Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review and Thoughts on "Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul"

I've just finished reading Cathleen Medwick's book Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul. I picked it up at my parish library, simply because it was about this foundress of the Discalced Carmelites, my spiritual madre.

When I read the first bit and realized that the author's perspective was as a secular non-believer, I briefly considered setting it aside, but quickly decided against that. I didn't at all perceive that this book disrespected the supernatural dimension of Teresa's life, nor was there a strong attempt to re-cast her as a New Age heroine or a raging feminist. In other words, it aimed at accurate  history, not a political re-writing of history. There were times when it seemed the author was mystified at what faith could have grasped, but perhaps that made her perspective all the more valuable to me as a reader.

But I was intrigued by her initial discussion of how mysticism, and particularly Teresa's mysticism, has been perceived by secular scholars. (This perhaps gave secular readers the chance to use these views as interpretive guides along the way.) It boils down to basically two views, or more likely a combination of them: Teresa was either somewhere between psychologically unhealthy and mentally ill, and/or she suffered from sexual repression that found its outlet in spiritual imaginings.

It's not that this perspective was news to me. I seem to remember encountering this reasoning when I studied mysticism way back when, before I was a Catholic. And even in Teresa's day she was accused of stuff like this to her face.

At one point in the book, as I inserted myself into the historical moment and pitted her experiences against the array of responses to her, I suddenly felt myself cast into the same moment of decision that her contemporaries must have felt (with the difference of historical finality being on her side). It seemed to me that believing Teresa was indeed a saint and worthy of the title Doctor of the Church was subjectively more of an act of faith than believing that Jesus rose from the dead.

It was simply interesting for me to bump up against this non-believing perspective right now because I've encountered my own taste of this reasoning in my own experience. It is simply good to be able to look at mi madre and know I'm not alone. To be able to feel like a miniature, a daughter, next to a great woman who suffered through worse makes me feel happy.

In fact, I'm realizing that for all the stuff I've experienced in the last couple of years that has felt like the end of the world, the most and the heaviest at the time that I could endure -- if this all was to lead me to this point where I am becoming a Secular Carmelite and can call myself a daughter of St. Teresa -- if all the rest of my life is simply quiet and pedestrian, it has all been worth it simply to have this great honor.

She was a busy woman, that's for sure. Personally, I still resonate a bit more with St. John of the Cross for his intensity, his scholarliness and his reserve, but St. Teresa gives me that assurance that hard work and even terseness in relationships (along with great tenderness, and complexity) is not foreign matter to a holy life.

Holy Mother Teresa, pray for me!

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