Faith through Art: Praying with St. Teresa of Avila, doctor of the church
By Norman Farmer
Visitors speak only in whispers in the Cornaro Chapel of Sta. Maria Vittoria in Rome. Many come for a glimpse of one of the world’s most famous works of art: the sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) depicting St. Teresa of Jesus (1515-1582) caught up beyond consciousness in ecstatic union with God. Others, for the opportunity to ponder the legacy of prayer under the example and inspiration of the great reformer of Discalced Carmelites and first woman doctor of the church, whom the church celebrates Oct. 15.
Those who visit the Carnaro Chapel cannot but be deeply moved by the soaring witness of a master artist who attended Mass daily at the Church of the Gesù (the Jesuit mother church in Rome), who practiced the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and who knew to the depths of his own soul what Teresa of Jesus meant when she explained the full union of spiritual marriage. “Each soul,” she writes, “is an interior world ... Within each soul there is a mansion for God. Now, when His Majesty is pleased to grant the soul the ... favor of this Divine Marriage, He first of all brings it into His own Mansion. [Here], the Lord unites [the soul] with Himself, but He makes it blind and dumb, as He made Saint Paul at his conversion [Acts 9:8] ... The great delight of which the soul is then conscious is the realization of its nearness to God. But when He unites it with Him, it understands nothing; the faculties are all lost” (Interior Castle).
Here is Dona Teresa de Ahumada’s description of the transverberation whereby the angel of God pierced and transfixed her heart. According to Marcelle Auclair in “Teresa of Avila,” she told Sister Ana Guitierrez “... I saw an angel close to me, on my left, in bodily shape, a thing granted to me but rarely. He was not large, but small, very beautiful, his face radiant ... No doubt he was one of those they call cherubim. He did not tell me his name but I see clearly that there is such a difference between one angel in heaven and another, that I could not express it. He held a long golden lance in his hand and I thought its tip was all flames. He seemed to plunge it several times into my heart, right to the very depths of me. When he drew it out, he seemed to pluck my heart out with it, leaving me all on fire with an immense love of God. The pain was so sharp that I moaned but the delight of this tremendous pain is so overwhelming that one cannot wish it to leave one, nor is the soul any longer satisfied with anything less than God. It is a spiritual, not a bodily pain, although the body has some part, even a considerable part, in it. It is an exchange of courtesies between the soul and God ... so sweet that I beg God to let whoever thinks I am not telling the truth to taste it.”
“All on fire with an immense love of God.” This is precisely Bernini’s characterization of the event as he urges us to see with our bodily eyes and to ponder in the precincts of our own souls what St. Teresa would later describe in the “Seventh Mansions.” There, at the deepest center of one’s very being, the heart where one’s soul resides, God “desires to remove the scales from the eyes of the soul,” which he brings into this mansion where “the Most Holy Trinity reveals itself, in all three Persons.” Here, according to Fray Luis de Leon, the mother speaks of a vision, which, “though fleeting, is intuitive and clear, but of a knowledge of this mystery which God gives to certain souls, through a most powerful light which He infuses into them, not without created species. But as this species is not corporeal, nor figured in the imagination, the Mother says that this vision is intellectual [i.e. known to the rational mind] and not imaginary” (Interior Castle). Hence, the Collect of the Oct. 15 liturgy: “O God, who through your Spirit raised up Saint Teresa of Jesus to show the Church the way to seek perfection, grant that we may always by nourished by the food of her heavenly teaching and fired with longing for true holiness.”
That the exquisite bodily beauties of the Discalced Carmelite’s bare foot, of her graceful life-like hand, and of her lovely ecstatic face evoke both the words and spirit of The Song of Songs. They also point to St. John Paul II’s discernment in his “Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body” that “the language of the human body” is not only biological but also, and even more so, theological. At some point, all who ponder the Carmelite legacy of prayer in the Cornaro Chapel will turn to this masterwork of papal teaching as they parse the manifold forms of visual, verbal and divine thought that Gianlorenzo Bernini made visible in the purest Carrara marble more than four centuries earlier.