Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Theresa at Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.
St Teresa was born in Spain in 1515, and ran away from home aged twenty to become a Carmelite nun. She experienced mystical visions which both attracted a great following and caused controversy. Bernini’s sculpture represents one of the most sensual of them:
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…
Teresa also had a practical side, and worked with St John of the Cross to reform the Carmelite rule and reinvigorate its communities.
Her writings about her progress in prayer towards union with God include The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle, which are classics of the spiritual life.
She died on 4 October 1582, but her feast is on 15 October because the very day after her death the reformed calendar was adopted and eleven days were omitted from October that year.
who by your Spirit raised up your servant Teresa of Avila
to reveal to your Church the way of perfection:
grant that her teaching
may awaken in us a longing for holiness,
until we attain to the perfect union of love
in Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.