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Historia Ecclesiastica

Altered States

On the ecstasies of Saint Teresa. 


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.

In Teresa’s case, as in many others like hers, raptures, ravishments, and ecstasies occurred at unpredictable times and always had some observable trance-like aspect to them. Since many of these trances produced physical changes in her appearance while she was in the company of other nuns, or of visitors, these trances could not be ignored, and reports of her extraordinary altered states began to circulate rapidly in monastic, clerical, and lay circles throughout Spain and beyond. Nonetheless, gaining a reputation as a mystic or a saint—especially one who falls into trance-like states, or floats in the air miraculously, or claims to commune with God—was somewhat perilous in mid-sixteenth-century Spain, where suspicions of heresy, fraud, or demonic activity ran high.

Certain questions had to be asked by ecclesiastical authorities of anyone who claimed to have experiences like Teresa’s, and these questions were deemed especially necessary in the case of women, for it was widely believed that women were weaker, less intelligent, and less psychologically and emotionally stable than men and much less trustworthy when it came to any claim of supernatural encounters. The great theologian and conciliarist Jean Gerson certainly thought so. And so did the apocalyptic Florentine reformer Girolamo Savonarola and the Spanish cleric Diego Pérez de Valdivia. Questions of various sorts arose under this cloud of suspicion. Was Teresa genuinely engaging with the divine, or was she a fraud? Was she “inventing the sacred,” a charge that the Inquisition made in cases of fraudulent claims to mystical experience? Could it be that her experiences involved the Devil rather than God? Did her behavior in any way contradict or challenge authority? Was her behavior appropriately holy? What kinds of revelations was she claiming? Were her messages orthodox or heretical? Was she in any way linked to any heresy? Had she challenged authority in any way? Was she genuinely holy? Teresa’s Vida was an attempt to answer all these questions as clearly as possible.

And in this remarkable text, which was really a judicial document, more a forced confession than an autobiography, Teresa had no choice but to confirm what others had already reported numerous times: that she sometimes rose into the air during her ecstasies and that these levitations were not just frequent but also spectacular—and witnessed by many. Some eyewitnesses would later testify under oath that the raptures they saw were so constant and numerous that they “couldn’t even dare to count them.” And the distraction caused by her raptures was also evident. “Ordinarily, she was so elevated and absorbed in God, and so beside herself,” said one of her hagiographers, “that having to handle daily tasks, including writing, was sheer torment for her.” Given the fact that eyewitness accounts of her levitations had spread far and wide and that some of these reports were very graphic and even told of efforts to restrain her or pull her down, Teresa had no choice but to dwell on these details in her Vida, as in this description of one of her arrobamientos, or raptures, during which she suddenly rose up into the air uncontrollably:

Once, when we were together in choir, and about to take communion, and I was on my knees, it caused me the greatest anguish, because it seemed to me a most extraordinary thing that would cause people to fuss over it intensely; so, I ordered the nuns not to speak of it. . . . On other occasions, when I have felt that the Lord was about to do this to me again, I have lain on the ground and the sisters have strained to hold down my body, but the rapture has been observed, anyway, as once happened during a sermon, on our patronal festival, when some great ladies were present.

Her analysis of this phenomenon is a cautious interweaving of opinions, questions, and statements of fact, in a voice that has both the ring of authority and a measure of deference. And throughout her texts, her terminology is not always consistent, especially in the case of arrobamiento and arrebatamiento, which sometimes seem to be interchangeable terms. Adding to the lack of clarity in her terminology, Teresa has no specific word for distinguishing her levitations from the states of high ecstasy in which they occur. Although Teresa’s levitations are clearly restricted to the most intense ecstasies she reaches in the top two levels (or “mansions”) in her Libro de las Moradas (The Interior Castle), those ecstasies may or may not include levitations. The levitations are an additional physical effect, apparently nonessential, and she has no name for them.

But while her terminology can be fuzzy, her descriptions of her levitations are arguably the most detailed first-person accounts on record, much more so than those provided by any other medieval or early modern Christian mystic. For instance, in attempting to differentiate between “rapture” (arrobamiento) and “union” (unión) in her autobiography, she explains that what she has experienced in levitations is uncontrollable, precisely because levitation is a divine event and totally beyond her willpower or physical strength: “When I tried to resist these raptures, it seemed to me that I was being lifted up by a force beneath my feet so powerful that I know nothing to which I can compare it, for it came with a much greater intensity than any other spiritual experience and I felt as if I were being torn to shreds, for it is a mighty struggle.”

Even more remarkable than the details she provides is her attitude toward her levitations, which she detested and which she begged God to remove from her life. To better understand her unique place in the Christian mystical tradition and in the history of levitation, one must first come to terms with the context in which her story unfolded.

Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda became a Carmelite nun in her teens, at the Convent of the Incarnation in her native Avila, a walled city in Old Castile. Her religious name was Teresa de Jesús, but in the English-speaking world she is best known as Teresa of Avila (without an accent on the A). During her twenties she was plagued by an illness no doctor could properly diagnose or cure. Brought to death’s door, literally, she was taken for dead and readied for burial but regained consciousness only a few hours before being lowered into her grave.

Teresa remained paralyzed afterward for quite some time and eventually recovered, albeit slowly and painfully. A lukewarm nun for many years after returning to her convent—according to her own disparaging estimation—Teresa began to experience visions and raptures in her forties, and as these intensified quickly and dramatically, she naturally came under suspicion of being either demonically influenced or a brazen fraud. At the same time, however, many around her were convinced that her experiences were genuinely divine in origin. Consequently, her superiors ordered her to write a detailed account of her life and her ecstasies, under the watchful eye of the Inquisition. That text, which came to be known as her Vida, or “autobiography,” is an attempt to convince everyone that her remarkable experiences are truly supernatural. And an essential part of the narrative is Teresa’s constant emphasis on her own humility and on the pain and embarrassment caused by the ecstasies she experienced in public, or which became public knowledge, especially those ecstasies in which she levitated.

Proving her humility was essential, for nothing could peg an ecstatic nun as a fraud more convincingly than the perception that she might be calling attention to herself or trying to pass herself off as exceptionally holy or spiritually gifted. Since absolute humility was assumed to be inseparable from genuine holiness and one of its chief characteristics, all levitating nuns were trapped in a dilemma, for levitation attracts attention, naturally, and excess attention could easily lead to disaster, or at least to close scrutiny of the sort received by Teresa, which could be a heavy burden to bear, not just for a nun but for the Catholic Church as a whole. Investigations such as the one launched in Teresa’s case could end badly, and sometimes did so spectacularly, as in the case of the Dominican nun María de la Visitación, a highly revered mystic similar to Teresa, whose stigmata, levitations, ecstasies, and miracles—accepted and revered for many years by many prominent churchmen as genuinely divine in origin—were eventually declared to be nothing more than “trickery and deceit.”

Teresa was painfully aware of the dangers of adulation and the need for humility and spoke openly about her fears: “I was greatly tormented—and still am, even now—to see so much fuss made over me, and so many good things said about me, especially by important people. This has made me suffer a great deal, and still does. . . . And when I thought about how these favors granted to me by the Lord became public knowledge, my torment was so excessive that it greatly disturbed my soul. And this went as far as making me wish, whenever I thought about it, that I could be buried alive.” Such intense fear was not only driven by Teresa’s own awareness of the way in which any nun’s ecstasies could be her undoing. This fear was also instilled in her by her confessors and spiritual directors, who pressured her to curb her raptures and warned her constantly about the dangers she faced as an ecstatic nun. Speaking in the third person in her Interior Castle, Teresa complains: “She is not hurt by what people say about her except when her own confessor blames her, as though she could prevent these raptures. She does nothing but beg everyone to pray for her and beseech His Majesty to lead her by another road, as she is advised to do, since the road she is on is very dangerous.” This was not her only problem. An additional danger was far worse than adulation: that of demonic influence.

Belief in the Devil’s ability to pass himself off as an “angel of light” or even as Jesus Christ Himself is an ancient Christian tenet, deeply embedded in monastic culture. This was an unquestioned assumption, linked to another: a firm belief that the Devil always assailed those who aimed for holiness and closeness to God. In Teresa’s case, as soon as she began to have visions and other mystical ravishments, her confessors suspected the worst and warned her that her experiences were demonic in origin. As Teresa dutifully confessed that Christ kept appearing to her, the confessors grew increasingly alarmed—and perhaps also peeved—and ordered her to greet her visions of Christ with an obscene hand gesture known as “giving the fig,” an equivalent of today’s “giving the finger.” Dealing with the Devil on his own level with obscenities and insults was fairly common advice in monastic culture, as common as the belief that the Devil could easily deceive anyone. Teresa dutifully obeyed, despite the pain it caused her to greet Christ in such an offensive way. Years later, in 1622, in his bull of canonization for Teresa, Pope Gregory XV would emphasize the value placed on such obedience: “She was wont to say that she might be deceived in discerning visions and revelations, but could not be in obeying superiors.”

Teresa’s writing paid off, for her autobiographical account convinced those who scrutinized the text that she was neither a fraud nor a demoniac, thus giving her the freedom to write several other extraordinary texts and to establish a new reformed branch of the Carmelite order. Nonetheless, the detailed mystical content of her autobiography was considered so potentially open to misinterpretation that the Inquisition ordered all but one manuscript copy destroyed and then kept what it believed to be the sole surviving text under lock and key for the rest of Teresa’s life. And it was not until 1588, six years after her death, that the text was eventually edited and published, in large measure because post-mortem miracles were proving her holiness to be genuine. Yet, despite the Inquisition’s positive verdict and the fact that Teresa was credited with miracles and fast-tracked to canonization soon after dying, the Inquisition kept receiving denunciations from some clerics—mostly from the Dominican order—who accused Teresa of heresy and called for the condemnation and destruction of all her printed texts. It was not until 1619, when she was beatified, that such accusations stopped.

By then, ambivalence about her visions, raptures, and levitations had come to seem wrong. Doubt had been triumphantly pushed aside by her own texts, as well as by popular acclaim. Teresa had become a levitating demonslayer and much more of a threat to the Devil than any obscene gesture that meek little nuns might flash at him and at the fake visions he used in his attempts to fool them. Luis de León, the editor of her collected works, was well aware of this and of the need to shout it out: “God willed at this time—when it seems that the devil is triumphant among the throng of infidels who follow him, and in the obstinacy of so many heretical nations who take his side . . . to disgrace and ridicule him by putting before him not some valiant and learned man, but a lone poor woman, to sound the challenge and raise the battle flag, and to openly beget people who can trample, humble, and defeat him.”

This essay is adapted from They Flew: A History of the Impossible, published in September by Yale University Press.

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