Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul, written by Cathleen Medwick, presents a detailed chronicle of the inner machinations of the Catholic church in Spain during the Middle Ages by way of one woman’s life. The story of Teresa, the flamboyant 17th century Spanish saint who experienced raptures during the time of the Inquisition, is one of unceasing devotion and canny political evasions. Upon her death in 1582 at age 67, it was said that the convent where she died was suffused with the heady aroma of lilies, “the odor of sanctity.” As time passed and her body was repeatedly exhumed over the subsequent years, it was discovered that her corpse remained miraculously intact, showing few signs of decomposition.
Medwick, a contributing editor for House and Garden magazine and former features editor for Vogue and Vanity Fair, has a knack for capturing the reader’s attention from the start. The book’s first chapter contains a passage in which Teresa’s body is unearthed by her good friend Jeronimo Gracian de la Madre de Dios almost a year after her death. “She was so perfectly preserved, [Gracian] wrote, that he retired to another room while the others undressed her and covered her with a sheet. When he returned, he took a closer look and was surprised to see how full and firm her breasts were. Then he got out his saw.” This brief passage displays the author’s strongest assets; her respect for the facts as they are presented in historical accounts and her flair for infusing liveliness into those dated treatises.
Throughout her life, Teresa labored to convince those who would scrutinize her that her faith in God was unbending, but more importantly, that her obedience to the church was beyond reproach. She did this by writing several texts that illuminate her experiences and inner life. At the same time, she managed to bend the will of church officials with plans given to her by God, in the form of locutions. While firmly rooted in the affairs of men, Teresa de Jesus was a mystic gripped by transcendent experiences of union with God which often caused her to levitate during mass and left her paralyzed for hours, in a rigid state of bliss. Her frequent raptures, or “favors,” as she called them, kept her under constant threat of trial as a heretic by the Inquisition.
Teresa lived during a time of brutal extremes, when religion was wielded as a weapon by power-hungry men. Those people blessed with profound insight into the nature of things, saints even, coexisted with those who were excommunicated, damned to hell and sent to die on the rack by Inquisitors employed by the church. Oftentimes they were one and the same.
“How these devils frighten us because we’re asking to be frightened, through our attachment to honors, property, pleasures,” Teresa once said. “I don’t understand these fears. We exclaim: ‘The devil!’ ‘The devil!’, when we could be exclaiming ‘God!’ ‘God!’ and making the devil tremble ... What’s going on here? Without a doubt, I’m more afraid of those who are so scared of the devil than I am of the devil himself.”
Of course, life in the 1500s, for women especially, presented few options. One could either be a wife and mother or a bride of Christ. Teresa chose to become a nun rather than be tied to the drudgery of caring for a husband and brood of children within the walls of a house she would rarely have occasion to leave. By contrast, convent life provided ample room for socializing in the company of women, where one was afforded comforts that even included visits with men. She chose the life of a nun in part because of the freedom it would afford her.
In time, this became one of the things Teresa sought to reform. She established “discalced” or barefoot convents throughout Spain which were revolutionary for their simplicity and extremes of privation. They defined a new standard for austerity and enclosure in the church. She often wrote that she longed for enclosure, for the simplicity of convent life, but that God had other plans.
Throughout her life, Teresa struggled to reconcile worldly matters (being social creatures, seeking the approval of one another) with matters of the spirit. She was vain and ambitious, relentlessly trying to refocus her attention on the only thing that truly mattered—God (salvation).
To her credit, Teresa lived by her beliefs. She lived a pared-down existence that was punctuated only by the uproar that would inevitably follow the establishment of each new convent she founded. Teresa of Avila’s life was defined by unwavering faith and incredible drive. As Medwick points out, her greatest feat may have been successfully walking the fine line that separates extraordinary spirituality from ordinary life. Teresa of Avila brings to light a surprising paradox—that nestled within a religion that is so often fraught with the repellant and ungodly acts of men, one might find something more akin to the fragrance of lilies, sensual, unassuming, pervasive.