The only portrait of Teresa from life, by Fray Juan de la Miseria. When Teresa saw the finished work, she is reported to have said, “God forgive you, Brother Juan, you have made me ugly and bleary-eyed.” The portrait is one of the many Teresian treasures housed in the convent of the Carmelite nuns in Seville, which Teresa founded in 1575.
THE LIFE of the Spanish Carmelite reformer, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), was a complicated adventure in a complicated world.
At a time when practicing contemplation could get you either the garrote and the stake or a halo and a feast day, Teresa was a mystical sensation. She loved her God—and wrote about ‘Him’–with an erotic passion that sent chills down the spine of watchful churchmen who worried that affectivity in the spiritual life was at best a confusion, at worst heresy.
In a Spanish church serious about reforms but at dangerous odds about who should direct them and how far they should go, Teresa initiated one of her own, eventually splitting the Carmelite Order.
In a male-dominated culture, she was a woman who read, a writer who meant to publish, and a theological gadfly.
In a society whose anxiety about reputation, bloodlines, and orthodoxy made moving targets out of personal safety, ecclesiastical standing, and social status, Teresa — born to a Jewish converso family — managed to neutralize and then overwhelm her detractors, ascending to the altars only 40 years after dying, a bona fide saint.
Even the most persevering readers with a passion for mysticism get lost in her vibrant, unruly prose—writings that are now regarded as some of the greatest in the canon of Golden Age literature. Making sense of her spiritual experiences — visions, voices, levitations and, yes, hot penetrations — is tougher still. It’s no wonder that some critics, for whom voices are a sign of mental illness and levitation a party game, call her the patron saint of religious pathology.
Teresa was, first and last, a soul in a progress towards God. And what a progress! That metaphor, a nod to the age of exploration in which Teresa lived, points to a life-long inner journey, as biographer Cathleen Medwick put it, “as full of wonder and terror as any ocean voyage through uncharted seas.” It took courage to navigate the soul. The dangers were real and many. Teresa’s battle to authenticate her religious experience with even the sympathetic and supportive men who guided her was ferocious. It left her physically ill and close to despair.
Life outside her “interior castle” was no easier. During the last twenty years of her life, in an era when only masochists traveled for pleasure, Teresa was constantly on the road founding and supervising reformed convents. The story of those foundations is a wild ride, a confusion of briefs, bulls, and competing obediences, a riot of real estate, fundraising, and ruthless intra-Carmelite politics.
Teresa gives us the story herself in her writings, the Life and Foundations especially. The plot-twists and quirky characters in those relations make your head spin. Could there be a more sinister nemesis, for example, than the princess of Eboli– a breathtakingly self-absorbed woman with a black eye-patch and a refined taste for betrayal who, following a disastrous stint as a nun in a convent she’d forced the Saint to establish, sent Teresa’s top-secret autobiography to the inquisitors to avenge the convent’s collapse after an exasperated Teresa ordered the remaining nuns to desert it hastily, in the dead of night?
But the vivid personality of the evil princess cannot hold a candle to Teresa’s own — attractive, expansive, sociable, incisive, mordantly witty, shrewd and tenacious, possessed of a bottomless capacity for intimacy and an equally bottomless capacity for self-doubt and loneliness. She was a people-pleaser whose loyalties were often to a fault; and yet she could be breathtakingly brave when push came to shove towards a necessary confrontation. Her relationships with men were always more satisfying than her friendships with women; yet she complained that no one really understood her; and in truth, at some point or other, nearly all her closest allies disappointed or disparaged her.
Single-mindedly resolute (“I have,” she said, “a very determined determination”), she bent many to her will, even God. A workaholic, she was famously restless, and yet longed for nothing more than a little cell where she could tell her beads. Pragmatic and always ready to deal, she could be at times vain, coy, and Clintonesque, yet she always strove sincerely for simplicity and a transparent conscience, hammering away at the centrality of truth (for her, a synonym for humility) in the life of the soul.
If she despised anything on earth, it was pretension, especially the ruinous aspiration to status, pure bloodlines, and wealth–or at least the appearances of wealth– which had wounded her own family and created legions of proud but destitute nobility, many hiding the tenths of fourths of Jewish blood in their backgrounds with false genealogies and gaudy coats of arms. A close reading of her life and writings reveals a running protest against the moral captivity of reputation, honor, and shame, as well as the wasteful sidelining of women in the church and the no-win situation of ‘new Christians, among whom she found some of her best allies and friends. She hated what Spain had become in the post-expulsion era–a society organized for deceit.
She was unswerving in hope while enduring monstrous headaches, stomach disease, and crippling depression. She came across to all who knew and loved her as alternately domineering and compassionate, fragile and indestructible, admirable and inimitable. In her day, many believed her to be a vile menace to the Church. Many others believed her to be its shining savior. To this day, she pleases no one who clings piously to the belief that saints are actually holy.
I adore her.