Letter of Saint Juan de Avila to Saint Teresa of Avila, Discussing Her Account of Her Spiritual Life
May the grace and peace of Jesus Christ our Lord be ever with you.
I consented to read your book which was sent me, not so much because I considered myself competent to judge of such matters, as because I thought that, by the grace of God, its teaching might benefit me. Although I have had no leisure to study it as thoroughly as it deserves, yet, thanks be to God, it has given me great consolation, and it will be my own fault if it does not profit my soul. On my own account it might suffice to say no more about it, yet I think the gravity of the subject and the respect due to the person who sent it, require me to express my opinion of it, at least In general terms.
It is not a book proper for every one to read – the language requires to be corrected in some places and to be made clearer in others. There are things in it which, though useful to you in your own spiritual life, would not do for every one to practise, for God guides some souls along extraordinary paths which are not intended for others. I have noted most of these passages and will arrange them for you as soon as possible, and send them to you without fail. If you knew the infirm state of my health, and how I am constantly employed in many necessary duties, you would, I am sure, be more inclined to pity me, than to accuse me of neglect.
On the whole, your teaching on prayer is correct, and you may safely trust to it and practise it; the raptures too afford proof of being genuine. What you say about God’s teaching the soul without the use of the imagination, that is by interior or exterior communications, is safe, and I can find no fault with it. Saint Augustine treats this subject well. Such communications, both interior and exterior, have misled many in our times; the exterior ones specially are less safe; for though there is little difficulty in knowing that they are not from ourselves, it is not so easy to decide whether they proceed from a good or from an evil spirit. There are many rules for discovering when they come from God; one is, that they should come to us in times of need; or be a great help to the soul, such as strengthening it in times of temptation or doubt; or warning it of the approach of danger. For if even a. man who is good never speaks without purpose, how much less would God do so. Considering that the communications mentioned in your book are conformable to the Holy Scriptures and the teaching of the Church, I judge that, if not all, at least the greater part of them, come from God. Visions, whether imaginary or corporeal, are the most deceptive; they are never to be desired, and, should they come uninvited they should, as far as possible, be resisted. Unless, however, it is certain that they proceed from an evil spirit, this should not be done by making signs of contempt. I was pained and shocked to hear of its having been done in your case. We should beg of God not to allow us to walk by sight, but to defer the revelation of Himself and His Saints until we reach Heaven, and we should ask Him to guide us whilst on earth along the common path by which He leads His faithful friends. We must also take other suitable means for shunning these visions. If, nevertheless, they continue to come to us and are profitable to the soul, not inciting her to vanity, but increasing her humility; if, moreover, these communications be conformable to the teaching of the Church, and if they last a considerable time and infuse a spiritual joy into the soul which can be better felt than described, I do not think that it is necessary any longer to try to avoid them. No one, however, should be his own guide in these cases, but should communicate them at once to some enlightened counsellor. This is the universal rule to be followed on all such occasions, and we may trust that God will not suffer any one to be deceived who wishes to be safe and has the humility to acknowledge his incompetence to judge in such matters for himself. It is not right, however, to cause alarm, and at once condemn these favours because the soul to whom they are vouchsafed is not perfect, for, as I have often witnessed, God withdraws people from harmful pleasures, and even from grievous sins, by sending them His sweet consolations. Who shall place limits to God’s mercies? As these graces, moreover, are not bestowed on any one on account of his own merits or strength but, on the contrary, are often given to souls because of their weakness, they neither necessarily increase sanctity, nor are always granted to the greatest saints. It is unreasonable for any one to disbelieve these matters because of their sublime nature, or since it appears incredible that a Majesty so exalted should abase Himself to hold such loving intercourse with His creatures. It is written that “God is love” – and if He is love, He must needs be infinite love and infinite goodness, and it is no wonder that such love and goodness should at times bestow on certain souls an affection which confounds those who do not understand it. Although many know this by faith, yet, unless they have experienced it themselves, they cannot understand the affectionate, and more than affectionate way, in which God elects to treat some of His creatures. Those who themselves are far from having received favours of this kind, cannot believe God would deal with others in so different a manner. Yet it would be only reasonable to think that such love, a love which fills us with wonder, must come from God, Who is marvellous in all His works, but still more marvellous in His mercies. But what should really be a proof of the truth of these favours, (provided other circumstances confirm the evidence) is taken by some people as a pretext to deny their reality.
From your book it is clear that you have resisted in these matters even more firmly than necessary. These graces have evidently benefited you, especially by showing you your misery and faults, and helping you to correct them. They have continued for a long time and always profited your soul, moving you to love God and despise yourself and to do penance. I am therefore more inclined to think these favours beneficial than to condemn them, if you are cautious, and do not blindly trust to them, especially those of an unaccustomed kind, or those which urge you to perform any action doubtfully good. In cases such as this, you must suspend your belief in them, and at once seek counsel. I warn you that, though these graces should be sent by God, yet the devil might mingle falsehood with them : therefore always be on your guard. Even though it be certain that the favours come from God, yet do not let your mind dwell on them with complacency, for holiness does not consist in such things, but in a humble love of God and our neighbour. Fear all ways other than this, and practise humility, the virtues, and the love of our Lord. Do not worship any of these visions, but only our Lord Jesus Christ, either in Heaven, or in the Blessed Sacrament. If one of the Blessed should appear to you, raise your heart to that Saint in Heaven, and not to what you see before you : let the image lead your thoughts to the reality. The things of which you treat in your book happen to many souls in these times, and there is no doubt that they proceed from God, Whose arm is not shortened so that He cannot do now what He did in past ages: He chooses the weaker vessels the better to manifest His glory. Continue in in this path then, but be watchful against robbers and pray for guidance. Thank God for having given you a love for Him, a knowledge of yourself, and an attraction for penance and for the cross. Do not concern yourself much about the other matters, though you should not despise them, for many show signs of coming from God, and the rest can do you no harm it you ask direction about them. I cannot believe that I have written this by my own power, for I have none, but it is the result of your prayers. I beg you for the love of Jesus Christ our Saviour, to pray for me to Him; He knows that I need it urgently, and I feel sure that is enough to make you grant my request, I must beg you now to let me conclude, as I am obliged to write another letter.
May Jesus be glorified by all and in all!
Your servant for Christ’s sake,
Juan de Avila