The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila

A Biography

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Carlos M. N. Eire
Lives of Great Religious Books
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , June
     2019.
     280 pages.
     $26.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691164939.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila, written by prominent Reformation scholar Carlos Eire, belongs to Princeton’s new series Lives of Great Religious Books, which showcases a balanced selection of sacred texts from East and West. Recently, Eire wrote the foreword to the new edition of Steven Ozment’s classic The Age of Reform, 1250–1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (Yale University Press, 2020).

Saint Teresa of Ávila, or Teresa de Jesús (originally Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda, 1515–82), was canonized in 1622 and was the first woman to be elevated to the rank of doctor of the church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. A “sickly” (xiii) Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic who lived in the walled city of Ávila, she was the author of the Carmelite reform, which restored the austerity and contemplative character of primitive Carmelite life. She is best known for her spiritual writings, most notably The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila. Misleadingly titled by its earliest editor, Luis de Léon, upon its first publication in 1588, the work is not really an autobiography but rather a confession written for inquisitors. The book has influenced Christian spirituality for five centuries, attracting interest from readers as diverse as mystics, philosophers, artists, psychoanalysts, and neurologists. As Eire aptly puts it in the introduction: “Few other books in the Christian tradition contain as rich a description of supernatural visions and ecstasies, or as gripping a narrative of one soul’s search for intimacy with God” (xiv).

In seven chronologically arranged chapters, a preface, and an epilogue, Eire tells the story of this “incomparable spiritual masterpiece,” examining its composition and reception in the 16th century, the various ways its mystical teachings have been reinterpreted over time, and its lasting influence. Eire demonstrates that the Vida, as it is known in Spanish, became an iconic text in the Catholic Reformation, was suppressed in Franco’s Spain, and has gone on to be read as a feminist manifesto, a literary work, and even a secular text.

In the preface, Eire argues that the Vida can be read as a work about the “intermingling of heaven and earth, and about the highest levels of divinization attainable by humans” and as a “remarkable woman’s account of her life in golden age Spain” (xi). The Vida was kept under lock and key by the Spanish Inquisition for two decades for fear of its heretical potential. Yet early on, clandestine copies were in circulation. According to Eire, the text prevailed over all attempts to suppress it. What continues to fascinate readers is Teresa’s testimony to her “struggles to give voice to the ineffable” (xiii) and her “unrestrained optimism about the human potential for love and divinization” (xvi). It may have been these qualities that turned this work with a precarious destiny and a small audience into a world classic of spiritual literature. Teresa also had a unique literary and poetic gift (xiv), which helped solidify its “secular” reception.

Eire argues that the Vida represents an “autobiographical exposition of mystical theology” (xiv). While Eire immediately qualifies this categorization (xiv–xv), he does not acknowledge the diverse problematic aspects of the term mysticism. His passing references to the first two definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary (and the juxtaposition of the “frequently derogatory” understanding and the theological) may be insufficient for some readers in light of the significance of this topic for understanding Teresa’s work. Further references to work on Christian mysticism carried out by scholars such as Louise Nelstrop, and important work by religious scholars such as Ninian Smart, are conspicuously absent. (Notable works are Nelstrop’s Mysticism in the French Tradition, Routledge, 2019, and Smart’s defense of mystical experience in “Interpretation and Mystical Experience,” Religious Studies 1.1 [1965]: 75–87.) Their absence is all the more striking if one accords this book the status of a comprehensive introduction. Eire thus misses an opportunity to deepen conventional understandings of mysticism. It is nonetheless a strength of his work that he uses the term “mystical experience” despite the criticism it has undergone, and that his account of mysticism is balanced and unusually perceptive, even if not detailed.

The book is impeccably written and edited. It includes a list of illustrations (ix), copious endnotes (225–43), and—unlike other volumes in the series—a short bibliography with commentary (245–50) and an index (251–60). It is a timely introduction to the life of Saint Teresa of Ávila from its origins to “the Fascist Teresa” (186–96) and beyond, and should be read by anyone interested in the history of sainthood, mysticism, and spirituality. For all those who have not read the Vida (and are not versed in Spanish), it serves as an invitation to do so and to seek out the edition Eire recommends (The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, trans. Otilio Rodriguez and Kieran Kavanaugh, 2 vols., ICS, 1987, 2012).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philipp Reisner is visiting lecturer in American Studies at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany.

Date of Review: 
February 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carlos Eire is the T. L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University. His many books include the bestselling memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction; Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450–1650; and A Very Brief History of Eternity (Princeton).

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