An eternal heart. The cardiac phenomena of St Teresa of Ávila

Leonardo Rossi

For the Carmelite Order, 2022 is a year of important commemorations, being the anniversary of the death of Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) and the fourth centenary of her canonisation (1622). Pope Francis celebrated a memorial mass last 12 March to commemorate the Castilian mystic. However, apart from some initiatives by the Spanish Carmelites and the Vatican clergy, the current centenary seems to be subdued compared to the previous one. Numerous events were organised between the second half of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries to celebrate the 300th anniversary of her death and sanctification. Pilgrimages, processions, and the creation of a special devotional medal were just some of the dozens of public events. However, the attention of the faithful and the clergy focused above all on the heart of Saint Teresa.

In 1876, Nemesio Cardellac y Busquets, priest of the Congregation of the Mission, published a booklet in which he claimed the supernatural origin of the thorns that appeared on the saint’s mummified heart displayed in a reliquary glass in the Carmelite monastery of Alba de Tormes. Cardellac’s primary purpose was to end the long controversy focussed on her relic, which threatened to cast shadows on one of the most famous Carmelite saints and – above all – on the Vatican decree of 1732, which recognised the phenomenon of mystical transverberation.

Nemesio Cardellac y Busquets, Sainte Thérèse de Jésus et les épines de son coeur qui est vénéré dans le couvent des Carmélites déchausées de Alba de Tormès (diocèse de Salamanque), Paris: Imprimeries-Libraires de l’Oeuvre de Saint-Paul, 1882 (first edition, 1876).

The heart issues of Teresa of Ávila have an older origin than the nineteenth century. Let’s proceed in chronological order. In her Autobiography, the nun wrote that a seraph pierced her heart with an ignited gold bolt, a symbol of the deep bond with the Lord. In mystical language, this phenomenon is called transverberation. On her death, on 15 October 1582, an autopsy was performed on her body. The Carmelite community found a 5-centimetre-long wound on Teresa’s heart. They interpreted it as evidence of her transverberation, confirming the mystical graces that she affirmed experienced during her lifetime.

Transverberation of Saint Teresa. Devotional image, Antwerp, Ruusbroec Institute.

The news generated uproar inside and outside the monastic walls, fuelling the enthusiasm of the faithful but also the jealousy of the local religious communities. The nuns of her hometown Ávila claimed the care of her body, thus entering into competition with those of Alba de Tormes, where Teresa lived and died. Fearing the transfer of her human remains, in 1586, a nun from Alba tore the heart from the saint’s chest with a knife in the hope of keeping the precious relic. According to Carmelite hagiography, even though four years had passed since her death, her body was still uncorrupted and her heart contained fresh and perfumed blood. The fragrance spread throughout the monastery and revealed the sacrilege of the corpse. The ecclesiastical authorities condemned the gesture but decided that the organ would remain separate from the rest of the body (which was sent to Ávila), encapsulated in a glass reliquary and kept in Alba de Tormes to end the rivalries between the two Carmelite communities.

Reliquary containing the heart of Saint Teresa. Devotional image, Antwerp, Ruusbroec Institute.

Once the corporeal phenomena (transverberation and the incorruption of her body and heart) had been verified and the relations between the monasteries of the order appeased, the cause for canonisation proceeded quickly. Paul V beatified Teresa in 1614 and eight years later, in 1622, Gregory XV elected her as a new saint. In 1725, a special investigative process on her transverberation was begun, which ended in 1732 with the official recognition by Pope Benedict XIII and the institution of the liturgical feast (27 August). For the Roman Catholic Church, the mystical and cardiac phenomena of Saint Teresa were supernatural and true divine graces.

However, the matter was not closed. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the heart of Saint Teresa returned to the eye of the storm. On 19 March 1836, the nuns of Alba de Tormes discovered another fact: some thorns appeared on her heart relic kept in the glass case. What were these? Another prodigy or growths of natural origin? The local clergy tried to keep the news secret, but it spread and quickly reached the papal palaces. The Holy See feared these discoveries could question the ecclesiastical recognition of her miracles. The bishop of Alba appointed a team of doctors and professors from the University of Salamanca to clarify the event.

Drawing of the heart of Saint Teresa. Devotional image, Antwerp, Ruusbroec Institute.

The investigations lasted for years and the results were contradictory, increasing the opposition between loyal devotees and critical sceptics. Among those who wanted to observe the heart of Castilian mysticism with their own eyes, there was the priest mentioned above, Nemesio Cardellac y Busquets. In 1873 he moved to the monastery of Alba de Tormes to perform spiritual exercises and then heard the lively debate on the heart relic. Nemesio carefully studied the organ and the medical reports composed about it. In April 1875, Bishop Narciso Martinez Izquierdo officially put him in charge of supervising the examinations and drafting his final verdict, hoping to resolve the case finally. As we have seen, Nemesio published a pamphlet defending the supernatural origin of the phenomena of Teresa (1876). According to him, the thorns were the symbol of the Passion and the pain suffered by Christ for the remission of humanity’s sins. His work achieved great international success, translated into several languages ​​(Catalan, Italian, French) and reprinted several times. In particular, his engraved drawing of the heart circulated throughout Europe not only as ‘proof’ of the cardiac prodigies of Teresa of Ávila but as a devotional holy card.

Drawing of the heart of Saint Teresa. Devotional image, Antwerp, Ruusbroec Institute.

The public debate, the division between believers and sceptics, and the involvement of clergy and scholars in the affair helped to rekindle the spotlight in the nineteenth century on one of the most famous and contested mystics of the early modern age, Saint Teresa; but also to testify to the importance of the relics in the Catholic context. In addition, to the cardiac phenomena of the Castilian nun, many other saints boasted exceptional prodigies related to the heart (like transverberation or incorruption), such as Catherine of Siena, Charles Borromeo, Francis de Sales, Luigi Orione, Gemma Galgani. To sum up, the celebrations for the 300th anniversary of the birth and canonisation of Saint Teresa of Ávila were seen by the Roman Church as an opportunity to reaffirm God’s miraculous and inscrutable work.

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