St. Teresa of Avila's Vision: Scary as Hell

Back in middle school, I had a friend with long, thick blond hair, braces, and a penchant for fun.  We’d make up our own lyrics to musicals on the bus, chill at the library after school, and compare math assignments over churros at morning break. 

And she threw epic slumber parties.  EVERYONE was invited.  We’d talk and braid hair into the wee hours of the morning and eat strawberries and whip cream at a massive table for breakfast. 

At one particularly melodramatic party, a circle of girls in pjs and sleeping bags divulged our woes: divorced or unemployed parents, weight, eating disorders, contending with the popular girls for the boys at school.  As the weeping escalated, one girl with huge brown doe eyes wept into the shoulder of her BFF:

I just can’t believe God would send anyone into hell. Everyone has some good in them.  I don’t think anyone deserves that! 

The rest of us girls concurred.  How could a God who was “all good” and “all loving” sentence anyone to eternal punishment?  It just didn’t make sense. 

Several years later, in the big city near the bedroom community of my childhood, while asleep on the top bunk of my cramped college dorm room, with my 'N Synch-obsessed roommate snoring below, I awoke with a start and called out to my mom as though I were a little girl.

I’d just seen a menacing, grotesque face with shriveled skin, growling at me through a doorway.  A knowledge settled within me that pierced deeper than his glare: this was the face of Lucifer, and he wanted nothing less than to completely annihilate me. 

A shuddery, disquieting feeling accompanied me the following morning; I felt as though I’d just been threatened with a knife or narrowly escaped a fatal car accident. 

I attended Mass at noon, and after receiving Communion the feeling dissipated: I’d received the comfort I’d calling out for in the night.  I was curled up in a safe space, separated from that evil force that wanted the very worst for me. 

However, the vision had been so real, so terrifying, I fully acknowledged the out-to-destroy-you evil we’re up against in this veil of tears. 

Avila's Descent into Hell

St. Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun and Doctor of the church, lived in Spain in the 1500s. Around the age of 40, she committed herself to the practice of mental prayer. 

Many mystical experiences ensued. In one, she physically experiences the place the demons reserved for her in hell. She describes the torments in the Book of her Life, a spiritual memoir she wrote around the age of 50. 

While I was in prayer one day, I suddenly found that, without knowing how, I had seemingly been put in hell….the entrance it seems to me was similar to a very long and narrow alleyway, like an oven, low and dark and confined; the flow seemed to me to consist of dirty, muddy water emitting a foul stench and swarming with putrid vermin. At the end of the alleyway a hole that looked like a small cupboard was hollowed out in the wall; there I found I was placed in a cramped condition. 

All this was delightful to see in comparison with what I felt there….What I felt, it seems to me, cannot even begin to be exaggerated, nor can it be understood. I experienced a fire in the soul that I don’t know how I could describe. The bodily pains were so unbearable that though I had suffered excruciating ones in this life and according to what doctors say, the worst that can be suffered on earth…these were all nothing in comparison with the ones I experienced there. I saw furthermore that they would go on without end and without ever ceasing. 

This, however was nothing next to the soul’s agonizing: constriction, a suffocation, an affliction so keenly felt and with such a despairing and tormenting unhappiness that I don’t know how to word it strongly enough. To say the experience is as though the soul were continually being wrested from the body would be insufficient, for it would make you think somebody else is taking away the life, whereas here it is the soul itself tears itself in pieces.…..I felt myself burning and crumbling; and I repeat the worst was that interior fire and despair….

the Lord wanted me to actually feel those spiritual torments and afflictions, as though the body were suffering. 1 

A Great Favor

Why does God permit or grant these glimpses into the reality of demons and hell?  Avila concludes it’s a great act of mercy.  It made her get real about her perspective towards this life, and her role in it.

I was left terrified….thus I recall no time of trial or suffering in which it doesn’t seem to me that everything that can be suffered here on earth is nothing; so I think in a way we complain without reason. Hence I repeat this experience was one of the greatest favors the Lord granted me because it helped me very much to lose fear of the tribulations and contradictions of this life…..from this experience also flow the great impulses to help souls and the extraordinary pain that is caused me by the many that are condemned. It seems certain to me that in order to free one one alone from such appalling torments I would suffer many deaths very willingly. 1

The Middle School Mind

In decades of attending Mass after Mass after Mass, in parish after parish after parish, I have never heard anything more than a stern warning once or twice that we can’t take our salvation for granted.  No description of evil even approaching Avila’s account of hell nor the terrifying vision of Lucifer I had in my dream.

Too, a theology of hell is oftentimes boiled down to simple conceits: “hell is proximity without intimacy”, or “people create their own heaven or hell”. 

And though I do not at all discount the theological implications of these descriptions, they make hell seem more like a clever argument than an actual place of torment. 

The modern approach to evil nearly reflects the attitude of us weepy girls at our middle school slumber party. 

And I totally get this watering-down, borderline erasing Catholic teachings on devil and hell.  It’s a terrifying reality.  I’d prefer that the devil didn’t exist and that our loving God assures everyone an eternity of running through meadows of tall grass and daisies.

This is in fact the destiny God wants for us: God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2:4) 

However, as John Paul II points out in Crossing the Threshold of Hope

The destination to eternal damnation consists in the ultimate rejection of God, the ultimate break in of the communion with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Here it is not so much God who rejects man, but man who rejects God. 2 

That is to say, a denial of hell totally disregards the free will God has given us. 

A Grave Naivete

As I’ve mentioned, my own take on the devil and hell contrasts sharply with the preaching I’ve heard in the Catholic Church.  As I see it, a softening of, or failure to acknowledge the reality of demons and hell is gravely naïvé. 

It’s not unlike telling ourselves that the psychotic serial killer on the loose in our neighborhood is nothing more than a hooligan, out to perhaps knock over a few garbage cans, spray some graffiti, but nothing more.  And so then leaving our doors and windows unlocked, and ourselves vulnerable to his wiles. 

St. Teresa, too, clearly harbors no delusions regarding the devil’s desire for us to suffer terribly.  Instead, she emphasizes the power God has over him:

I don’t understand these fears “the devil!, the devil!” when we can say “God God” and make the devil tremble! 1

This is scripturally correct: Jesus tells us over and over again not to be afraid, and that he’s won the victory over evil.  Here’s just a few Gospel verses that drive this point home: 

Take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) “All power on heaven and earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 18:18) “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:5)

And it’s a most reassuring thought.  By remaining in the love of Jesus; being in a state of Grace, and living a lifestyle of prayer, fasting and works of mercy; we have nothing to fear. 

And You? 

What is your take?  What sort of encounters with the devil have you experienced in your own life?

Of course, demonic attacks are rarely so explicit as those I’ve recounted in this post.  It’s oftentimes unclear when a message, compulsion, or experience comes from God or the devil.  It takes skill and experience to tease this out. 

Fortunately, Teresa has passed on her wisdom in this area as well. More on that later. 

1 Volume 1: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD & Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, 1976. Pgs 214, 214-5, 170. Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II, 1994. Pg 73.


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