Book Review: The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila, by Carlos Eire

March 2, 2020 |

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Carlos Eire | Princeton University Press, 2019 (280 pp).

This book, The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila, should be renamed The Life of the Life of Saint Teresa of Avila. Why? Because the book is a more about Saint Teresa’s autobiography, The Book of Her Life (oftentimes shortened to Vida in Spanish and Life in English), than it is about Saint Teresa herself. Carlos Eire is a history professor at Yale University and presents to us an extremely interesting history of, yes, Saint Teresa of Avila, but after her death (1582) the continued ‘life’ of her Life.

Professor Eire claims that The Book of Her Life really is Teresa’s magnum opus and that her other books (i.e., The Foundations, The Interior Castle, Soliloquies) are afterwords to her main work. He provides a solid interpretation of Teresa’s Life from a 21st-century perspective. He does not dismiss her extraordinary visions, locutions, or levitations but puts them as sidebars to the main point of Teresa’s book: an outline of the mystical journey to union with God. The extraordinary stuff all made sense from a 16th-century mindset, but from the 1700s (the Enlightenment) through today the extraordinary stuff comes across more as psychological disturbances than as actual events. But the main point – the mystical journey – has a timeless validity. Professor Eire does not go into all the political entanglements Teresa faced; instead, he concentrates on the entanglements that her Life caused with the Inquisition, her confessors, the Spanish aristocracy, and anyone who read her Life. Overall, in the first part of his book Professor Eire gives us a clear and easily-read biography of Saint Teresa. If nothing else, I recommend Eire’s book for this clarity.

BUT this book gets really interesting after the death of Teresa in 1582, and a lot of the history Professor Eire writes about will be new to even the ardent disciples of Teresa. Here are just a few of the things I learned:

  • After her death the Dominicans launched a major campaign with the Inquisition to discredit her and block her beatification and the publication of any of her works, but King Philip IV and the royal family silenced any opposition.

  • After her canonization, Philip IV declared her to be the co-patron of Spain (along with Saint James; i.e., Santiago) but the Pope squelched that.

  • Various picture-books (remember this was an illiterate age) of Teresa’s Life were published after her death. One of the engravings from a popular picture-book by Arnold van Westerhout became the template that Bernini used in his famous statue, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.

  • Sigmund Freud and his disciple, Jacques Lacan, pronounced her the patron saint of hysterics.

  • When given a reliquary containing Teresa’s left hand Generalissimo Francisco Franco pronounced her the patron saint of fascism (and the Superior General of the Discalced Carmelites wrote a treatise supporting this!). Franco even published a magazine for fascist women called Teresa (1936-1975).

  • Virgil Thomson wrote an opera, with the libretto by Gertrude Stein, called Four Saints in Three Acts about Saint Teresa and Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

Do I recommend this book? You bet! Whether you’re new to Saint Teresa and her works (especially her Life) or you’ve been a life-long disciple, you will learn a lot.

Gregory Houck
Fr. Gregory Houck, O.Carm. is a Carmelite priest living in Chicago, IL. See his blog at http://fathergreg.com .
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