in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Teresa of Avila and Theosis/Deification - Leuven Conference

It has been a great few days at the Theosis conference in Leuven organised by Louise Nelstrop and Rob Faesen of the Mystical Theology Network. Special guests included HH The Eastern Patriarch Bartholomew and Lord Williams, both of whom gave excellent papers. Here is an extract from my paper on Teresa. In it a compare her model of theosis with what I have called the Augustinian and Plotinian models...



Teresa’s Picture of the Soul and Deification

1. Sources of Interpretation

 If we begin with the origins of Teresa’s interpretation it would at first seem clear that her work is based on the Christian scriptures rather than the Platonic tradition. Clearly she was not familiar with the Platonic texts as, unlike John of the Cross, who would have studied them at Medina and Salamanca, she never references them. Yet, her relationship to the Christian scriptures if far from straightforward. As she tells us in Chapter 26 of the Life:

When a number of books in Spanish were taken away from us and we were not allowed to read them, I felt it very much because the reading of some of them had given me great recreation, and I could no longer do so since they were only available in Latin. Then the Lord said to me: “Don’t be upset, for I will give you a living book”. (Teresa of Avila V: 26.6) [1]

In the passage we come across some of the key events that were influencing her: the prohibition of spiritual books in the vernacular following the Valdés decree of 1559, her own reliance on just such vernacular books of spirituality in her early life. Thus, after 1559 Christian scripture in the vernacular would not have been available who professes not to know sufficient Latin to read them. Her knowledge of scripture, then (having not studied it at University) would be mediated through the mystical writers mentioned, devout reading, and the Divine Office.


2. Origins of the Soul

In the Augustinian schema we have a flawed creation that needs God’s grace for our perfection, the neo-Platonic schema, on the other hand, uses the power of eros and nous through theoria to find its goal in the World Nous. Where does Teresa’s picture fit on this continuum? The first ‘apparition’ of the soul in ‘The Interior Castle’ is not one of a flawed or broken self, as she describes it so eloquently at the beginning of the exposition:


While I was beseeching our Lord today to speak through me (por mí),[2] as I was unable to find a thing to say (no atinaba a cosa que decir)[3] or how to begin to comply with this obedience, what I will say now presented itself (ofreció)[4] to begin with this starting point:  that we consider our soul to be like a castle, totally of diamond or very clear crystal, where there are many abodes (aposentos),[5] as in heaven there are many mansions. Now if we consider it carefully, sisters, the soul of a just person (el alma del justo)[6] is nothing else but a paradise where He says he takes his delights (El tiene sus deleites).[7] Well then, what do you think such an abode would be like where a King so powerful, so wise, so pure, so full of good things, takes his delight? I cannot find anything with which to compare the great beauty and capacity of the soul; and truly our intellects will no more be able to grasp this than they can comprehend God, no matter how keen they are, for He Himself said that He created us in his own image and likeness. (M: 1.1.1)


Admittedly, this picture of the perfect soul will soon be replaced by a darkened on overrun by toads, vipers and ‘other venomous creatures’ and in ‘The Book of the Life’ we are presented with visions of corruption, the stench of sin and Hell (give references) that would have met with Augustine’s approval. Yet, the over-riding impression given is of an initial state of unity and bliss – the perfect vision of the soul given at the beginning of the Castle –which we lose but can regain through the methods presented in the Castle.

3. God seeks us out

Even when we stray God is trying hard to seek us out. In the Fourth Mansion she describes how when we have lost our way in the journey to reunion with God the ‘shepherd’s pipe’ of the Lord can be heard blowing and leading us back to where we need to be:

I don’t know in what way or how they heard their shepherd’s whistling.    It wasn’t through the ears, because nothing is heard. But one     noticeably senses a gentle drawing inward (un encogimiento suave a lo             interior), as anyone who goes through this will observe, for I don’t know how to make it clearer. It seems to me I have read that it is like            a hedgehog or tortoise, when they withdraw into themselves; the one            who wrote this must have understood it well. (M: 4.3.3)[8]


In clear contrast to the Platonic schema, Teresa’s vision of the action of God is closer here to Augustine’s notion of the God of Grace who acts on the soul to rescue us in our fallen state.


4. The role of eros

As I have argued elsewhere, Teresa’s vision of the soul and her drive towards theosis are genuinely erotic and eros is central to her understanding of the self. The Divine Platonic eros plays a central stage in Teresa’s work in a way we do not find in Augustine, who I would argue, is suspicious of eros and its role in deification. One example will suffice. The most celebrated example of Teresa’s eros is in Chapter 29 of the Life – the incident usually referred to today as the ‘transverberation’ and of course immortalised in Bernini’s famous statue. But if we look at the strikingly similar passage in Mansion Six of the ‘Interior Castle’ we can appreciate how Teresa is using the erotic tradition (inherited from Osuna, Gerson et al) to demonstrate the role of eros in mystical union. In itself a deeply Platonic theme:


So powerful is the effect of this on the soul that it dissolves with desire     and doesn’t know what to ask for, for clearly it seems that it is with its        God. You will ask me: Well, if it knows this, what does it desire or what            pains it? What greater good does it want? I don’t know. I do know that     it seems that this pain reaches to the soul’s entrails (entrañas)[9] and   that when He who wounds it draws out the arrow, it indeed seems, in      accord with the deep love the soul feels, that God is drawing these           very entrails after Him. I was thinking now that it is as though, from       this fire enkindled in the brazier that is my God, a spark (un centella)             jumped out and so touched the soul that the flaming fire was felt by it             and since it was not enough to set the soul on fire, and it is so        delightful, the soul is left with that pain; and this produced by it just            touching the soul. (M: 6.2.4)




[1] Cuando se quitaron muchos libros de romance, que no se leyesen, yo sentí mucho, porque algunos me dava recreación leerlos, y yo no podia ya, por dejarlos en latín; me dijo el Señor: “No tengas pena, que yo te dare libro vivo”. My translation from the Spanish of the Obras Completas de Santa Teresa de Jésus ed Efrén de la Madre de Dios and Otger Steggink , 9th ed. Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1997 and Santa Teresa Obras Completas, ed T Alvarez, 10th ed. Burgos: Editorial Monte Carmelo, 1998. The English translations of Teresa’s works will be either my own or, unless stated, Kavanaugh and Rodriguez 1987. V = El Libro de la Vida (Book of Her Life), M = Las Moradas (The Interior Castle), CE = Camino de Perfección (Way of Perfection),  Escorial Codex, CV =Camino, Valladolid Codex, CT = Camino, Toledo Codex, C = Meditaciones del amor de Dios, Exc = Exclamaciones. For a biographical sketch of Teresa see the author’s  Way of Ecstasy: Praying with St Teresa of Avila (Tyler: 1997).
[2] Peers gives ‘through’, Kavanaugh and Rodriguez give ‘for’, see Bibliography.
[3] Peers gives ‘I could find nothing to say’, Kavanaugh and Rodriguez ‘’I wasn’t able to think of anything to say.’
[4] Peers: ‘a thought occurred to me’, Kavanaugh and Rodriguez ‘ there came to my mind.’
[5] Peers ‘a rather more pretentious word than the English “room”: dwelling place, abode, apartment’, Kavanaugh and Rodriguez: ‘Teresa uses the Spanish words moradas, aposentos y piezas in approximately the same sense; they refer to rooms or dwelling places within the castle… Most people today think of a mansion as a large stately home, not what Teresa had  in mind with the term moradas. “Dwelling places” turns out to be a more precise translation of Teresa’s moradas than is the classic “mansions” and more biblical and theological in tone.’
[6] Peers ‘the soul of the righteous man’ Kavanaugh and Rodriguez ‘the soul of the just person’
[7] Peers ‘He takes His delight’ KR ‘He finds His delight’ see also V:14:10 and Exc: 7, allusion to Proverbs 8:31.
[8] Osuna uses the same example in TA: 4.4. Teresa’s encogimiento here is an interesting variant or development of recogimiento.
[9] Matthew  and Allison Peers give ‘bowels’ for entrañas which seems very appropriate.


  1. Dear Peter,

    Thank you for the most interesting article that you have posted here - I am sure the whole paper is most illuminating.

    In particular, thank you for the new insights into, and your discussion of, the importance and power of eros in Teresa's writings and her understanding of the christian journey towards mystical union.

    All best,


  2. Dear Julienne, many thanks for your kind comments. Yes I enjoyed the challenge of writing on Teresa and theosis. I will be writing this up in the next few weeks so will post a bit more. I shall also be returning to this theme at York this Saturday...



  3. Sir, I wonder if I coyld obtain a copy of your paper for personal reflection? Also, do you think other papers, such as that of Archbishop Williams, will be published?



  4. I wonder if you could offer your paper in its entirety for use of personal reflection. I am very much a devotee of la Madre and have a great interest in the theme if deification.

  5. Dear Noel,
    Many thanks for your request. As the papers will most likely be published I feel it is best if I just put the edited extract here, however, if you would like a copy for your personal use please email me and I will send you one. best wishes