The Counsel Of Teresa Of Avila: Part III-Reformulation

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS

Turning Into the Image

We have discussed turning away from distracting thoughts and painful images. Experience shows that if the distraction is related to personal suffering, either emotionally or physically, the difficulty of turning away from it increases proportionately. Everyone knows how hard it is to concentrate when one has a severe headache or other physical ailment or has received some very bad news.

Teresa provided a way of dealing with emotional or physical suffering. In this case, she did not necessarily turn away from the suffering but changed the image that relates to the sorrow by turning into it through the use of reason. That is, by looking at it in relationship to the suffering Christ:

“If you are suffering trials, or are sad, look upon Him or His way to the Garden. What sore distress He must have borne in His soul, to describe His own suffering as He did and to complain of it! Or look upon Him bound to the column, full of pain, His flesh all torn to pieces by His great love for you. How much He suffered, persecuted by some, spat upon by others, denied by His friends, and even deserted by them, with none to take His part, frozen with the cold and left so completely alone that you may well comfort each other! Or look upon Him bending under the weight of the cross and not even allowed to take breath: He will look upon you with His lovely and compassionate eyes, full of tears, and in comforting your grief will forget His own because you are bearing Him company in order to comfort Him and turning your head to look upon Him.”[i]

Teresa made it easier for the imagination to deal with emotional or physical pain by turning one’s focus upon the suffering of Our Lord.[ii] This identifies the suffering of the individual with that of Our Lord’s and changes the perspective on the suffering itself.[iii] The person will have little difficulty empathizing with the passion of Christ during such times. The more vehement the suffering the more sensibly aware the person is of the experience of pain and sorrow. They possess active knowledge of pain and in that knowledge they find some identification with the knowledge of Christ’s suffering and thus become aware of being united with him in pain. They can see it in some proportion to his suffering. To be clear, nothing in the sensible world can bear any proportion to God, who is spirit. Thus, the “feeling” that God is present has absolutely nothing to do with his true presence. It is the knowledge that he is omnipresent that is reliable, not our feelings. One would ignore the feelings and turn to faith in the knowledge of the truth confirmed by the Church and Scripture. This is a hard and fast principle that is the foundation for Teresian spiritualities’ prudent approach to the mystical life.

However, it remains that the human sensible experience of suffering can find some proportion in the sufferings of Jesus Christ and his passion. Since Jesus shares our humanity, he suffered the way our humanity suffers. Though his suffering was so great, there is some proportion to it in every pain we suffer. It is precisely his sacred humanity that we can identify with and draw ourselves into the mystery of his passion.

“Take no heed of what they say to you; be deaf to all detraction; stumble and fall with your Spouse, but do not draw back from your cross or give it up. Think often of the weariness of His journey and of how much harder His trials were than those which you have to suffer. However hard you may imagine yours to be, and however much affliction they may cause you, they will be a source of comfort to you, for you will see that they are matters for scorn compared with the trials endured by the Lord.”[iv]

Teresa changes the meaning of the suffering by reforming the images related to it to include the images of Christ’s suffering. This brings consolation to the person but also empathy with Christ.

“He will look upon you with His lovely and compassionate eyes full of tears, and in comforting your grief will forget His own because you are bearing Him company in order to comfort Him and turning your head to look upon Him.”[v]

Imagine, meaningless human suffering now becomes a means of comfort to the suffering Christ.  Who, among those who love God, has not wanted to be there with him to console him in his suffering? Teresa shows that it is possible today. Compassion of friends assuages pain according to St. Thomas because one sees oneself loved by the Beloved, and the Beloved sorrows for the friend. One sees the sorrow in the face of the Beloved who loves them, and it feels as if they are sharing the burden and it becomes lighter. That is the meaning of compassion. Teresa is showing how one may be compassionate to Christ through suffering as they look to him, and he looks at them as they co-suffer with him. Now there is great meaning to this suffering. Christ gives it his identity and his meaning.


Viewed in the terms of the psychology of St. Thomas, this second way to change an image is through reformulation. Rather than turning away from an image, reformulation involves turning to the image and altering it through reason. It involves changing the image to present a particular good. Reformulation can be a healthy or unhealthy action depending upon whether the image is changed to an apparent good or a good in truth. The former is a means to every sin or mental illness, and the latter is a means to virtue and mental health.

Through her reflections upon the scenes of Christ’s suffering to aid in meditation amidst one’s own suffering, Teresa was using the images of Christ to reformulate the images of the individual’s sufferings.

“It is desire for good, for love, for the integrity and happiness of the things or persons that we love that is at the root of sorrow, as love is at the root of hate.”[vi]

Contemplation of the truth is one of the remedies for pain and sorrow.[vii] Compassion of friends is another.[viii] All pleasures also assuage pain.[ix] Teresa’s remedy was to look at a picture of Christ’s passion and contemplate the truth of it. She brings the person into a compassion for Christ and his compassion for them. Therefore the person no longer suffered alone but with Christ. Their suffering was no longer meaningless or indicative of their own evil, but it took on the meaning of Christ’s suffering through union with him in truth. That suffering is the means of salvation and grace to the world. The person now has the hope that comes from such a union. There is also a pleasure to pain that we see to be for good purpose. Even physical pain can be diminished by the thought of good that can be derived.

“We can, and often do, undergo these exterior pains joyfully, even eagerly, in the name of a higher good desired by our will-like caring for a sick baby or having gallstones removed.”[x]

Teresa brought the consideration of this higher and noble good and the vehemence of pain, not only diminished but also a consolation. Here she did not fight against the sensible experience but used the sensible experience as a means to identify with Jesus Christ and find oneself united to the actions of his sacred humanity. The presence of the physical pain is no longer a distraction from the image of God but now an aid to identify with him, console him, and hope in the good that he draws from all things.

Consider the possible effect of this within counseling.

A woman enters counseling with great sorrow and depression. In listening to her story, it is clear that she has many reasons for being in this state—many of which may be well beyond the scope of a counselor. She may have been deserted by her husband, have Lupus, cancer, or some other physical malady. She could be suffering from injuries from her family or problems with her children, rejection, lack of affirmation, or have a multitude of wounds that can happen to any human being.

The counselor tells her to consider how she is feeling and to imagine that she is united to Christ on the cross. She is told to envision Christ saying to her: “If you want, I will take away all your pain and sorrow immediately, and it will not return.” Christ continues: “However, if you choose, you may keep this suffering throughout all your life. If you do, not only will I remain with you, share all you endure, and bring grace to the world through it, I promise you that not one of your children will be lost; and they will be with me for all eternity.”

What do you think would be the response to this question? Without exception, as a response, any one would choose to remain in their suffering and would feel the same relief. We all would experience hope in the meaning and consolation of these thoughts. Are these just thoughts or are they based in fact? Teresa of Avila saw all her actions united to those of the Lord. Is it not possible, then, for all of us to be united to him in the same way?


Teresa of Avila has made many practical contributions to the science of psychology and understanding the operations of the human person in their struggle for health and virtue. This article has considered one very important example of these contributions. It requires a larger enterprise to begin to explore them. At this time, it is worth the reader’s effort to consider Teresa’s counsel on changing the images in the imagination by turning away from them  and how that can be facilitated through the use of a sensible aid. One should also consider how the images can be changed by reformulation through reason. That consideration will lead the reader to begin to see how commonly this counsel enters into the daily life experiences related to mental health and illness.

[i] Way of Perfection, ch. 26.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] A predominant theme for Teresa was that her human experiences were united to the experiences of Christ. Therefore, her obedience was united to his obedience on the cross and took on the purpose and meaning that Christ gave to obedience to his Father’s will; i.e., the redemption of mankind. Her actions to teach would be united to his actions as a teacher and take on his purpose. This extended to everything including pain and sorrow, daily actions, all virtues. Thus, the simple daily events of Carmelite life took on infinite proportion. The profound insight into spirituality was manifest in Thérèse, the Little Flower and her “little way.” Everything, no matter how small, is united to the actions of love of the sacred humanity of Jesus Christ and the infinite love of the Father.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Farrell, Walter, O.P., A Companion to the Summa: II: The Pursuit of Happiness, (Correspnding to the Summa Theologica IA II AE), New York: Sheed and Ward, 1959, p. 122.

[vii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, II, a. 4.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

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