The Ecstacy of the Ecstacy of Saint Teresa

Gian Lorenzo Bernini Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

In a small church only a few blocks from the train station in Rome there resides a marvelous sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini depicting an episode in the The Life of Teresa of Jesus in which Teresa of Avila, founder of the eremitic order of the Discalced Carmelites, undergoes a profound and ecstatic religious experience at the hands of an angel who disembowels her with a gold-tipped spear. She finds the pain so excruciating that it is glorious, and it causes her to surrender herself wholly to God. She describes the episode with the following:

“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.”

Chapter XXIX; Part 17, Teresa’s Autobiography

The narration is pronouncedly erotic. The angel pierces Teresa Avila with the phallic arrow and repeatedly plunges the point into her heart in a motion resembling copulation. The sensation is both painful and pleasurable and inspires in her a deep attachment to God, of whom the Angel is an agent and a surrogate. The overtly sexual nature of the passage was not lost on Bernini. In his composition the angel kneels over Teresa’s prone body, her back rearing up slightly. From her expression, we see that she is overwhelmed, but there is no strain in her face. Her complexion is not is not wracked and twisted, as it would if she were undergoing tortuous pain. Her eyes are lightly closed and her mouth is slack and half agape. She is not crying out, but only moaning.


We recognize these as signs of sexual pleasure, and Bernini is positing that these same signs may also be used to represent spiritual rapture. Of course it is an approximation. He manages to convey sexual extravagance with remarkable fidelity, however he falls well short of representing divine encounter. But it is a doomed project to begin with and Bernini is simply doing his best with what he has. It is impossible to represent the ecstasy described by Saint Teresa of Avila because they have no precedent in shared experience. The episode with the angel was a revelation intended for Teresa and Teresa alone, and cannot be shared with others who have not undergone the same trial.

In her own telling, Teresa too is at a loss when she attempts to explain the significance of the event and what it might mean to others besides herself. She writes this:

“The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.”

Here she struggles with the contradiction of the sensation that is not entirely sensate, and concedes finally that her object is ineffable and beyond the knowledge of those whom God has not made knowledgeable of it. And so this is the dilemma that Bernini audaciously seeks to solve with his masterpiece: make commonly known the singular event, that which was experienced by one blessed individual and which remains obscured from all others. I believe succeeds, but only to a degree. He shows us the road we must take to reach knowledge, but he can only take us so far up the road. He shows us that the ecstasy of Saint Teresa is like sexual ecstasy that we experience in intercourse with a lover, but it is not perfectly analogous. It is an incomplete representation. Many see the work and are able to discover the secret meaning (that this sculpture is in fact a pornographic image), but they stop there and they do not see it as anything more than a surreptitious representation of sexual expression. It is expected that we will go further, that we will use the sculpture as a starting point and that we will compose our own masterwork within our imaginations and this will be the true image of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. By doing so we will be effecting our own revelation upon ourselves and we will, as Teresa bids us, experience it so that we do not think that it is a lie.


Christ’s Teachings on Divorce


Jesus professes on the topic of divorce twice in the gospels, once in Matthew 5:31-32 and once in Mark 10:1-12. In either instance, he makes his position clear, saying in Matthew “…whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery,” and in Mark, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.” It would appear that Christ’s teaching is perfectly unambiguous on this topic: divorce is tantamount to adultery. But if we look closer at the passage in Mark, we find that there is some nuance in what Jesus said about divorce, when he said it, and with whom he spoke about it. In Mark 10:10, we are told that Jesus made this pronouncement to the disciples, though no context is given nor any indication as to how the discussion might of went, other than that the disciples had asked him about divorce. In a separate discussion with the Pharisees, Jesus says the following: “But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Mark 10:6-9) Using language from Genesis, Christ associates the marriage bond to being physically attached to another person as “one flesh.” It is curious then that in Mark this anecdote should follow immediately after the famous ‘if thy hand offend thee” illustration: “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter in life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched.” (Mark 9:43) Is it possible to draw an analogy between the offending hand and the problematic marital bond? Yes, you and your spouse may be one flesh, but if being joined to a husband or wife should cause you to jeopardize your own salvation, shouldn’t you amputate that part of you just as you would the hand that causes you to offend? It is a similar argument to that which John Milton makes in Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, about which I wrote several weeks ago. It’s difficult to say whether this interpretation can be given any credence. Once could point out, just as Milton’s contemporaries did, the concluding verse spoken to the Pharisees: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Mark 10:9) There is no license being given here that would allow men and women to determine their own separation. But is it permissible to think that while man cannot put asunder the marriage bond, God can? And if so, what would that look like? Can marriages end without anyone ever deciding to end them? Perhaps, independent of any legal petitions or church sanctions, a marriage can just dissolve on its own. Maybe, just as two people are destined to be together, they are also destined to separate.

homeless jesus

The Esoteric Wisdom of

Totally great website of the day:

You’ll notice the page title reads, simply, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” I can’t fully tell what this website is and or what its author’s agenda might be. Its theological position is ostensibly predicated on a fairly traditional trinity doctrine. One might be led to think it Catholic, somehow, but in the section, “Answering Roman Catholicism,” we find a treatise condemning the old church in four awesome chapters about things like necromancy and fetishization of relics. The site’s other sections go on to discredit a long parade of “heresies,” including Pentecostalism, Unitarian Universalism, Latter-day Saints, Islam, ect. I would not want to give the impression that these arguments are in any way unhinged or motivated by delusion. Their theses are logical and legitimate, and the writing is very well-composed. The author is quite conservative, really. She claims that her writing aligns with orthodox belief, but the project is so sprawling and esoteric, so overflowing with creative energy that it is anything but orthodox. I think Thrice Holy is the product of orphic delirium. It is vision is so vast that it might as well be real.

Part of the pleasure of experiencing Thrice Holy is following its ever-varying design and naïve presentation. If a prophet does indeed live among us in this modern era, her or his ideas would most certainly be transmitted via nineties-era html web pages. All its iframes and the reluctant use of css indicate exceptionality.

Follow the author on twitter: @TrisagionSeraph

It appears that she is an older German woman who lives in Mainz.