The last days of St Teresa
As told by Blessed Anne of St. Bartholomew
The day after our arrival at Alba [i.e. 21 September], she was so greatly exhausted that the physicians feared, for the moment, that she could not live: a great sacrifice for me, the greater because I must remain in this world.
For, aside from the love I bore her and that she had for me, I had another great consolation in her company: almost continually I saw Jesus Christ in her soul and the manner in which He was united to it, as if it was his heaven. This knowledge filled me with the deep reverence one should feel in the presence of God.
Truly it was heavenly to serve her, and the greatest torture was to see her suffer.
I spent about fourteen years with her. Immediately, when I entered to receive the habit, she took me into her cell, and during the rest of her life I was always with her, except during her journey to Seville; for then, as has already been said, I was sick at Avila. And these fourteen years seemed to me less than one day.
The Saint, for her part, was so accustomed to my poor and awkward service, that she would not be without me. She showed this very plainly in the following circumstance.
I fell sick with a fever the very eve of the day when she was to leave for the visitation of her monasteries. I was not at all in a condition to undertake the journey.
She said to me: “Do not be disturbed, my child! I shall leave orders here to send you to me as soon as the fever leaves you.”
But at midnight, when she sent a religious to ask how I was, I found that I was free from fever.
She rose from her bed, came to me, and said: “It is true, my daughter, you no longer have any fever; we can easily undertake the journey. I hope it may be so, and I will recommend the matter to God.”
And so it was; we left in the morning.
During the five days preceding her death at Alba, I was more dead than alive. Two days before her death, she said to me once when we were alone: “My child, the hour of my death has come.”
This pierced my heart more and more. I did not leave her for a moment. I begged the religious to bring me what was necessary for her. I gave it to her. It was a consolation to her for me to do so.
In their translation for ICS Publications, Father Kieran Kavanagh and Otlio Rodriguez note that Fray Antonio de Jesús ordered Saint Teresa to travel from Medina to Alba de Tormes in order to settle some difficulties in the community. She and Blessed Anne of St. Bartholomew arrived in Alba de Tormes in the evening of 20 September.
Biographer William Thomas Walsh provides further detail concerning the account offered by Blessed Anne of St. Bartholomew. The journey was exhausting; there was little food; and when she reached Alba de Tormes, the prioress was so concerned about St. Teresa’s condition the prioress ordered her own foundress to go to bed. St. Teresa obeyed.
“Next morning she got up, walked about the convent, heard Mass, received Holy Communion with great devotion, and took a severe discipline. Thus she went on, getting up and resting in turn, attending Mass each day, until the Feast of Saint Michael, September 29. Then, after Mass, she had a hemorrhage which left her so weak that she had to be helped back into bed in the infirmary. She had asked to be placed there so that she could look through a certain window and see the priest saying Mass in the chapel beyond.”
This was the turning point that marked the “five days preceding her death” of which Blessed Anne of St. Bartholomew writes. Again, Walsh provides more detail.
Teresa spent all of the first night of October in prayer, and at dawn asked to have Fray Antonio of Jesus hear her confession. The first friar of her Reform was evidently much moved as he went in to hear the last self-accusation of a pure and virginal soul. The word went around the house that Christ had told her she was about to die. Some sisters told her afterward they had heard Fray Antonio say he would ask our Lord not to take her yet. “Never mind about that,” said Teresa. “I am no longer needed in this world.” The nuns all gathered at the bedside that day, and received her last counsels.
On October 3, the eve of Saint Francis, at about five o’clock, she asked for Viaticum. The nuns dressed her in her veil and white choir mantle, and lighted holy tapers in the infirmary. She was so weak that they had to turn her in the bed. While they waited for the priest, each holding a lighted candle, La Madre began to speak:
“Hijas mías y señoras mías, for the love of God I beg that you will take great care with the keeping of the Rule and Constitutions, and pay no attention to the bad example that this wicked nun has given you, and pardon me for it.”
When the priest arrived with the Blessed Sacrament, and she became aware that her Lord was entering the room, she raised her body on the bed without any help, as though to throw herself on the floor. The nuns who held her down noticed that a change had come over her countenance: it was beautiful and illuminated beyond description, much younger than her age warranted. “And clasping her hands, full of joy,” says Ribera, “this swan of utter whiteness began to sing at the end of her life more sweetly than they had ever heard her sing and spoke lofty things, amorous and sweet. Among others, she said, ‘Oh my Lord and my Spouse, now the desired hour is come. Now it is time for us to go. Señor mío, now is the time to set forth, may it be very soon, and may Your most holy will be accomplished! Now the hour has come for me to leave this exile, and my soul rejoices at one with you for what I have so desired!’“
Anne of St. Bartholomew, M; Bouix, M 1917, Autobiography of the Blessed Mother Anne of Saint Bartholomew, inseparable companion of Saint Teresa, and foundress of the Carmels of Pontoise, Tours and Antwerp, translated from the French by anonymous, H. S. Collins Printing Co., Saint Louis.
Thomas Walsh. W 1987, St Teresa of Avila: A Biography, TAN Books, Charlotte.