SATURDAY READING: Flight Of The Spirit, by Teresa of Ávila

From The Book of My Life

One night, I felt so ill that I had to excuse myself from the communal practice of silent prayer.  I took my rosary with me so that at least I could occupy myself with vocal prayer.  Since I was sitting in an oratory, it probably appeared that I was in a recollected state, but I was trying very hard not to let my mind become absorbed.  Such techniques are of little use, however, when the Lord wills otherwise.

I had not been there for very long when such a forceful rapture seized my soul that I was powerless to resist it.  It seemed to me that I was carried to Heaven where I was greeted by my father and mother.  In the short amount of time it takes to recite an Ave Maria, I saw so many wondrous things that I remained utterly transported.  The blessing felt too great to bear.  Although it seemed as if it was over in a fleeting moment, the experience may have lasted much longer; I’m not sure.

The vision felt totally real, but I started to worry that it might be a delusion.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was embarrassed to go to my spiritual director about it.  I don’t think this was a matter of humility; I think I was afraid he would make fun of me.  “You’re a regular little Saint Paul, aren’t you, with your Heavenly visions?” he might say.  Or, “Look who thinks she’s Saint Jerome.”

The fact that these glorious men had experienced similar visions made me worry even more.  All I could do was cry.  I didn’t think I could possibly deserve to see what saints see.

Finally, I overcame my resistance and went to my director.  No matter how much I disliked talking about these things, I knew it was dangerous to remain silent about them, since I am often plagued with the fear that my experiences might be delusional.  When he saw how distressed I was, he comforted me.  He said all the right things to disengage me from my troubled thoughts.

Over time, the Lord showed me other great secrets.  He continues to do so.  It’s impossible for the soul to behold more than God reveals to her.  No matter how much she may have sometimes wished to see beyond what God was manifesting, my soul saw exactly what she needed to see every time.  And the truth is, the smallest part of what he revealed to me was so vast that it was enough to leave my soul in awe and put all the insignificant things of this life into perspective.

I wish I could say something about even a fraction of what I came to know, but I find it impossible to express.  If I try to use the analogy of light, it falls short.  There is light here and there is light in that other place, but the latter so totally transcends the former that any comparison becomes meaningless.  Next to the divine light, the light of the sun looks dull.  However keen the imagination may be, it can never succeed in describing or illustrating this light or in conveying any of the other things the Lord taught me.

Along with the knowledge he gives, the Lord bestows an ineffable delight.  It is so sublime that a thousand words cannot describe it.  All the senses rejoice.  The absolute exultation it produces defies all language.  And so, it’s better to say nothing.

Once the Lord spent more than an hour revealing these wondrous things to me.  It seemed that he never left my side that whole time.  Finally, he said to me, “Do you see, my daughter, what those who reject me lose?  Please do not fail to tell them about it.”

Ah, my Beloved, unless your Majesty gives them light, what good could I possibly do for those who are blinded by their own actions?  There are some people who have already glimpsed your light; they may well be in a position to profit from hearing about your grandeurs.  But not when the words come from the likes of me.  As soon as I mention that you have revealed your mercies to such a flawed person as myself, they will refuse to believe me.

May your name be blessed!  May your merciful name be blessed!  I, for one, have seen dramatic improvement in myself.  After you had blessed me, I wanted to remain in that state forever and never return to the mundane world.  Direct contact with you, my Beloved, left me with contempt for everything Earthly.  The things of this world felt like nothing but dung to me after that.  I have seen how easy it is for those of us who dwell here to get caught up in empty concerns.

Once when I was staying with doña Luisa de Cerda, I was suffering from severe pains in my chest.  I used to have serious heart trouble, but I don’t anymore.  Since she was a very charitable woman, she had some elaborate gold jewelry and some very precious stones brought out to show me.  One of the diamonds in particular was extremely valuable.  She thought it would cheer me up to see them.  Recalling what the Lord has in store for us in the next world, I couldn’t help but laugh at what people value here.  I feel sorry for them.  I realized how impossible it would be for me to cherish these objects even if I tried.  The Lord would have to expunge the things he has shown me from my memory.

A soul who has been given mastery of her own desires has a huge advantage.  But she does not bequeath this dominion to herself.  It is a gift from God.  Someone who does not have this kind of detachment cannot understand what it’s like.  It is not a matter of willful self-control; it comes naturally, without any labor on our part.  God does it all.  And he does it by revealing his truths in such a way that they are imprinted on our souls.  It is obvious to us that this detachment is a divine gift, because we never could have acquired it so quickly and easily on our own.

I used to be terrified of death.  Not anymore.  Since the visions, dying feels like the easiest thing in the world.  In the moment of death, the servant of God finds herself released at last from this prison.  Finally, she is free to rest.  I think these raptures must be similar to the experience of the soul leaving the body.  When God transports me like this, he carries my spirit away and reveals such sublime things to me that it seems as it I see everything that is sacred and excellent all at once.

We don’t need to talk about the pain that happens when the soul and the body are finally separated from one another.  This is insignificant, and it passes quickly.  Besides, I have a feeling that death comes gently to those who truly love God and are unmoved by the trappings of this life.

The other thing these visions gave me is the gift of recognizing that we are pilgrims in this world and our real home lies beyond this one.  It is wonderful to be given the chance to see the place where we will be living.  If someone had to go and live forever in another country, it would make the hardships of the journey much easier for him if he knew that he was going to a place where he would be living in comfort and ease.

The visions have also helped me keep my attention focused on Heavenly things.  It’s easier to keep my conversations on a spiritual track.  Cultivating this awareness has many benefits.  Sometimes just glancing toward Heaven is enough to recollect the soul.  Since the Lord has graciously revealed a glimpse of what it’s like, the soul has something on which to concentrate.

There are times when the beings that live in that other world are more real to me than those who inhabit this one.  They are my companions.  They’re the ones I turn to for real comfort.  They feel truly alive, while those who live here on Earth seem so dead!  There are times when I think there is no one in the whole world to keep me company.  I especially feel this way when the raptures come over me.

Everything I see with the eyes of this body seems to be a dream of a joke.  I desire what I have already seen with the eyes of my soul.  But it feels so far away, and this life is like death to me.  Overall, I know that the Lord is doing us a great favor when he grants us these visions.  But even as he is helping us, he is giving us a heavy cross to bear, since nothing in this life pleases us after seeing what he has shown us.  Everything here feels like an impediment.  Mercifully, the Beloved allows us to forget from time-to-time.  Otherwise, I don’t know how we could live.

May God be blessed and praised forever!  May it be his will, by the blood his Son shed for me, that what happened to Lucifer never happen to me.  That fallen angel lost everything through his own fault.  I have already learned something about God’s great blessings and have begun to enjoy them.  May God, being who he is, not allow me to lose what he has given me.  Sometimes I become very afraid about this.  But mostly, God’s mercy makes me feel safe.  He has freed me from so many transgressions that I cannot imagine he would ever let me out of his hands again.  I beg you to beg God never to let me go astray.

None of those favors were as powerful as the one of which I am about to speak.  Although the greatness of each blessing is incomparable, especially when considered in and of itself, this particular experience is remarkable for the way it fortified my soul.

One day, on the eve of Pentecost, I went after Mass to a secluded place where I liked to pray.  I began to read about this holy day in the Carthusian book called The Life of Christ.  I read about the signs that demonstrate to beginning, adept, and perfect practitioners of prayer whether the Holy Spirit is with them.  It made me realize that, as far as I could tell, he was with me.

I praised the goodness of God and remembered that the last time I had read this same passage, I lacked much of what I now had.  I had been well aware of this deficiency at the time, just as I was now conscious of how far I had come.  So I understood what a great favor the Lord had granted me.  I began to reflect on the punishment I deserved for the things I had done and gave thanks to God.  I could hardly recognize my soul; the changes he had made in me were so radical.

While I was musing on this, a powerful energy abruptly swept over me.  It seemed that my soul didn’t fit in my body anymore and wanted to get out.  She couldn’t wait a moment longer to attain such goodness.  This impulse was so extreme that there was nothing I could do to help myself.  It felt very different from other transports.  My soul was so stirred up that she didn’t know what had happened to her or what she wanted.  I was sitting down, but my natural strength drained out of me so quickly that I had to lean against the wall to keep from falling over.

In the midst of this state, I saw a dove above my head.  It was very different from the doves of this world and much larger.  It didn’t have typical feathers.  Instead, the wings seemed to be made of tiny shells that sparkled with intense brilliance.  I thought I could hear the sound the dove made with the movement of its great wings.

It fluttered over me for the space of an Ave Maria, but my soul was so transported that as I lost myself, I lost sight of the dove.  Ordinarily such a dramatic experience would have frightened and agitated me, but instead my spirit was soothed by the presence of such a good guest, and I relaxed into the vision.  My soul lingered in rapture, and I was filled with a joyous quietude.

The glory of this rapture was exceedingly great.  For the rest of Pentecost, I remained spellbound and stupefied.  I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I was bewildered by my capacity to receive such an exalted gift.  I could hardly hear or see anything, yet I basked in a wondrous interior delight.  I noticed that from that day forward I made tremendous progress on the path.  My love of God increased dramatically, and my virtues grew much stronger.  May he be forever blessed and praised!

I saw the same dove on another occasion.  This time it was hovering over the head of the Dominican friar, Pedro Ibañez.  Its great wings and the rays of light that radiated from them extended much farther than when I saw it over my own head.  I understood that the soul of this man was meant to bring many other souls to God.

On yet another occasion, I saw our Lady drape a bright white cloak over Father Ibañez’s shoulders.  “I am giving this to him because of the service he has rendered us in helping found this house of prayer,” she said.  “This cloak is a sign that I will keep his soul spotless from now on.  He shall never fall into grave error.”

And I am certain this is so.  Father Ibañez died a few years later.  His life was so pure and his death so holy that insofar as we on Earth can know such things, there is no way to doubt the Blessed Mother’s promise.  A friar who was present at the deathbed told me that just before Father Ibañez died, he told the friar that Saint Thomas was with him.  He died with great joy.  He was excited to be freed from this exile.

Since his death, Father Ibañez has appeared to me several times in resplendent glory and told me a few things.  By the time he died, his practice of prayer had reached such a high level that even though he wanted to avoid contemplative prayer because of his weak health, his raptures kept carrying him away.

Father Ibañez wrote to me shortly before he died.  “What should I do?” he asked.  “Often, when I’ve finished celebrating Mass, I slip into a rapture and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.”  At the end of his life, God rewarded Father Ibañez for the great service he had offered throughout his life.

I also witnessed some of the wondrous blessings God bestowed on Gaspar de Salazar, the Jesuit director I’ve written about.  I will avoid mentioning these things here, so that this account will not be too long.  Father de Salazar once experienced a terrible trial in which he was being unfairly accused and persecuted.  He found himself in a state of deep affliction.

One day as the host was elevated during Mass, I saw Christ on the cross behind Father de Salazar.  Christ told me some comforting words to convey to the priest.  He said some other things that foretold what was to come and reminded the priest of what Christ had suffered for him, even as he announced that Father de Salazar should prepare himself to suffer.  This message gave him courage and solace.  Everything turned out the way the Lord had told me it would.

I have seen many other great things concerning the Jesuit order.  Sometimes I have seen its members in Heaven, carrying white banners in their hands.  And the Lord has shown me other wonderful things about them.  That’s why I admire the Society of Jesus so much.  Every contact I have with them further reinforces my certainty that their lives conform to what God has told me about them.

One night while I was in prayer, the Lord began to remind me how bad my life used to be.  His words filled me with shame and dismay.  Although he did not speak harshly, it triggered an all-consuming regret and grief in me.  But a single word from him stimulates more dramatic progress in self-knowledge than many days of reflection on our own wretchedness.  The divine message bears the indelible stamp of truth.

The Lord recalled for me the extremely superficial friendships I had cultivated in my youth.  He told me that I should be happy that my will, which had been so badly occupied with vanity, was not fixed on him.  He promised to honor my desire to be with him.

“Remember when you used to consider it an honor to defy me?” he asked.  “While you were dealing me the harshest blows, I was showering you with blessings.”  The Lord helped me to recognize my debt of gratitude to him.

I am truly blessed; I know I am.  Whenever I am doing anything wrong, his Majesty makes me so conscious of it that I am reduced to nothing.  Since I have so many faults, this happens frequently.  Sometimes after my confessor has chastised me, I seek consolation in prayer.  But that’s where I receive the real reprimand.

As I was saying, I felt terrible about myself that night.  It seemed as though I had made little progress, and this thought made me weep.  Then in the midst of my tears, I began to wonder if the Lord was about to grant me some blessing, since he often precedes his favors by humbling me so thoroughly that I have no illusions about being entitled to his grace.

No sooner had I thought this than my soul was swept up in such a powerful rapture that I seemed to be entirely disconnected from my body.  I saw the most sacred humanity, clearer and more glorious than I had ever seen it before.  With a penetrating understanding, I watched the Father enfold the Son in his heart.  I don’t know how to describe this!  Without seeing anything, I somehow saw that I was in the presence of the Divine.

I was so completely shocked by this encounter that it took me several days to return to myself.  It seemed to me that wherever I went, I was accompanied by the majesty of the Son of God.  This aftermath wasn’t as powerful as the initial experience, but I understood that a vision of this magnitude engraves itself so deeply on the imagination that no matter how swiftly it passes, it leaves its impression for a long, long time.  This impression is very comforting.  It is a great blessing.

I have seen this same vision three other times.  Of all the visions the Lord has granted me, I think this one is the most sublime.  It carries marvelous benefits.  It seems to purify the soul, removing any attachment to sensual gratification.  It is a powerful flame that burns away all worldly desires.  For even though I did not desire any typical vain things, glory be to God, this experience helped me to see clearly how all this life is vanity.  How vain, how truly vain are the distinctions of this world!

A vision like this becomes a powerful tool for elevating one’s desires to pure truth.  It fills the soul with a sense of deep reverence that I wouldn’t know how to put into words.  It is very different from anything we experience here on Earth.  The soul is awestruck to realize how she or any other soul could dare forsake such an extraordinary majesty.

Remember, different visions have varying degrees of impact on the soul.  The beneficial effects of this particular vision are immense.  As I approached the altar to receive communion, I was flooded with the memory of the extraordinary majesty that I had seen.  When I considered the presence of the Divinity in the blessed sacrament, which I had so often beheld in the host, my hair stood on end.  The whole experience seemed to annihilate me.

O my Lord!  If you did not hide your greatness, who would dare to keep reaching for union with you?  Who could ever consider herself worthy to become one with you?  May the angels and all the creatures praise you!  You measure out everything according to our weakness.  We can rejoice in your supreme blessings without being overwhelmed by your awesome power.  You do not scare us away from enjoying you.

What once happened to a certain laborer could happen to us.  He found a treasure that far exceeded any value he could comprehend.  He became so consumed with worry about what to do with it that his anxiety gradually killed him.  What if he hadn’t found it all at once?  What if the treasure had been handed to him bit by bit?  Since he was so poor, it would have sustained him and he would have lived happily.  Instead, the discovery cost him his life.

O wealth of the poor!  How beautifully you sustain our souls.  You reveal your great riches to us gradually rather than letting us see everything at once.  I am astonished to see such extraordinary majesty concealed in something as small and humble as the host.  When I reflect on this afterward, I marvel at such profound wisdom and wonder how the Lord gives me the courage to approach him.  All I know is that the One who gives me such blessed favors is the One who also gives me the strength to receive them.  I cannot possibly hide this knowledge.  I cannot resist proclaiming it to anyone who will listen.  Listen!  God is great!

What will a wretch like me feel when she approaches this majestic Lord, knowing that he has invited her into his presence?  I am weighed down with shame.  I have wasted my life and forgotten my awe of God.  How can a mouth that has spoken so many words against this same Lord receive that most glorious body?  He is pure goodness and perfect compassion.  Having seen his beautiful face, tender and friendly, my soul feels more sorrow for not having served him than she feels fear of his magnificence.

How can I possibly have experienced what I am about to describe not just once but twice?  O my Lord and my glory!  I feel certain that in some mysterious way I have served you by enduring the affliction I will not recount.  Oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about.  I am writing this as if someone else were speaking through me.  As I recall these things, I am so disturbed that I am almost beside myself.  How could I have just thought I had anything to offer you?  That idea did not come from me.  Maybe I do have a right to say I have done something for you, but no such notion is even possible unless you put it into my head.  There’s no reason to thank myself for thinking it.  I am the one in debt to you, my Beloved, and you are the one who has been wronged.

Once when I stood up to receive communion, I saw two abominable devils.  They appeared more clearly to the eyes of my soul than to my physical eyes.  It looked like they had wrapped their horns around the poor priest’s throat.  When I recalled that my Lord in all in all his majesty was within the host that was about to be given to me, now held in the hands of his offender, I understood that the soul of this priest was in mortal sin.  Can you imagine, my Lord, what it was like to see your beauty in the midst of such hideous company?  The demons seemed terrified in your presence, as if they would flee the second you released them.

This vision so thoroughly upset me that I don’t know how I was able to receive communion.  Afterward, I was afraid that the vision did not come from God, because why would he have allowed me to see evil in connection with a priest?  But then the Lord himself commanded me to pray for that soul.

“Do you see how powerful the words of consecration are?” he asked me.  “However wicked the priest who recites them may be, God does not fail to be present when they are uttered.”  Christ reminded me of the boundless benevolence he manifests by placing himself in the hands of his enemy and how he does this out of love for me and all beings.

I realized several things from this vision.  I saw how much more obligated priests are than the rest of us to be good.  I saw what a terrible thing it is to approach the blessed sacrament with unclean hands.  I saw how much power the spirit of evil has over a soul lost in grave error.  All this did me a great deal of good.  It helped me to understand more fully what I owe to God.  May he be blessed forever and ever.

On another day, I saw a similar vision and it really scared me.  I was in a certain place when a man died.  I had heard that he had lived a wicked life.  But his illness had spanned two years, so he’d had time to make amends for some of the things he had done.  Although he died without confession, it didn’t seem to me that he would be condemned.

While the body was being wrapped in its shroud, I saw a multitude of evil spirits grab hold of it and start cruelly playing with it.  It terrified me to see them drag the deceased with large hooks, tossing him from one demon to another.  As I watched while that same body was buried with all the honor and ceremony we bestow on our dead, I reflected on the goodness of God.  He conceals the fact that a soul set itself against him.  He doesn’t allow his enemy to be dishonored.

I was stunned by what I had seen.  I did not see another evil spirit during the rest of the ceremony until they placed the body in the grave.  That’s when another horde of demons jumped in with him and tried to take him away.  Seeing this made me frantic, and it took all my courage to conceal it.  If they had such dominion over the poor body, what would they be able to do to the soul?

If only souls in a state of grave error could see what I have seen.  It’s horrible!  I think it would be a powerful incentive for them to repair their wicked ways and start living a life of integrity.  These visions deepen my awareness of how much I am beholden to God.  Look what he has freed me from!

This experience continued to trouble my mind until I spoke to my confessor about it.  He assured me that the vision was not a delusion.  I had been afraid that the spirit of evil might have been tricking me to discredit the man’s soul.  It may have been true that he did not have the most pious spirit, but the outcome terrified me every time I thought about it.

Now that I have recounted some of my experiences with the dead, I’d like to tell you about some of the other ways in which it has been God’s will for me to see certain souls.  I’ll just mention a few of these, since it doesn’t benefit anyone for me to go into great detail.

I was informed of the death of a man who had once been our provincial, Father Gregorio Fernandez.  I had dealt with him on various occasions and he had been very kind to me.  He was a virtuous man, known for his many good deeds.  When I heard that he was dead, I was immediately worried about his salvation.  Father Fernandez had been a superior for twenty years, and I think being in charge of other people’s souls can be a dangerous thing.

I entered an oratory with an anxious heart.  I offered up all the merit I might ever have accumulated in my life for the good of Father Fernandez’s soul.  But when I realized that it didn’t amount to much, I asked the Lord to draw from his own store of goodness to purify and liberate the priest’s soul.

While I was in the middle of petitioning the Lord to the best of my ability, the man’s soul seemed to rise up out of the ground on my right side and ascend into Heaven.  He looked gloriously happy.  When I knew Father Fernandez, he was already quite old, but in this vision he looked like he wasn’t even thirty.  His face was beaming.

The moment passed very quickly, but I felt much better afterward.  Father Fernandez was greatly revered, and I saw people suffering severe grief over his loss.  But his death never made me feel sad again.  The consolation I experienced banished all worry from my mind.  I no longer doubted that his soul was safe, nor did I question if the vision was real or a delusion.

Two weeks had passed since his death, and I continued to ask other people to pray for him.  But although I kept praying for him myself, I did not do so as desperately as I had prayed before I had been given that vision.  It’s funny, when someone dies and the Lord shows them to me in this way, praying for them feels like giving alms to the rich.  Father Fernandez died far away from Ávila.  Afterward, when I heard about the death the Lord had given him, I learned a lot from it.  He amazed everyone with his deep wisdom and humble tears.

A nun from the Incarnation died.  She had been a great servant of God.  A day and a half after her death, another nun was in the choir, reciting the service for the dead for her sister’s departed soul.  I stood beside her to accompany her.  When she was halfway through the verse, I saw the nun who had died.  As before, it seemed that her soul rose from my right side on its way to Heaven.  This was an intellectual vision, rather than an imaginative one like the other, but it was just as reliable.

Around eighteen or twenty years ago, another nun from that same house died.  She had suffered from poor health her whole life and had always served God with great devotion.  She was dedicated to her choir duties and scrupulous in every way.  Since she had endured so many illnesses, I felt certain she had stored up a surplus of merit and would bypass purgatory.  Yet four hours after her death, while we were reciting the prayers prior to her burial, I suddenly understood that her soul had been released from purgatory and was on its way to Heaven.

While I was at Saint Giles, the Jesuit college in Ávila, I was experiencing one of those great trials of body and soul I’ve told you about.  I was so distraught that I don’t think I was capable of thinking a single good thought.  That night, a Jesuit brother died in that house.  A priest from the Society of Jesus was saying Mass for him and I was praying for him when a deep recollection came over me.  I saw him ascend to Heaven in great glory, and Christ rose with him.  I was deeply blessed to understand that the Lord accompanied him on his journey home.

Another very good friar from my own order, Diego Matias, was gravely ill.  While I was at Mass, I fell into deep recollection and understood that Father Diego had died.  I saw that he had ascended to Heaven without going through purgatory.  According to what I learned later, he died at the exact hour I’d had the vision of him.

At first I was amazed that he did not require a period of purification, but then I realized that because he had observed the monastic rule so faithfully, he was saved from a sojourn in purgatory.  I don’t know why I was given to understand this.  It seems to me that it must be because I know that being a friar is not a matter of wearing the right robes.  It’s about cultivating the state of higher perfection exemplified by a spiritual life.

I don’t want to say any more about these things.  As I mentioned, they don’t really matter.  The Lord has granted me the favor of seeing many things.  But of all the visions I’ve received, I never saw any soul skip the purification stage and go straight to paradise except for Father Diego, the saintly Pedro de Alcantará, and the Dominican priest I’ve talked about, Father Ibañez.  It was God’s will for me to see the varying degrees of glory allotted to some other souls and the distinct places assigned to them in the afterlife.  As it turns out, these differences are far greater than I would have thought.

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