The Ecstasy of St. Teresa

What is the miracle? Howard Hibbard explains:

"The Ecstasy was a mystical experience of the great Spanish Carmelite reformer, Teresa of Avila, a 'transverberation' that pierced her heart with the fiery arrow of Divine Love. This vision was cited in the Bull of her canonization in 1622; from that time on the Ecstasy of St. Teresa was a common artistic subject in churches of her order, the Discalced Carmelites. The style of Bernini's group [comprising the main sculpture and the bas relief panels on the sides of the chapel] cannot be dissociated from its religious significance. St. Teresa (1515-77) was a straightforward but by no means ordinary girl who, through a series of physical and mental experiences, became a mystic. She was at the same time a very practical reformer who founded a number of monastic establishments; she was also the teacher of St. John of the Cross. Teresa's practical nature allowed her to describe and analyze her religious experiences with unparalleled concreteness in her famous Life and other books that followed. She described her Ecstasy in these words:

...Beside me, on the left hand, appeared an angel in bodily form, such as I am not in the habit of seeing except very rarely. Though I often have visions of angels, I do not see them....But it was our Lord's will that I should see this angel in the following way. He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire. They must be of the kind called cherubim, but they do not tell me their names. I know very well that there is a great difference between some angels and others, and between these and others still, but I could not possibly explain it. In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul then content with anything but God. This is not a physical, but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it--even a considerable share. So gentle is this wooing which takes place between God and the soul that if anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God in his goodness, to grant him some experience of it.
Bernini was a profoundly devout Catholic, strongly influenced by Jesuit teaching. We are told that for the last forty years of his life he went to church every day and took communion twice a week. For him the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa was not merely a problem in sculpture but an exercise of devotion, an opportunity to enlighten and inspire. He took Teresa's text in the spirit in which it was written and made the hallucinatory event appear as real and as concrete as possible."

Howard Hibbard, Bernini (NY: Penguin, 1965): 136-37.

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