In the spring of 1997 my life seemed to be falling apart. I was trying to come to grips with the recent death of my younger brother. Meanwhile, my department at Georgetown University was involved in a dreadful lawsuit that forced longtime friends to testify against each other. Faculty meetings were torturous. Tension filled the hallways. When the invitation to an Ignatian retreat came from Campus Ministries, I decided to apply, not because I was anxious for spiritual guidance—I was an atheist, not a Catholic—but because the unresolved grief and the hostility were wearing away at me, and the promise of five days of silence was irresistible.
The retreat focused on St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, a set of meditations and prayers that requires one to visualize scenes from the Bible and place oneself in them, mobilizing the senses to make the experience more vivid and intense. By living these scenes in the imagination, one learns “discernment,” that is, the skill to determine the right path in a particular situation. I was nervous about spending a week making a religious retreat. The many younger, more knowledgeable Catholic retreatants intimidated me, and given my skepticism concerning religion, I was apprehensive about meeting with a spiritual director every day.
In a presentation about the Exercises one morning, one of the chaplains said something that made me think of St. Teresa of Ávila. She didn’t mention Teresa, but her words sparked a vague memory of one of Teresa’s writings. For many years I had been a professor of Spanish literature, specializing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Teresa is one of the period’s few prominent women writers. Her conversational writing style and nonelitist perspective are considered important innovations in Spanish prose: her Book of the Foundations, an account of her religious order’s establishment, is sometimes likened to the picaresque novel, and her spiritual masterpiece The Interior Castle is one of the most poetic and profound expressions of Spanish mysticism. I had included Teresa’s writing in surveys and other general courses, but I had never studied her in depth.
That afternoon I felt an intense urge to revisit The Interior Castle. I went to the retreat library and bookstore, but came up empty-handed. Later I mentioned my search to my spiritual director, who said, “There’s probably a copy in the Jesuit library.” He described the location of the library, in a remote cranny of the Jesuit living quarters, on the third floor of a labyrinthine building. I have a bad sense of direction, and I found the enormous retreat house overwhelming. “No,” I said to myself. “I won’t go.” But my director seemed to read my mind: “Come on,” he said. “I’ll take you there.”
As I followed him through the halls, past the chapel, up the stairs, I felt as though I were moving through a mist. When we got to the library, light was beaming through the window onto a reading table. It looked like a scene from some corny Cecil B. De Mille movie, and yet, I was afraid to be cynical. I found The Interior Castle and read the exquisite opening, in which Teresa invites her readers to “consider our soul to be like a castle made entirely out of a diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in heaven there are many mansions.” Leafing through the book, I was taken aback by the similarity between Teresa’s images and those that surfaced in my mind while I was doing the Spiritual Exercises: water, gardens, intricate dwelling places. I felt at that moment that I had found a spiritual guide, a friend who would lead me on an adventure, a journey of faith, using language I could understand.
Upon returning home, I lost myself in Teresa. I read everything she had written, as well as many studies of her work—not as a scholar, but as a spiritual seeker. I learned that many of Teresa’s images were psychological archetypes, symbols of the collective unconscious found in the art and myths of all cultures, but this knowledge did not diminish the impact of that first encounter or my sense of a connection with her. I had begun my journey of faith.
I was so engrossed in my reading that I became almost oblivious to the turmoil around me. Eventually, the battle in my department played itself out. After a few difficult years and some personnel adjustments, things returned to normal. Several years after the retreat, I began teaching courses on Spanish mysticism.
One night, when I was particularly restless and couldn’t sleep, I felt a presence next to my bed—the rustling of a habit, the shuffle of sandals. It calmed me, and I finally dozed off. Afterward, I thought it had been a dream, or perhaps I was simply working too hard. I’m still not sure what happened, but I often feel that reassuring presence. Over the years it has comforted and guided me through many difficult situations. It helped me come to terms with my brother’s death and get through my son’s deployments to Iraq.
My experience with Teresa of Ávila is not unique. Countless people have found in Teresa’s teachings, expressed in colloquial language and homey metaphors, a spirituality that transcends perfunctory expressions of faith. Teresa speaks to people of different backgrounds who are drawn to her notion that God resides within the soul and is accessible to anyone. Her description of the soul’s inward journey through seven concentric circles, or “mansions,” until it reaches its own center, where God dwells, resonates with Christians and non-Christians, and even with those who reject traditional religions.
Teresa’s writings earned her the title “doctor of the church” in 1970 (one of the first two women to be so honored, the other, St. Catherine of Siena). Today she is reaching an ever broader audience, as the current climate of spiritual seeking and disillusionment with conventional religion has sparked an explosion of popular interest in alternative approaches to faith. The popular self-help writer Caroline Myss has created a small industry around Teresa with her Entering the Castle books and CDs. New books on Teresa have appeared during the past few years in Germany, Italy, and of course Spain and Latin America. France, long considered a bastion of secularism, has produced a surprising number of new books on Teresa, including one by Julia Kristeva, the prolific Bulgarian-born philosopher, feminist critic, and psychoanalyst.
Certain modern readers have tended to reconstruct Teresa according to today’s cultural norms—a recent Publisher’s Weekly headline labeled her “a mystic for our times.” But to understand Teresa’s achievements and appeal, it is important to acknowledge that she was, first of all, a woman of her own times. Born in 1515, Teresa was the daughter and granddaughter of conversos—Jews who converted to Catholicism under pressure from the crown. She entered a convent to avoid a family scandal with no intention of taking vows, but eventually changed her mind and professed at the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation. Her introduction to the meditative practices modern admirers find so appealing was The Third Spiritual Alphabet, a book by the Franciscan Francisco de Osuna that describes the concepts of interiority and quiet. The centerpieces of Osuna’s method are recollection, which fosters interiority and stillness, and mental prayer, which encourages a spontaneous, sincere, and intimate relationship with God. This was a significant departure from the rote recitation of standard prayers that characterized devotional practice in most of sixteenth-century Catholic Europe.
It took Teresa twenty years to act on Osuna’s teachings. She has sometimes been called the patron saint of middle age because she was nearly forty when, in 1554, a powerful spiritual experience launched her into a period of intense mental prayer. For the first time in her life she reached mystical union: a sense of the explicit and direct presence of God. In Teresa’s case, union was characterized by visions, locutions, and raptures. Since no time at all was set aside for mental prayer at her convent, Teresa took the radical step of abandoning the community she had lived with for more than twenty years and founding a new one where women could truly strive for spiritual perfection.
In the new convent, nuns would devote themselves principally to prayer, live in poverty and silence, and remain strictly cloistered. The new group would distinguish itself from other members of the order by adopting the name Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites, which reflected their commitment to poverty. Although Teresa’s reform met with vehement opposition from the church hierarchy and members of her own order (she was investigated five times by the Inquisition), she ultimately succeeded in founding seventeen Discalced Carmelite convents. With the help of St. John of the Cross and others, she also established a male branch of the new order.
At the time Teresa began to experience raptures, the church was highly suspicious of mystics, particularly if they were women. Most of Teresa’s spiritual directors dismissed her experiences as inauthentic or even demonic. In reaction to the Protestant Reformation, the church took a strong stand against the notion of personal, unmediated religious experience. Mystical enlightenment as described by Teresa seemed dangerously similar to certain ideas that were considered heretical.
In fact, by adopting a meditative-contemplative approach to spirituality, Teresa was reaching back to primitive Christian prayer practices. By Teresa’s time, Catholic prayer had become mechanical and often perfunctory. Devotional practices were largely dictated by letrados, male intellectuals or “lettered men” suspicious of the affective spirituality often practiced by less educated people, including women. They insisted that common people should limit their religious activities to vocal prayer and established rituals such as processions and ceremonial exercises. Although Teresa accepted the value of vocal prayer, she saw mental prayer as a means of seeking a more direct, personal, and authentic relationship with God.
Teresa was not alone: other spiritual leaders of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—among them Desiderius Erasmus, Pedro de Alcántara, Juan de Ávila, Luis de Granada, and John of the Cross—cultivated contemplative devotional practices that were very much in favor among the powerful elite, including Queen Isabella and her confessor, Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros, before the Protestant Reformation. They derived these practices from earlier spiritual movements such as the devotio moderna and the traditions of silence and meditation of certain medieval monastic orders.
Teresa’s situation was aggravated by the church’s attitude toward women, widely believed to be hysterical by nature (hysterikós means “related to the uterus” in Greek). Religious ecstasy was often seen as a manifestation of the natural mental instability of women. Teresa’s confessors hounded her to the point that she began to doubt the authenticity of her own experiences. However, with the help of other priests, among them supportive Jesuits, she found the self-confidence she needed to forge ahead.
Today the tension between organized religion and personal faith is more prominent than ever. Many people turn to New Age cults to satisfy their spiritual longing, unaware that traditional religions do offer an alternative to the mechanized rituals that have come to be associated with them. Every year some of my students who have grown disillusioned with the institutional church read Teresa and exclaim, “I didn’t know this was part of Catholicism!” And much of the current interest in Teresa comes from non-Catholic sources. Cathleen Medwick, whose Teresa of Ávila: Progress of a Soul (1999) offers a sensitive humanizing portrait of the saint, is of Jewish background. Mirabai Starr, translator of Teresa’s The Book of My Life (2007) and The Interior Castle (2008), is also of Jewish background and has been a practicing Buddhist. She sees similarities between Buddhism’s notion of “the fundamental emptiness of all phenomena” and the teachings of Teresa and John of the Cross. Christopher Wilson, an art historian who has written extensively on Teresian iconography, was raised Episcopalian, but has long felt drawn to Eastern religion, particularly the wisdom of the Indian spiritual master Meher Baba. “For me, Teresa models love for God,” says Wilson. “She feels like a spiritual mother—an old friend whose presence I often experience.”
Although it is true that there are important connections between Teresa’s teachings and the meditative-contemplative traditions of other faiths, admirers who see Teresa as nonsectarian or transsectarian sometimes forget that her teachings are firmly rooted in Catholic doctrine. She called herself a “daughter of the church” and derived strength and inspiration from the writings of church fathers such as St. Augustine and St. Jerome. Teresa often criticized abusive confessors, but she cherished the sacrament of confession—one reason she insisted on forming a male branch of the Discalced Carmelites was to provide her nuns with confessors immersed in the Discalced charism. Teresa was also not “tolerant” in the modern sense, though she was less harsh than some of her contemporaries in that she believed in praying for Lutherans and unbaptized Indians rather than slaughtering them. Yet she regretted that, as a woman, she could not be more effective in the conversion of “heretics” and “pagans” (all of her brothers fought in the New World with the Conquistadors), and she saw nuns’ prayers on behalf of infidels as a form of female activism.
Teresa has become something of a feminist icon in academia, where she is respected as a woman who triumphed in a patriarchal society. “As a feminist, I naturally was attracted to someone who forcefully asserted women’s equality,” says scholar Alison Weber, “although I recognize that her feminism was ‘ecclesial’—largely focused on women’s roles in the church.” In her writing, Teresa often made derogatory comments about her own sex. Weber, whose book Teresa de Ávila and the Rhetoric of Femininity (1990) sparked an academic “Teresian movement,” sees this as a strategy that permitted Teresa to carry on her work without appearing overly bold.
Teresa’s Hispanic heritage has also inspired modern seekers. She has long been a favorite in Latin America, where there are more schools named after her than after any other female saint except the Virgin. Marginalized by her sex and her converso background, yet sustained by her character and convictions, Teresa can be seen as a role model for today’s determined Hispanic women, who sometimes face both prejudice in the workplace and male domination at home.
There are certainly justifications for viewing Teresa as a proto-feminist. At a time when letrados devalued women’s spiritual experience, Teresa provided women with a space to pursue the perfection of the soul. She gave women an active role in combating Protestantism through prayer and gave them career opportunities (administrator, chronicler, accountant, pharmacist, teacher) not available to them outside the convent. She promoted women’s literacy by stipulating that all Discalced Carmelite nuns learn to read. Still, too much emphasis on Teresa’s defiance of sixteenth-century gender limitations can distort or obscure the spiritual wisdom she developed as a woman of her times.
The tendency to reconstruct Teresa is not a new phenomenon. Seventeenth-century Carmelite friars, embarrassed that their order had been founded by a strong, opinionated woman, invented an image of Teresa more in keeping with their requirements. Teresa wrote many business letters that show her to be a smart, savvy, strong-willed woman, but when Friar Juan de la Presentación undertook the compilation of her epistolary writing in 1654, he included only those letters that might have doctrinal or inspirational value. Furthermore, the collection, which was published by Juan de Palafox in 1658, contains apocryphal letters meant to portray Teresa as obedient and submissive. The visual image of Teresa evolved during this period as well. Christopher Wilson has demonstrated that early images of Teresa and John of the Cross depict Teresa as an imposing figure, sometimes towering over her friend. However, by the eighteenth century, John has become the dominant figure, and Teresa his diffident admirer.
In popularizing and politicizing Teresa today, some admirers likewise pick and choose segments of her teachings that reinforce their own beliefs, overlooking those elements they find inconvenient: her strong Catholic identity, her intolerance of other faiths, her respect for the sacraments, her misogynist rhetoric. But reconstructing Teresa as a New Age guru of spiritual love, unconcerned with the material world and the nitty-gritty of everyday living, devalues more than her Catholic faith and historical context. It also detracts from her humanity. Teresa was not an ethereal character who spent her life in a state of rapture. She was a flesh-and-blood woman, intelligent, shrewd, warm, funny, and sometimes temperamental. A story has it that an admirer once remarked on her voracious appetite: “For such a holy woman, you certainly pack it in.” “Listen,” Teresa retorted, “when I pray, I pray, and when I eat, I eat!”
Despite the distortions and oversimplifications that abound, I am optimistic about Teresa’s status as “a mystic for our times.” Faith is a process, a lifelong journey, and as Teresa herself says, the hardest part is taking the first step. As someone who came to faith through Teresa’s guidance, I can only rejoice if any aspect of her homey but powerful writing gives heart to a fellow-traveler. For me, learning about the challenges and contradictions in Teresa’s life has only enhanced her effectiveness as a spiritual guide. Above all, Teresa’s humanness serves as an inspiration, a reminder that all of us, in spite of our imperfections, are called to holiness.
Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.
Related: Luke Timothy Johnson on how mysticism is vital to religion