Teresa of Avila, or Saint Teresa of Avila, was a Carmelite nun living in a Spanish convent in the early 1500s. She had entered the convent at the age of twenty, after experiencing guilt about what she felt to be an unhealthy interest in medieval fiction and her own appearance. Teresa embarked on a quest to dedicate her life to God. In the convent, she was frequently ill and as a result has been named a patron saint of sickness and sick people. She also participated in self-torture and other self-punishing rituals designed to create nearness to God.
Teresa of Avila is perhaps most well-known as a mystic. Mysticism is the use of spiritual ritual and contemplation to attain a heightened mental state. Descriptions of mystical ecstasy by Teresa of Avila sound very much like the transcendental meditation practices of Hinduism and Buddhism. Teresa described bodily ecstasy where the “love of God” filled her with pain and pleasure and the mind’s faculties were absorbed by a mindless union with God. There are reports of Teresa of Avila levitating during Mass. Whether or not this is true, we have no way of knowing. But levitation would not be inconsistent with the descriptions of her other experiences, all of which are reported to be experienced by Buddhist monks at the highest levels of spiritual enlightenment.
What does this mean? Catholics revere St. Teresa of Avila as a holy figure, a person with a special relationship with God that Christians should emulate. Is there any evidence of true godliness in the ecstasy and rapture Teresa of Avila describes in her writings? Is mysticism something Christians should seek to experience? If we do not experience such things, does it signify something lacking in our spiritual connection to God?
Teresa of Avila, like most Catholic monks and nuns, believed in separating oneself from the world in a “cloister” as a means of drawing near to God. Along with pain, silence, and the repression of natural sexual desire, this self-inflicted isolation is supposed to diminish the body or starve its demands, so that the person can focus on the demands of the soul. Most people would be surprised to learn that, although this idea and image of Christianity is prevalent in most Christianized cultures, it is not based in the Bible but instead in the doctrines of Gnosticism, a first-century heresy that called the body evil and the spirit good. Naturally, according to Gnostic thought, if one wants to purify the spirit, one would suppress, afflict, or attempt escape from the body. Teresa of Avila was clearly of this mindset, which is easily refuted using Scripture:
“Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. . . . Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Colossians 2:18, 20–23).
When the Galatians were tempted to return to following the Law, Paul pointed out that what is done to the body has no effect on the spirit: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6). Paul goes on to exhort them to avoid using their freedom as an opportunity to indulge the flesh but instead to love and serve each other. He then outlines the works of the flesh, which are “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Galatians 5:19–21). Note that Paul does not list sexual desire, hunger, companionship, joy, or comfort here. The flesh uses the natural desires of the body for evil purposes, but that does not mean those natural desires are evil. And suppression of the natural desires of the body is not the answer to ridding oneself of sin. Instead, we are to “walk by the Spirit” (verse 16) and trust in Christ for salvation, because the Law exists to excite sin so that we will recognize our need and turn to the Lord (Romans 7; Galatians 3:24).
Teresa of Avila, among the other ascetics and mystics, recommended suppression of the natural desires of the body in order to create spiritual ecstasy. The Bible commands us to walk by the Spirit in order to suppress the flesh (the tendency of evil to use the body against us). Like most false or misleading religious creeds, asceticism and mysticism twist the meaning of Scripture, leaving just enough truth in it to deceive.
Teresa of Avila was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. Her feast day is October 15.