Most people know St. Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582), the Spanish mystic, prolific spiritual writer, and indomitable Carmelite reformer, largely through the High Mannerist statue that Gian Lorenzo Bernini carved of her in Rome about seventy years after her death: a marble–pale woman of astonishing classical beauty, swathed in swirling nun’s robes except for a lovely bare foot, and bent back half–fainting in an ecstasy that is undoubtedly religious—for an angel is piercing her breast with a spear—but also has clear and disturbing sexual overtones.
This is the stereotype Teresa: a Bernini blend of the erotic and (if the viewer is a Protestant and/or religious skeptic) the neurotic. In his Mysticism and Catholicism (1925), the stoutly rationalistic Englishman Hugh E. M. Stutfield dismissed Teresa’s style of sanctity as "a dreary round of billing and cooing," and her style of writing as "cheap, trite, suburban" (as if there were suburbs in sixteenth–century Castile). Sigmund Freud’s colleague Josef Breuer called her "the patron saint of hysteria," and Sigmund Freud’s deconstructionist epigone Jacques Lacan had even unkinder (and infinitely more vulgar) words to describe her: "You only have to go and look at Bernini’s statue of her in Rome to understand immediately that she’s coming."
Teresa also has her share of admirers, many of them women of considerable intellect—as she was—who have to their credit refused to view her religious experiences in such condescendingly pathological terms. They have included George Eliot, who cast Teresa as patron saint of the frustrated bluestocking Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch; Vita Sackville–West, who made Teresa into a twentieth–century free spirit with (but of course) lesbian proclivities; and a range of feminist theorists, from Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex to the tenured denizens of numerous women’s studies departments. To them, Teresa was a postmodern "subversive" against patriarchal power structures both secular and ecclesial, androcentric metanarrative, and whatever else is currently deemed oppressive to the female sex. (See my review of one of the better products of this fashionable scholarly industry, theologian Gillian T. W. Ahlgren’s Teresa of Ávila and the Politics of Sanctity, in the December 1999 issue of First Things.)
Fortunately, Cathleen Medwick’s Teresa of Ávila: The Progress of a Soul falls into none of the above traps, neither denigrating Teresa as an eros–sublimating hysteric as her many pompous male critics have done, nor canonizing her as a plaster saint of feminism as her many star–struck female admirers have done. This is a gem of a book, and in it the author aims to do something quite different: to ac quaint the reader thoroughly with Teresa in all her intelligence, her strength of will, her tenacity, her courage, and her complexity. (Teresa was a saint but not an angel, to paraphrase Phyllis McGinley, and she actually did have quite a sex drive, falling continually in and out of love with men, including at least one of her confessors.)
The author also simply wants to tell Teresa’s story. That story is the story of Teresa’s achievement of holiness during a tumultuous life, a subject that Medwick takes quite seriously and at face value. There is no rationalizing away the supernatural in this book. When the angel pierces Teresa’s body in the mystical vision that Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa captures, when Christ appears to Teresa personally and directs her every action, when she levitates (rather often) several feet off the ground during prayer, when her corpse refuses to decompose after her death and in fact smells sweetly of roses months later—Medwick’s narrative is as matter–of–fact as the practical–minded Teresa’s and her contemporaries’ own telling of these events.
Furthermore, Medwick turns out to be Teresa’s ideal biographer—paradoxically. She is not a professional scholar but a former features editor for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Mirabella, and House and Garden (although she also has two master’s degrees, in English and comparative Renaissance literature, from Columbia University, and the book includes a knowledgeable but not overbearing scholarly apparatus). She is not a Catholic, but rather Jewish in "background," as she describes herself.
The book, although less than three hundred pages long including endnotes and index, took Medwick fifteen full years to write, and she credits her patient agent, editor, family, and certain mentors, some of whom are now dead, with enabling her to see it through. She has illustrated the book with about a dozen classic images of Teresa, including a portrait painted by a Spanish friar, Juan de la Miseria, when Teresa was sixty–one. (The portrait shows a jowly, beetle–browed, distinctly non–Berniniesque nun, and Teresa was reported to have complained, "God forgive you, Fray Juan, you’ve made me a bleary–eyed old hag.") As an extra treat, Medwick also includes in an appendix the text of the "The Flaming Hart," the Catholic metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw’s gorgeous 1640s tribute to Teresa’s dauntless, passionate spirit: "By all the eagle in thee, all the dove; / By all thy lives & deaths of love. . . ."
Writing for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and other delicious chronicles of the passing material and social scene obviously helped Medwick recreate in dense and telling detail the scene in which Teresa operated. This saint, although supposedly cloistered in a number of convents, was in fact never disconnected from a thick network of family, friends, court dignitaries (including the reigning King Philip II of Spain, with whom she corresponded), and an array of church officials, some of whom befriended her and others either suspected her of heresy (personal revelations from God were under the Church’s suspicion during this era of the dawn of the Reformation) or found her constant gadding about to found new Carmelite institutions unseemly in a woman.
Teresa was a mystic, but she was also a woman of the world who functioned as executrix of one of her brother’s wills and ladled out household counsel to her married sister Juana. Medwick regales her book’s readers with descriptions of lacy sixteenth–century Spanish clothing, courtyard house design, massive oak furniture, painted devotional objects, Flemish carpets, wrought–iron chandeliers, and even the silk cushions, holdovers from Moorish days, on which the nuns reclined to converse and do their embroidery.
Teresa was born in Ávila only twenty–three years after Columbus’ sail to Hispaniola under the Spanish flag, and her life was in many ways intertwined with the early history of the Hispanic New World. At least two of her brothers served as conquistadores in Peru, conquered by Francisco Pizzaro in 1533. Gold from Peru and elsewhere in the New World flooded into Spain during Teresa’s early years. It was the Internet wealth of the sixteenth century, creating huge new fortunes and a thriving commercial society even in austere fortress towns such as Ávila, high in the barren Castilian mountains of central Spain where it was wintry most of the year and agricultural productivity was chronically low.
The chief ambition of the arriviste Spanish merchants was to turn themselves, and even more so their offspring, into hidalgos—gentlemen—through well–placed marriages and official certificates of nobility. Teresa’s paternal grandfather, Juan Sánchez, followed exactly this pattern, but with a twist: he was a converso, a Jew who had converted to Christianity in 1492 as an alternative to expulsion from Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella. Sánchez, who was already under a cloud with the Inquisition, which suspected most conversos of secretly practicing Judaism, took the extra step of adopting his Christian wife’s brother’s surname, Cepeda.
Their son Alonso de Cepeda climbed further up the ladder of hidalguia, marrying two well–born Ávilan Christian women in succession, the second of whom, Beatriz de Ahumada (Teresa’s mother and already pregnant at age fourteen with one of Teresa’s brothers when she made her marriage vow) could trace her lineage back to the knights who had reconquered Castile from the Moors during the eleventh century. A few years later, Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, the third of Beatriz’s ten children, came into the world in a now utterly respectable noble household with a crest over its arched doorway depicting a tower that the Ahumada men had defended in the reconquista.
Teresa’s life can be divided into three parts. In the first part, lasting until age twenty, she was a vain, vivacious, exquisitely stylish young lady. She liked to flirt and court so thoroughly that she nearly lost her virginity at age sixteen to a handsome cousin (her father packed her off to an Augustinian convent/finishing school in the nick of time). She was also morally and religiously serious, steeping herself in the ideals depicted in the medieval romances and the lives of the saints. She was high–strung, and as she grew out of her teens she began suffering from a crippling series of illnesses, mostly psychosomatic, that left her occasionally paralyzed and always in pain.
She decided she had a vocation to be a nun—or at least that she did not want to marry and be confined at home like her mother—and in 1535 she sneaked off, against her father’s wishes, to the Carmelite convent of the Encarnación just outside Ávila’s walls. For nearly twenty years she lived the second part of her life as an exemplary but not particularly devoted Carmelite sister. At the Encarnación, a "relaxed" convent rule prevailed, subsidized by generous endowments from the nuns’ wealthy relatives. The sisters wore elegant black serge habits, lived comfortably in large dormitory rooms, received visitors constantly, and presided over galanteos de monjas—chaste or presumably chaste flirtations with male admirers. The gregarious Teresa specialized in such galanteos from behind the grille in the convent parlor, and there was also a constant stream of Cepeda and Ahumada family members to the convent. Although she took the religious name Teresa de Jesús, the aristocratic convent allow ed her to retain her noble title Doña Teresa de Ahumada.
In 1554, when she was nearly forty, Teresa, who had hitherto found it hard to pray, had a profound religious experience before an image of the wounded Christ in the convent oratory. She felt "that he was within me, or that I was totally engulfed by him." The third part of her life, the "real" part to which she devoted most of her Vida, or autobiography (its first version completed in 1562), had begun.
She began having intense mystical experiences in which Christ appear ed to her constantly and feelings of divine love engulfed her. During one of these raptures she saw the angel with golden spear in hand whose piercing Bernini dramatized. But it was a difficult period for her. Most of the other nuns at the Encarnación did not understand; the Inquisition lurked outside with its suspicions of anyone who claimed to be an alumbrada, a recipient of special divine illumination; poor health plagued her constantly; and a succession of priest–confessors to whom she related the contents of her visions passed her nervously from hand to hand.
In 1562, inspired by a Franciscan friar, Pedro de Alcántara (later to be canonized himself), who was attempting to restore his order to its original barefoot poverty, Teresa took it upon herself to reform the Carmelites along similar lines. Behind the back of the order’s male superior in Ávila, Ángel de Salazar, Teresa begged and found the money to set up a tiny, destitute convent of four humbly living and scrupulously devout barefoot (or "Discalced") Carmelite sisters in a donated tumbledown dwelling in Ávila. It was a stealth operation, and when Salazar returned and found out about it, he ordered Teresa to leave town.
That became the template for Teresa’s existence until her death: sneaking into a city with a cartload of Discalced nuns clad in rope sandals (Teresa eventually capitulated on the question of bare feet in freezing Castile) and the coarse brown robes and white capes of the original Carmelites, decamping in dead of night and setting up a chapel in a decomposing building that some rich resident was only too glad to give away, pleading, scheming, and corresponding (more than three hundred of her letters survive) to obtain some ecclesiastical blessing or other on the endeavor, then moving on to another city. Over her life, she founded seventeen Discalced convents throughout Spain. Her friend, the short–of–stature Carmelite mystic John of the Cross (she jokingly referred to him as "half" a friar), duplicated her work among men of the order.
Through grit, intelligence, and what she called her determinada determinación, her sheer force of will, Teresa usually managed to prevail. Thanks to the efforts of the charismatic Pedro de Alcántara, her Discalced foundation in Ávila, San José, won official approval—if not from Salazar, then from Rome. She proved to be a brilliant convent administrator with a knack for selecting able prioresses for her new foundations, and she enjoyed spinning thread and cooking simple treats for the nuns. She spent five happy years at San José, setting a quiet example for the strictly enclosed nuns and regularly levitating over the cooking pots and in the garden. She rewrote her Vida and composed several other classics of spirituality that have placed her among the greatest prose stylists of Renaissance Spain: The Way of Perfection, aimed at giving spiritual instruction to her nuns, and Moradas, usually translated as The Interior Castle, which recalls the mystical writings of Hildegard of Bingen.
Teresa’s judgment was not always the best. Toward the end of her life she developed an obsessive idolization of one of her confessors, Gracián de la Madre de Diós, a man half her age, whom she regarded as a figure from the Song of Solomon and who pushed her to take her Discalced reforming efforts south into Seville, a sultry, decadent Andalusian city awash in Peruvian gold and those who wanted to lay their hands on it, and where the local candidates for her Discalced convent showed up in fancy dresses and heavy eye makeup.
The "Calced" Carmelites—those who did not buy into Teresa’s reforms and fancied that the Discalced looked down on them—were already her mortal enemies. They and some disgruntled Discalced nuns reported to the Inquisition in 1576 that she and Gracián were lovers who led the nuns in orgiastic rituals. The inquisitors ruled that the charges were absurd (Teresa was sixty–one by then and her nuns were indisputably pious), but another Calced conspiracy resulted in Teresa’s being excommunicated and ordered to get out of Andalusia and spend the rest of her days behind the walls of a convent in Castile. The Calced at one point took John of the Cross prisoner; he was lashed, starved, and confined to a cell for nine months.
The story ultimately had a happy ending. The excommunication against Teresa and her nuns was lifted, and John of the Cross escaped from the Calced jail. By 1579, Teresa was on the road again, where she kept a grueling schedule of overseeing convents until she died, on October 4, 1582, of metastasized uterine cancer. Witnesses said she died in a state of ecstasy, "her soul ripped away from her body by the force of God’s will," as Medwick writes. Her wrinkled face became smooth and radiant, they reported, and a fragrance wafted from everything she had touched before her death.
Medwick’s book is full of wonderful things, but it is not perfect. Although she delineates Teresa herself vividly, Medwick treats the book’s numerous supporting characters rather perfunctorily, and their stories are often incomplete and chronologically disconnected, as though Medwick had planned to say more about them but changed her mind in order to keep the book short. You will have to turn elsewhere to find out very much that is useful about Philip II or the wicked, one–eyed Ana de Mendoza, princess of Eboli, one of Teresa’s most fascinating arch–enemies. Readers who know little about sixteenth–century Spain may find themselves hopelessly confused from time to time (a chronology table for Teresa and a map of her travels might have helped). I loved this book, but I wish its author had given it a final read before she sent it off to that long–suffering editor of hers.
Charlotte Allen produces the Catholic page for Beliefnet.com. She is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (Free Press).