Teresa was now over twenty years in religious life and aged over forty. She had come through periods of very ill health and now was well. But she wasn’t happy about her spiritual life, always struggling to improve herself. In her Autobiography she admits that her intellect was so poor that it could never, never imagine heavenly and sublime things”. She says: “I had such little ability to represent things with my intellect that if I hadn’t seen the things, my imagination was not of use to me.” It seems she had no photographic mind. Then something special happened to her. One day as she entered the oratory, she saw a statue of the wounded Christ, the Ecce Homo of the Passion. It struck her forcefully. “I was utterly distressed in seeing Him that way for it vividly represented what He suffered for us. I felt so keenly how ungrateful I was for those wounds that I thought my heart would break. I threw myself at his feet with the greatest outpouring of tears” (Life 9, 1). Her reaction to seeing this statue may have been the result of a growing awareness of her need to do something about her prayer. “Since I could not reason this out, I strove to picture Christ within me.” She found more comfort in the garden scene of Gethsemane where Jesus was more alone and afflicted. There she strove to be His companion, a person in need -so that He had to accept her. She thought of the sweat and agony and desired “to wipe away the sweat He so painfully experienced.” Yet she admits: “There were many distractions that tormented me.”
She explains that her method of praying requires less dependence on reflection; yet it makes more progress, because “it advances in love”. It deepened her relationship with the suffering Christ. Those who follow this way, she says, “will find that a book can be a help for recollecting oneself quickly.” It was during this period of renewed spirituality that she got a copy of the Confessions of St. Augustine, probably the translation published in Salamanca in 1554. She was very fond of the great Saint, especially because he had been a sinner whom the Lord had healed. What he had done for Augustine He could do for her. One thing left her inconsolable:
Sinners like Augustine, the Lord had called only once and they did not fall again, whereas “in my case, I had failed so often that I was worn out.” As she read the Confessions, she prayed more to St. Augustine for help for herself. When she came to the account of his conversion and of the voice in the garden, it seemed to her that “it was I the Lord called. I remained for a long time totally dissolved in tears, feeling within myself utter distress and weariness” (Life 9, 8). She seemed to drain herself of her past, the times when she was weak, vain, when her love was fragile, her service mediocre. What happened seemed to be a decisive step towards the Lord. It was like a drastic conversion with effects in her external life; community room chats and pastimes immediately decreased; her prayer became more constant and her solitude increased.
Here was the beginning of the transformation that changed an ordinary nun into the contemplative that has become a Doctor of the Church. From then on Teresa felt that the Lord was Preparing her for exceptional graces, granting her great favors, especially in the life of prayer, without any merits on her part. In Chapter 10 of her Life she begins to tell about the favors she received in prayer. Sometimes as she pictured Christ within her “in order to place myself in His presence”, she experienced “the presence of God unexpectedly so that I could not doubt that He was within me or I totally immersed in Him”. She says that they call such an experience “mystical theology” (Life 10, 1), a term she probably found in Osuna’s Alphabet. The soul is suspended in such a way that it seems to be completely outside itself. What she means is that the will loves but the intellect or memory or understanding do not function. Yet it does understand what God represents to it.
Where theology is accepted as a “knowledge of God”, speculative if it is a knowing obtained by reasoning and argument, mystical if it is a knowing obtained in the soul by God’s own action, it is taught only by God. Teresa is saying that she acquires the knowledge merely by being receptive rather than active or by reasoning. She acknowledges that “everything is given by God”; but you can help God as it were, “by considering our lowliness and the ingratitude we have shown towards God, the many things He did for us, His Passion with such terrible sorrows. If some love accompanies this activity the heart is touched with tenderness” (Life 10, 2). Teresa is explaining the graces the Lord had begun to give her in prayer.