Life of St. Teresa - F. A. Forbes


"O my soul's Lord, who can find words to describe what Thou art to those who trust in thee?"

Teresa's outward life at this time was like that of any other nun of the Incarnation. Prayer and work and the exercises of the common life succeeded each other as usual. She was more forgetful of self and thoughtful for others than anyone else in the house, but she had always been so. The visions and ecstasies with which God favoured her took place during the quiet hours of prayer in her own oratory, but this state of things was not to last.

One day as the Saint knelt absorbed in God she beheld at her side the vision of an angel whose face shone like the sun. In his hand he held a golden dart, the point of which was all on fire, and which he plunged several times into her heart. The love of God, Teresa tells us, increased so much in her soul after this miraculous transfixion that she longed to die in order to be no more separated from her Divine Master. Her ecstasies and visions increased, and it became harder than ever to hide the extraordinary graces with which she was favoured. Sometimes in the convent chapel before the whole community she would be rapt in ecstasy and raised above the ground, while the supernatural beauty of her face struck everybody with awe. Strange lights shone about her as she prayed, and were seen by many.

Teresa, whose one desire was to remain hidden and unnoticed, implored of God that He would cease to bestow on her these outward manifestations of His favour. She sought as much as possible the solitude of her own cell, where no one could be witness of what passed between her and her Divine Lord. Longing to do something for His glory, to give herself to Him as He had given Himself to her, and to satisfy the burning love of her heart, she made, with her director's permission, a vow to do in all things what would be most pleasing to His Majesty.

For many years God had been preparing Teresa for the work which He had for her to do. The supreme test was yet to come; her soul was to be tried as gold is tried in the fire. The lights died out and the consolations faded away. Suffering of soul succeeded to suffering of body; all that had passed in her hours of ecstasy seemed but the shadow of a dream. Doubts, fears and scruples assailed her. It seemed to her that she was the vilest of sinners—deceived herself, she was deceiving others. So did the evil one seek to drive her to despair, and was defeated in his attempt. For He who had been blessed in the time of joy was blessed also in the time of sorrow. Teresa clung to the thought of His mercy and praised His Holy Name.

The devil, jealous of the work of God, only redoubled his attacks. Hideous apparitions beset her, but Teresa, with the Cross in her hand, defied the powers of evil. "They can do nothing without Christ's permission," she would say contemptuously. "What have we to fear?"

If the good people of Avila had been anxious before, they were much more anxious now, for rumours of what was passing transpired through the nuns of the Incarnation. Certain friends went as far as to tell Teresa that she was possessed, but she answered them with gentleness and humility: "You have only to look at the results. I was poor, and God has made me rich; everybody must see how He has changed me. Never will I believe that the devil could have given me strength to fight against my faults and to practise the opposite virtues. God has given me courage to do and bear all things for His sake. T was weak, and He has made me strong."

The truth of her words could not be denied, and God Himself was to bear testimony to it.

Although there were many Saints in Spain at that time, none was more revered than St. Peter of Alcantara, a Franciscan friar who had lived a rigorous life of prayer, fasting and penance, devoting himself entirely to the service of God and the salvation of sinners. To his eyes the veils that hide the unseen were transparent, and he could read men's souls like a book. The news reached Doha Guiomar that the holy Franciscan was engaged in a visitation of his Order, which would bring him to Avila, and she determined that Teresa should see him.

It was not difficult to obtain permission to take her away from the convent for a short visit, and the plan was immediately carried into execution. The two Saints understood each other at once. All Teresa's difficulties were smoothed away, and her doubts completely set at rest. God and God alone was working in her, said St. Peter of Alcantara; she need have no fear.

But the holy old man was not satisfied with this. Rumours of the gossip in the town had reached his ears, and he went straight to Father Baltasar Alvarez, with whom he had a long interview, and from whom he heard much of Teresa's obedience and humility. His next visit was to Don Francisco de Salcedo, whom he succeeded in convincing of the truth, and even managed to persuade Dr. Daza that he had been mistaken. Before leaving Avila he bade Teresa write to him whenever she wanted counsel and advice, and promised to do all that he could to help her.

Consoled and strengthened, Teresa was ready now to bear the worst. The verdict of St. Peter of Alcantara was not without its effects in Avila. The gossip died down, and the nuns of the Incarnation at last began to believe that they might possibly have a Saint in their midst.

It was about this time that Teresa had a fearful vision in which God showed her the place in Hell that would have been hers had she been unfaithful to His inspirations. "All the horrors I had ever seen," cries the Saint, "were nothing compared to that; I have no words to express it. The most painful thing of all was the certainty that such torment is eternal, that there is no hope, no end to it. It only lasted a moment, but when I think of it, my blood freezes in my veins."

After the vision came the thought that souls created like hers to know and love God were daily falling into that place of torment. "What can I do, O my Lord, to save them?" she cried in anguish. The answer came in a secret inspiration.

A desire took shape in Teresa's heart to lead a more mortified religious life; to keep the Rule of Mount Cannel in all its old perfection; to pray day and night as the Carmelites had prayed of old, before the Mitigated Rule had made their life so easy. She pictured to herself a convent, poor as the cave of Bethlehem, secluded, silent, full of ardent souls who lived for God's glory and who prayed for the work of Holy Church and for the souls of sinners. Such was her dream—how far away it seemed!

It was the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and the guests that had been taking part in the festivities at the convent were dispersing to their homes. The day was crowing to a close, and Teresa was hoping for a quiet hour in her oratory, when Juana Suarez, the friend of her girlhood, came to her cell for a little talk. She was soon followed by Anne and Inez de Tapia, two cousins of Teresa's, lately professed, and two of her nieces who were being brought up at the convent Maria and Leonora de Ocampo.

The conversation went briskly; Maria de Ocampo, a beautiful girl, whose charms were set off to the best advantage, was full of questions about the religious life. The two young nuns spoke of the Feast, and of the difficulty of preserving recollection amongst so many visitors. "Very well, then," said Maria decidedly, "let all of us who are here go to some other place where we can live a solitary life like hermits; if we had courage to do that, we could found a convent." Teresa, surprised at such a suggestion from such a quarter, asked where the money was to come from. "From me," retorted Maria promptly; "I will give part of my dowry." Her sister was enchanted, the two young nuns not less so. Juana Suarez alone threw cold water on the scheme; the difficulties, she thought, would be too great. The question was discussed with all the enthusiasm of youth; plans were made and the little convent built in the imagination at least of the company.

The next day when Dona Guiomar came to the convent, Teresa laughingly told her of the project of her young kinswomen. "It is the inspiration of God,'' said Dona Guiomar, "and I will help you to carry it out. Let us pray over it until we can see what to do."

For Teresa the most essential thing was to know God's will in the matter, and she earnestly prayed that He would make it clear. One morning after Holy Communion, she tells us, our Lord appeared to her and bade her take the work to heart. The new convent was to be dedicated to St. Joseph, and Teresa was to consult Father Baltasar Alvarez and tell him what had passed. The latter suggested that she should ask the advice of Father Angel de Salasar, Provincial of the Carmelites, whereupon Dona Guiomar undertook to lay their plans before him, while Teresa wrote to St. Peter of Alcantara, St. Francis Borgia, and the Dominican St. Louis Bertrand, to ask their counsel. The reply was unanimous; the three Saints blessed the project and bade Teresa accomplish it as quickly as possible. Dona Guiomar was equally successful in her embassy; the Provincial was encouraging, and promised to take the new convent under his charge.

It seemed as if there were nothing left but to find a house and to found the convent; but this was not so easy. The nuns of the Incarnation, as well as the people of Avila, were quite contented with the Mitigated Rule, and were highly indignant at the idea that it could be improved upon. What was the use, they asked, of going back to the Primitive Rule, with all its hardships, its solitude, and silence? The idea was received with ridicule. "Let Teresa keep quiet in her own convent," said the townspeople, "instead of trying to turn everything upside down; and let Dona Guiomar mind her own business and not get herself talked about." Others said that Teresa was mad to think of leaving a convent where she was so comfortable. The storm of tongues grew apace; nuns, priests and people were against the idea. Every movement of the two friends was watched and remarked upon; the whole town was in a tumult. But Teresa was used to suffering and contradiction. On a little bookmarker that she kept in her breviary she had written the following words. They were the secret of her calm:

"Let nothing trouble thee;

Let nothing affright thee.

All things pass away;

God alone changes not;

Patience obtains all things.

To him who possesses God

Nothing is wanting; God alone suffices."

It was necessary to seek in Avila itself a wise counsellor who would give them his support. They found him in Father Pedro Ibanez, first theologian of the Convent of St. Dominic. Fie had been professor at the University of Salamanca, and was a great student; he was, moreover, revered in Avila as a Saint. When Teresa and Dona Guiomar exposed their plans to him, having asked for a week to think it over, he spent the time in prayer. Certain people of the town warned him to have nothing to do with the project, but he had sought a better Counsellor. When Teresa and Dona Guiomar returned a week later the verdict was clear and decisive. Father Pedro would give them all the help in his power, for the work was of God.