Saint Teresa of Avila and the Spanish Inquisition
As Teresa was growing deeper and deeper in her journey with the Lord, she went about her everyday life, fully living out her commitment to her vocation as a Nun, as well as to her immediate family. But this was to become a time of struggle of the worst kind, a time when she was to suffer one of her most painful temptations. She was plagued with doubts she had never had before: that her mystical experiences might be the work and deception of the devil.
It was a time of fear! The Inquisition, established under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella but long dormant under Charles the Fifth, was suddenly resurrected by an incident which was to ignite fires best left extinguished. There was a Nun whose reputation for holiness extended even to the Crown. People, faithful to the Church, came from far and near on pilgrimage, to ask for her prayers, taking back with them objects she had touched, as relics. Members of the royal family held her holiness in such high regard, they would ask her to pray and intercede with our Lord Jesus for them. Her reputation of intense fasting and sacrifice was accompanied by a claim she had received the Stigmata8 from Our Lord Jesus. The Nun, Magdalena de la Cruz, further let it be known she lived strictly on the Consecrated Host, requiring no other nourishment to sustain life.
The Inquisition, becoming suspicious, arrested and questioned Magdalena, whereupon she made a confession so diabolical that it lead to her imprisonment. She told the inquisitors in Cordoba that she was not a Catholic, but an Alumbrada, a secret sect exposed a generation before by the Inquisition. It was an anti-Christian secret society which had been crippling Europe by undermining Christ’s teachings and His Call for unity under the one true Cross.
Today, as we are being insidiously attacked from within and without by a wide-spread, dangerous heresy, which has been given the name of New Age, the characteristics of the Alumbrados sound suspiciously familiar. The Alumbrados sect was likewise oriental in origin, stemming from Buddhism. As with today’s sects, it advocated the soul escaping from all reality and involvement, delving into itself to the exclusion of everyone and everything about it, seeking and achieving a state of nothingness, the mind completely blank. Today, people who have escaped from modern-day cults, speak of the many who lost their minds as a result of this type of mind-bending meditation. Psychiatrists say to give up complete control of the mind is to very possibly flirt with madness. The result is annihilation of the individual conscience and one’s individual personality, and ultimately death. Many of the heresies throughout the ages, although espousing they were Christian, were influenced by oriental philosophy, in that some denied the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, others His Divinity, yet others the Holy Trinity, advocating reliance on feelings and intuition, rather than the true teachings of the Catholic Church.
The Alumbrados, closely allied with the devil, used his devious tactics; they took Christian expressions and truths and distorted them using them against Christ and His followers. Following the pattern of other heretics, they taught that only God was to be obeyed, that Jesus had not delegated others to guide and lead the Church to Him and His Father. They advocated distrust and fear of everyone who did not believe in their false doctrines. They promoted disobedience and unfaithfulness. If an Alumbrada was married, she was to detest the Sacrament of Matrimony. If she was a Religious, she was to avoid other Religious who would not embrace the Alumbrado doctrine, lest they attempt to lead her back to Jesus and His Church.
Magdalena de la Cruz confessed to being a devil-worshiper. She had been induced by the devil, at seven years of age, to feign holiness and the wounds of the Stigmata. At eleven, with the help of two demons who visited her periodically, she had administered the wounds on her hands, feet and side, imitating the Wounds of Our Beloved Lord Jesus.9 She recounted how she had become quite adept at affecting trances where she became impervious to the pricks of needles and other forms of testing. She had been able to deceive everyone into believing she lived only on the Sacred Host2for twelve years, until one day food was discovered hidden in her cell at the Convent.
As incredulous as it may seem, although everyone who ever met Teresa could plainly see she was humble and sincere, she soon fell under suspicion. Townspeople began to whisper she was like Magdalena de la Cruz. The problem with false mystics like Magdalena is that they could very cleverly imitate the outward signs of a true mystic like Teresa. Although Teresa was long free from any need to receive approval from the world, she began to doubt her gifts, to believe the townspeople might be right. Suppose she had been deceived by the evil one! She brought this fear to a Priest she highly respected. This questioning of herself alone, should have been proof she was not an Alumbrada, as they were hardly known for any type of humility or sincerity.
Her friends, who loved her, began to conjecture on whether Teresa’s gifts were from God or the devil. A person whose opinions she valued, suggested she seek spiritual advice from an exemplary Priest known for his love of the Blessed Sacrament and for bringing many back to the Church. He was reputed to be a truly dependable and holy Priest. Because of her humility, and always striving for perfection, she confessed what she called her terrible imperfections. The Priest, concluding the Lord would not give favors, such as she spoke of, to someone with all her faults, ordered her to give up all forms of Mental Prayer.
She shared what the Priest had said, with her friend Maestro Daza, seeking his counsel while at the same time enjoining him to keep all she had confided secret. In an effort to help her, he asked advice of friends, recounting the Priest’s verdict, inadvertently spreading doubts about Teresa. The Priest’s evaluation of Teresa’s Visions coming from diabolical sources, spread throughout Avila. The Priest, along with another holy and learned man, confident her Mental Prayer was all the work of the devil, advised her to go and give an account of her whole life to a Priest of the Company of Jesus11, “as she was in much peril.”
“Those that sow in tears shall reap rejoicing.” Psalm 126. Through her tears, Teresa was led to the Word, for comfort. Her eyes came to St. Paul’s consoling words to the Corinthians, “You can trust God not to let you be tried beyond your strength, and with any trial, He will give you a way out of it and the strength to bear it.” (1Cor 10:13) Teresa asked that the Jesuit Priest be called. This had to be done in secrecy, as in those days, Nuns of the Incarnation were only allowed Confessors of their own Order.
Teresa always stressed the need of learned and holy Spiritual Directors to guide us in the quest of Our Lord Jesus. The young Jesuit Priest that was sent to her, half her age and twenty-three years young, was quite a shock to Teresa, at first. He was of poor health, barely three years a member of the Company, and his Superior said of him, “He is a mediocre preacher; he hears confessions and is fit for nothing more.” Yet, this humble Priest, because of his experience with Mental Prayer, was able to discern and provide the Spiritual Direction Teresa had so desperately searched for, from more important and highly regarded clergymen. Deferring obediently to his authority, she knelt before him, confessing all that had gone on with reference to the Visions, along with her “many faults”. He not only directed her to return to Mental Prayer, but to do so even more deeply, as it was a gift from the Lord. His words, that the Lord would use her to bring Mental Prayer to others, were to become a prophecy. To this day Teresa’s writings and experiences with Mental Prayer are followed not only by Carmelites, but by many of the faithful seeking this special union with our Lord Jesus.
Teresa never gave up on Mental Prayer, to the day she died. The young Priest told her perhaps she had suffered excruciating physical pain all these past years because she had not done enough penance. Again, she obeyed, and although she found the forms of mortification she practiced unpleasant, she noticed that her health began to greatly improve as she diligently followed her young Confessor’s direction. Because of the penance she did, Her Lord took away her morning sickness of twenty years, enabling her to receive Him in His Eucharist. But He left her with the evening sickness. As she took on more painful penances, she found herself growing closer and closer to our Lord.
Her consolation in this Priest was short-lived, as were most earthly gifts in Teresa’s life. He was transferred, because the Nuns were suspicious of Teresa having a non-Carmelite hearing her confession. I wonder if perhaps, it could have been the Lord. In our own walk, if we start to make anyone a god, be it a Priest, Nun, friend or family member, that person is always separated from us physically or emotionally.
Teresa had the love and joy of having her sister Juana staying at the Incarnation. Even that, one of the last of her beloved ties with her family, was to be severed as her sister Juana left the Incarnation to be married. Through her Spiritual Director, Teresa learned she would have to give up even the smallest attachments if she wished to please her Lord Jesus. Protesting, she pleaded this would appear as ingratitude toward those who had been so kind to her. As she followed her Director’s advice to pray to the Holy Spirit, Veni Creator, she went into a rapture where the Lord said to her, “I desire you no longer converse with men, but with Angels.” From then on, although she was warm and caring, joyful and present to her Sisters, she belonged only to her Lord Jesus.
Teresa felt Jesus beside her, in His Sacred Humanity. Again, she went to a Confessor. Being a new Confessor, she was to suffer much because he badgered her, barraging her relentlessly with the same question, “How do you know it was Jesus?” She replied, at the point of tears, “Because He told me so, over and over again.”