Enkindling Love

The Legacy of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross

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Gillian T. W. Ahlgren
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , May
     194 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Gillian T. W. Ahlgren states that the goal of her book is to provide an introduction to the theological work of Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and John of the Cross (1542-1591): in particular, how their work has contributed to theological development and how readers of Teresa and John are invited to encounter the “transformative energy” contained in the spirituality of their writing (xiv). Ahlgren focuses specifically on Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle and John of the Cross’s The Dark Night, Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love. After highlighting and explaining key parts of these texts, Ahlgren discusses how both Teresa’s and John’s works were received, and argues that their work should indeed be considered not only important theologically, but also that it should be more seriously incorporated into theological and religious studies today.

Ahlgren begins with an excellent—though brief—description of Teresa’s life, referencing Teresa’s converso identity (a Christian family with Jewish heritage), the challenges she experienced during the Inquisition (beginning in 1525), and her role in reforming the Carmelite order leading to the creation of the Discalced Carmelite community in 1562. When examining Teresa’s theological work, Ahlgren highlights key passages of Teresa’s Interior Castle, and walks the reader through Teresa’s mystical seven-room castle that leads the soul through a process of contemplative prayer and action, culminating in “the consummation of union between God and the soul” (67). Each room stresses a particular step that a person must make in order to progress towards union with God. In the first room, one enters their soul through prayer; the second room is a place of struggle where the soul must persevere; and in the third room, the soul will experience the union of wills (God’s will and the person’s will). The third room can be the last room for some, since moving into the fourth room requires learning how to love like God loves. Teresa struggles to explain the remaining three rooms, but her description focuses on how in these rooms the soul goes through strengthening, wisdom, experiencing God as lover, and lastly, the consummation of union. In this section of her book, Ahlgren demonstrates her impressive knowledge of Teresa’s work by providing excellent descriptions for each selected passage of the Interior Castle, and also including occasional references to Teresa’s Life and The Way of Perfection.

When the focus shifts to John of the Cross, Ahlgren presents the reader with a strong summary and description of John’s The Dark Night, Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love. In her brief description of John’s life Ahlgren notes that, like Teresa, John too had a converso background, and that he experienced a difficult childhood due to poverty before joining the Carmelite order in 1563. It was soon after this that he would meet Teresa and become close friends with her. One of the most influential periods of John’s life was when he was kidnapped by members of his order and held hostage for nine months. While this was a traumatic experience, it was also during this period that he wrote Spiritual Canticle. In Ahlgren’s reflection on John’s work she describes how John’s mystical poetry emphasizes a particular theme of the soul searching for God, and of God longing for our soul (72). Ahlgren then carefully and clearly walks the reader through this theme in selected passages from John’s three texts. In The Dark Night of the Soul, the soul enters into the “dark night”: it leaves its comfort to seek God. Here the soul experiences “infused contemplation” as the senses are purged and the soul is prepared for union with God (90-91). Next, in the Spiritual Canticle, the soul travels through creation, entering into a deeper union with God as the soul becomes more transformed in the Beloved—God. John describes this as a “spiritual marriage,” where the soul is transforming in God who is described as a “sweet garden” (102-103). Lastly, in The Living Flame of Love the soul is a flame of love where the Holy Spirit guides the soul to two types of union with God, a union of love alone and a union with an inflaming love (119).

Ahlgren describes how both Teresa and John desire that we all come to see that there is “a world within us” which is more real than the world where we live out our daily lives (15). Furthermore, Ahlgren points out that they were not simply contemporaries, they were sincere friends who both worked tirelessly reforming the Carmelite community of their day in Spain, on their own spiritual perfection, and encouraging others to persevere towards union with God. Ahlgren provides an important, though also brief, historical overview regarding the reception of Teresa and John’s work. She notes that while their focus on contemplation and internal prayer was heavily criticized and much resisted during and directly after Teresa’s and John’s life, by the twentieth century both finally received recognition as theologians.

In essence, Ahlgren argues that there have been serious misunderstandings of the work of Teresa and John, and urges readers to consider the many ways it remains to be examined and integrated into theological and religious studies. Her book not only successfully achieves its goal of providing an introduction to the central writings of Teresa and John, but also clearly demonstrates her superior knowledge of Teresa and John’s theology, making this book an excellent resource that encourages future scholarship to better understand and appreciate their respective theologies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachel M. Knight-Messenger is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of St. Michael's College, Toronto, Canada.

Date of Review: 
October 15, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gillian T. W. Ahlgren is professor of theology at Xavier University. She is the author of four books, including Teresa of Avila and the Politics of Sanctity (1996) and Entering Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle (2005), and the founding director of the Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice at Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio. She is also the founder of www.mysticallife.org.


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