Fire within – St Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church

“Because there is a crucial connection in the divine plan between advanced prayer and generous suffering, we may not omit to mention the extraordinary continuity and number of physical illnesses that beset Teresa from about the age of twenty until her death at sixty-seven. While most writers dealing with the teresian account of contemplation may see no particular significance in the saint’s sicknesses, spiritual direction over the years has taught this observer that there is a close correlation between suffering well and growth in prayer depth. Of itself, of course, suffering improves no one, for a person can become bitter in his woes. But trials borne with love and in union with the crucified Beloved make one grow by leaps and bounds. I have noticed this connection over and over through the years. Students of contemplation must attend to what cannot be coincidental, namely, that this woman who reached the heights of contemplative prayer also descended to the inner abyss of pain. From her early twenties Teresa was in daily discomfort, sometimes in agony.3 She suffered from fevers, tinnitus and a serious heart condition. So grave were some of her afflictions that she “always nearly lost consciousness” and sometimes completely lost it.4 Early in her autobiography she tells us that her heart pains were so severe that she felt she was near death: “For sometimes it seemed that sharp teeth were biting into me . . . because of nausea I wasn’t able to eat anything.” Teresa was so shriveled and wasted away from a daily purge prescribed for her that she considered her nerves to be shrinking, and she said this caused “unbearable pains”. All hope was given up for her life, because in addition to her heart problem she was also tubercular. This last diagnosis did not bother Teresa much because the “bitter torment” of her other problems had already drained and exhausted her. She added that the latter “were like one continuous entity throughout my whole body”.5 A little further on she noted that she was “almost never, in my opinion, without many pains, and sometimes very severe ones, especially in the heart”.6 In a letter to Don Antonio Gaytan she observed that “I was going to say I am well, because, when I have nothing the matter beyond my usual ailments, that is good health for me.”7 From a mere factual point of view one must marvel at what this woman accomplished in her supremely busy life and how it was that she lived as long as she did, for while she lacked the skilled medical treatment of our century, she by no means pampered her body.

Eyewitness accounts agree that throughout her life, from her early teens to mature age, Teresa of Avila had a remarkable impact on people. Though she made no effort to achieve notoriety, as a young woman she became a celebrity. At the Incarnation convent, the important people of Avila who frequented the parlors (apparently as a pastime and for spiritual edification) considered this nun the number-one attraction because of her charm and intelligence and holy conversation. When later during her travels she began to speak at rest stops on the road, the men who cared for the carts and the animals stopped their swearing and quarreling because they preferred hearing about God from her to indulging in their customary pastimes.8 Her persuasive force was such that she transformed an everyday Catholic, none other than her own father,9 into a mystic. One can only be amazed that, in a century hardly known for feminism, a nun could have exercised so strong an influence over men. She was authorized by Rubeo, the master general of the Carmelite Order, to found reformed houses of men, and she gave the discalced habit to St. John of the Cross. She was spiritual director to her married brother Lorenzo, who not surprisingly became a mystic himself, and to at least one bishop. Men had so great a trust in her person and her judgment that they would give her large sums of money to use as she saw fit. About this she confided to Lorenzo that “people have such a blind confidence in me—I don’t know how they can do such things”.10

-Dubay, Fr. Thomas (2009-12-16T22:58:59). Fire Within (Kindle Locations 336-362). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.


3 Testimony 58, no. 16, p. 353.
4 Life, chaps. 3 and 4, pp. 38-45.
5 Ibid., chap. 5, nos. 7-8, p. 49.
6 Ibid., chap. 7, no. 11, p. 60. See also Marcelle Auclair, Teresa of Avila (New York: Doubleday, Image edition, 1961), pp. 73-74, for a more detailed description of one of these frightful illnesses.
7 Letter 57, p. 144.
8 E. Allison Peers tells us that Ana reports this “from their own mouths”. See his introduction to the Book of Foundations, vol. 3, p. xii.
9 Auclair, p. 77.
10 Letter 19, p. 75.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.