Teresa understood what this meant. She plunged into a life of unceasing prayer with all the zeal of a convert. Her raptures were frequent and famous. Sometimes she entered into trancelike states that paralyzed her for hours, and she seemed to stop breathing. When these things happened in public, Teresa found them terribly embarrassing. Legend tells it that as Teresa was in the choir singing among her sisters one day, she began to levitate. When the other nuns started to whisper and point, Teresa lowered her gaze and realized that she had risen several inches above the stone floor. "Put me down!" she demanded of God. And he did.
Once, when the Christ child appeared and asked her who she was, she replied, "I am Teresa of Jesus. Who are you?" "I am Jesus of Teresa," he said.
Perhaps the most influential of Teresa’s mystical moments was immortalized in marble by the Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He called it Saint Teresa in Ecstasy. In this unabashedly sensual image, we see the nun swooning blissfully backward while a clearly delighted androgynous angel plunges a flaming sword into her, leaving her on fire with love for God. This experience has come to be known as the "Transverberation" and it occurred repeatedly over a sustained period of Teresa’s life. Each time the blade was withdrawn, Teresa felt as if her very entrails were being pulled out with it. "The pain is so severe," Teresa writes in her autobiography, "it made me moan. The sweetness of the intense pain is so extreme, there is no wanting it to end, and the soul isn’t satisfied with anything less than God." She had to admit that "the body has a large share" in this agonizing ecstasy.
As word began to spread about Teresa’s extraordinary experiences, the eyes of the Inquisition turned toward the middle-aged nun. But Teresa’s scrutiny of her own states was at least as severe as theirs. Fruitlessly, Teresa spent years seeking wise counsel to help her determine once and for all whether her visions, locutions, and raptures came from God or from the devil, or maybe even from mental pathology, all expressions of which at that time were lumped under the single heading of "melancholy."
Teresa seemed to find her spiritual gifts more humbling than exalting. While she praised God continuously for blessing "a common woman" with such glorious tastes of his love, she remained equally devoted to the sanctity of the ordinary. Provisions were often scarce in convent life and Teresa enjoyed cooking and eating. "God," Teresa would say, "lives also among the pots and pans." Once, upon being politely questioned about the obvious pleasure she took in food, Teresa was said to have commented, "When praying, pray. When eating partridge, eat partridge," and returned with gusto to her meal. "God save me from pious nuns," was a prayer Teresa was heard to mumble frequently under her breath.
By the time Teresa of Avila met John of the Cross, one of the few men she ever seemed to have recognized as being worthy of guiding her soul, she was learning to balance the inner life with the outer, to keep her ecstatic impulses in check when it was time to tend to the business of religious reform. Frustrated by her observations of the lazy slide of an Order founded originally on the ideals of simplicity and silence, Teresa took it upon herself to spearhead a return to a path of poverty and contemplative prayer in the Carmelite community.
Among savants in the field of the Fine Arts there exists the firm and widespread belief that great masterpieces of poetry, painting, music, etc. are not from men, but from God. They are one in the conviction that He bestows upon the authors of such masterpieces an altogether rare and extraordinary kind of soul that is delicately attuned to beauty and possessed of the happy faculty of making it palpable, i.e., of reproducing it in meter, rhythm, sound, color and matter. In this way, God makes His divine perfections (of which all created beauty is but a faint shadow) known to mankind.
Now there exists another class of persons who are also blessed by God with a distinctive, uncommon kind of genius. They are the Mystics. To each of these, God gives a soul that is peculiarly sensitive to the realities of the supernatural order. That world we ordinary souls know by Faith. So do the Mystics, of course, but over and above, there is found in them, in the lower faculties of their soul, a kind of ‘resonance’ to the truths of the Faith. They enjoy the singular knack of being able to perceive supernatural entities through the medium of the senses, namely, in visions, locutions, divine “touches”, etc.
Because she is both saint and “bon fide” mystic, Teresa is a benefit to mankind. To her was granted experience of many supernatural realities: the Sacred Humanity of Jesus, an intellectual vision of the Blessed Trinity, the splendor of a soul in the state of grace, the power of holy water over demons, and many others. The heroic virtues she displayed for the greater part of her life placed her beyond the possibility of deceiving or being deceived in these matters, and so our Faith in Divine Revelation is deepened and strengthened.
The mystical favor granted St. Teresa, which she herself, in the words we have reproduced above, describes so beautifully, accompanied the infusion by God into her soul of an extraordinary grace. It is one He wants to give to all His saints but not to all does He make it known in this way. We see from the circumstances that this was the communication of an exalted degree of purifying and transforming Charity. The messenger was a Cherub, one of those whose office it is to impart sublime knowledge and love of God to lower orders of angels. The little fire on the end of the spear represents the intensity of the love, the spear itself, the death-dealing blow inflicted by it upon all base loves. It seemed to draw out her vital organs, signifying that henceforth she would live for God alone. The pain gives us to understand what a lofty knowledge of God was communicated to her, for her human nature was hard pressed to bear the weight of it (Who can see God and live?). The exquisite delight engendered by that knowledge gives us an inkling of the surpassing joy that comes of possessing Him who is ineffable goodness and loveliness. Who, reading of this, is not convinced of the reality of God’s gifts to man? Who does not reverence and esteem them all the more?
Now, it would be the height of foolishness for us to wait around for the Lord to bestow upon us a similar favor. At any rate, it isn’t wise to hold our breath till it happens. God has provided an ordinary way of pouring into our souls the grace of transforming love. We are reminded of it in the Carmelite Feast of the Transverberation of the Heart of St. Teresa, in the Chapter (short instruction) of Vespers and Lauds: “God’s Word to us is something alive, full of energy; it can penetrate deeper than any two-edged sword, reaching the very division between soul and spirit, between joints and marrow, quick to distinguish every thought and design in our hearts”. (Heb. 4,12 – Knox Transl.) The Word of God is the ordinary way. It can accomplish in us, gradually, over a long period of time, what the angel affected in Teresa in an instant. Or better, just to keep the records straight, what the angel brought about in her was merely the culmination, the grace which terminated and crowned the work that the Word of God had been doing in her soul little by little, day by day, year after year.
The Word of God is, then, in its own right, a dart. And it is wielded by other of God’s angels the Priests and Bishops of the Church. With it, they, too, aim to pierce the very substance of our souls, to bring death to ignoble love of self, to illuminate our minds with divine truth, and enkindle in our hearts an unadulterated love for God and man. It reaches down into the division of soul and spirit, distinguishing clearly the animal man from the spiritual man (who is created according to God in the justice and holiness of truth). It penetrates to the division between joints and marrow, that is, it instructs us concerning the relationships binding us to our fellow men in the body politic. It is the discoverer of our real self, laying bare the secret chambers of our minds and hearts.
It is God’s Will that we take the dart, which is God’s Word (St. Paul calls it the Sword of the Spirit) and plunge it frequently into the depths of our souls. We do this when we practice mental prayer daily. If we are faithful, we shall soon discover that it can and does transform us completely. It purges away all sinful affection, opens the eyes of our spirit to the ravishing beauty of the divine nature, and wins us the grace to live for God alone.