Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul


Cathleen Medwick shows us a powerful daughter of the Church and her times who was a very human mass of contradictions: a practical and no-nonsense manager, and yet a flamboyant and intrepid presence who bent the rules of monastic life to accomplish her work - while managing to stay one step ahead of the Inquisition. And she exhibited a very personal brand of spirituality, often experiencing raptures of an unorthodox, arguably erotic, nature that left her frozen in one position for hours, unable to speak. Out of a...
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Cathleen Medwick shows us a powerful daughter of the Church and her times who was a very human mass of contradictions: a practical and no-nonsense manager, and yet a flamboyant and intrepid presence who bent the rules of monastic life to accomplish her work - while managing to stay one step ahead of the Inquisition. And she exhibited a very personal brand of spirituality, often experiencing raptures of an unorthodox, arguably erotic, nature that left her frozen in one position for hours, unable to speak. Out of a concern for her soul and her reputation, her superiors insisted that she account for every voice and vision, as well as the sins that might have engendered them, thus giving us the account of her life that is now considered a literary masterpiece.. "Medwick makes it clear that Teresa considered her major work the reform of the Carmelites, an enterprise requiring all her considerable persuasiveness and her talent for administration. We see her moving about Spain with the assurance (if not the authority) of a man, in spite of debilitating illness, to establish communities of nuns who lived scrupulously devout lives, without luxuries. In an era when women were seldom taken seriously, she even sought and received permission to found two religious houses for men.
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Editorial Reviews

Medwick's book has the pace of a political thriller.
Christianity Today
Medwich's Teresa brings a refreshing balance to the picture of the great saint of Avila...[she] tells Teresa's complex story with respect and verve.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A fascination with what she calls the "journey" of the 16th-century Spanish saint sustains Medwick's disappointing biography of Teresa of Avila. The saint was both a profound searcher of the self who succumbed to rapturous interludes and a harried organization freak who struggled to bring about her vision of cloistered community while buffeted by illness and accusations. Medwick, a former editor for Vogue and Vanity Fair, rightly characterizes Teresa as "a daughter of the church," but her laudatory effort to situate her subject in the religious culture of contemporary Spain falls short of its objective. Medwick's Teresa is domesticated and ahistorical, disconnected from the world in which she lived. Medwick eschews analysis for summary, resulting in a rather superficial portrait of the saint. Far too often, also, it is unclear whose voice we are hearing, Medwick's or Teresa's. Unfortunately, the "journey" that Medwick recounts here is far less complex and penetrating than Teresa's actual one, as revealed by her life and writings. (Dec.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A dozen biographies on Spanish reformer and mystic St. Teresa of Avila 1515-82, were published in English in the 1990s testifying to her enduring attraction. Tracing the indomitable Teresa's own writings, Medwick an editor at Vogue and House & Garden recounts the Carmelite nun's efforts to establish new convents throughout Spain while dealing with misunderstandings, illnesses, politics, and treachery. Clear writing in a modern idiom marks this well-researched biography, unencumbered by heavy footnoting. The author's long admiration for her subject is evident in her deft handling of the saint's many complexities. A map and chronology would have enhanced the text, and the occasional slip Teresa would not be "saying Mass" is easily overlooked in the wealth of seamless information provided. This is a good introduction to a fascinating personality by a non-Catholic who leaves others to probe Teresa's spirituality and theology more deeply. Recommended for general collections.--Anna M. Donnelly, St. John's Univ., Jamaica, NY Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Editor and feature writer Medwick reconsiders one of the greatest mystics and reformers to emerge within the 16th century Catholic Church. She portrays Saint Teresa as a no-nonsense manager who bent the rules of monastic life to accomplish her work while managing to stay one step ahead of the Inquisition. She makes it clear that Teresa considered her major work the reform of the Carmelites, and shows Teresa moving about Spain<-->in spite of debilitating illness<-->to establish communities of nuns and two religious houses for men. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Aaron Gell
Saint Teresa of Avila's status as status as the patron saint headache sufferers is generally attributed to her history of poor health, but to judge by Cathleen Medwick's elegantly written new biography, it was the figurative migraines—the bureaucratic red tape, the travel mishaps, the ill-timed ecstasies—that really vexed the legendary mystic.
Time Out New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780756787288
  • Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 3/28/2005
  • Pages: 282

Meet the Author

Cathleen Medwick, an inveterate New Yorker,  lives on a small farm in northern Westchester County. She has worked as a features editor for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Mirabella, and, most recently, House & Garden, for which she is now a contributing editor. Her feature articles and book reviews have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Mirabella, Vogue, House & Garden, Vanity Fair, and Elle.

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Read an Excerpt

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.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Fascinating Historical Account of a Female Saint

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2000

    Through Carmelite eyes

    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!

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