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Seeing with the heart

"He must become greater; I must become less.” John 3.30

Any one with a mixed, itinerant or otherwise unstable/ unconventional background will identify with S[panish Christian mystic, Teresa of Avila. Growing up among the nouveau riche of 16th century Spain, Teresa's family nursed an awkward secret: they were Jewish. Her older relatives went to great and various lengths to reinvent themselves, so they might anchor themselves more securely against the persecuting zeal of the Spanish Inquisitors.

So it is no wonder that Teresa herself grew up in confusion about her identity. On the one hand she felt drawn towards a life of religious piety; on the other, as a wealthy young belle with a personality to match, worldly attractions came naturally and exercised an instinctive appeal to her. Recognising her vulnerability, her father placed her in a convent. Though not entirely against her will (after all the situation appealed to her devotional side!), the first 20 years were a constant struggle. . Bizarrely, in those days, class even asserted itself within the environs of a religious institution, with nuns from wealthier backgrounds enjoying special privileges while being served by those of humbler origins. This cannot have helped Teresa's spiritual formation.

The breakthrough eventually came as she gazed upon a statue depicting the suffering of Jesus. Overwhelmed by the depth and quality of God's love expressed through the sacrifice of Jesus, Teresa opened her heart and never looked back. In return, God blessed the next 20 years of Teresa's life with a series of visions, ecstasies and experiences which transformed her personality, propelled her into positions of leadership and rendered her a popular source of spiritual guidance. Her influence among the great and the good protected her from the Inquisitors, who discriminated against those whose personal convictions interfered in their compliance with official doctrine.



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