The life of St. Teresa, written by herself, holds the first place in the church among books of this kind after the Confessions of St. Austin, says Baillet. The French translation of this work published by Abbé Chanut, in 1691, is far preferable to that which was the last production of D’Andilly in his old age, in 1670, and to that of F. Cyprian in 1657. The saint finished this work in 1562, twenty years before her death; she afterwards added to it a relation of the foundation of her convent at Avila. In this book we have the history of her life to the reformation of her Order, with an account of the visions, &c. she received during the three first years she was favoured with such graces; those which she continued frequently to receive from that time to the end of her life were never published by her, except some things through the channel of persons whom she consulted. The history which she wrote of her Foundations furnishes us, however, with a continuation of her life till within two years, or a year and a half, before her death. F. Ribera, a Jesuit, well known by his learned comments On the Twelve Lesser Prophets, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Apocalypse, who had been sometimes confessarius of the saint, wrote her life with great care and fidelity. The same was also written soon after by Didacus Yepez, bishop of Tarragona, confessor to King Philip II. and sometimes to St. Teresa, with whom he frequently conversed and corresponded during the space of fourteen years. See also the Epistles of St. Teresa published by Bishop Palafox in the four tomes. We have her own life and her other works, except her letters, translated into English by Mr. Abr. Woodhead, in two vols. 4to. 1669. Also an abstract of her own Life and Foundations by R. C. in 1757. Her life is compiled in French by M. de Villefort.
[Foundress of the Reformation of the Barefooted Carmelites.] THE HUMBLE relation which St. Teresa has left us of her own life, in obedience to her confessors, is the delight of devout persons, not on account of the revelations and visions there recorded, but because in it are laid down the most perfect maxims by which a soul is conducted in the paths of obedience, humility, and self-denial, and especially of prayer and an interior life. St. Teresa was born at Avila in Old Castile, on the 28th of March, 1515. Her father, Alphonsus Sanchez of Cepeda, was a gentleman of a good family, and had three children by a first wife, and nine by a second. The name of the latter was Beatrice Ahumada, mother to our saint, another daughter, and seven sons. Don Alphonsus delighted much in reading good books, with which he was well stocked; he was also very charitable to the poor, compassionate to the sick, and tender towards his servants; remarkable for his strict veracity, modesty, and chastity, and very averse from detraction and swearing. Our saint’s mother, likewise, was very virtuous, suffered much from frequent sickness, and died happily at the age of three-and-thirty, when Teresa was twelve years old. By the means of the pious instructions and example of her parents, God inclined the tender heart of Teresa from her infancy to his service. Being only seven years old she took great pleasure in reading the lives of the saints, and other pious books, in which she spent much time with a little brother called Rodrigo, who was nearly of the same age. They were much amazed at the thought of eternity, and learned already to despise all that passes with time. With feeling sentiments they used to repeat often together: “For ever, for ever, for ever;” and admiring the victories of the saints, and the everlasting glories which they now possess, they said to one another: “What! for ever they shall see God.” The martyrs seemed to them to have bought heaven very cheap by their torments; and after many conferences together on this subject, they resolved to go into the country of the Moors, in hopes of dying for their faith. They set out privately with great fervour, praying as they went that God would inspire them with his holy love, that they might lay down their lives for Christ; but, upon the bridge over the Adaja, near the town, they were met by an uncle, and brought back to their mother, who was in the greatest frights, and had sent to seek them. They were chid by their parents for their unadvised project, and Rodrigo laid all the blame on his sister. Teresa continued the same course, and used often to say to herself: “O Eternity! Eternity! Eternity!” She gave to the poor all the alms she could, though this was very little; and studied to do all the good works in her power. The saint and the same little brother formed a design to become hermits at home, and built themselves little hermitages with piles of stones in the garden, but could never finish them. Teresa sought to be much alone, and said very long prayers with great devotion, especially the Rosary; for her mother inspired her tender soul with a singular devotion to the Blessed Virgin. She had in her room a picture of our Saviour discoursing with the Samaritan woman at the well, with which she was much delighted, and she often addressed those words to our Saviour with great earnestness: “Lord, give me of that water;” meaning that of his grace and holy love. In the twelfth year of her age, upon the death of her mother, in great grief, she threw herself upon her knees before a picture of the Blessed Virgin, and besought her, with many tears, that she would vouchsafe to be her mother. The saint adds, that this action which she did with great simplicity, she thought afterwards very profitable to her; and found the Blessed Virgin favourable to her in all her requests, and looked upon herself as much indebted to her intercession for the great mercy by which God was pleased to bring her back to a sense of her duty after she had begun to go astray. She aggravates exceedingly her own malice, by which she had been ungrateful for so great and so early favours she had received from God in her tender age; she never ceased to grieve that she should have ever defiled the tabernacle of her heart, in which he was to dwell for ever, and to thank his goodness for having called her back into the path of her duty, begging that he would be pleased to conduct her soul to eternal salvation.
The most dangerous snare into which she fell was that of idle books, and vain company. Romances, 1 or fabulous histories of knight-errantry, were at that time much in fashion in Spain. Teresa got hold of some such books a little before her mother died, and began to read them much more after her death, though always unknown to her father, who would have been highly provoked. About that time, a certain cousin-german, a worldly young woman, addicted to vanity, and fond of reading such books, began to visit her, and by her conversation wrought such a change in Teresa, that forgetting the greatest part of her former devotions, she spent several hours both of the day and night in reading romances with great pleasure. She began at the same time to curl and trim her hair, to use perfumes, to love fine clothes, and the like, out of a desire of pleasing others, though without any bad intention; for she would not for the world have given to any one an occasion of offending God. She continued some years without imagining there was in this any sin; but she afterwards found it was a great one. None but this kinswoman and some other near relations were allowed by the father to visit his daughter: but even these proved dangerous company to her; and she listened to them with pleasure in their discourse on vanities, toys, and follies, never criminal, yet not good. Thus she gradually fell off from her fervour during three months. Her father perceived her to be much changed, and her devotion cooled. She laments grievously this her dangerous fall, and from her own fatal experience, earnestly conjures all parents to watch over their children, that they may never fall into idle, vain, and dangerous company, or such books; for if she had not dashed against these two rocks, she thinks she should have always increased in fervour, instead of falling back. Ribera, from his strictest examination of the saint, assures us that she could not be thought to have incurred the danger of any mortal sin; for this reading and company, though very dangerous, did not appear to her any more than an innocent amusement; so that her simplicity extenuated the fault. Bishop Yepez 2 makes this evident from what the saint herself acknowledges, 3 notwithstanding her inclination to exaggerate this offence; saying, that though she was delighted with agreeable conversation and diversions, she had always an extreme horror of any open evil: but she exposed herself to the danger, and therefore condemns herself so severely, attributing her preservation from falling down the precipice to God’s pure mercy and assistance, in preserving in her heart a great sense of the honour of virtue. She indeed says, 4 that notwithstanding her confessors judged nothing in these actions could amount to the guilt of a mortal sin, she afterwards understood them to have been mortal sins; where she expresses her own apprehensions. For those vanities and books were dangerous occasions of greater evils than she was aware of. When she fell into these faults, she confessed them, for she always confessed during the lukewarm period of her life all known venial sins as she assures us. After her perfect conversion, her timorous conscience and vehement compunction made her speak of these sins in stronger terms than her confessors approved; and she testifies that she desired to say much more on this subject, to publish to the whole world her ingratitude against God, had they not forbid her. Her father took notice that her devotion was much cooled, and not being able handsomely to forbid this vain relation his house, he placed his daughter, who was then fifteen years of age, in a very regular convent of Austin nuns in Avila, where many young ladies of her quality were educated. Teresa found a separation from her companions grievous; but as her attachments proceeded only from the natural affectionate disposition of her heart, they were soon forgot, and a secret sentiment of honour and of her reputation made her disguise this repugnance. From the precaution which her father had taken, she saw that her fault had been greater than she imagined, and began severely to condemn herself for it. The first eight days in the convent seemed tedious to her; but having by that time forgot her former amusements, and broken the ties she had contracted in the world, she began to be pleased with her new situation. A devout nun, who was mistress of the pensioners, used frequently to instil into her mind serious reflections on virtue, and repeated often to her that dreadful truth: Many are called, but few are chosen. By the discourse and counsel of this servant of God, Teresa recovered her fervour, and earnestly recommended herself to the prayers of the nuns that God would place her in that state in which she might be likely to serve him best; though she had not then the courage to desire to be a nun herself; for the thoughts of a perpetual engagement affrighted her.
St. Teresa lived to see sixteen nunneries of her Reformed Order founded, and fourteen convents of Carmelite friars. One of these latter was founded by a famous lady, called Catherine de Cardona, who had led an eremitical life in a cave in a desert eight years, when she built this friary, near her hermitage in the diocess of Cuënza. She was of the family of the dukes of Cardona: had been governess to Don Carlos and Don John of Austria, and was much caressed at court. In the world she had been much given to the practice of penitential severities; but the austerities with which she treated her body after she had retired into the desert seemed to exceed the ordinary strength of her sex. St. Teresa, who corresponded with her, very much commends her piety and virtue. This lady died in her cave in 1577, five years after she had built the friary, which she called Our Lady of Succour. St. Teresa was returning from founding a convent at Burgos to Avila, where she was prioress, when she was sent for by the Duchess of Alva. She was at that time very ill of her usual distemper of a palsy and frequent violent vomitings. Yet when she arrived at Alva, on the 20th of September, she conversed with the duchess several hours; then went to her convent in the town, understanding that our Lord called her to himself. On the 30th of that month she was seized with a bloody-flux, and after communicating at mass, took to her bed, and never rose out of it any more. The duchess visited her every day, and would needs serve her with her own hands. Sister Anne of St. Bartholomew, the saint’s individual companion, never left her. 78 On the 1st of October, having passed almost the whole night in prayer, she made her confession to F. Antony of Jesus. He afterwards, in the presence of the nuns, entreated her to pray that God would not yet take her from them. She answered, she was no way needful to them, nor useful in the world. She gave every day many wholesome instructions to her nuns with greater energy and tenderness than usual. She besought them for the love of God to observe their rules and constitutions with the utmost diligence, and not to consider the bad example such a sinner had given them, but to forgive her. The holy viaticum being brought into her chamber on the 3d of October, in the evening, she sprung up in her bed, though exceedingly weak, and among other fervent ejaculations, said: “O my Lord, and my spouse, the desired hour is now come. It is now time for me to depart hence. Thy will be done. The hour is at last come, wherein I shall pass out of this exile, and my soul shall enjoy in thy company what it hath so earnestly longed for.” At nine o’clock the same evening she desired and received extreme unction. F. Antony asked her if she would not be buried in her own convent at Avila? To which she answered: “Have I any thing mine in this world? Or will they not afford me here a little earth?” She recited often certain verses of the Miserere psalm, especially those words: A contrite and humble heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. This she repeated till her speech failed her. After this she remained fourteen hours, as it were, in a trance, holding a crucifix fast in her hand; and calmly expired at nine o’clock in the evening, on the 4th of October, 1582, the next day (by the reformation of the calendar 79 made that year by cutting off those ten days) being reckoned the 15th, the day which was afterwards appointed for her festival. She lived sixty-seven years, six months, and seven days, of which she passed forty-seven in a religious state, and the latter twenty in the observance of her reformed rule. 80 Her body was honourably buried at Alva; but three years after, by a decree of the provincial chapter of the Order, secretly taken up, and removed to Avila, in 1585. The Duke of Alva resenting this translation, obtained an order at Rome that the relics should be restored to Alva, which was done in 1586, the body being always found entire, of the same colour, and the joints flexible. There it remains incorrupt to this day. Saint Teresa was canonized by Gregory XV. in 1621. The history of many miracles wrought by her relics and intercession may be seen in Yepez, 81 and in the acts of her canonization.
St. Teresa having tasted so plentifully the sweetness of divine love, earnestly exhorts all others by penance and holy prayer to aspire to the same. She cries out: 82 “O admirable benignity of thine, O my God, who permittest thyself to be looked upon by those eyes which have abused their sight so much as these of my soul have done! O great ingratitude of mortals! O you souls which have true faith, what blessings can you seek which may anyway be compared to the least of those which are obtained by the servants of God, even in this mortal life, besides the happy eternity hereafter! Consider it is most true, that God, even here gives himself to such as forsake all things else for the love of him. He is no exceptor of persons: he loves all, nor hath any one an excuse, how wicked soever he hath been, since our Lord hath dealt with me so mercifully. Consider also, that this which I am saying, is not so much as a cipher of that which may be said. It is no way in my power to declare that which a soul finds in herself, when our Lord is pleased to impart to her these his secrets; a delight so highly superior to all that can possibly be imagined here, that with good reason it makes those who possess it abhor all the pleasures of the earth: which, all put together, are no more comparatively than mere dung and dirt; nay, it is loathsome to bring these into comparison at all with them, even though they might be enjoyed for ever. Yet of these celestial consolations, what kind of mean proportion is that which God is pleased to bestow in this world? No more than, as it were, one single drop of water of that great full-flowing river, which is prepared for us. It is a shame, and I apply it to myself, (and if it were possible for souls to be ashamed in heaven, I should be justly ashamed there more than any other,) that we should desire such great blessings, and infinite glory, all at the cost of the good Jesus, and not weep at least over him with the daughters of Jerusalem. If we will not help him to carry the cross, O how can we ever think of coming to enjoy, by the way of pleasures, and pastimes, that which he purchased for us, at the expense of so much blood! This can never be. We take quite a wrong course; we shall never arrive at our journey’s end by such an erroneous way. Your reverence must cry out aloud to make these truths be heard. O how rich will he find himself another day, who left all the riches he had for Christ! How full of honour, who rejected all worldly honour, and took pleasure in seeing himself much debased and despised for the love of him! How wise will he see himself then, who rejoiced to see the world hold him for a fool, since they called wisdom itself by that name!” &c.