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As the years passed, Teresa "began to be aware of the natural attributes which the Lord had given me -- which people said were considerable." (Or as the French biographer Louis Bertrand put it in 1927, "She was beautiful. And she knew it.") Teresa de Ahumada was a magnet for attention, a sociable girl who could never help liking people, as long as they liked her. She wore dangling earrings and ropy necklaces, dabbed on perfume, and piled her hair on top of her head in the style of the young empress Isabella of Portugal. "I began to wear fancy things, since I wanted to be attractive, and to fuss with my hands and my hair," she writes. "I used perfumes and all the silly baubles I could get hold of -- not a few, because I was very particular." On occasion -- say, a festival or a family entertainment -- she put on something dramatic (that celestial orange dress, with its black velvet braid) and danced a galliard or a pavane. Her lively young cousins often came to visit; in the name of hospitality, Alonso couldn't turn them away, even though he frowned on gaiety. But one of these relatives turned out to be a schemer. From the few hints dropped in Teresa's Vida (which makes short work of her early years), it sounds as if this woman engineered a flirtation between the girl and a male cousin (only Vita Sackville-West suspects a female one), with a servant as go-between. People began to talk.
Teresa says she almost lost her honor, or honra -- a word that could mean many things. It virtually always meant family pride or reputation (no sixteenth-century Spaniard distinguished between the two). To an Old Christian, honra also meant limpieza de sangre, innate nobilitythat informed all behavior, from simple manners to deportment in battle. To a moralist, it had to include the idea of integrity, an inviolable code of conduct. To a teenage girl, honra hinged on chastity, the basis for the world's opinion of her and for what today might be called her self-esteem. Honra was always fragile, "a clear, transparent glass," as the playwright and poet Lope de Vega wrote: "A breath's enough to cloud it over." Teresa explains in the Vida how the devil tempted her so that she almost lost her honra, but how her good inclinations (which she understood to be a gift from heaven) prevailed.
That wasn't quite enough for Alonso. He had lost his wife; his prim older daughter, María, Teresa's half sister, had just married and left home. Clearly the young girl could not be left without a female watchdog. It was the summer of 1531. Teresa was sixteen and in her glory. There was a lot going on that would keep her from serious pursuits -- for example, the arrival of Empress Isabella and her three-year-old son, Prince Philip, who had come to Avila to ceremonially exchange his childish clothes for the regal ones befitting the heir to the Spanish throne. These were boom times for Spain. Charles V's empire, his Habsburg birthright, encompassed much of Europe, including Naples and Milan. Across the seas, Hernán Cortés had conquered Mexico; Francisco Pizarro was making inroads into Peru. The city of Avila was poised to embark on months of festivities to mark the young prince's investiture -- glamorous processions and other royal fanfare -- and there was nothing Teresa enjoyed more. That was when Alonso decided to pack her off to a nearby Augustinian convent that ran a kind of finishing school for genteel young woman boarders, preparing them for a devout domestic life. Alonso handled the situation delicately. If he hadn't, the rumors about his daughter might have spun out of control. "This was done in such a discreet way," she explains, "that only I and a relative knew about it, because they waited for the perfect moment, when no one would think it was strange." The moment came right after María's wedding, "when it wasn't appropriate for me to be left on my own, without a mother."
Teresa couldn't have been glad to go away, although she writes that she was fed up with her own reckless behavior. She had never stopped wanting to be good. So in the middle of everything, Avila's celebrations and her own exuberant sortie into womanhood, she went off to live the life of a nun.
Posted February 2, 2009
I greatly enjoyed reading Cathleen Medwick's extraordinarily detailed biography of Saint Teresa of Avila. Saint Teresa shines forth as a fascinating historical figure in TERESA OF AVILA: THE PROGRESS OF A SOUL because she seemed to have an innate ability to continually seek the highest possible spiritual path throughout her life. Whenever temptation arose, she was willing to do whatever might be necessary to right herself again -- regardless whether the form of temptation or evil took human or supernatural form. Medwick maintains a detached tone throughout this riveting story, which provides one with a better idea of what it was like to live in Saint Teresa's time (with the Inquisition wreaking havoc in the lives of some spiritual people). Descriptions of how Teresa must have felt as she experienced amazing spiritual epiphanies are handled with grace and aplomb by Medwick, who shares the facts without ever stooping to speculation nor overly exalting Teresa. I highly recommend this book to anyone wishing to better understand what life was like for a spiritual woman in 16th century Europe whose utmost desire was to be as close to God as possible.
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Posted April 3, 2000
As a Third Order (lay) Carmelite, I am pleased with Catherine Medwick's even-handed treatment of this towering saint of our order. She writes with balance and wit about Teresa's spiritual and secular journeys, setting them against the background of Spain's most colorful century. I kept expecting a kind of ironic sneering in her approach to Teresa, since the saint is often misunderstood and even open to caricature by those unfamiliar with Carmel, but instead I found a careful and sensitive portrayal of this woman whose character and life were both extremely simple, and wondrously complex. I salute Medwick for a scholarly book that is a page-turner as well!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.