Canonized in 1622 and made one of the first female Doctors of the Church in 1970, Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) spread her vision of spiritual life through inexhaustible activity founding the order of Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites and through her many written works. The Bible and church tradition served as authoritative sources for this vision, but always through the filter of Teresa’s own spiritual experience.

Access.

Teresa’s direct access to the Bible was limited. Although she was literate in Spanish and an avid reader from her youth, Spanish translations of the Bible, as well as vernacular prayer books and other religious guides, were banned by the Inquisition in 1559, and the study of Latin—the language of the Vulgate and Mass—was restricted to learned men. Upon entering the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation at age 20, however, Teresa would have had as much indirect access to scripture—through sermons, devotional literature, and other secondary resources—as almost any Spanish woman of her day.

Teresa frequently frames references to scripture with the claim that she can’t accurately remember or cite passages because she has only encountered them aurally or through secondary sources, and for whatever verses she is able to quote, she claims to have received divine aid. Some feminist scholars have eyed the writer’s imprecision with suspicion; however, Carole Slade surmises that Teresa read substantial Latin and had access to forbidden Spanish translations of the Bible (1986, p. 33), and Alison Weber attributes Teresa’s vagueness to a deliberate defense strategy against potential allegations of forbidden reading (1990, pp. 106–114). As a woman and the descendent of “conversos” (Jewish converts), after all, Teresa was especially susceptible to charges of heterodoxy, or even heresy.

Attitude.

If Teresa’s access to the Bible was indirect and incomplete, her relationship to scripture was nevertheless intimate. There was, in fact, an inherent tension in her attitude toward scripture. As a faithful woman in Counter-Reformation Spain, her approach had to be submissive, both to scripture itself and to the mediation of it by the male church hierarchy. Teresa expresses this attitude frequently, assuring her Carmelite readers that her insights must be—and have been—tested against both scripture and church doctrine by the learned confessors at whose command she writes.

Whether we understand Teresa’s primary outward focus to have been spiritual reform of the Carmelites, as scholars have traditionally observed, or the creation of space for her own and other women’s spiritual, intellectual, and social development in a patriarchal context, as more recent feminist scholarship suggests, there is no doubt that her spiritual experience was the driving and defining force for her efforts. It was therefore inevitable that her attitude toward scripture would also be experiential. An imaginative and empathetic reader, Teresa was inclined toward Ignatian reflection. She relied on the Passion narrative, in particular, for her devotional practice, and in her approach to this and other gospel stories, as well as to the narratives, songs, and psalms of the Old Testament, she drew upon her imagination and intuition to flesh out biblical scenes, characters, and implications.

Teresa embraced the Augustinian idea that divine inspiration rendered scripture multivalent, and she did not worry if her own readings departed from authoritative ones so long as they did not directly contravene or contradict them. In her engagement with Old Testament texts in particular, Teresa tended away from prescribed allegorical readings, which presented the church as the object of sacred history. In contrast, her interpretations were always distinctly personal, looking to biblical passages for truths about her own soul in relation to God.

Teresa’s attitude toward scripture was thus appropriately submissive; indeed, she claims she “would die a thousand deaths for the faith or for any truth of Sacred Scripture” (Teresa of Avila, 1976, Vol. 1, p. 287). She also shared the common belief in the verbal inspiration of scripture, attributing even the linguistic style of the text to the Holy Spirit (Teresa of Avila, 1980, Vol. 2, p. 217). Nevertheless, Teresa was not hesitant to expand upon biblical truths or explore them imaginatively, and she believed that the Bible could only be properly understood through right feeling, not reason. Carole Slade points out that Teresa advances this view by punning on the Spanish word “sentido,” which, like the English equivalent “sense,” conveys the dual ideas of “meaning” and “feeling” (1986, p. 32; see also 1995, p. 53).

God was thus made sense-able to Teresa in the Bible, but also in personal visions and “locutions” that affirmed and further developed the canonical texts. In the “Book of Her Life,” Teresa recounts how God “place[d]” a book into her hands in order to console her with the words of Paul (Teresa of Avila, 1976, Vol. 1, p. 207), but she soon after explains that in the face of the ban on religious books, God became to her a better and irresistible “living book” by means of her visions (p. 226). The Bible was thus authoritative for Teresa—a standard not to be contradicted or contravened—but it was neither final nor closed to fresh interpretation.

Patterns and Methods.

There are clear patterns in Teresa’s literary engagement with the Bible. Presumably because of her limited and aural access to scripture, all of her direct references are brief. She seldom quotes more than a single verse or phrase, often without comment. Sometimes, however, she offers extended discussions of biblical references, with a focus on their meaning for the life of prayer.

Biblical images.

The adoption of biblical images is the pattern most dispersed throughout Teresa’s texts. She makes free use of images because, she reiterates—in what Alison Weber (1990) calls a strategic “rhetoric of femininity”—women are unable to understand spiritual realities without imaginative assistance. While some of her most memorable figures—the silkworm and the crystal, for example—are entirely secular, others—such as water, tree, garden, fire, bread, road, and castle—have biblical roots. What is most notable about her use of biblical images is how expansive she is in her treatment of them. In “The Book of Her Life,” for example, the author’s “bad memory” of the parable of the sower (Teresa of Avila, 1976, Vol. 1, p. 113) leads to an extended discourse about four means of watering a garden, which also alludes to the garden of Eden, as an analogy for kinds or degrees of prayer. More famously, in “The Interior Castle,” she builds an entire crystal palace for the soul upon Jesus’s statement that there are many “dwellings” in his father’s house (John 14:2). Since God says we are made in his own image and likeness (Gen 1:27), Teresa surmises, then our souls must also house many dwellings (Teresa of Avila, 1980, Vol. 2, pp. 283–284).

Biblical books.

Teresa’s most extensive references to Old Testament passages come from the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Exodus, and the Song of Songs. From the New Testament, she makes frequent reference to the Gospels, especially the Passion narrative. She also often cites the miracles and sayings of Jesus, particularly his healing of the blind man with mud (John 9:1–12), calming of the waters (Matt 8:23–27; Mark 4:35–41; Luke 8:22–25), and prescient words with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4–26). Several of Jesus’s parables appear in her writing, and in “The Way of Perfection” she offers an extended meditation on the “Our Father” or “Lord’s Prayer” (Matt 6:9–13) as a practical aid to prayer (Teresa of Avila, 1980, Vol. 2, pp. 137–204). Beyond the Gospels, Teresa is most likely to recall the miraculous conversion of Paul (Acts 9:1–19) and his teachings about personal transformation in the Epistles.

Biblical men and women.

Apart from Jesus and his mother, Paul is the biblical figure who appears most frequently in Teresa’s work, and every reference is positive. Other men from the Bible who appear repeatedly—Peter, Job, David, Solomon, Saul, and Jonah, among others—serve as ambivalent models. She emphasizes Peter’s denial as well as his repentance, Jonah’s obedience but also his doubt, David’s love for God and his adultery, too. Judas appears several times as a wholly negative example.

Remarkably, given the misogynistic theology of her day, Teresa’s treatment of biblical women is consistently positive. In only one case in her major works does Teresa make a negative reference to a female figure, mentioning Lot’s wife as an analogy for those who fail to enter the castle of their souls (Teresa of Avila, 1980, Vol. 2, p. 286).

The ubiquitous Virgin is exemplary to Teresa for her suffering and obedience to God’s pronouncement. The next most frequently cited woman is “the Magdalene”—a character in whom Teresa conflates Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the woman who anoints Jesus’s feet in the Synoptic Gospels. Notably, Teresa imputes no sexual sin to this composite Mary, who appears in her work unscathed by dominant theological views. Instead, Teresa presents her as a model of ecstatic love and devotion to Jesus. Teresa frequently invokes this Mary in tandem with Martha of Bethany, presenting the sisters as an analogy for contemplative and active ways of life. Rather than privilege one over the other, Teresa presents them as a balanced pair, equally loved by Christ and important to his mission. As a contemplative woman who was peripatetic and busy at the work of reforming the Carmelite order, Teresa seems to have found in this sisterhood a source to justify her own mixed vocation.

The Samaritan woman at the well also appears throughout Teresa’s work, and she, like the Mary-Martha dyad, serves as a dual model of the receptive seeker and mobile leader. As a woman from an outsider group, she may also have provided a corollary to Teresa’s “converso” ancestry.

The final female figure treated at length by Teresa is the bride in the divine marriage of the Song of Songs. In this woman, perhaps more than any other, Teresa found a suitable model of intimate devotion to Christ, the heavenly “Spouse.”

Meditations.

In the seven chapters that comprise her “Meditations on the Song of Songs,” Teresa reflects upon just five biblical verses (Song 1:2; 2:3–5) and presents her hermeneutic most directly. In the Prologue, she explains that her delight and understanding of the Song have been miraculous. While learned men toil to make sense of biblical conundrums, she later explains, “women have need of no more than what is sufficient for their meditations” and can be confident in God’s providence: “When His Majesty desires to give us understanding of the words, without worry or work on our part, we shall surely find it” (Teresa of Avila, 1980, Vol. 2, p. 217). She also explains that such understanding might be idiosyncratic: “I interpret the passage in my own way, even though my understanding of it may not be in accord with what is meant. For if we do not depart from what the church and saints hold (which is why learned men who understand the matter will examine this carefully before you see it), the Lord gives us license … ” (p. 219). Thus, though she follows the structure of biblical commentaries—biblical verse, followed by discussion—Teresa does not present her text as exegesis per se. Rather, she is only providing intuitions for use by weak women in their private meditations. Again, what Weber (1990) identifies as a strategic “rhetoric of femininity” appears to be at work.

The substance and structure of the “Meditations” are in keeping with Teresa’s other works on prayer: describing degrees of intimacy with God, culminating with divine union. Christ appears in the Song as the divine Spouse, but also, in Teresa’s reading, as a nursing mother—avoiding attribution of the fragrant breasts (Song 1:2) to the Bride. Teresa’s spiritualized interpretation thus enables her to defuse highly sexual imagery and guard her own authorial chastity.

Her gloss on the Song retains some potentially subversive elements, however, as feminist scholars have argued. This potential is most evident in Teresa’s proposal of the Virgin Mary and the Samaritan woman as a pair of models for reading the Bible. Mary emerges as a model because, in her response to the Annunciation, she is humble and embraces mystery. While some scholars emphasize Mary’s silent humility (see Kavanaugh’s Introduction to “Meditations,” in Teresa of Avila, 1980, Vol. 2, p. 210), Weber’s feminist reading also highlight’s Mary’s intuitive response to mystery (1986, pp. 31–32). The Samaritan woman serves as a second interpretive role model in that she is receptive to Christ, enjoys “divine intoxication” (Teresa of Avila, 1980, Vol. 2, p. 258), and broadcasts news of Jesus to her community. “What amazes me,” Teresa concludes, “is to see how the people believed her—a woman” (p. 258). The author thus closes her meditations with an argument, by analogy, that a woman like herself should also be free both to take delight in mystical union with God and to travel, write, and lead.

This argument is made in Teresa’s “Spiritual Testimonies,” as well. As she wonders about the rightness of “go[ing] out to found monasteries,” Teresa receives this locution: “While one is alive, progress doesn’t come from trying to enjoy Me more but by trying to do My will.” Teresa reports having been torn, because she had also heard “what St. Paul said about the enclosure of women.” Her ambivalence is resolved, however, when God then says, “Tell them they shouldn’t follow just one part of Scripture but that they should look at other parts, and ask them if they can by chance tie my hands” (Teresa of Avila, 1980, Vol. 2, p. 393). Teresa’s God thus endorses scriptural authority but also exceeds it.

The only woman to have written publicly about the biblical love song prior to the twentieth century, Teresa anticipates objections to her “Meditations.” She defends herself by stating that she writes at the direct order of her censoring superiors; emphasizing the audience and purpose for which she writes as feminine and devotional; explaining that the “lofty words” of the text “take place between God and the soul” and therefore, being mysterious, should not startle her readers (Teresa of Avila, 1980, Vol. 2, p. 219); and, most subversively, by advancing a responsive, feminine model of interpretation. It was likely the mere fact that she, a woman, dared to write about the biblical love song that led to her text’s suppression by the Inquisition, and in 1580 she destroyed the manuscript herself, in obedience to one of her confessors. Copies were already in circulation among the Carmelites, however, and these were judiciously protected.

Legacy.

Teresa’s “Meditations” were thus censored, and her oeuvre remained under review by the Inquisition for decades, but she managed to avoid personal prosecution and achieve lasting spiritual and literary influence. Her writings have inspired spiritual devotion by women and men for more than three centuries and spawned a significant body of scholarly work. Critical attention has increased with the advent of feminist scholarly approaches, and Teresa remains of great interest to both spiritual disciples and scholars. Like the Bible, in which she found freedom for various interpretations, Teresa’s own writing remains open, inspiring, and productive of diverse readings.

Bibliography

References

  • Slade, Carole. “Saint Teresa’s ‘Meditaciones sobre los Cantares’: The Hermeneutics of Humility and Enjoyment.” Religion and Literature 18, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 27–44. Argues that Teresa’s “Meditations on the Song of Songs” presents an interpretive model that affirms women’s active participation in church work.
  • Slade, Carole. St. Teresa of Avila: Author of a Heroic Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Emphasizes Teresa’s autobiographical writings as efforts to craft a persona both heroic and nonthreatening to the established church. Chapter 2 (“Teresa’s Feminist Figural Readings of Scripture,” pp. 39–64) is especially relevant.
  • Teresa of Avila, Saint. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. 3 vols. Translated and edited by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Washington, D.C.: ICS Pubs., 1976, 1980, 1985. Presents very readable translations of Teresa’s major and minor works, excluding her letters. Editors provide substantial critical and reference material (introductions and notes, indexes, catalogs of biblical references, chronology, and map of Teresa’s travels).
  • Weber, Alison. Teresa de Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. Employs historical and sociolinguistic analysis of Teresa’s writings to argue that she deliberately employed a writing style perceived to be feminine in order to avoid Inquisitional censure. Highly influential on more recent scholarship.

Further Reading

  • Ahlgren, Gillian T. W. Teresa of Avila and the Politics of Sanctity. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996. Examines Teresa in her sociopolitical context, highlighting the political perils and controversy surrounding her life, writing, and posthumous path to canonization.
  • Alvarez, Tómas. Saint Teresa of Avila: 100 Themes on Her Life and Work. Translated by. Kieran Kavanaugh. Washington, D.C.: ICS Pubs., 2011. Provides a glance at a wide range of themes in Teresa’s life and writing. Imperfectly edited, but a useful English overview by the leading Spanish Carmelite scholar of Teresa.
  • Chorpenning, Joseph F. “St. Teresa of Avila as Allegorist: Chapters 11–22 of the Libro de la Vida.” Studia Mystica 9, no. 1 (1986): 3–22. Compares Teresa’s allegory of the four ways to water a garden in “The Book of Her Life” to Augustine’s use of biblical allegory in The Confessions. Treats Teresa’s allegory as an elaboration of the biblical garden of Eden.
  • Mujica, Barbara. “Beyond Image: The Apophatic-Kataphatic Dialectic in Teresa de Avila. Hispania 84, no. 4 (2001): 741–748. Considers Teresa’s engagement with both apophatic (positive) and kataphatic (negative) spiritual traditions. Argues that Teresa understood God as dwelling beyond language and imagination but appreciated the practical value of word and image for the devotional life.
  • Swietlicki, Catherine. “Writing ‘Femystic’ Space: In the Margins of Saint Teresa’s Castillo Interior.” Journal of Hispanic Philology 13, no. 3 (1989): 273–293. Combines feminist psychoanalytic methods with attention to sociocultural context in a reading of the interplay between place and space in “The Interior Castle.”
  • Tucker, W. Dennis, Jr. “How Mystics Hear the Song.” Christian Reflection 17 (2005): 20–28. Situates Teresa’s treatment of the Song of Songs in relation to other medieval mystics and argues that she advocates a “moral reading.”

Sheila Hassell Hughes