which P. Silverio seldom for long avoids. A welcome feature was the inclusion of many newly discovered letters -- for, while the sacking of religious houses during the nineteenth century had led to much destruction, it had also brought to light a good deal that had previously been unknown. P. Silverio's appendices contain numerous hitherto unpublished documents, many of them of capital importance for an intimate knowledge of St. Teresa's life.]

[The foregoing notes bear witness of the most practical kind to the continuous popularity which St. Teresa has enjoyed in her own country since the time of her death. In our own country it was her Life which at first chiefly attracted translators: the Antwerp translations of the Jesuit William Malone appeared as early as 1611; twelve years later, Sir Tobias Mathew's version, known as The Flaming Hart, was published in London, a second edition appearing at Antwerp in 1642; while the Life and Foundations were published by Abraham Woodhead in 1669-71, and a third volume, containing nearly all the remaining works, came out in 1675. After this nearly two centuries elapsed before the Saint began to be widely read once more, but since Dalton, with his new translation of the Life (1851), led the revival, interest in her has never ceased. Dalton's Way of perfection and Interior Castle (1852), Foundations (1853) and small selection of Letters (1853) were followed by the Life (1870) and Foundations (1871) in the translation of David Lewis: the Life, still leading the other works in popularity, went into four editions. The mantle of Lewis fell upon the shoulders of a Benedictine nun of Stanbrook Abbey, and the editions of the Benedictines of Stanbrook, already referred to, and notably their versions of the Way of perfection and the Interior Castle and their four-volume edition of the Letters (1919-24), have perhaps done more than any others to give St. Teresa a place in our spiritual life comparable to that which she holds in Spain. Finally we must not forget the valuable contributions made to our knowledge of the Saint and her times by the learned Carmelite, Father Zimmerman, whose revisions of, and introductions to, the Lewis and Stanbrook translations have so much enhanced their value. England, it will be seen, is not now behindhand in her appreciation of a Saint on whom one of her seventeenth-century poets wrote what is perhaps the finest panegyric in verse upon her in existence.

O thou undanted daughter of desires! By all thy dowr of Lights and Fires; By all the eagle in thee, all the dove; By all thy lives and deaths of love; By thy larg draughts of intellectuall day, And by thy thirsts of love more large then they; By all thy brim-fill'd Bowles of feirce desire; By thy last Morning's draught of liquid fire; By the full kingdome of that finall kisse That seiz'd thy parting Soul, and sealed thee his; By all the heavn's thou hast in him (Fair sister of the Seraphim!); By all of Him we have in Thee; Leave nothing of my Self in me. Let me so read thy life, that I Unto all life of mine may dy.[58]]
The translator, who, in the main, has followed P. Silverio in the order in which he has arranged St. Teresa's works, begs leave to append a note, adapted from P. Silverio, upon the principles underlying this arrangement.

He begins with the Saint's earliest and fundamental work, her Life (1562-5), which is followed by a shorter work closely connected with it in spirit, and hence forming a natural complement to it -- the Relations. It might be thought that the Life should rather have been followed by the autobiographical Foundations, but it must be remembered that the Life is an autobiography primarily in the spiritual sense -- a history of the manifestations of Divine grace in the writer's soul -- whereas the Foundations is mainly a record of practical achievements and is related as closely with the history of the Order as with the life of the Saint.

After the Life and the Relations comes the Way of Perfection (c. 1565), written under obedience, as we have seen, for the edification of the nuns of the Saint's first foundation -- St. Joseph's, Ávila -- and based upon her own meditations on the Lord's Prayer. Since the Life contained so much intimate detail it was thought unsuitable for publication until after its author's death, and the Way of perfection was written, in one sense, to supply its place. Next comes the Interior Castle (1577), more mature and more intensely mystical than its two predecessors. These three works, taken together, may be thought of as a complete exposition of the ascetic and mystical system of St. Teresa. As closely connected with the Interior Castle in its nature and spirit as are the Relations with the Life are the Conceptions of the Love of God, and the Exclamations of the Soul to God, the two loveliest of St. Teresa's opuscules, both of them from beginning to end aglow with mystical love.

Following these, as standing outside their sphere and (despite some fine and noble passages) on a lower plane, comes the Foundations (1573 ff.), the last of the four major works, and, following these, we give the minor works, with the poems appropriately coming last, as it is in verse that St. Teresa is least noteworthy.

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