TERESA OF JESUS
HER LIFE IN LETTERS
ST. TERESA OF ÁVILA
To Teresa, who is called “of Jesus,” writing was always a part of her instruction, just as reading and culture were, thanks to her parents’ influence; thus she dedicated herself to the vital task of writing. Her works, The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection, are recognized today as fundamental among the medieval classics.
IN A COMPILATION of personal letters mostly directed to different recipients, it is tough to maintain a coherent reading with all the variety of themes and subjects. This book is no exception, but those who don’t know Teresa of Ávila can hereby still contemplate her dependence on the Lord to beat the obstacles that came across her path. This is rather blatant throughout this work.
Split in chapters corresponding to chronological decades in the author’s life, Teresa’s ever deteriorating physical frailty becomes evident, and it often made her ask for help in writing the letters.
Among the recorded documents are missives for Philip II of Spain, interceding for John of the Cross (with whom she founded the Order of Discalced Carmelites) concerning the Inquisition; Dominican author Louis of Granada; or D. Teotónio of Bragança, Archbishop of Évora, to whom she manifests deep concern for the eventual military conflict between Spain and Portugal. She even states, “I would rather die than see it.”
Though there is not one moment where she seems afraid of writing, her care for not giving the inquisitors any excuses that may endanger her is noticeable. Teresa, who came to be accused of being “alumbrada” (i.e. “enlightened,” pertaining to the Spanish heretic movement from the sixteenth century), saw the need to use a “cyphered” writing to pass through the Inquisition’s sifter, as she knew she lived under the constant surveillance from her religious inspectors, who filtered her mail and sought to apprehend her literary manuscripts.
The literary legacy of Teresa of Jesus (or “of Ávila,” Spanish town where she first started her Discalced Carmelite ministry) blends with the terror of living under the Inquisition’s censorship. It was a time when persecutions and sentences without impartial judgment could come to anyone, even the most faithful among the Catholic religion. Even though she was integrated in the Church of Rome, Teresa was not free from continuous scrutiny for the spiritual practices uncommon at the time – despite her only seeking a contemplative life, but which transcended the Church’s standards and spawned suspicion around the aura of mysticism enveloping her.
An entrepreneurial nun, she established a remarkable network of cloisters, hosting young women from noble families drawn to the cloistered cause, dedicated to a life of prayer and intimacy with God. As such, the Carmelite nun always depended on God to meet all her financial needs.