St Teresa’s ‘second conversion’ remains central in her life and teaching to the point that in the her autobiography she draws a golden divide : time before her second conversion and time after it. Before her conversion it’s her life alone and afterwards it’s Jesus’ life in her.
This momentous event in her life is so important that it gives meaning to all that will follow: her powerful spiritual growth, the foundation of the first reformed monastery, not to mention the foundation of many other monasteries. Throughout her life and writings she will then repeat the key lesson she learned from her conversion.
We often hear her talking about her sins and God’s mercy towards her. This is not a figure of speech or a pious attitude, or random words: it is the simple truth. Her conversion is, in fact, what we call a ‘second conversion’, bearing in mind that she is, of course, already a christian and a nun. This conversion concerns going from a normal ‘traditional’ christian life to entering into a day to day personal relationship with the Risen Lord.
This conversion happens to her when she is thirty-nine years old, having first entered the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila (Spain) when she was only twenty years of age. It should be borne in mind, here, that the two reasons for which she entered would not be sufficient nowadays for a girl’s acceptance in a monastery: first, she had a very dear friend of hers already inside this particular monastery and secondly she feared committing mortal sin. Why mortal sin? She knew very well that she was attractive and entertaining; in fact many cousins were attracted to her. She also was aware that she was weak and feared falling into mortal sin. Of course there are plenty of other implicit reasons: one of them is her great devotion to Our Lady whom she adopted as a mother after the death of her own mother. In fact the Carmelite order is known to be the Order ‘of Our Lady’.
Incarnation Monastery (Avila)
On the surface, however, her religious life seemed good. She was a spiritual person, observant, faithful to religious life. But seen from the perspective of the heart or the emotions, she was failing to belong totally to Christ-The-Groom. She was not, curiously, totally aware of this lack. This could seem strange considering her way of life where she used to meet people in the parlour and talk to them about prayer, mental prayer at that. She was capable of entertaining people concerning the spiritual life for hours.
Revealingly her emotions were not totally in the hands of Christ, liking as she did to talk, entertain, thereby clinging to these relationships. Indubitably no sin is being committed here, especially according to today’s criteria. But Christ does not look at the external part of our behaviour, rather he sees into our heart, and it’s our heart that He is waiting for!
One has to say that the Lord has been patient with her – almost twenty years – then He took pity on her, wanting to change her. Blessed be Him Eternally for His Mercy!
The modern reader, consequently, would not see a problem with what she was doing since, when looked at superficially, she is not committing any sin. We know as well that she would never have sinned knowingly on purpose. It must be remembered that it is for this reason that she entered the monastery: to avoid mortal sin. So if there is no apparent sin, where is the problem? Which ‘conversion’ does she need? After all, she leads a good monastic life and through it she glorifies God! The fact remains, however, that she was blind until the Lord, with His merciful Grace, showed her from within, in her heart and emotions, what was lacking, what she was not giving to Him. Her heart in fact was divided, even worse, it was scattered about,veering outwards rather than being focused inwards on God. The relationships she was having, talking about God, were certainly straightforward, but at the emotional level, her heart was geared outwards, her emotions being involved with them. Seen from Christ-The-Groom point of view, she was not totally His, certainly not in all her emotions.
Being in the monastery does not mean that one finds oneself automatically praising only God. One needs to be with Christ in order to receive all the Graces He wants to give us and grow until we reach Union with Him and the fullness of Charity. Monastic life does not mean only to refrain from sinning and fulfilling somehow or other the duties of our state of life. It goes infinitely deeper than that. Seen from this perspective, then, her vision of Christian life, Monastic life and of her duties was impoverished. Her understanding of Christ was limited, especially what He was seeking, what He was waiting for from her, what he awaits from each one of us: all of our heart given to him – our emotional heart included. Today one would use the word ‘eros’, recognised also as the second lower half of our heart that we often keep for the love of human beings.
St. Teresa often takes the time to explain in different places in her writings this turning point in her life. In fact we can only understand her life and achievements through it, for it will trigger a powerful spiritual life, an abundance of graces.
The Lord was patiently waiting for that change to happen, and it was not happening. She just was not seeing it! This is why, afterward, she will feel the constant urge to mention it and to sing the Mercies of the Lord who not only waited for her patiently, but who gently showed her what He wanted from her: all of her, all her emotions, every fibre of her being, all for Him and Him only! It is only after doing so that the torrent of his graces was triggered! And then, a new life started, another Teresa started to emerge, the Teresa ‘of Jesus’! From that moment on, as she states in the book of her Life, it is the story of the life of Jesus in her.
On the one hand I am sure that for the modern reader the difference is minute between the way she was leading her life and what Christ wanted from her. On the other hand, one has to sincerely admit that for us human beings (including consecrated people) if we apply her criterium (giving everything including our emotional heart), very few would be ‘saved’! Or, in other words: if we follow her reading and understanding of the light that Jesus showed her applying it to everybody, many things in the Church would have to change!
St Teresa gives a huge importance to this point and it is to be feared that it might be easily overlooked. According to the criteria of christian moral life, we all agree that she was not committing any sin, not even a fault against her state of life! Indeed, filtered through the eyes of moral theology, there is no formal sin. But what we are learning from her is that all christian life does not lie in moral theology. God sees the heart of the human being, but unfortunately the human being does not understand himself! As Saint Augustine said: we search for God in the external world! God searches for our heart, internally. Teresa was unconsciously searching for God outside of herself, in the relationships she was having. No formal sin was committed but she was ignorant, especially of God’s ways and how to reach Him, or better said: how to be reached by God, how to really open the door to the heart in order to receive the abundance of his graces and then grow until we reach Union with Him. “The Saint, who in that period felt deeply in tune with the St Augustine of the Confessions, thus describes the decisive day of her mystical experience: “and… a feeling of the presence of God would come over me unexpectedly, so that I could in no wise doubt either that he was within me, or that I was wholly absorbed in him” (Vida, 10, 1).” (Pope Benedict XVI Catechesis, on St Teresa)

Note: What is the light that St Teresa’s conversion sheds on today’s state of Theology? God asks us at least two questions when, through her conversion, He challenges our way of viewing Theology today.
– Does today’s teaching in moral theology speak in a practical way about ‘Union with God’? No, it does not.
– Does Christian Moral life still seem to consist only in the fact of avoiding sin i.e. being in a state of Grace? Indeed it does.

These are very important questions and the common answers to them do not give evidence of the salt of the Gospel. Therefore if we continue to reduce Christian life this way, St Teresa’s life will become incomprehensible to us, as, will be ,categorically, our understanding of Christian life in toto. We need fewer superficial criteria and more thorough filters, or rather a more refined filter: Spiritual Theology, or the teaching of the Church on Spiritual life. The reason here is fundamental: it reaches the core of our christian life. It shows the real goal of christian life, that is, union with God; it shows the decisive step to take to reach it hardly mentioned today, that is, giving Jesus the lower part of our heart (see also next chapter) and finally, as we will see later, it shows, in practice, the means to reach the Goal through practising virtues and the Prayer of the Heart.

It is not clear, as yet, whether we have or have not given our heart, our emotions to the Lord!

The Lord Himself is a prime exemplar of using various circumstances and means to shed his light in St. Teresa and show her what He wanted from her, what she was denying him! As mentioned above, she was reading (during Lent of 1554) the Confessions of St Augustine and was struck by the beautiful passage where he mentions his misery and error in choosing the wrong direction while searching for God: exteriorly instead of interiorly.
“Too late did I love You, O Fairness, so ancient, and yet so new! Too late did I love You! For behold, You were within, and I without, and there did I seek You; I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty You made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Those things kept me far from You, which, unless they were in You, were not. You called, and cried aloud, and forced open my deafness. You gleamed and shine, and chase away my blindness. You exhaled odours, and I drew in my breath and do pant after You. I tasted, and do hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for Your peace.
When I shall cleave unto You with all my being, then shall I in nothing have pain and labour; and my life shall be a real life, being wholly full of You.” (Saint Augustine, Confessions, X, 27, 38)
Reading this passage for St Teresa was a decisive moment posing many questions as it did: where is God ? Is he without or within his creatures ? Can he be found through an intellectual quest ? Is he in one’s relationships with others (one can easily call this ‘love of neighbour’, to legitimise it) ! Where is one’s heart ? The Gospel says : your heart will be where your treasure is (Matthew 6:21)! And who is our Treasure?
We do not see God, He is unknown to us, but our real Treasure, this immensely deep Well, those abundant Living Waters is Christ! And Christ is the Groom, the Beloved of our heart! Where is Christ? Is He outside? This is what St Teresa thought! And during this Lenten time of 1554 Teresa is to be found touched by Christ during this reading of St Augustine. The result is a dramatic change touching the very core of her being: he is not to be found outside, but there he is, inside of her, in the depths of her heart. She searches for him yes, but now searches for him in her heart of hearts. Henceforth she will learn to never leave him alone in her heart!
It is through this reading that she receives one of the few electric jolts the grace of God will use to return her to Himself. This one will make her become altogether aware of the greatness of the human being and of her former error! Yes the human being is great, immense; she will later get to discover the inner beauty that the soul will recover by growing in Christ! The baptised person is like a living and ambulatory Tabernacle! Now, not as before when all her energy and emotions were outward bound, the grace of God used this passage of St. Augustine’s to turn Teresa powerfully toward God dwelling within her.
Large scale representation of Christ at the Pillar
The other jolt given by the Grace of God is when her eyes meet the eyes of Jesus! This is worth all the treasures of the world. Having our eyes make contact with Jesus’ eyes! In His mercy, Christ used a very small polychrome statue of Christ at the Pillar to pour forth his Grace to touch her and talk to her – with all the pain that He suffered because of her and for her. But mainly it is his gaze that touched her. Christ, at the pillar with his hands tied to it, covered in wounds, turning his head toward her, looking at her, into her eyes! When the two gazes meet – by the grace of God – the beauty of Christ, his love for her, moved her soul, her heart, deeply, moved everything within her. Everything seemed to vanish, all the external attachments she had sought, all that she had undertaken, all the beauties of creation disappeared in an instant in the face of the power of his Love, of his Gaze, of his Beauty! This beauty is capable of dramatically changing the entire world, directing it toward herself! This Beauty acts – by the Mercy of God – as a very powerful magnet! And this only is enough!


Christ appearing and talking to Teresa
Christ himself, now, will accomplish and finish the inner conversion. This will be the final jolt. One day, He will speak to St Teresa, summoning her not to be busy with the outer world but to direct her “busyness” only to him. He seems to say to her the words: ‘Stop speaking to human beings !’ He wanted her totally for himself ! Christ is absolute in his dealings with us ! He wants it all ! There are no half-measures ! He has an immense thirst, a divine thirst to give himself to us, but in order to do so, He needs us to be entirely – absolutely entirely – his. Not even a drop of our being cannot be his ! Christ’s love is radical, but He fills us in a royal way ! His way of giving himself to us, the abundance of his graces, the beauty of the gift of Himself are beyond our wildest imagination ! Only by putting Teresa’s belief here to the test will the unbeliever see the truth of it – he will never repent doing so.
The indisputable reason can now be understood why St Teresa repeatedly underlines in her writings the divine equation of spiritual life: if you want to receive Him totally, in all the royal abundance of the Gift of Himself, you need to give him everything, to entrust everything into his hands!
This decision can be taken right now, by the Grace of God:
“Lord I am weak,
Lord my heart is spread outward busy with many things
but I would like to belong to you totally,
I offer you all that is dear to me
like Abraham offered you his only child,
I put it in your hands,
and then I offer myself to you, entirely to you.
Make of me whatever you want.”
Sadly, it must be recognised, that three minutes after we offer ourselves, we take back our freedom. This is why this act of offering oneself will be repeated various times afterwards in Teresa’s life. In like manner one should now repeat it often, because God created us capable of free will and therefore capable of offering ourselves to him. Amazingly every minute of free will is an equal opportunity to love Him again and again and to be loved by Him.
One cannot fathom how much this gift of ourselves to Him has ‘power over’ him. It is like a huge magnet that attracts and seduces Christ. He is encouraged to abandon himself to unheard of things: He pours out his Grace in abundance!
All this I, however, remains a matter of experience. It has to be checked out first hand!