St. Teresa in Ecstasy
As I have mentioned in these pages before, 2015 marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Avila. On the occasion of her feast day, I would like to focus on the image that most people associate her with, the great baroque statue by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Teresa in Ecstasy. The church that houses this masterpiece is Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, and by coincidence (or not), is right across the street from the church I was married in, Santa Susanna.
The statue is a depiction of her mystical union with Christ which she describes in her autobiography. St. Teresa was a mystic and often received inner locutions and visions. During one such moment, she experienced the transverberation of her heart or a spiritual espousal. The best way to describe this is a transforming union that takes place between the soul and God – and it is the most exalted state the soul can experience in this life. The soul becomes familiar or intimate with God, especially in the suffering of her divine Spouse. Most saints that experience this are stigmatics, although St. Teresa was not. She described it this way:
“I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form….He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. Their names they never tell me; but I see very well that there is in heaven so great a difference between one angel and another, and between these and the others, that I cannot explain it. I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.”
The piercing of the heart (or soul) is spiritual pain and it brings to mind the words of Simeon to Our Blessed Mother in the Temple.
“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
What is this sword or spear that causes such spiritual pain? It seems to me that it is sorrow for the Cross – a profound awakening within the soul that truly reveals the depth and breadth of God’s love – what He was willing to sacrifice in order redeem fallen mankind into union with Himself. God is beauty, God is light, God is love – and true love is self-emptying. Christ, the light of the world, was willing to take upon Himself the punishment of sin, to go down into the depths of our darkness and dysfunction, in order to lift us up into His divine life.
Although mystical union is an exalted state and union with God is our ultimate goal – we often experience a “piercing of the heart” on many levels in our spiritual journey. St. Teresa says that what was revealed to her was her very self in light of God’s Truth. To see ourselves as we truly are, in our poverty before God, is often painful, for we are sinners – and our sins, in light of God’s beauty and perfection, wounds us. But this revelation is a grace.
It is interesting to note that one of the saints that St. Teresa most identified with was St. Mary Magdalene. Let’s face it, on some level, we are all Mary Magdalene. When our broken souls are pierced, we weep. Sometimes the tears overflow so much that prostate ourselves at the feet of our Lord and wash them with our tears. St. Teresa, throughout her life, spent many a day weeping. The days that I have spent weeping after receiving communion are too numerous to count. But the weeping is a cleansing of the heart and it has with it the sweetest of consolations. For our Lord wants nothing more than to shower us with His Divine Mercy.
In her spiritual masterpiece, The Interior Castle, St. Teresa describes the journey of the soul going through many rooms or mansions within a castle. In the inner room, the sanctuary, we find union with Christ.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” John 14:1-3
May we all find solace in the Sacred Heart of Christ!
This article, St. Teresa in Ecstasy is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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