Part Three

22. Special Mystical Graces

Teresa shares with us some experiences which she had during her prayer. At times certain words came clearly into her consciousness. She was aware that she was not their source. The words came to her with a certain divine authority, and when she obeyed them they bore powerful fruit (Interior Castle VI.3.5). The first time she had such an experience was in 1557, when the following words were spoken to her, as she believed, by Jesus: ‘No longer do I want you to converse with human beings, but with angels’(Life 24.5). On another occasion she heard: ‘Do not fear, daughter, for I am, and I will not abandon you. Do not fear’(Life 25.18). In her Spiritual Testimonies she records other ‘words’ spoken to her in prayer: ‘Strive to have the right intention and to be detached in all things and look at me so that what you do may be in conformity with what I did’(No. 8). ‘Give me your hands. Behold my wounds. You are not without me. This short life is passing away’(No. 12.6). ‘Do not try to hold me within yourself. Try to hold yourself within me’(No. 14). ‘Progress does not come by trying to enjoy me more, but by trying to do my will’(No. 15).

She is aware of the danger of being deceived in this matter and advises people who suffer from a flighty imagination to ignore such experiences (Interior Castle VI.3.2,3). No one should take notice of such ‘words’ before seeking the guidance of a spiritual director (Interior Castle VI.3.11). For two years after her first experience her confessors told her to treat these words as a temptation (Life 25.15). She did her best to obey them, knowing that God wanted her to obey her confessors even when they were mistaken (Life 26.5). She is confident that if these experiences are from God they will produce a profound peace in the soul, and they will lead to a deeper humility (Interior Castle VI.3.6,18) and to a prayer of praise. If they are from God they stay in the soul, drawing us to a deeper obedience (Interior Castle VI.3.7).

Teresa also experienced ecstasy or rapture. She received the promise of spiritual marriage during one such experience, and she writes:

 God concludes the betrothal by giving the soul a rapture which draws it away from the senses (Interior Castle VI.4.2).

In ecstasy, the soul seems no longer to animate the body, and resistance is impossible. However, there is no loss of consciousness. On the contrary:

 The soul has never before been so fully awake to the things of God (Interior Castle VI.4.4). 

 It will happen that even though the extreme ecstasy ends, the will remains so absorbed and the intellect so withdrawn, for a day or even days, that the intellect seems incapable of understanding anything that does not lead to awakening the will to love; and the will is wide awake to this love and asleep to becoming attached to any creature (Interior Castle VI.4.14).

She speaks also of being suddenly caught up in love. In these sudden ‘flights of the spirit’ the soul sees and learns things that cannot be expressed (Interior Castle VI.5.9), and experiences ‘overwhelming joy and delight’(Interior Castle VI.11.11):

Since the soul goes about with such tender love, any occasion that enkindles the fire more causes the soul to fly aloft (Interior Castle VI.6.1)

We cannot earn such favours, but Teresa is convinced that if we give our whole heart and soul to God, God’s love is such that God would want everyone to experience a similar intimacy:

Even though it is true that these are blessings which the Lord gives to whomever he wills, he would give them all to us if we loved him as he loves us (Interior Castle VI.4.12).

She tells us of other special favours which she received at this time. Without any image she became deeply aware of Jesus being by her side (Life, 27.2; Interior Castle, VI.8.2). This made her even more acutely aware of the slightest movements of sin. It also made her more determined to give herself to God and to be available for whatever work her Beloved wanted of her. On 30th June 1571, she received the grace of an habitual awareness of the Blessed Trinity dwelling in her soul:

The thought came to me of how a sponge absorbs and is saturated with water; so, I thought, was my soul which was overflowing with the divinity and in a certain way rejoicing within itself and possessing the three Persons (Spiritual Testimonies 14).

Sometimes an image of Jesus was part of her experience. This happened for the first time on January 25th 1561 (Life 28.3). In her Life she records other images that came to her in prayer. On one occasion she had an image of an angel who pierced her in the depths of her heart (Life 29.13). On May 29th 1563, she had a vision of a dove while reading the Life of Christ by the Carthusian, Ludolph of Saxony (Life 38.10). She tells us how she saw Jesus being taken into the bosom of the Trinity (Life 38.17). She claimed that these were very different kinds of images from any that we might produce from our own imagination (Interior Castle VI.9.8-9).

Because the danger of self-deception here is very high, she warns anyone who seems to be having such an experience to be completely open with a spiritual director (Interior Castle VI.9.12). In her case, as with the ‘words’ which she heard, she was told at first to treat these visions as a temptation (Life 29.5). She did her best to obey, but found that she could do nothing either to bring these visions about or to stop them (Life 29.2). Significantly, her love kept increasing (Life 29.8), as did her desire to ‘want only what God wants’(Interior Castle VI.9.16). While warning us of the danger of self-deception, she acknowledges: ‘When visions are from God, they should be greatly prized’(Spiritual Testimonies 65.3).

Speaking in general of the many favours given her in prayer, she writes:

If our Lord had not bestowed on me the favours he has, I think I should not have had the courage to do what I have done nor the strength to endure the trials, the opposition and the criticisms I have received. And so, since beginning my foundations, I have lost the fears that had previously troubled me when I thought I was suffering from delusions, and I have become certain that it was all the work of God. This led me to fling myself into difficult enterprises, though I always acted on advice and under obedience (Spiritual Testimonies 30).

Experiences such as we have just described are not essential either to prayer or to holiness. Moreover, as Teresa noted on many occasions, they are not free of dangers. We can be misled by pride and illusions. The danger is so great that John of the Cross is adamant that we should pay no attention to such extraordinary graces (see Ascent II.11 and 16-18). His teaching is that if they are indeed from God, their effect on the soul is immediate. Furthermore, along with Teresa (Interior Castle VI.9.15), John warns us not to desire such graces. Let all our desire be for a deeper faith, for it is faith alone that guides us in contemplation.

Teresa offers the following advice: ‘The safest way is to want only what God wants’ (Interior Castle VI.9.16). Our desire should be only ‘to satisfy love, and it is love’s nature to serve with deeds’(Interior Castle VI.9.18). Father Marie-Eugène writes:

However extraordinary sensible phenomena may be, they are so complex that, except for cases authenticated by the Church, it is at very least to waste one’s precious time and satisfy a vain curiosity to linger with them in the hope of viewing some manifestation of the super-natural, or even of determining their nature and the kind of testimony that they give. A few moments of supernatural recollection or of the prayer of quiet, an act of faith and an act of love, these give God to the soul more surely and more directly than do all the extraordinary sensible phenomena ( I am a daughter of the Church page 354).

At the same time we should not, in an undiscerning way, dismiss all such extraordinary experiences of God. When these experiences are accompanied by a sincere commitment to the truth, and have about them a graced simplicity and harmony; when they produce in the soul true humility, reverence and peace, they may well be gifts from God, given for God’s own mysterious purposes. Father Marie-Eugène writes:

These favours usually have considerable influence in the development of the spiritual life of those who receive them and in the realisation of their mission. This was the case for Saint Teresa … Frequently, at the threshold of the narrow way in which God engages those God has chosen, God places an extraordinary favour which, like a beacon, show the entrance to it, lights up the way and its steep ascents, and already with its powerful shafts reveals its summit (I am a daughter of the Church page 268,271).

In some cases, there may be an element of mental illness mixed in with experiences of special mystical graces. This may make discernment more difficult, but it does not mean that the mentally ill person is not being especially favoured by God. After all, we are speaking of a God who hears the cry of the distressed. Father Marie-Eugène quotes Father de Guibert:

We can very well believe that God particularly favours this soul, by reason of the immense difficulties and hard trials that it meets with in order to realise its ascent in love, in the midst of the obscurities and tempests of its cruel illness (I am a daughter of the Church page 365).

If we have been touched by love, let us not waste our time waiting for the next touch. While we long and wait for full communion, let us contemplate Jesus in his mysteries. Teresa writes:

These mysteries will not be apprehended by the understanding: the soul will understand them in a more perfect way. First, the understanding will picture them to itself, and then they will be impressed upon the memory, so that the mere sight of the Lord on his knees in the garden, covered with that terrible sweat, will suffice us, not merely for an hour, but for many days. We consider with a simple regard who he is and how ungrateful we have been to one who has borne such pain for us. Then the will is aroused, not perhaps with deep emotion but with a desire to make some kind of a return for this great favour and to suffer something for one who has suffered so much himself (Interior Castle VI.7.11).

We conclude with the following words from Teresa:

The highest perfection consists not in interior favours or in great raptures or in visions or the spirit of prophecy, but in bringing our wills so closely into conformity with the will of God, that as soon as we realise that God wills something, we desire it ourselves with all our might, and take the bitter with the sweet, knowing that to be God’s will (Foundations 5.10).