The Mystical Poetry of Saint Teresa of Ávila
Saint Teresa of Ávila
On March 28, 1515, Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada was born Ávila, Spain, to deeply devout Catholic parents. From early childhood, Teresa was also a deeply spiritual individual.
Teresa would give generously to those less fortunate than she was, and she spent much time in prayer and meditation. Teresa's mother died while Teresa was still quite young, and the devastation of losing her mother motivated the young child to seek refuge in the Virgin Mary.
For a short while during her teens, Teresa became interested in a worldly life including friendships and innocent flirtations with young men.
But worldly pursuits did not satisfy Teresa, because her spiritual longings were stronger than worldly desires, and she found herself more and more drawn to the monastic life.
On Nov. 2, 1535, Teresa entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation at Ávila. Soon after entering the monastery, Teresa became ill.
Teresa's father took his daughter to a healer in the small village of Becedas, but the girl did not respond to treatment. So her father moved her to the home of her uncle Pedro de Cepeda.
However, instead of recovering, Teresa became worse, so her father took her back home to Ávila, where she fell into a coma.
The future saint remained in a coma for four days; then after she woke up, her legs remained paralyzed for three years.
Union with the Divine
For the next 18 years, Teresa struggled with her spiritual path. She did not give up meditation and prayer, but she felt that she did not know how to become entirely without ego.
Still, even during the spiritually dry period, Teresa experienced many mystical experiences.
Finally, at age 39 while meditating and praying before an image of Christ, Teresa felt the ego problem melt away, and from that important moment she realized her union with the Divine.
In the Foreword to Eric W. Vogts The Complete Poetry of Saint Teresa of Ávila, the archbishop of Manila Jaime L. Cardinal Sin explains the nature of Teresa's poetry:
The poems of St. Teresa always speak of God. They speak of Him as something as natural as the air one breathes. She does not tender fanciful arguments to prove that God exists. Her poems express to us the reality of God himself because she herself has found Him.
Mystical poetry dramatizes the experience of God-union. The individual soul in perfect union with Spirit understands the claims of the great prophets that the soul is a Divine spark. St. Teresa's poetry portrays her deep communion with the Divine.
Poem III: "I have surrendered and given my all"
Teresa's "I have surrendered and given my all" (Poem III in Vogt) dramatizes a mystical vision that the saint experienced which she also describes in her autobiography.
During the vision, an angel pierces the saint's heart with a flaming arrow. This vision is immortalized in stone by Gianlorenzo Bernini.
The poem consists of three stanzas. In the first stanza, the speaker asserts, "my Beloved is all for me, / and I am all for my Beloved." The second stanza dramatizes the arrow-shot: "When the sweet Hunter / shot me and left me vanquished / in the arms of love, / my soul, in falling, was gaining its new life."
Then the speaker refers to the trade she made which resulted in her Beloved becoming part of her, as she is part of her Beloved.
The third stanza again dramatizes the arrow-piercing: "He pierced me with an arrow / dipped in enamoring herbs / and my soul became / one with her Creator."
After the realization that she is now one with the Divine Creator, the speaker has no further need for other loves, and so she repeats her realization the "My Beloved is all for me / and I am all for my Beloved."
- Saint Teresa of Ávila, The Teresian Carmel.
- Teresa of Ávila, Poet Seers.
- The Complete Poetry of Saint Teresa of Ávila edited by Eric W. Vogt.
- Saint Teresa in Ecstasy. News and Events, Saint Mary's College.
© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes