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Written in 1565 at the request of her confessor, St. Teresa's autobiography is at once an extraordinary chronicle of a life governed by the desire to draw closer to God and a literary masterpiece that brings to life a woman of candor, humor, and great spiritual strength. Teresa writes of her early life, the conflicts and crises she faced, and her decision to enter a life of prayer. Her lyrical, almost erotic descriptions of ecstatic experiences call to mind the senuous language ...
Written in 1565 at the request of her confessor, St. Teresa's autobiography is at once an extraordinary chronicle of a life governed by the desire to draw closer to God and a literary masterpiece that brings to life a woman of candor, humor, and great spiritual strength. Teresa writes of her early life, the conflicts and crises she faced, and her decision to enter a life of prayer. Her lyrical, almost erotic descriptions of ecstatic experiences call to mind the senuous language of the Song of Songs.
A fresh new edition of a successful title that is both a religious classic and a great work of literature by one of the most dynamic women in history. George Eliot in Middlemarch wrote of Teresa that her "passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life." This is the story of that life.
Describes how the Lord began to awaken her soul in childhood to a love of virtue and what a help it is in this respect to have good parents.
If I had not been so wicked it would have been a help to me that I had parents who were virtuous and feared God, and also that the Lord granted me His favour to make me good. My father1 was fond of reading good books and had some in Spanish so that his children might read them too. These books, together with the care which my mother took to make us say our prayers and to lead us to be devoted to Our Lady and to certain saints, began to awaken good desires in me when I was, I suppose, about six or seven years old. It was a help to me that I never saw my parents inclined to anything but virtue. They themselves had many virtues. My father was a man of great charity towards the poor, who was good to the sick and also to his servants—so much so that he could never be brought to keep slaves, because of his compassion for them. On one occasion, when he had a slave of a brother of his in the house,2 he was as good to her as to his own children. He used to say that it caused him intolerable distress that she was not free. He was strictly truthful: nobody ever heard him swear or speak evil. He was a man of the most rigid chastity.
My mother, too, was a very virtuous woman, who endured a life of great infirmity: she was also particularly chaste. Though extremely beautiful, she was never known to give any reason for supposing that she made the slightest account of her beauty; and, though she died at thirty-three, her dress was already that of a person advanced in years. She was a very tranquil woman, of great intelligence. Throughout her life she endured great trials and her death was most Christian.3
We were three sisters and nine brothers: all of them, by the goodness of God, resembled their parents in virtue, except myself, though I was my father's favourite. And, before I began to offend God, I think there was some reason for this, for it grieves me whenever I remember what good inclinations the Lord had given me and how little I profited by them. My brothers and sisters never hindered me from serving God in any way.
I had one brother almost of my own age.4 It was he whom I most loved, though I had a great affection for them all, as had they for me. We used to read the lives of saints together; and, when I read of the martyrdoms suffered by saintly women for God's sake, I used to think they had purchased the fruition of God very cheaply; and I had a keen desire to die as they had done, not out of any love for God of which I was conscious, but in order to attain as quickly as possible to the fruition of the great blessings which, as I read, were laid up in Heaven. I used to discuss with this brother of mine how we could become martyrs. We agreed to go off to the country of the Moors, begging our bread for the love of God, so that they might behead us there; and, even at so tender an age, I believe the Lord had given us sufficient courage for this, if we could have found a way to do it; but our greatest hindrance seemed to be that we had a father and a mother.5 It used to cause us great astonishment when we were told that both pain and glory would last for ever. We would spend long periods talking about this and we liked to repeat again and again, "For ever—ever—ever!" Through our frequent repetition of these words, it pleased the Lord that in my earliest years I should receive a lasting impression of the way of truth.
When I saw that it was impossible for me to go to any place where they would put me to death for God's sake, we decided to become hermits, and we used to build hermitages, as well as we could, in an orchard which we had at home. We would make heaps of small stones, but they at once fell down again, so we found no way of accomplishing our desires. But even now it gives me a feeling of devotion to remember how early God granted me what I lost by my own fault.
I gave alms as I could, which was but little. I tried to be alone when I said my prayers, and there were many such, in particular the rosary, to which my mother had a great devotion, and this made us devoted to them too. Whenever I played with other little girls, I used to love building convents and pretending that we were nuns; and I think I wanted to be a nun, though not so much as the other things I have described.
I remember that, when my mother died, I was twelve years of age or a little less.6 When I began to realize what I had lost, I went in my distress to an image of Our Lady7 and with many tears besought her to be a mother to me. Though I did this in my simplicity, I believe it was of some avail to me; for whenever I have commended myself to this Sovereign Virgin I have been conscious of her aid; and eventually she has brought me back to herself. It grieves me now when I observe and reflect how I did not keep sincerely to the good desires which I had begun.
O my Lord, since it seems Thou art determined on my salvation—and may it please Thy Majesty to save me!—and on granting me all the graces Thou hast bestowed on me already, why has it not seemed well to Thee, not for my advantage but for Thy honour, that this habitation wherein Thou hast had continually to dwell should not have become so greatly defiled? It grieves me, Lord, even to say this, since I know that the fault has been mine alone, for I believe there is nothing more Thou couldst have done, even from this early age, to make me wholly Thine. Nor, if I should feel inclined to complain of my parents, could I do so, for I saw nothing in them but every kind of good and anxiety for my welfare. But as I ceased to be a child and began to become aware of the natural graces which the Lord had given me, and which were said to be many, instead of giving Him thanks for them, as I should, I started to make use of them to offend Him. This I shall now explain.
Describes how these virtues were gradually lost and how important it is in childhood to associate with people of virtue.
What I shall now describe was, I think something which began to do me great harm. I sometimes reflect how wrong it is of parents not to contrive that their children shall always, and in every way, see things which are good. My mother, as I have said, was very good herself, but, when I came to the age of reason, I copied her goodness very little, in fact hardly at all, and evil things did me a great deal of harm. She was fond of books of chivalry; and this pastime had not the ill effects on her that it had on me, because she never allowed them to interfere with her work. But we were always trying to make time to read them; and she permitted this, perhaps in order to stop herself from thinking of the great trials she suffered, and to keep her children occupied so that in other respects they should not go astray. This annoyed my father so much that we had to be careful lest he should see us reading these books. For myself, I began to make a habit of it, and this little fault which I saw in my mother began to cool my good desires and lead me to other kinds of wrongdoing. I thought there was nothing wrong in my wasting many hours, by day and by night, in this useless occupation, even though I had to hide it from my father. So excessively was I absorbed in it that I believe, unless I had a new book, I was never happy.
I began to deck myself out and to try to attract others by my appearance, taking great trouble with my hands and hair, using perfumes and all the vanities I could get—and there were a good many of them, for I was very fastidious. There was nothing wrong with my intentions, for I should never have wanted anyone to offend God because of me. This great and excessive fastidiousness about personal appearance, together with other practices which I thought were in no way sinful, lasted for many years: I see now how wrong they must have been. I had some cousins, who were the only people allowed to enter my father's house:1 he was very careful about this and I wish to God that he had been careful about my cousins too. For I now see the danger of intercourse, at an age when the virtues should be beginning to grow, with persons who, though ignorant of worldly vanity, arouse a desire for the world in others. These cousins were almost exactly of my own age or a little older than I. We always went about together; they were very fond of me; and I would keep our conversation on things that amused them and listen to the stories they told about their childish escapades and crazes, which were anything but edifying. What was worse, my soul began to incline to the thing that was the cause of all its trouble.
If I had to advise parents, I should tell them to take great care about the people with whom their children associate at such an age. Much harm may result from bad company and we are inclined by nature to follow what is worse rather than what is better. This was the case with me: I had a sister much older than myself,2 from whom, though she was very good and chaste, I learned nothing, whereas from a relative whom we often had in the house I learned every kind of evil. This person was so frivolous in her conversation that my mother had tried very hard to prevent her from coming to the house, realizing what harm she might do me, but there were so many reasons for her coming that she was powerless. I became very fond of meeting this woman. I talked and gossiped with her frequently; she joined me in all my favourite pastimes; and she also introduced me to other pastimes and talked to me about all her conversations and vanities. Until I knew her (this was when I was about fourteen or perhaps more: by knowing her I mean becoming friendly with her and receiving her confidences) I do not think I had ever forsaken God by committing any mortal sin, or lost my fear of God, though I was much more concerned about my honour.3 This last fear was strong enough to prevent me from forfeiting my honour altogether, and I cannot think that I would have acted differently about this for anything in the world; nor was there anyone in the world whom I loved enough to forfeit my honour for. So I might have had the strength not to sin against the honour of God, as my natural inclination led me not to go astray in anything which I thought concerned worldly honour, and I did not realize that I was forfeiting my honour in many other ways.
I went to great extremes in my vain anxiety about this, though I took not the slightest trouble about what I must do to live a truly honourable life. All that I was seriously concerned about was that I should not be lost altogether. My father and sister were very sorry about this friendship of mine and often reproved me for it. But, as they could not prevent my friend from coming to the house, their efforts were of no avail, for when it came to doing anything wrong I was very clever. I am sometimes astonished at the harm which can be caused by bad company; if I had not experienced it I could not believe it. This is especially so when one is young, for it is then that the evil done is greatest. I wish parents would be warned by me and consider this very carefully. The result of my intercourse with this woman was to change me so much that I lost nearly all my soul's natural inclination to virtue, and was greatly influenced by her, and by another person who indulged in the same kinds of pastime.
From this I have learned what great advantage comes from good companionship; and I am sure that if at that age I had been friendly with good people I should have remained sound in virtue. For, if at that time I had had anyone to teach me to fear God, my soul would have grown strong enough not to fall. Later, when the fear of God had entirely left me, I retained only this concern about my honour, which was a torture to me in everything that I did. When I thought that nobody would ever know, I was rash enough to do many things which were an offence both to my honour and to God.
At first, I believe, these things did me harm. The fault, I think, was not my friend's but my own. For subsequently my own wickedness sufficed to lead me into sin, together with the servants we had, whom I found quite ready to encourage me in all kinds of wrongdoing. Perhaps, if any of them had given me good advice, I might have profited by it; but they were as much blinded by their own interests as I was by desire. And yet I never felt the inclination to do much that was wrong, for I had a natural detestation of everything immodest and preferred passing the time in good company. But, if an occasion of sin presented itself, the danger would be at hand and I should be exposing my father and brothers to it. From all this God delivered me, in such a way that, even against my own will, He seems to have contrived that I should not be lost, though this was not to come about so secretly as to prevent me from gravely damaging my reputation and arousing suspicions in my father. I could hardly have been following these vanities for three months when I was taken to a convent in the place where I lived,4 in which children like myself, though less depraved in their habits than I, were being educated. The reason for this was so carefully concealed that only one or two of my relatives and myself were aware of it. They had waited for an occasion to arise naturally; and now, as my sister had married, and I had no mother, I should have been alone in the house if I had not gone there, which would not have been fitting.