Nov 16 2011

Teresa of Avila – In the Hands of God

Published by at 9:27 am under Poetry

In the Hands of God
by Teresa of Avila

English version by Kieran Kavanaugh OCD and Otilio Rodriguez OCD

I am Yours and born of You,
What do You want of me?

Majestic Sovereign,
Unending wisdom,
Kindness pleasing to my soul;
God sublime, one Being Good,
Behold this one so vile.
Singing of her love to you:
What do You want of me?

Yours, you made me,
Yours, you saved me,
Yours, you endured me,
Yours, you called me,
Yours, you awaited me,
Yours, I did not stray.
What do You want of me?

Good Lord, what do you want of me,
What is this wretch to do?
What work is this,
This sinful slave, to do?
Look at me, Sweet Love,
Sweet Love, look at me,
What do You want of me?

In Your hand
I place my heart,
Body, life and soul,
Deep feelings and affections mine,
Spouse — Redeemer sweet,
Myself offered now to you,
What do You want of me?

Give me death, give me life,
Health or sickness,
Honor or shame,
War or swelling peace,
Weakness or full strength,
Yes, to these I say,
What do You want of me?

Give me wealth or want,
Delight or distress,
Happiness or gloominess,
Heaven or hell,
Sweet life, sun unveiled,
To you I give all.
What do You want of me?

Give me, if You will, prayer;
Or let me know dryness,
And abundance of devotion,
Or if not, then barrenness.
In you alone, Sovereign Majesty,
I find my peace,
What do You want of me?

Give me then wisdom.
Or for love, ignorance,
Years of abundance,
Or hunger and famine.
Darkness or sunlight,
Move me here or there:
What do You want of me?

If You want me to rest,
I desire it for love;
If to labor,
I will die working:
Sweet Love say
Where, how and when.
What do You want of me?

Calvary or Tabor give me,
Desert or fruitful land;
As Job in suffering
Or John at Your breast;
Barren or fruited vine,
Whatever be Your will:
What do You want of me?

Be I Joseph chained
Or as Egypt’s governor,
David pained
Or exalted high,
Jonas drowned,
Or Jonas freed:
What do You want of me?

Silent or speaking,
Fruitbearing or barren,
My wounds shown by the Law,
Rejoicing in the tender Gospel;
Sorrowing or exulting,
You alone live in me:
What do You want of me?

Yours I am, for You I was born:
What do You want of me?

— from The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila: Volume Three, Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD / Translated by Otilio Rodriguez, OCD


/ Photo by AlicePopkorn /

I imagine my mother, a confirmed ex-Catholic, wincing at the self-denigrating language near the beginning of this poem — “this one so vile,” “this wretch,” “this sinful slave.” (I’m sure she would object to such a display of ‘Catholic guilt.’) But it is important to understand this as a technique, a spiritual practice. One should never fundamentally debase oneself, for we are all of us beautiful children of the Divine. But the ego endlessly incites us to a self-importance that divides us from our own divine nature. Every spiritual tradition has ways to deflate that self-importance in order to restore us to the divine embrace… but it must always be balanced with the understanding of our fundamental goodness.

This poem is a prayer, a supremely courageous prayer of yielding to the Divine. It is the fearless prayer of every true mystic: Teresa of Avila is saying, I exist only for You, and in You. I have no existence apart from You. Give me ease or give me suffering — I don’t care, so long as You give me Yourself! What do You want of me, what do You want to experience through me? — I don’t care, so long as You give me Yourself!

This is the wild, fearless attitude that leads to the Goal. This is the approach that allows the Zen practitioner to stop the restless mind and finally be present. This is the state of mind that allows the Kali devotee to see beauty in that which terrifies. This is the total surrender that allows the Sufi to disappear into the embrace of the Beloved. This is the prayerfulness that allows the devout Christian to discover the smiling Bridegroom even in suffering upon the cross.

You alone live in me:
What do You want of me?

Teresa of Avila, Teresa of Avila poetry, Christian poetry Teresa of Avila

Spain (1515 – 1582) Timeline
Christian : Catholic

Teresa de Jesus, more popularly known as Teresa of Avila, lived in a time of turmoil and religious reform. She was a nun in Catholic Spain during the immediate aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, when Spain saw itself as the most secure bastion of traditional Catholic faith and practice.

She was a strong and inspired leader, in a time and place when women were relegated to more passive roles. And she was a deep mystic, who was sometimes seen to levitate slightly off the ground, and her face illuminated.

Teresa entered the Carmelite order of nuns against the wishes of her father. She eventually joined the “discalced” movement within the Carmelite order, a movement that advocated simplicity, humility, and the spiritual life over the increasingly worldly and sometimes corrupt practices that dominated many other communities of monks and nuns. Her reputation for holiness along with her immense energy and practical talents quickly made her a leader of the discalced Carmelites and the foundress of several monasteries. These activities led her into a world of politics, legal battles, letter campaigns, and long periods of exhausting travel.

Like Francis of Assisi, Teresa also suffered from a series of debilitating illnesses and injuries, often made even worse by the treatments of the time. Later in life, for example, she fell down a flight of stairs and broke her arm. It was poorly set and limited her movement. Someone had to rebreak her arm in order to reset it, but an even worse job was done, leaving her essentially crippled and needing aid for such simple things as dressing herself.

Obedience was one of the virtues Teresa particularly extolled. Politically, this was significant at a time when the Catholic world was being challenged by the Protestant reformation, and when many mystical movements within the Catholic church narrowly escaped the label of heresy. Yet obedience, for her and for monastics throughout the centuries, has the spiritual value of freeing the individual from self-will and the trap of ego. In other words, when practiced with intelligent caution, obedience can be understood as a technique that opens the heart and the awareness.

Despite her physical sufferings and the challenges of her foundational work within the Catholic church, she remained supremely dedicated to the mystical life. She shared a close spiritual connection with John of the Cross, her younger contemporary, and was in some ways a mentor to that great poet and mystic.

Teresa of Avila wrote poetry, many letters, histories of her work in establishing monastic foundations, but it is her book on the path of prayer, The Way of Perfection, and her spiritual autobiography, The Interior Castle, that are most widely read and considered her masterpieces.

More poetry by Teresa of Avila

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11 responses so far

11 Responses to “Teresa of Avila – In the Hands of God”

  1. Joseph Jastrabon 16 Nov 2011 at 11:01 am

    Ivan,

    Also a “confirmed ex-Catholic,” I cringed at the beginning references in this prayer to our “wretchedness” but must say that as I got over my rebellion against my literal translation, and began reading the poem out loud, I was taken up by it, by the pulsing heart and soul of this devotional song to our Significant Other. It leaves me with every cell of my body excited with Love.

    A total surprise for me, given its source and my troubled upbringing with the church…. which makes it even a more delightful experience.

    Thanks for your willingness to stand behind the essence of this piece and your insightful commentary. And for your ongoing encouragement to go beyond reading these poems to speaking and singing them alive.

    Joseph

  2. Patricia Tayloron 16 Nov 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Dear Ivan,
    Like Joseph I stalled at the self-abasement, albeit I’m a confirmed Catholic and a daily Mass goer. Teresa Of Avila [doctor of the church] lived at a time when such language was common, I believe, rather than catholic guilt. Maybe in years gone by it would not have jarred as it did this morning. It reminds me that the journey of the soul is forever growing towards enlightenment. There is no doubt that Teresa encountered her God in exotraordinary experiences.
    As Joseph reminds us, poetry needs to be read aloud. May all who enjoy your ministry, Ivan, be blessed this day.
    Trish

  3. franon 16 Nov 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Thank you, a great deal of clarity, forgiveness, and commoness or community resinates with me as I read your commentary. The poem itself reminds me of a passion I once had, though disturbed by the incongruity in the church and myself. Thank you again for your words all your studies and openess.

  4. Yohannahon 16 Nov 2011 at 6:12 pm

    I enjoy almost every of your comments Ivan but I bealive “christianity”is your “speciality”.This is where each time I am most delighted to learn from you about all those hiden aspects of this religion which becoming,thank’s to your comments, a little more sympathic to me.
    Wish you all the best.

  5. Eleanoreon 17 Nov 2011 at 5:31 am

    I just did a project on Saint. Teresa of Avila! thanks for sharing, I very much enjoyed this one 🙂

  6. chitraon 17 Nov 2011 at 7:00 am

    Waaw… I know nothing of christianity..but sure feels like thoughts and feelings are the same to all humans. Well me learning so much of the religion whilst enjoying every line! thanks ivan… for sharing

  7. nasihaon 17 Nov 2011 at 10:28 am

    enjoyed the poetry, your commentary and ofcourse what Theresa of Avila has left us of her life. Wonderful to learn something beautiful everyday – thank you Dear Ivan.

  8. Claudiaon 19 Nov 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Great job explaining this complicated and amazing woman. Thank you!

  9. Joyon 19 Nov 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Thank you so much, Ivan, for St. Teresa’s poetry, and your thoughtful sensitive commentary, always.

    As a teen in Spain, I wondered if the walled town of Avila, where I hung out one day, was where St. Teresa was from four centuries earlier. Decades ago, somewhere I was, there was an exhibit where the “shoulder bone of St. Teresa de Avila” was on view, encased in a glass vessel. Maybe because of her medical condition, as you describe it, the particular bone was on view.

    Couple decades ago, I was at a Jewish retreat at St. Andrews Priory in Valyermo, CA, where Jesuit priests kept a prayer book on a stand. I noticed the page was set to thoughts on St. Teresa de Avila, and that pleased me.

    Do you know if Saint Teresa de Avila had a connection to Jewish people, and what was it?
    I often wondered why I had this great interest in Saint Teresa de Avila.
    I named my daughter, Aviva.

    BlesSings for connection, health and joy to you,
    I have gratitude for your ‘ministry’.
    Joy

    (In Spain, as a teen, I was Alegria con sangria.)

  10. Joyon 19 Nov 2011 at 4:41 pm

    Dear Ivan,
    After writing to you today, I did research on my own question, wondering about the Jewish connection with Saint Teresa de Avila, and found the answers to my inquiry…
    I also remembered how connected I was in Toledo and in Granada when I was 18 years……
    Here are details from two sites of many:
    ‎”Teresa of Avila, was born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada on March 28 1515. Her father’s family, Jewish merchants from Toledo, had accepted Christianity in 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella gave the Jews of Spain the choice of conversion or expulsion, but her grandfather was later convicted of secretly continuing to practice Judaism. Her father, Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda, bought a title of knighthood and assimilated into Christian society. Like many conversos, Alonso was deeply ‘afraid’ by his Jewish roots and, along with his children, made every effort to conceal them. They would prove a cause of deep concern for his daughter whose writings were always scrutinized by the Inquisition. Being a woman claiming religious experience and writing about it raised sufficient concern among the authorities, but being a woman of Jewish background made here a particular target of suspicion.”
    http://www.carmelitanacollection.com
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    ‎”Her grandfather, Juan Sanchez, and two of his sons, including Teresa’s father, had been arrested by the Inquisition in 1485, seven years before the final expulsion of all Jews from Spain, as nominal Christians who were secret Jews. Only because they recanted were they not sent to be burnt at the stake, robed in the hooded full-length white garment, painted with flames and devils, the sambenito, as were nearly a thousand persons a year in the Spain of that time. Instead, they were condemned to wear the sambenitillo, the knee-length yellow garment, marked with black crosses, shoulder to hem, back and front, and in that state to march in penitential procession on seven successive Fridays to all the many churches of Toledo, showered with stones and spittle all the way. Teresa’s father changed his name and fled to more tolerant Avila after this.” …….
    Obviously, the Spanish Sambenito and Sambenitillo garments prefigured the German-mandated Star of David badges and shop-window signs with “Jude” perjoratively scrawled onto them.
    Teresa of Avila by Raymond G. Helmick S.J.

  11. Christine Brownon 21 Dec 2020 at 7:31 am

    Hello translators and happy winter solstice!
    I notice you have three volumes of Teresa’s work.
    Do you have a separate volume of just her poetry?
    Please let me know.
    I would love to purchase it.
    thank you
    Christine

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