Amongst the peculiarities lifted up for commemoration in the Sanctorale, the memorial of the Transverberation of St. Teresa of Avila caught my attention this year. August 26, I learned, is celebrated in the Order of Discalced Carmelites in remembrance of the piercing of Saint Teresa’s heart. In the Spanish cities of Alba and Salamanca (both of importance in Teresa’s life), the same event is commemorated on August 27.
If all you know about Teresa’s experience of having her heart pierced comes from Bernini’s famous statue The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, you are missing out. Here is Teresa’s own description of the event, which she narrates in some detail in the Book of Her Life:
Our Lord was pleased that I should have at times a vision of this kind: I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see, unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. Their names they never tell me; but I see very well that there is in heaven so great a difference between one angel and another, and between these and the others, that I cannot explain it.
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying. During the days that this lasted, I went about as if beside myself. I wished to see, or speak with, no one, but only to cherish my pain, which was to me a greater bliss than all created things could give me.”
I have known the contours of this story for a very long time, given that I was named after this saint. And luckily for me, I have always been able simply to take Teresa at her word, without any need psychoanalyze, sexualize, or secularize her story and its claims. Yet, I also learned a whole lot more about both Teresa and also her transverberation this summer when reading the wonderful new book by Carlos Eire, on Teresa’s autobiographical The Life of Teresa de Jesús (in the Princeton University Press series Lives of Great Religious Books). And while Carlos Eire’s knowledge of early modern Spanish Catholicism in general and Teresa’s Vidain particular is worth a very slow-read, it is his deep commitment not to hide the prayer-ful, God-seeking Teresa that made this book so special for me. As to the transverberation, Eire has a wonderful chapter (ch. 5) dedicated to the visual representations that grew around Teresa’s narrative (and Bernini’s representation is only one, albeit the most stunning one).
In any case, I think I will commemorate the Transverberation of St. Teresa of Avila on August 26 this year, in celebration of her “outrageously audacious encounters with the divine” (Eire, p. 162).