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  • Teresa of Avila
  • Written by Cathleen Medwick
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780385501293
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Teresa of Avila

The Progress of a Soul

Written by Cathleen MedwickAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Cathleen Medwick

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A refreshingly modern reconsideration of Saint Teresa (1515-1582), one of the greatest mystics and reformers to emerge within the sixteenth-century Catholic Church, whose writings are a keystone of modern mystical thought.

From the very beginning of her life in a convent, following the death of her mother and the marriage of her older sister, it was clear that Teresa's expansive nature, intensity, and energy would not be easily confined. Cathleen Medwick shows us a powerful daughter of the Church and her times who was a very human mass of contradictions: a practical and no-nonsense manager, and yet a flamboyant and intrepid presence who bent the rules of monastic life to accomplish her work--while managing to stay one step ahead of the Inquisition. And she exhibited a very personal brand of spirituality, often experiencing raptures of an unorthodox, arguably erotic, nature that left her frozen in one position for hours, unable to speak. Out of a concern for her soul and her reputation, her superiors insisted that she account for every voice and vision, as well as the sins that might have engendered them, thus giving us the account of her life that is now considered a literary masterpiece.

Medwick makes it clear that Teresa considered her major work the reform of the Carmelites, an enterprise requiring all her considerable persuasiveness and her talent for administration. We see her moving about Spain with the assurance (if not the authority) of a man, in spite of debilitating illness, to establish communities of nuns who lived scrupulously devout lives, without luxuries. In an era when women were seldom taken seriously, she even sought and received permission to found two religious houses for men.        

In this fascinating account Cathleen Medwick reveals Teresa as both more complex and more comprehensible than she has seemed in the past. She illuminates for us the devout and worldly woman behind the centuries-old iconography of the saint.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1: Expeditions

Teresa de Ahumada began the first of her many journeys at the age of seven. This was not the usual thing for a well-off Castilian girl in 1522. She lived in Avila, a city of walls within walls: ancient ramparts, built to guard against Moorish invaders from the barren, windswept countryside; church and monastery walls, erected as bulwarks of the faith; and the facades of houses, designed to keep strangers out and family members (especially women) in. A girl like Teresa lived most of her early life in a domestic fortress that looked impregnable from the street but opened interiorly onto patios. She played with her sisters and brothers there and with a select group of relatives whose visits her father allowed. Properly attended, she ventured out to attend Mass and public festivals, but most of the time she stayed home with her mother, who managed a household full of children and servants. If she had been taught to read, a girl might while away the long afternoons with the Flos Sanctorum, a popular retelling of the lives of the saints. By the time she entered her teens, she could look forward to marriage and to a life congruent with the one she knew.

The young Teresa had other plans, based on hopes that in those times seemed realistic. Her religion had taught her that life on earth was only a test: if she was chaste and virtuous, she would someday ascend to heaven; if she was immodest and sinful, she would descend to hell. That was the truth, and no one she knew of had ever questioned it. Being a practical-minded, enterprising child, Teresa thought she might find a way to skip the preliminaries. She thought of Saint Catherine writhing on her wheel, of Saint Lawrence burning slowly on his grill, and, most of all, of Vicente, Cristeta, and Sabina, the child martyrs of Avila, who in Roman times had endured blow after blow from their heathen torturers because they had refused to bow to pagan idols. The lovely basilica of San Vicente, just outside the city walls, had been built in their honor. These martyrs, all devout opportunists (just like Teresa herself), had bought passage to heaven with their life's blood. To a girl with an eye for a bargain, this seemed a reasonable price to pay.

She knew that the world was only an illusion. La vida es sueño — life is a dream — was a phrase familiar to every Castilian, young and old. But heaven, as she whispered to her eleven-year-old brother, Rodrigo, while they read inspiring stories to one another in their father's library, was para siempre, siempre, forever and ever. If they could just make their way to the land of the Moors (which Teresa thought must be somewhere beyond the treacherous Sierra de Avila), they could shed their own innocent blood for God. Teresa and her brother would burst upon the infidel, proclaim themselves Christians, and promptly get their heads cut off. From there the only place to go was up.

Rodrigo had to agree; he didn't really have a choice. So one day his sister packed some raisins in a handkerchief, took the docile boy by the hand, and led him away to glory. Stealing from the house at dawn, they hurried through the narrow cobbled streets, finally passing through the gate and over the Adaja bridge — just as, many centuries before, the sixty brave knights of Avila had marched out the Puerta de la Malaventura to become hostages and have their heads boiled in oil. Emerging alone from that inviolable fortress city, the children must have felt their smallness beneath the vast open sky. Rodrigo probably cringed. Teresa, who was afraid of nothing except damnation, must have been exhilarated as she drank in the endless view. Ahead were valleys strewn with white boulders that could have dropped from the moon, and beyond that, the distant mountains, where Christians and Moors had crossed swords long ago.

The children were just walking along the dusty road to Salamanca — not quite as far as legend has carried them — when their uncle Francisco arrived on horseback and carried them home. Confronted by their parents, Rodrigo complained (not without justification) that la niña, the little one, had made him do it. And la niña had no excuse: the logic that had propelled her made no sense to anyone else. Alonso de Cepeda, her father, was a pious man, but for him religion was a duty rather than an adventure. Her mother, Alonso's second wife Beatriz de Ahumada, was a weary young woman with a taste for chivalric romance, which she found exclusively in books. Her household was not where she looked for excitement, and she was distressed to find it there. All she wanted was to raise Alonso's progeny (including two children from his first marriage) in a sheltered environment where each day's activities seemed preordained and the rules of comportment immutable. Having her children disappear for any length of time and for any reason was enough to send her straight to bed, where she usually passed much of her time.

Teresa may have felt remorse about disturbing the peace at home, though she never mentions it in her Vida, where she is always quick to find fault with her own motives. In any case, the crisis passed, and the would-be martyr was soon busily at work in the family orchard, building stone hermitages where she — and her siblings, if they obeyed their prioress — could savor the austerities of monastic life.This is how the story begins. The hagiographer distills its essence: the young girl's heavenly aspiration, her nascent sanctity, her gift for self-sacrifice. The hope of all humanity, sweet as a raisin in a young girl's hand. The story is told and retold like a medieval chanson de geste; the walls of the chivalric city are breached by pilgrims wanting to evoke the saint's presence by enshrining her past. Avila, a bustling marketplace and a hotbed of politics, is for the purposes of legend the city of cantos y santos — of stones and saints.

There is another beginning that belongs to devotees of sacred genealogy. That story opens with a paean to Teresa's aristocratic lineage, her impeccable descent from the Ahumada family, with its ancient crest of a burning (hence humo, smoke) tower; the Cepeda, sprung from a hero of the siege of Gibraltar; the Sánchez . . . but here revisionists pick up the thread. Sánchez was a common name in Castile; it was also the name of many conversos, Jews who, since the persecutions of the fourteenth century, had tried to protect themselves by converting to Christianity, as had Teresa's grandfather, the Toledan Juan. Like many of the city's "New Christians," Juan Sánchez had made a name and fortune for himself in a city once famous for its tolerance, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews had thrived in close proximity. In the thirteenth century King Alfonso X (Alfonso the Wise) had invited Jewish and Moorish intellectuals to court, where they pooled their talents to make spectacular advances in literature, philosophy, and science. But times had changed. Convivencia — the fruitful coexistence of races and religions — was over for good. Spanish Christians had come to resent perceived and actual Jewish wealth and influence, perhaps even more than they had feared Muslim aggression. After Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews — specifically, those who wouldn't convert to Christianity — in 1492, resentment modulated into scorn, as the Inquisition pursued its mission of sniffing out "judaizers," conversos who clung secretly to their ancestral identities. The Inquisition's handling of such "criminals" was famously brutal, and Juan Sánchez wasn't eager to experience it. So he took advantage of an Edict of Grace that promised milder punishments to sinners who came forward and confessed. Juan accused himself of crimes that undermined the church — probably customs like washing on the Jewish Sabbath or refusing to eat pork. He was tried and convicted, and sentenced to be paraded through town, along with his children, on successive Fridays. For this event each member of the family was required to wear the robe of shame, a yellow sambenito marked with a large green cross and tongues of flame. As punishments went, this was a light one, though no Castilian could ever take public humiliation in stride.

Juan was resourceful, though, and managed to relocate his family to Avila, where a relative had a business in silks and woolens. By the year 1500 Juan Sánchez had won a pleito de hidalguia, a legal petition that granted him the status of hidalgo, or gentleman. That title of convenience (easily obtainable by those who could afford it) not only exempted him from taxation but also made it legal for him to collect certain revenues for the crown. In Castile, where tax collecting had long been the province of Jews, too intense an interest in money was considered the sign of a base nature. A Christian gentleman would never stoop so low. So a new kind of noble had to be invented, one who gladly and efficiently feathered the royal nest. Juan couldn't have been better equipped for the task. He was by all accounts an agreeable man, but he had no social standing. The success of his pleito enabled him to append the title of "don" to his name, which guaranteed him a certain amount of respect in his adopted city, and to ally his children, when the time came, with families of bona fide "Old Christian" blood. In Spain in those days, a really noble family was one that could boast limpieza de sangre, which was defined in legal statutes as blood without the "taint" of Jewish or Moorish admixture. That was beyond Juan Sánchez's power to obtain. But the pleito vouchsafed him (on paper at least) an untarnished Christian lineage. And since not very many Castilians could really lay claim to limpieza de sangre — some of the noblest Old Christian families had been intermarrying with conversos for years — Juan could be content with its legal equivalent. Just to be on the safe side, he appended his wife's brother's surname, Cepeda, to his own.

One of Juan's sons was Alonso, a morose young man who called himself Alonso de Pina for a while, then Alonso de Cepeda. He arrived in Avila with memories of Toledo fresh in his mind, though by the time he reached adulthood, he had the solace of money and prestige. Juan used his personal and financial skills to introduce his son to Avila's most influential citizens, including officials of the church, and this, along with substantial capital, enabled Alonso to marry Catalina del Peso, a farmer's daughter with a pedigree to trade for wealth. To establish the two of them in style, Alonso bought a compound called the Casas de la Moneda (which had once been a mint) in a desirable neighborhood at the edge of what had once been the Jewish quarter. The place was austerely elegant, with several buildings grouped around patios and gardens where the servants would tend to the livestock, laundering, and other domestic work. There was plenty of room there for an hidalgo's family to grow and thrive.

Catalina died after two years of marriage, leaving her husband with a couple of young children, María and Juan. After a period of mourning he married Beatriz de Ahumada, a fourteen-year-old cousin of his first wife's. The biographer Victoria Lincoln, who did a prodigious amount of detective work on Teresa's family, reports that during their courtship, Beatriz became pregnant by Alonso and that her mother was dead set against the match. Teresa de las Cuevas — a country woman who signed her name with a cross, her "mark" — had plenty of family pride and prejudice. She tried to void the engagement by having it declared illegal on the basis that Beatriz and the late Catalina had been cousins. But Alonso used his connections to buy a dispensation from the church, and the marriage took place. Once again Alonso forged his link with an Old Christian family, and this one had a special attribute. During the eleventh-century reconquista, when the Christians recaptured Castile from the Moors, men from a family called Ahumada had reputedly defended a tower, fighting their way through the smoke and flames and winning (among other prizes) the right to their distinctive family crest. This was now Alonso's to hold high.

Alonso and Beatriz had a country wedding at the Ahumada family property at Gotarrendura, where shortly afterward, Beatriz gave birth to her first child, who was named Hernando. Alonso soon had a bit of luck. The duke of Alba had been ordered to pocket the Pyrenean kingdom of Navarre for King Ferdinand, and he needed a fighting force of Castilian nobility to do so. Alonso rode off to what turned out to be a brief and successful war. At last he had the one thing his hidalgo's heart still longed for: a piece of the valiant history from which Avila had risen, stone by stone.

Beatriz de Ahumada soldiered on to produce nine more children, a tour of duty that left her enervated and worn. She was still a young woman when, just before dawn on March 28, 1515, she gave birth to her third child and first girl, to be named Teresa after that recalcitrant maternal grandmother.

. . .

She was a vain and vivacious girl with a divine agenda. This was not unusual, though it seems to be in retrospect, which is the vantage point from which saints' lives must be viewed. At the time she was growing up, Avila was a lively, though still semirural, city famous for its wool production (like most Castilian cities), where commerce lived arm in arm with faith. Outside the ancient battlements, sheep grazed on the hillsides; the river Adaja curled around the city's feet. Inside the walls, wagons clattered down narrow streets that opened onto plazas teeming with life. In the Mercado Grande and the Mercado Chico, the city's two main marketplaces, people shopped and gossiped over the noise of roving entertainers, the chiming of church bells, and the clang of pots and pans made by Avila's (converted Muslim) artisans. Skeins of merino wool passed from hand to hand, as did bolts of bright silk, locally grown pears and grapes, trout and partridge and plump pigs ready for roasting — a Castilian delicacy. Trade was brisk in shops much like the one off the Mercado Chico, where Teresa's grandfather Juan Sánchez had made his fortune in silks and woolens. It was in the Mercado Grande, in 1491, that a group of Toledan Jews who had confessed under torture to the gruesome murder of a Christian child — known as the Santo Niño de la Guardia — were burned at the stake.

Avila's most prestigious families could trace their roots back to the reconquista; the rest of the nobility, which (like Alonso de Cepeda) couldn't, tried to procure family crests and legends to go along with them. Even though most of the elite families — including the Mendozas (whose numbers included the bishop of Avila) and, arguably, the powerful Bracamontes — lacked perfect pedigrees, converso ancestry was for the most part a closely guarded secret. Many of Teresa's biographers think she knew the truth about her background. If she did, it was probably not through her father, a man invested in obliterating his past.

The wealthiest families made a point of bankrolling religious festivals, which were frequent and well attended. This won them social and political prestige, not to mention a chance at eternal bliss. Benefactors of religious orders endowed chapels with crypts where family members could be interred and Masses said (around the clock, in some cases) for their souls. In Teresa's later life as a reformer, she often had to deal with wealthy patrons who made excessive demands on her nuns' time by requiring unremitting prayers for the souls of dead relations. A person's residence, in death as in life, was a clue to his or her social identity.

For the living, a house could be a sign of hidalguia, noble descent. In Avila de los Caballeros (Avila of the Knights), many of the finest houses had been built close by, and even into, the city's walls, so that centuries later their occupants had easy access to the ramparts — including those who had never seen a field of battle. A man like Alonso de Cepeda made sure his home bespoke his valor and his piety. Over the arched doorway, emblazoned on a shield of stone, the family crests (in Alonso's case, the combined crests of the Cepeda and Ahumada) staked his claim to ancient nobility. The stone facades, the massive doors decorated with iron spikes (sometimes gilded), the tiny barred windows protected his honor and his wealth. Inside the house, devotional paintings relieved the pallor of the whitewashed walls, and tapestries helped guard against drafts. Over the chilly floors were laid Flemish carpets, on which were scattered fine embroidered silk cushions. As in Moorish houses, family and visitors sat on these cross-legged, while the head of the household and important guests used the straight-backed chairs with tooled leather seats. (As historian Américo Castro has noted, "Spain, rich in all types of art, has never invented, in truth, a single comfortable piece of furniture.") Massive oak tables and cabinets, wrought-iron chandeliers, and other stately furnishings testified that their owner was a man of consequence.

So did his wife, who was, again as in Moorish households, a closely held asset. Her value hinged not only on the dowry she brought to the marriage — though this was extremely important — but also on her modest and prudent behavior. She had to be, as the theologian and humanist Luis de León defined her in a treatise, la perfecta casada, the perfect wife, skilled at managing the servants, as well as at other tasks like spinning wool and flax and making the family's clothes. Perfectly attired and coiffed, she appeared by her husband's side at social and religious functions. If any man insulted or (worst case) seduced her, that was a mortal blow to the family's honor; her husband had to avenge it, even to the death. No wonder he wanted to hide her away — a task made easier by the fact that she had very few places to go. She had no formal education and no role in municipal life. She could take an interest (depending on her resources, sometimes a very active one) in religious foundations and charitable works, but otherwise she went out infrequently and never alone. Her head had to be covered when she left the house, and so she often wore her hooded cloak. A veil (another Moorish survival) could be problematic: the tapado de medio ojo, the veil arranged to reveal one eye, could enable a woman to flirt.The paradox of domestic life for a woman of Avila was that even though her own life was circumscribed, she lived in the city of hazañas (heroic deeds), famous for its history of daring sorties and conquests. A girl like Teresa de Ahumada was regaled from early childhood with stories about men and even women of legend: Jimena Blázquez, for example, epitomized the mujer fuerte, the woman equal in valor to a man. Once when the men were off to war and a horde of invaders approached the city walls, she dressed the women of Avila in false beards, hats, and armor, then ordered them up to the ramparts, where they drove away the heathen by loudly rattling their kitchen utensils. Even if she couldn't become a soldier or do missionary service in the Americas, the mujer fuerte could still suffer for the faith, as the female saints of the Flos Sanctorum had done. And if she couldn't become a martyr, she could at least channel her heroic impulses by joining a religious order, renouncing the comforts (such as they were) of home and marriage. This was a sacrifice that a girl with an eye to her future could make.

The hermitages in the orchard tumbled down, and the would-be prioress began to turn her attention elsewhere. She was growing up, and romance was flowing in her veins. She devoured her mother's books of chivalry, especially the one all of Europe was reading, the Amadís de Gaula. This was the story, in four books, of a knight who was brave, handsome, and cunning, and as pious as he needed to be. Amadís was in love with Oriana, a ravishingly beautiful and provisionally chaste maiden. He performed miraculous feats (like pulling a magic sword from its scabbard) in the name of honor and virtue, which Oriana rewarded, clandestinely, with her love. His passion distracted him for a time from heroic deeds, but he recovered his strength and courage to champion the honor of God.

For Doña Teresa de Ahumada, the Amadís was a delight and a revelation. Its tales of holy valor and amorous intrigue were proof that courage and strategy paid off if enough willpower was applied — a lesson that she apparently never forgot. The Amadís, with its devout seductions, seems not to have shocked Teresa any more than it did two of its other avid readers, Ignatius of Loyola and King Philip II. All three of them conflated religious fervor with chivalric love. The young girl was so stimulated by her reading that she decided to write a romance along with her brother and coconspirator Don Rodrigo de Cepeda. Their youthful effort, which they called The Knight of Avila, is tactfully glossed over by hagiographers, who focus instead on her piety as she stood at the threshold of adult life.

After her mother died giving birth to her tenth child, at the age of thirty-three, the thirteen-year-old Teresa grieved before a statue of the Virgin Mary and begged her to fill the vacancy. "It seems to me that, even though I did this in all simplicity," she writes in her Vida, "it did me good, because whenever I have put myself in the hands of the sovereign Virgin, she has always helped me, and in the end she has brought me close to her." Teresa's veneration of Mary, fixed during that early crisis, could have easily lured her away from frivolous pastimes. But it didn't. She was ripe for new experiences, sacred or secular; her adolescent mind barely made such distinctions.

As the years passed, Teresa "began to be aware of the natural attributes which the Lord had given me — which people said were considerable." (Or as the French biographer Louis Bertrand put it in 1927, "She was beautiful. And she knew it.") Teresa de Ahumada was a magnet for attention, a sociable girl who could never help liking people, as long as they liked her. She wore dangling earrings and ropy necklaces, dabbed on perfume, and piled her hair on top of her head in the style of the young empress Isabella of Portugal. "I began to wear fancy things, since I wanted to be attractive, and to fuss with my hands and my hair," she writes. "I used perfumes and all the silly baubles I could get hold of — not a few, because I was very particular." On occasion — say, a festival or a family entertainment — she put on something dramatic (that celestial orange dress, with its black velvet braid) and danced a galliard or a pavane. Her lively young cousins often came to visit; in the name of hospitality, Alonso couldn't turn them away, even though he frowned on gaiety. But one of these relatives turned out to be a schemer. From the few hints dropped in Teresa's Vida (which makes short work of her early years), it sounds as if this woman engineered a flirtation between the girl and a male cousin (only Vita Sackville-West suspects a female one), with a servant as go-between. People began to talk.

Teresa says she almost lost her honor, or honra — a word that could mean many things. It virtually always meant family pride or reputation (no sixteenth-century Spaniard distinguished between the two). To an Old Christian, honra also meant limpieza de sangre, innate nobility that informed all behavior, from simple manners to deportment in battle. To a moralist, it had to include the idea of integrity, an inviolable code of conduct. To a teenage girl, honra hinged on chastity, the basis for the world's opinion of her and for what today might be called her self-esteem. Honra was always fragile, "a clear, transparent glass," as the playwright and poet Lope de Vega wrote: "A breath's enough to cloud it over." Teresa explains in the Vida how the devil tempted her so that she almost lost her honra, but how her good inclinations (which she understood to be a gift from heaven) prevailed.

That wasn't quite enough for Alonso. He had lost his wife; his prim older daughter, María, Teresa's half sister, had just married and left home. Clearly the young girl could not be left without a female watchdog. It was the summer of 1531. Teresa was sixteen and in her glory. There was a lot going on that would keep her from serious pursuits — for example, the arrival of Empress Isabella and her three-year-old son, Prince Philip, who had come to Avila to ceremonially exchange his childish clothes for the regal ones befitting the heir to the Spanish throne. These were boom times for Spain. Charles V's empire, his Habsburg birthright, encompassed much of Europe, including Naples and Milan. Across the seas, Hernán Cortés had conquered Mexico; Francisco Pizarro was making inroads into Peru. The city of Avila was poised to embark on months of festivities to mark the young prince's investiture — glamorous processions and other royal fanfare — and there was nothing Teresa enjoyed more. That was when Alonso decided to pack her off to a nearby Augustinian convent that ran a kind of finishing school for genteel young woman boarders, preparing them for a devout domestic life. Alonso handled the situation delicately. If he hadn't, the rumors about his daughter might have spun out of control. "This was done in such a discreet way," she explains, "that only I and a relative knew about it, because they waited for the perfect moment, when no one would think it was strange." The moment came right after María's wedding, "when it wasn't appropriate for me to be left on my own, without a mother."

Teresa couldn't have been glad to go away, although she writes that she was fed up with her own reckless behavior. She had never stopped wanting to be good. So in the middle of everything, Avila's celebrations and her own exuberant sortie into womanhood, she went off to live the life of a nun.
Cathleen Medwick

About Cathleen Medwick

Cathleen Medwick - Teresa of Avila

Photo © Frank Cantor

Cathleen Medwick, an inveterate New Yorker, lives on a small farm in northern Westchester County. She has worked as a features editor for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Mirabella, and, most recently, House & Garden, for which she is now a contributing editor. Her feature articles and book reviews have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Mirabella, Vogue, House & Garden, Vanity Fair, and Elle.

  • Teresa of Avila by Cathleen Medwick
  • January 16, 2001
  • Biography & Autobiography
  • Image
  • $15.99
  • 9780385501293

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