The intrapsychic preparation for contemplation in Teresa of Avila's life and teachings: An interpretation using object relations theory

Mary Conrow Coelho, Fordham University


The Christian spirituality tradition has long recognized a purgative process as part of the preparation for contemplation. The problem addressed in this dissertation is the need to understand the psychological changes that may be part of this process and to consider reasons such changes seem to be required. The method used is to describe carefully Teresa of Avila's long struggle with attachment, false humility and excessive concern over honor as she describes it in The Life, The Way of Perfection, The Interior Castle, Spiritual Testimonies and Meditations on the Song of Songs. These obstacles to the unfolding of her spiritual life are then given a psychological interpretation using the "British School" of object relations theory. The main theorists in this school were Melanie Klein, W. R. D. Fairbairn, Harry Guntrip and D. W. Winnicott. It is shown that the obstacles with which Teresa struggled can be ascribed to the patterns of behavior that derive from ego-splitting. The primary conclusion is that reintegration of the split-off egos was part of the purgative preparation for contemplative prayer in Teresa of Avila's life. Some implications of this conclusion are then considered. Arthur Deikman's work on the relationship between the object self and the receptive self and D. W. Winnicott's idea of the "capacity to be alone" are discussed because they provide another way of understanding why the healing of ego-splitting may be central to the preparation for contemplative prayer. There is evidence that one aspect of Teresa's spiritual journey involved temporary regression to early levels of personal history. The place of regression in her spiritual life is discussed using the work of Stanislav Grof, Christopher Bache and Michael Balint. The work of Henry Elkin, an existential psychoanalyst, is used to explore how God consciousness may be mediated by the internalized good qualities of the mother. The conclusion of this dissertation suggests that the pathway to contemplative prayer involves a healing of the ego-splitting so that the mediating maternal matrix is restored. It is this process that opens the person to the forms of God consciousness referred to as contemplative prayer. The conclusion has important implications for the discipline of Christian spirituality.

Subject Area

Theology|Religion|Developmental psychology|Psychology|Biographies

Recommended Citation

Coelho, Mary Conrow, "The intrapsychic preparation for contemplation in Teresa of Avila's life and teachings: An interpretation using object relations theory" (1990). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9025015.