This Thursday, October 15, we remember St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church. The Liturgy of the Hours, in both Lauds and Vespers, celebrates Teresa in a hymn written by Pope Urban VIII in 1632, 50 years after her death.
Teresa showed an unusual character early in life: At age seven she ran away from home with her brother, to preach Christ to the Moors, with martyrdom as a likely outcome. She didn’t get far; her uncle picked them up just beyond the town walls.
As a child she enjoyed the sort of knightly romances that Miguel de Cervantes would later poke fun at in Don Quixote (1605). But her chosen quests were religious and mystical, and so she joined the Carmelites as a nun.
Her career in the Carmelites was full of adventure, both spiritual and practical. She wrote books on friendship and intimacy with God, and worked tirelessly (and controversially) with her friend St. John of the Cross to reform the Carmelite order. Together they created the order of “Discalced” (that is, “shoeless”) Carmelites.
Teresa was a woman of letters, with wide correspondence and many books, including autobiography. She is very quotable as may be seen from this selection, provided in this excellent summary of her teachings by the Knights of the Holy Eucharist:
- The closer one approaches to God, the simpler one becomes.
Thank God for the things that I do not own.
How is it, Lord, that we are cowards in everything save in opposing Thee?
Praised be the Lord, who has redeemed me from myself.
There is more value in a little study of humility and in a single act of it than in all the knowledge in the world.
You pay God a compliment by asking great things of Him.
The famous “Bookmark of St. Teresa” is a short poem written on a card found in her breviary; it goes like this:
Nada te turbe; (Let nothing disturb you)
nada te espente; (let nothing frighten you)
todo se pasa; (everything passes)
Dios no se muda. (God does not change.)
La paciencia Todo lo alcanxa. (Patience gains everything.)
Quien a Dios tiene, (To him who has God)
nada le falta. (nothing is lacking.)
Solo Dios basta. (God alone suffices.)
Her last words, as she died October 15, 1582, were “My Lord, it is time to move on. Well then, may your will be done. O my Lord and my Spouse, the hour that I have longed for has come. It is time to meet one another.”
Just fifty years ago, Teresa was given the formal title “Doctor of the Universal Church”, a title given to only 36 people so far, recognizing in her an outstanding teacher for all Christians.
To join in her celebration, we have translated Pope Urban’s poem into English according to our usual practice, keeping the Latin meter and word order as much as possible. This means no intentional rhymes, and no paraphrasing or “filler”. If the Latin words seem to have something “poetic” going on, like unusual repetitions or word order, we try to preserve that in the English, as much as the English will bear.
The poem is short, touching on only a few points of this woman’s most extraordinary life. The first stanza, sung in the morning, gently teases the seven-year-old Teresa for offering herself as an ambassador and martyr to “barbaric lands”, bringing them “Christ or [her own] blood”. The second stanza points out that God had in store for her a singular form of martyrdom, a visionary encounter, late in life. In it, an angelic seraph seemed to stab her heart with a golden lance, leaving sensations of great pain and great love.
In the next stanza we, the singers, make a request to Teresa, that she would lead our hearts also to burn up in love for God, and also that, by her teaching, many nations would be liberated from hell-fire.
Two additional stanzas are sung in the evening. They are in the voice of Teresa’s friends and followers, celebrating the day (October 15) when she finished her earthly work. In some mystical way, all her friends (especially Carmelite nuns and monks), see themselves as sharers in her victory, elevated by God himself (in the form of a shining Dove) to heaven’s “sacred shrines”. The second stanza celebrates the call of Jesus to her and her response, in language that recalls both the Song of Songs and the book of Revelation: “Come, sister, to the Lamb’s wedding feast, and to a crown of glory.”
The final stanza shifts to address Jesus Himself, the Spouse or Bridegroom (Latin sponse) whose embrace Teresa so ardently desired, and has received, along with many of her friends. Jesus is paradoxically the Spouse of Virgins, as the nuns and monks understand themselves. (Indeed we all are called to be such, if only we can be made fit to take our part in the Bride of Christ.) In the last notes of the hymn, the ordered ranks of victorious and blessed virgins–the former nuns and monks–are heard, singing the unending wedding song.
[for lauds] Regis superni nuntia domum paternam deseris, terris, Teresa, barbaris Christum datura aut sanguinem. Of lofty king the messenger, The home paternal you desert, For lands, Teresa, barbarous, To give them Christ or your own blood. Sed te manet suavior mors, poena poscit dulcior: divini amoris cuspide in vulnus icta concides. But now remains for you more sweet A death, comes due a kinder price: Of love divine, by pointed sting, Stabbed through a wound you shall collapse. O caritatis victima, tu corda nostra concrema, tibique gentes creditas inferni ab igne libera. O victim struck by charity, We ask you set our hearts ablaze; Those nations also in your charge From hellish fire please liberate. Te, sponse, Iesu, virginum, beati adorent ordines, et nuptiali cantico laudent per omne saeculum. Jesus, the virgins’ bridegroom, you May they adore in blessed ranks, And as the wedding song is sung, Let them give praise through every age. [for vespers] Haec est dies, qua candidae instar columbae, caelitum ad sacra templa spiritus se transtulit Teresiae. This is the day, when shining white In form of dove, to heaven’s high And sacred shrines, the Spirit has Transported all Teresa’s own. Sponsique voces audiit: «Veni, soror, de vertice Carmeli ad Agni nuptias, veni ad coronam gloriae». The bridegroom’s calls she has obeyed: “Come sister, from the highest peak Of Carmel, to the wedded Lamb; Come take your garland glorious”. [repeated final verse from lauds] Te, sponse, Iesu, virginum, beati adorent ordines, et nuptiali cantico laudent per omne saeculum. Jesus, the virgins’ bridegroom, you May they adore in blessed ranks, And as the wedding song is sung, Let them give praise through every age.
Notes: “And as the wedding song is sung” can also be translated “And in the nuptial canticle”. I tried to capture in English the Latin wordplay of terris, Teresa in the first stanza, but gave up after these tries:
terris, Teresa, barbaris Christum datura aut sanguinem. For lands, Teresa, barbarous, To give them Christ or your own blood. For savage territories, Tess, To send them Christ or your own blood. In tryst, Teresa, barbarous, To give the outlands Christ, or blood.
translations copyright ©2021 John R. Rose under CC BY-SA 4.0