Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

St. Teresa of Avila

“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.”

Note! Click on the images to view full size.

I am not generally a fan of sculpture. My art viewing is pretty much limited to the Internet and photographs of sculpture just do not capture the beauty of the work. I am not a world traveler, lacking both the wherewithal and the desire, so alas I shall never see it, but my favorite sculpture is Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstacy of St. Teresa located in the basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. So why with all the works of sculpture, would this particular work be my favorite? My love of this work is complicated, St Teresa is complicated, and the sculpture is complicated. You can read more about the sculpture at Wikipedia, Ecstasy of Saint Theresa.

St. Teresa (1515-1582) was a Christian mystic, Spanish nun, reformer, counter-reformationist, and one of the founders of the Discalced (no shoes) Carmelites. She was famous for her distinct visions during her meditations concluding in an mystical union of human spirit and God. You can read more about St. Teresa at Wikipedia,St. Teresa of Avila.

About 20 years ago, I went through a bit of a Christian mysticism phase in my personal search for the Divine. I don’t think anyone is going to nominate me for the poster boy of a model Christian. I have as Elizabeth Gilbert stated in her book Commited, a privately brokered agreement with God for which most if not all denominations of Christianity would gladly burn me at the stake. Ahhhhh! What happened to the glorious days when Christianity didn’t have to fool around with these silly secular governments and their asinine laws about not killing heathen, infidels, and heretics. Now they must rely on “loving cautions” which, let’s face it, do not have quite the emotional impact of a good blazing stake. Of course they still have their ace in the hole, the eternal damnation of the human Soul into the fires of Hell. Fortunately for me, I believe God runs the Universe and not the various denominations of Christianity. I sincerely doubt the Old Girl has any need for damning Divine Souls which She loves to the bottom of Her heart. I could be wrong about that, so don’t give up your faith on my word.

Getting back to St Teresa, I first heard of her during my mysticism phase through the writings of Mathew Fox, another heretic that in more favorable times would have been blazing away with the match struck by the current big man in the Vatican. There is sort of an irony there. Mathew Fox believes in Original Blessing and not original sin. St Teresa became convinced that man was helpless against original sin. I am not sure how those two are going to work that out in the great beyond, but my vote is with Fox even though I think I may have crush on St. Teresa. Therein lies one of the complexities of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa.

There is in St. Teresa’s words a slight bit of…hmmmm, how do I put this, ahhh, well, ahhh, um…a yearning! Yes that's it, a yearning that might go a little beyond the purely spiritual.

At the same time that I was going through my mystical phase, I walked for exercise. Not just simple walking but shall we say pouring on the coal, that is I would go out in a measured circular path in the woods and walk for four to five miles as fast as I could. During these walks I would ponder things and perhaps even approach a meditative state--although for the most part I am a failed mystic. I can't shut down the chatterbox in my head.

One night in the summer I was out after dark. Yeah that’s right, out walking in the woods by myself in the dark. Why? I can’t stand heat, and being in the woods is far safer than walking the streets. Why? Because the people who would harm you are 1) either afraid of the woods in the dark, or 2) just have nothing to do there. I never had a problem in the woods after dark. I had several frightening experiences on the streets, cars slowing up, comments, and the likes, so I felt much safer in the woods. Anyhow, it was a beautiful summer evening around 10 PM. It was still warm so I shed my sweat drenched tee shirt and was walking as fast as I could. I started to ponder God, and as I walked warm and cool breezes passed over my bare chest creating lovely tendrils of physical pleasure. For those who pooh pooh at the notion of God, I am sure the following experience can be explained away as nothing more than runner’s high, but to me, it was a very deep and real experience. These alternating breezes were extremely sensual, and as I pondered God with my feet pounding as fast as they could go in my speed walk, I slipped into an alternative state. I felt this incredible feeling of love from God descend into my being. It was extremely sensual. Actually, it was quite erotic but completely devoid of physical lust. (I’ll leave it to you to figure that one out—it’s complex.) It only lasted a moment or two, but they were timeless moments. No! I did not experience a physical response, but when the moment passed, there was that same, as they say in Cosmo…after glow, but far more intense. You see what I mean about complex.

Perhaps 10 years later, I first laid eyes on Bernini’s Ecstasy, and my immediate thought was I KNOW THAT FEELING. Well at least the feeling that the sculpture conveys. Teresa’s description of her ecstasy far exceeds what I experienced. I had no flaming spear plunged into my heart and entrails. I experienced a very pleasant, somewhat erotic, sensation of intense love coupled with a sense of the rightness of the world, and a moment of intense understanding but none of the pain—however sweet--of which St. Teresa speaks. Perhaps God measures what we can take, and dishes it out in a dosage.

Looking at the sculpture, the central aspect is the expression on St. Teresa’s face. There is much speculation in certain circles that she is experiencing an orgasm. Welcome to the All Boys Junior High School Art Critics Club. Yes to boys flooded with the testosterone of puberty, or for someone who has never experienced spiritual ecstasy, the expression on St. Teresa could quite well be the big O. When these lads grow up, they should come back and have another look. They may find depths of feeling that would make an orgasm seem like child’s play—not in the marble—but in one’s reaction to the expression in the marble. I know that feeling—not to the degree or depth—but I have felt it, if only for brief moment and it is not an orgasm, although there is an eroticism contained therein.

I searched Google Images for close-up photos of the sculpture, and found them to be disappointing. The sculpture is best viewed from a distance. Your imagination fills in the gaps and it has a beauty that is lost in the close-up shots.

So what do I like about this sculpture. Well of course, the expression on Teresa’s face is central. The half lidded eyes, the open mouth, the cant of her head. Certainly she is experiencing something profound. Take it for what ever you want, orgasm, spiritual unity, intense love for God. To me it is a direct reflection of what I felt in my brief moment with the Eternal. There is the expression on her face but also there is the beauty inherent in her facial structure. Bernini’s Teresa is a beautiful woman. She has a delicate nose, full lips (which probably adds some spice to the Junior High School version), and a lovely soft maternal complexion. Yet in a bit of opposition she has a broad, prominent brow and it gives her face strength. The only disappointment for me with her face is the flat spot on her chin. That doesn’t flow with the rest of her face, but a minor flaw.

Looking at the remainder of the sculpture, I love the delicacy and total relaxation in her fingers and feet. The fingers are somewhat of a mixed bag for me, on the one hand they are quite beautiful and delicate, yet they are also too long and the point of attachment to her hand does not seem right. She has bare feet (a bit of private eroticism, I must confess) but don’t forget she founded the Discalced Carmelites. Looking at the folds in her robe, there are places that it is hard to believe that it is marble and not cloth. Yet for me the robe is a disappointment. There must be 5,000 square feet of it piled up on her body. It hides too much of her form. You only get a vague hint of a shoulder or knee. I would have much preferred a tighter fitting garment that showed her form.

The seraph for me is an unhappy inclusion. Well, OK, that is what she saw in her ecstasy, but I would prefer some depiction of God. Just exactly what that depiction would be, I am not sure, my own tiny glimpse of the Eternal didn’t include any visual images of God. But I don’t like angels. I don’t like their wings, I don’t like the fact that they are middle men in ecclesiastical affairs. And I don’t like this particular angel’s hairdo. So the seraph is not my cup of tea. But there are two artistic points to note. One is the delicacy of which the angel holds Teresa’s robe. The fingers holding the cloth are rather amazing. The second aspect of the angel that grabs my eye is his right shoulder and upper arm. There is a reality of the contours that I find pleasing to the eye. But that is it for the angel. I would prefer that he was not there, but hey, it is not my ecstasy or my sculpture.

So it turns out that there is much I do not like about this sculpture, the robe, the angel, and the not quite right fingers. So why do I like it so much? Simply for the expression on her face. I have been there. I felt that, ever so fleeting in a timeless moment, but I FELT THAT!

There are those moments in life. I have experienced them only a few times, probably only enough to count on one hand. Yet when I do experience it, even for the minute timeless instant that they last, it is sublime. Some would say that it is nothing more than brain chemistry. Perhaps a large uptake of serotonin or oxytocin. Perhaps…maybe even definitely, and perhaps when our Souls detect the presence of the Divine it makes our brains exude and uptake those chemicals. Does the fact that a beautiful shade of blue is nothing more than photons of a certain wavelength impinging on the cones in our retina in any way lessen the beauty of the blue? Does the vibrations of the hairs in the cochlea in any reduce the magnificence of Beethoven? (An interesting choice regarding hairs in the cochlea). Does the fact that St Teresa face is hard marble in any way reduce the beauty of her image or lessen my memory of the moment?

I have heard it described as a parting of the veil that separates the ordinary from the Extraordinary, the mundane from the Divine, the finite from the Infinite. Although I must for the time being navigate the finite, those glimpses of the Infinite are Holy and ultimately what I live for.

While searching images I also found this painting to be quite captivating. Look at the beauty of her irises. Her clasped hands are magnificent. Lovely painting.

St. Teresa of Avila by François Gérard


Quotation of the Ecstasy,Wikipedia, Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

1. The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
University of Texas, St Teresa Vision

2. The Face of St Teresa. Teresa-of-Avila

3. St. Teresa of Avila by François Gérard


This link contains some nice close-up shots of the sculpture. It also contains commentary that I think is baloney.

Sexuality in Art, Bernini's Portrayal of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

In Appreciation:

This particular post owes its life to the Old Baguette. I read a book review by her on St John of The Cross. In the review she mentioned St. Teresa, and somehow the inspiration for this post was born.


  1. an extraordinary piece. (Is the angel smirking?) I'm very bad at remembering quotations without repetition after repetition, but St. Teresa came up with the comment I cherish above all others. To paraphrase: She was complaining bitterly to God for weighing her down with pain and suffering, and God said, "That is the way I treat my friends." And Teresa said, "Yes, and that's why you have so few of them."

  2. Well clearly the angel is enjoying himself, now whether that qualifies as a smirk or a beatific smile, I am not sure. As I said I don't like him and if it was my vision, he wouldn't be there.

    Regarding pain and suffering, I suspect God gives us what our Soul desires. The quote is magnificent.

  3. I've enjoyed reading and rereading your Yeats quote. It's "too true said Whittle Patterson" as the Irish would and do say in Donegal where they eat potatoes, skins and all. My second favorite quote is from St. Agustine: "Joy is the echo of God's love within us." Any wonder that the Yeats quote resonates? And then there is YOUR sentence. "Regarding pain and suffering, I suspect God gives us what our Soul desires." Not what our conscious minds desire, but what our souls desire. Will be mulling over this you can be sure. The distinction sure answers the question of why there is pain and suffering in the world. And, you may have explained away the differences between Fox and Avila.

    And, I just noticed, the first part of my comment was censored, so I shall try to squeeze the gist of it back in. What a lovely post you've written! I just read about the Bernini sculpture, didn't know it, so planned to google it up. I'm rereading Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism, and I suspect I read about it there.
    Those moments, so vivid with such long lasting immediacy,seem more real than "reality." I suspect we all could be experiencing them often if .... Well, I wrote something like that.
    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Old Baguette, thank you for your kind comments. Regarding the Soul, I believe it is central to all things, that it has far more power than we know. I often suspect that when we pray that the God that hears our prayers in that internal chunk of God, our Soul. As such I don't believe that Hell exists, nor Heaven in a conventional sense. Many would say New Age nonsense, perhaps but it makes a lot of sense to me.

    For the most part, I am not a fan of St. Augustine, or original sin. Sin certainly exists but I don't believe that we bear the stain of original sin. We earn on our own failings and need not blame our predecessors for our weakness.

    Again thank you for your kindness.

  5. Replies
    1. Thank you, Anonymous, for visiting my blog and your kind comment.

  6. I also loved this. Thank you for the accuracy in observation and experience.