THE word “Life” in the title of this book can be read two ways. Published in a series engagingly called Lives of Great Religious Books, it is a biography less of the saint and more of her Vida or autobiography.
Carlos Eire is the T. E. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University. He brings a wealth of background knowledge to his subject, and so is able, for example, to fill out the details of the saint’s murky heritage, the first of the stains on her reputation. Teresa’s grandfather on her father’s side, Juan Sanchez de Toledo, was the son of a Jewish convert; her father managed partly to remove this dishonour by marrying one of the old nobility, a woman who could claim to have “pure” blood. Teresa’s story is told with clarity and precision, Eire considering her as a reformer as well as a mystic.
Never one to divide contemplation from action, Teresa moved into the public eye and so became accountable to public fora: the Church in the form of the Inquisition, her superiors, and her fellow nuns. She had always been influenced by books; so what more natural than that she should write one, albeit at her confessor’s recommendation? As a woman and a mystic, Teresa had a difficult path to steer: was she a fraud, was she a heretic, or was she genuinely holy and uniquely gifted with spiritual charisms?
First published in 1588, though circulated privately before then, the text of her Vida underwent many translations and editions over the centuries. Threatened with incarceration or flames by the Inquisition, the book escaped every onslaught and flourished as her own reputation did. Carlos Eire examines each twist of the plot as artists, sceptics, psychiatrists, and fascists denounced her or tried to recruit her to their cause. The final irony he sees in the title of Doctor of the Church conferred on the saint by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
Rather than recognise the agency behind Teresa’s contribution to theology — namely, her intelligence and ability to describe and interpret the finest details of the mystical life — the Pope saw her as a conduit for “the extraordinary action of the Holy Spirit”: in essence, a passive vessel rather than the vibrant and flamboyant woman mystic that the Life — and its history — reveal her to be.
Professor Eire’s bibliography is a model of its kind, displaying the same authority as the rest of his admirable book.
Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.
The Life of Teresa of Ávila: A biography
Princeton University Press £21
Church Times Bookshop £18.90