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Issue 19

Historia Ecclesiastica

Altered States

On the ecstasies of Saint Teresa. 

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One of the best-known levitators of the early modern age, and one of the most unwilling, is Saint Teresa of Avila. Her resistance to levitation might seem peculiar at first glance. But in many ways, she is a quintessential levitator who reflects patterns of holiness set in Christian hagiography and, in turn, sets patterns for those who follow in her wake. Her uniqueness is undeniable, too, for many reasons. Three of these are her earthy approach to things divine, her unease with absolute precision, and her disarming honesty: “I would like, with the help of God, to be able to describe the difference between union (unión) and rapture (arrobamiento), or elevation, (elevamiento) or what they call flight of the spirit (vuelo de espíritu), or ravishment (arrebatamiento)—which are all really one. I mean that all these different names refer to the same thing, which is also called ecstasy (éstasi).”

So she says in her autobiography, struggling for precision yet dismissing it, fully aware that inquisitors would be scrutinizing her every word to determine whether her extraordinary trances were of divine origin. Ordered by her superiors to write about her own life, especially her ecstasies and visions—and her levitations—Teresa had no choice but to put quill to paper and hope for the best. Given the fact that many in Avila and beyond were alarmed by her ecstasies and opposed to her reform of the Carmelite order, Teresa was closely scrutinized. Her autobiography, then, was as much a test of her orthodoxy as a testimony of her holiness. Teresa was forced to write her La Vida de la Madre Teresa de Jesús because various authorities in the Carmelite order and the Church wanted to examine her prayer life and her mystical claims in detail.


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About the author

Carlos Eire

Carlos Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.