Tom Kelly

Saint Teresa of Jesus: A Challenge to Perceived Misconceptions

At the age of 39, the Carmelite nun Teresa of Avila (nee Teresa Sanchez Cepeda Davila y Ahumada, 1515-1582)[1] began to have religious experiences wherein she claimed to have perceived Jesus Christ. She described her experiences in two ways: she described having seen elements of Christ’s body, for example, hands first, then face, then in total; and spiritually, that is to say, “…with the eyes of the soul.”[2] Teresa was certain of her experiences’ divinity to the point that she believed her soul to have been changed and that Satan had no involvement.[3]

Despite Teresa’s certainty, there is language in her writing that would lead a reader to conclude that she is a less than stable person, bringing into question the authenticity of her spiritual accounts. The language in question is more than self deprecating; it is occasionally self defeating. However, in the light of philosophers William James (1842-1910) and William P. Alston’s (b. 1921) work, Saint Teresa’s words benefit from measured and rational perspectives. Additionally, examination of Teresa’s 16th century context will further expand our understanding of her struggles. For, while Teresa’s words may appear irrational, they came from a cultivated and structured mind that is not to be pitied, but revered.

This work will analyze Saint Teresa’s work from a textual and semantic point of view, describing certain phrases that may lead the uninitiated reader to take up disparaging opinions of Teresa. Textual challenges to those misconceptions will be undertaken with explanations provided by philosopher William James’ considerations of spiritual experiences being universal and clearly identifiable and with the considerations of philosopher William P. Alston’s perceptual paradigm. Finally, this work will describe some of Teresa’s challenges and accomplishments.

A textual analysis of an example of Saint Teresa of Jesus’ writing reveals a state of mind that calls into question the example’s claims, those being of a profound religious experience. In Teresa’s description of her perceiving Jesus Christ, Teresa labels herself as, “…[a] base and wicked person…” with, “…natural weakness.” When describing her initial perception of Jesus – which she could only describe as an “awareness” (“…Jesus Christ seemed to be beside me…[emphasis provided]”) – she, “…did nothing but weep…”[4] Teresa also describes intense fear;[5] these spontaneous emotional responses may have been indications of a clinical depression or other mental disorder. Further, Teresa is twice deferential in this example; “…we know that He is there, since the Faith tells us so,” and, “…Your Reverence will explain [Teresa’s own experiences] better than I,” indicating self doubt. While these semantic examples may collectively be detrimental to any claim Teresa makes, further examination of the text – combined with proper philosophical analysis and contextual considerations – brings to light for the informed reader a more complete picture.

The veracity of Saint Teresa’s religious experience may be qualified; philosopher William James categorizes “mystical states of consciousness”[6] His four criteria of these states may be applied to Teresa’s text – contrary to the previous accusatory examples – as follows: the ineffability of Teresa’s experience, that is to say, its defiance of description is characterized by her words, “…for describing this…there is no comparison,” “…the beauty of which was so great as to be indescribable,” and, “…it is impossible to write…a description…”[7]; the noetic quality, that is to say, the knowing or insight that came from Teresa’s experiences are described, thus, “…no one can doubt it is the Lord Himself…we know that he is there…” and, “…it is revealed to us how He is God, and that He…can do all things…”[8]; the transiency, that is to say, the temporal duration and recurrence of Teresa’s experience is described as ascending in quality, first from a feeling of Jesus’ presence, to a vision of his hands, then his face, then finally his whole being, to an ultimate perception not of the senses, but with the soul;[9] Teresa’s mystical states were initially facilitated by her voluntary, habitual prayer – not unlike meditation – and her habitual attention to portraiture, religious or otherwise, “…the vision…was like no earthly painting…I have seen a great many good ones,”[10] however, her passivity, that is to say, her loss of will in the face of profound religious experiences, is less evident in the example passage (in the preparation of this work, it was not found that Saint Teresa experienced prophetic speech, automatic writing, or mediumistic trance). It is possible that the passage, “…He addressed a single word to me…and I became quiet again,” is an example of James’ passivity.[11] Teresa did, however, have a profound sense of a modified inner life and the importance thereof, “The soul is now a new creature.”[12]

It is particularly in the recurrence of experiences that James’ transiency provides useful qualification. While Teresa’s experiences wax and wane, they also develop in their importance to Teresa. Starting with just a feeling of Christ’s presence, the experience builds past sensory vision of Christ to, ultimately, a “seeing” with the soul.[13] Additionally, Teresa is aware of the visions’ “fading imperfection”; for Teresa, “…if the memory is to last…it is a great thing that…Divine Presence…be presented to the imagination.”[14] It is also to this point that Alston’s perceptual paradigm regarding “direct awareness of God (Alston’s emphasis),” is extended.

Alston extensively works with the idea of perception or, presentation, in that he considers mystical experiences to be, “…independent of conceptualization, belief, or judgment.”[15] Saint Teresa’s initial spiritual perceptions may have been intertwined with her conceptualizations – that is to say, her interpretations based on her intense observations and intellectual concentration – and her ingrained beliefs. However, in her later divine perceptions, the nature of those evolved beyond the five senses, “…I never saw it…with the eyes of the body, but only with the eyes of the soul.”[16] It would seem, also, that there was a necessary, causal contribution to be made by Teresa’s perceptions; those perceptions terminated her long period of spiritual languish and began twenty years of extensive good works.[17] Saint Teresa utilized the comparative concept of portraiture to account for perceptions she could not otherwise describe, though she did recognize the failure of that descriptive.[18]

To Alston, perception, particularly perception of God, is not limited to humans’ five senses. As Saint Teresa’s direct awareness of God – or rather, Jesus Christ, God’s earthly representation – fits within Alston’s perceptual paradigm, it may be said that her experiences were genuine. By functioning as a mode of communication and serving a causal end, those perceptions went beyond delusion to a genuine perception of God.[19]

While James and Alston provide plausible explanations for Teresa of Jesus’ mystical authenticity, her unique context is outside those scholars’ purview. However, a brief look at that context will provide a fuller understanding of her life. Teresa was plagued by early-life, long-term illness; she was so ill at times as to be thought incurable. After her partial recovery and subsequent visions, she endured her peers’ derision; many, friends and clergy alike, claimed her experiences were from Satan.[20] Teresa was forced to defend herself, and this is evident in the example writing where she argues her experiences to have brought only good, “I used to put forth that argument…when they…[often]…told me…that I was being deceived by the devil.”[21] Teresa grew impatient with her Carmelite order and split from it in 1562. She established the Discalced (eremitic) order and from 1567 till her death established seventeen foundations for women and others as well for men.[22] Teresa was a manager of people and showed flexibility and fortitude in her dealings with: peasants, who adored her easy going demeanor; her Sister peers, who cherished their time with her; and the exclusively male church leaders, with whom Teresa often dealt with in political and economic matters of the Church and from whom Teresa did not demure.[23] Finally, Teresa was a prolific and detailed chronicler of her experiences – both mystical and earthly – and she was a keen describer of the human character.[24] Her literary works include two primers on achieving spiritual enlightenment, The Way of Perfection and Interior Castle. Considered one of the 16th century’s most prolific writers and despite demands on her time during her founding activities (1562-1582), she wrote more than four-hundred fifty letters.[25] Saint Teresa of Jesus’ strengths were many; she was no weak minded or clinically depressed person for whom to pity.

Initial inspection of Saint Teresa of Jesus’ example work, may – to the untutored reader – reveal an author rather out of touch with reality. The repeated allusions to her weaknesses and emotional vacillations might lead one to believe that Saint Teresa suffered from some mental disorder. She contradicts herself by comparing her experiences by sensual means (portraiture) alternating with the non-sensual (seeing with the soul) and is deferential to others for her own beliefs and perceptions. However, the conclusions of the casual, uninitiated reader are misplaced. It is within the larger context of philosophical work pertinent to spiritual experiences that Teresa’s writing is disentangled, if not clarified.

Teresa used conceptual imagery and a complete giving of her self identity to achieve spiritual congress. She avoids the possibility of satanic involvement through her good works. Teresa’s divine experience fits within Alston’s perceptual model and is verified. Teresa’s experience fits the parameter of true “mystical experience” as, in its final form, her experience was non-sensory; her, “seeing with the soul,” went beyond the realm of humans’ five senses.[26]

Saint Teresa of Jesus was a constant, committed, and devotional practitioner of spiritual enlightenment; she was not a pitiable character solely and grimly devoted to a dark life of hymns and poverty, nor was she weak of constitution or fortitude. While examination of her work from a more modern philosophic standpoint is essential to further understanding, a study of Teresa’s historical and personal context completes the view.

Works Cited

Alston, William P. “Religious Experience as Perception of God.” Philosophy of Religion:

Selected Readings. Peterson, Michael, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and

David Basinger, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Der Teresianische Karmel. webmaster@karmel.at. Province of the Teresian Carmel in

Austria. 27 March 2007 <http://www.karmel.at/eng/teresa.htm>.

James, William. “Religious Experience as the Root of Religion.” Philosophy of Religion:

Selected Readings. Peterson, Michael, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and

David Basinger, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Peers, E. Allison. St. Teresa of Jesus and Other Essays and Addresses. London: Faber

& Faber, 1953.

Saint Teresa of Jesus. “Religious Experiences.” Philosophy of Religion:

Selected Readings. Peterson, Michael, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and

David Basinger, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.



[1] 27 March 2007 <http://www.karmel.at/eng/teresa.htm>.

[2] Saint Teresa of Jesus, “Religious Experiences,” Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, Peterson, Michael, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) 33.

[3] Saint Teresa, 34.

[4] Saint Teresa, 34.

[5] Saint Teresa, 35.

[6] William James, “Religious Experience as the Root of Religion,” Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, Peterson, Michael, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) 36.

[7] Saint Teresa, 33.

[8] Saint Teresa, 34.

[9] Saint Teresa, 32, 33.

[10] Saint Teresa, 34.

[11] Saint Teresa, 32.

[12] Saint Teresa, 34.

[13] Saint Teresa, 32, 33.

[14] James, 36; Saint Teresa, 34.

[15] William P. Alston, “Religious Experiences as Perception of God,” Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, Peterson, Michael, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) 47.

[16] Saint Teresa, 33.

[17] Alston, 48; 28 March 2007 <http://www.karmel.at/eng/teresa.htm>.

[18] Alston, 51; Saint Teresa, 34

[19] Alston, 53.

[21] Teresa, 34.

[22] E. Allison Peers, “Saint Teresa in her Letters,” St. Teresa of Jesus and other Essays and Addresses, (London: Faber & Faber, 1953) 17; 27 March 2007 <http://www.karmel.at/eng/teresa.htm>.

[23] Peers, 26-34.

[24] Peers, 41-47.

[25] Peers, 35, 37.

[26] Alston, 46, 47.