Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

Today is the commemoration of Teresa of Avila who is a rather odd inclusion on the Episcopal calendar. She’s one of the most remarkable and most important figures in the Catholic Reformation. She led an intense reform of the Carmelite order (both female and male), but she is better known for her mysticism and her spiritual writing. The Interior Castle and The Autobiography.

Teresa is interesting to me because of my double experience of her. As a historian of Early Modern Christianity, and as someone who taught The Reformations of the 16th century numerous times, I have read her as an example of a remarkable woman  with deep spiritual experience and important for the developing institutional church. To read her autobiography is to encounter someone who is caught in the midst of history. A descendant of converted Jews, a woman who sought to create for herself an authentic religious life, and sought to force other women into that life, who submitted to and challenged authority, Teresa’s autobiography is a wonderful lens through which to examine the 16th century.

But she is more than that. Reading and rereading her autobiography and The Interior Castle I am reminded at each reading by the depth and breadth of her spiritual experience, and surprised by her psychological insight, into herself, her fellow nuns, and the nature of religious experience. I used her work once in a course on Theological Anthropology in the Christian Tradition, and reading her in light of earlier authors from Pseudo-Dionysus and Athanasius to Luther and Descartes was quite illuminating.

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