The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

Chapter IV Our Lord Helps Her to Become a Nun. Her Many Infirmities.

1. In those days, when I was thus resolved, I had persuaded one of my brothers, [1] by speaking to him of the vanity of the world, to become a friar; and we agreed together to set out one day very early in the morning for the monastery where that friend of mine lived for whom I had so great an affection: [2] though I would have gone to any other monastery, if I thought I should serve God better in it, or to any one my father liked, so strong was my resolution now to become a nun−−for I thought more of the salvation of my soul now, and made no account whatever of mine own ease. I remember perfectly well, and it is quite true, that the pain I felt when I left my father's house was so great, that I do not believe the pain of dying will be greater−−for it seemed to me as if every bone in my body were wrenched asunder; [3] for, as I had no love of God to destroy my love of father and of kindred, this latter love came upon me with a violence so great that, if our Lord had not been my keeper, my own resolution to go on would have failed me. But He gave me courage to fight against myself, so that I executed my purpose. [4]

2. When I took the habit, [5] our Lord at once made me understand how He helps those who do violence to themselves in order to serve Him. No one observed this violence in me; they saw nothing but the greatest good will. At that moment, because I was entering on that state, I was filled with a joy so great, that it has never failed me to this day; and God converted the aridity of my soul into the greatest tenderness. Everything in religion was a delight unto me; and it is true that now and then I used to sweep the house during those hours of the day which I had formerly spent on my amusements and my dress; and, calling to mind that I was delivered from such follies, I was filled with a new joy that surprised me, nor could I understand whence it came.

3. Whenever I remember this, there is nothing in the world, however hard it may be, that, if it were proposed to me, I would not undertake without any hesitation whatever; for I know now, by experience in many things, that if from the first I resolutely persevere in my purpose, even in this life His Majesty rewards it in a way which he only understands who has tried it. When the act is done for God only, it is His will before we begin it that the soul, in order to the increase of its merits, should be afraid; and the greater the fear, if we do but succeed, the greater the reward, and the sweetness thence afterwards resulting. I know this by experience, as I have just said, in many serious affairs; and so, if I were a person who had to advise anybody, I would never counsel any one, to whom good inspirations from time to time may come, to resist them through fear of the difficulty of carrying them into effect; for if a person lives detached for the love of God only, that is no reason for being afraid of failure, for He is omnipotent. May He be blessed for ever! Amen.

4. O supreme Good, and my Rest, those graces ought to have been enough which Thou hadst given me hitherto, seeing that Thy compassion and greatness had drawn me through so many windings to a state so secure, to a house where there are so many servants of God, from whom I might learn how I may advance in Thy service. I know not how to go on, when I call to mind the circumstances of my profession, the great resolution and joy with which I made it, and my betrothal unto Thee. I cannot speak of it without tears; and my tears ought to be tears of blood, my heart ought to break, and that would not be much to suffer because of the many offences against Thee which I have committed since that day. It seems to me now that I had good reasons for not wishing for this dignity, seeing that I have made so sad a use of it. But Thou, O my Lord, hast been willing to bear with me for almost twenty years of my evil using of Thy graces, till I might become better. It seems to me, O my God, that I did nothing but promise never to keep any of the promises then made to Thee. Yet such was not my intention: but I see that what I have done since is of such a nature, that I know not what my intention was. So it was and so it happened, that it may be the better known, O my Bridegroom, Who Thou art and what I am.

5. It is certainly true that very frequently the joy I have in that the multitude of Thy mercies is made known in me, softens the bitter sense of my great faults. In whom, O Lord, can they shine forth as they do in me, who by my evil deeds have shrouded in darkness Thy great graces, which Thou hadst begun to work in me? Woe is me, O my Maker! If I would make an excuse, I have none to offer; and I only am to blame. For if I could return to Thee any portion of that love which Thou hadst begun to show unto me, I would give it only unto Thee, and then everything would have been safe. But, as I have not deserved this, nor been so happy as to have done it, let Thy mercy, O Lord, rest upon me.

6. The change in the habits of my life, and in my food, proved hurtful to my health; and though my happiness was great, that was not enough. The fainting−fits began to be more frequent; and my heart was so seriously affected, that every one who saw it was alarmed; and I had also many other ailments. And thus it was I spent the first year, having very bad health, though I do not think I offended God in it much. And as my illness was so serious−−I was almost insensible at all times, and frequently wholly so−−my father took great pains to find some relief; and as the physicians who attended me had none to give, he had me taken to a place which had a great reputation for the cure of other infirmities. They said I should find relief there. [6] That friend of whom I have spoken as being in the house went with me. She was one of the elder nuns. In the house where I was a nun, there was no vow of enclosure. [7]

7. I remained there nearly a year, for three months of it suffering most cruel tortures−−effects of the violent remedies which they applied. I know not how I endured them; and indeed, though I submitted myself to them, they were, as I shall relate, [8] more than my constitution could bear.

8. I was to begin the treatment in the spring, and went thither when winter commenced. The intervening time I spent with my sister, of whom I spoke before, [9] in her house in the country, waiting for the month of April, which was drawing near, that I might not have to go and return. The uncle of whom I have made mention before, [10] and whose house was on our road, gave me a book called Tercer Abecedario, [11] which treats of the prayer of recollection. Though in the first year I had read good books−−for I would read no others, because I understood now the harm they had done me−−I did not know how to make my prayer, nor how to recollect myself. I was therefore much pleased with the book, and resolved to follow the way of prayer it described with all my might. And as our Lord had already bestowed upon me the gift of tears, and I found pleasure in reading, I began to spend a certain time in solitude, to go frequently to confession, and make a beginning of that way of prayer, with this book for my guide; for I had no master−−I mean, no confessor−−who understood me, though I sought for such a one for twenty years afterwards: which did me much harm, in that I frequently went backwards, and might have been even utterly lost; for, anyhow, a director would have helped me to escape the risks I ran of sinning against God.

9. From the very beginning, God was most gracious unto me. Though I was not so free from sin as the book required, I passed that by; such watchfulness seemed to me almost impossible. I was on my guard against mortal sin−−and would to God I had always been so!−−but I was careless about venial sins, and that was my ruin. Yet, for all this, at the end of my stay there−−I spent nearly nine months in the practice of solitude−−our Lord began to comfort me so much in this way of prayer, as in His mercy to raise me to the prayer of quiet, and now and then to that of union, though I understood not what either the one or the other was, nor the great esteem I ought to have had of them. I believe it would have been a great blessing to me if I had understood the matter. It is true that the prayer of union lasted but a short time: I know not if it continued for the space of an Ave Maria; but the fruits of it remained; and they were such that, though I was then not twenty years of age, I seemed to despise the world utterly; and so I remember how sorry I was for those who followed its ways, though only in things lawful.

10. I used to labour with all my might to imagine Jesus Christ, our Good and our Lord, present within me. And this was the way I prayed. If I meditated on any mystery of His life, I represented it to myself as within me, though the greater part of my time I spent in reading good books, which was all my comfort; for God never endowed me with the gift of making reflections with the understanding, or with that of using the imagination to any good purpose: my imagination is so sluggish, [12] that even if I would think of, or picture to myself, as I used to labour to picture, our Lord's Humanity, I never could do it.

11. And though men may attain more quickly to the state of contemplation, if they persevere, by this way of inability to exert the intellect, yet is the process more laborious and painful; for if the will have nothing to occupy it, and if love have no present object to rest on, the soul is without support and without employment−−its isolation and dryness occasion great pain, and the thoughts assail it most grievously. Persons in this condition must have greater purity of conscience than those who can make use of their understanding; for he who can use his intellect in the way of meditation on what the world is, on what he owes to God, on the great sufferings of God for him, his own scanty service in return, and on the reward God reserves for those who love Him, learns how to defend himself against his own thoughts, and against the occasions and perils of sin. On the other hand, he who has not that power is in greater danger, and ought to occupy himself much in reading, seeing that he is not in the slightest degree able to help himself.

12. This way of proceeding is so exceedingly painful, that if the master who teaches it insists on cutting off the succours which reading gives, and requires the spending of much time in prayer, then, I say, it will be impossible to persevere long in it: and if he persists in his plan, health will be ruined, because it is a most painful process. Reading is of great service towards procuring recollection in any one who proceeds in this way; and it is even necessary for him, however little it may be that he reads, if only as a substitute for the mental prayer which is beyond his reach.

13. Now I seem to understand that it was the good providence of our Lord over me that found no one to teach me. If I had, it would have been impossible for me to persevere during the eighteen years of my trial and of those great aridities because of my inability to meditate. During all this time, it was only after Communion that I ever ventured to begin my prayer without a book−−my soul was as much afraid to pray without one, as if it had to fight against a host. With a book to help me−−it was like a companion, and a shield whereon to receive the blows of many thoughts−−I found comfort; for it was not usual with me to be in aridity: but I always was so when I had no book; for my soul was disturbed, and my thoughts wandered at once. With one, I began to collect my thoughts, and, using it as a decoy, kept my soul in peace, very frequently by merely opening a book−−there was no necessity for more. Sometimes, I read but little; at other times, much−−according as our Lord had pity on me.

14. It seemed to me, in these beginnings of which I am speaking, that there could be no danger capable of withdrawing me from so great a blessing, if I had but books, and could have remained alone; and I believe that, by the grace of God, it would have been so, if I had had a master or any one to warn me against those occasions of sin in the beginning, and, if I fell, to bring me quickly out of them. If the devil had assailed me openly then, I believe I should never have fallen into any grievous sin; but he was so subtle, and I so weak, that all my good resolutions were of little service−−though, in those days in which I served God, they were very profitable in enabling me, with that patience which His Majesty gave me, to endure the alarming illnesses which I had to bear. I have often thought with wonder of the great goodness of God; and my soul has rejoiced in the contemplation of His great magnificence and mercy. May He be blessed for ever!−−for I see clearly that He has not omitted to reward me, even in this life, for every one of my good desires. My good works, however wretched and imperfect, have been made better and perfected by Him Who is my Lord: He has rendered them meritorious. As to my evil deeds and my sins, He hid them at once. The eyes of those who saw them, He made even blind; and He has blotted them out of their memory. He gilds my faults, makes virtue to shine forth, giving it to me Himself, and compelling me to possess it, as it were, by force.

15. I must now return to that which has been enjoined me. I say, that if I had to describe minutely how our Lord dealt with me in the beginning, it would be necessary for me to have another understanding than that I have: so that I might be able to appreciate what I owe to Him, together with my own ingratitude and wickedness; for I have forgotten it all.

May He be blessed for ever Who has borne with me so long! Amen.

1. Antonio de Ahumada; who, according to the most probable opinion, entered the Dominican monastery of St. Thomas, Avila. It is said that he died before he was professed. Some said he joined the Hieronymites; but this is not so probable (De la Fuente). Ribera, however, says that he did enter the novitiate of the Hieronymites. but died before he was out of it (lib. i. ch. vi.).

2. Juana Suarez, in the Monastery of the Incarnation, Avila.

3. See Relation, vi. § 3.

4. The nuns sent word to the father of his child's escape, and of her desire to become a nun, but without any expectation of obtaining his consent. He came to the monastery forthwith, and "offered up his Isaac on Mount Carmel" (Reforma, lib. i. ch. viii. § 5).

5. The Saint entered the Monastery of the Incarnation Nov. 2, 1533, and made her profession Nov. 3, 1534 (Bollandists and Bouix). Ribera says she entered November 2, 1535; and the chronicler of the Order, relying on the contract by which her father bound himself to the monastery, says that she took the habit Nov. 2, 1536, and that Ribera had made a mistake.

6. Her father took her from the monastery in the autumn of 1535, according to the Bollandists, but of 1538, according to the chronicler, who adds, that she was taken to her uncle's house−−Pedro Sanchez de Cepeda−−in Hortigosa, and then to Castellanos de la Cañada, to the house of her sister, Doña Maria, where she remained till the spring, when she went to Bezadas for her cure (Reforma, lib. i. ch. xi. § 2).

7. It was in 1563 that all nuns were compelled to observe enclosure (De la Fuente).

8. Ch. v. § 15.

9. Ch. iii. § 4.

10. Ch. iii. § 5.

11. By Fray Francisco de Osuna, of the Order of St. Francis (Reforma, lib. i. ch. xi. § 2).

12. See ch. ix. §§ 4, 7.

Copyright 1999-2023 Catholic Support Services all rights reserved