Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul

ISBN: 0385501293
ISBN 13: 9780385501293
By: Cathleen Medwick

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About this book

A refreshingly modern reconsideration of Saint Teresa (1515-1582), one of the greatest mystics and reformers to emerge within the sixteenth-century Catholic Church, whose writings are a keystone of modern mystical thought.From the very beginning of her life in a convent, following the death of her mother and the marriage of her older sister, it was clear that Teresa's expansive nature, intensity, and energy would not be easily confined. 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.        In this fascinating account Cathleen Medwick reveals Teresa as both more complex and more comprehensible than she has seemed in the past. She illuminates for us the devout and worldly woman behind the centuries-old iconography of the saint.From the Hardcover edition.

Reader's Thoughts


Okay- This isn't my usual read, but I liked this. History stuff can be dull (and the level of detail is tedious in this one sometimes) but then again, sometimes it reads like a crazy Spanish soap opera. Picture friars kidnapping one another, nuns barricading themselves in from angry mobs after nightfall...and this:-A pervasive odor of sanctity (smells like lilies, apparently) was noticed emanating from Saint Teresa immediately after she died. This was attested to all the attending nuns EXCEPT for the one that had sinus problems.This leaves me wondering several things: -If sanctity smells like lilies, what does humility smell like? Tea roses? How about sanctimoniousness or charity? -A nun on the verge of death was cured when Teresa passed on. Was this some kind of holy triage? After all, she bypassed the one with the sinus problems. What's a girl got to do to get medical attention around here?There are some surprisingly modern-day parallels easily seen in the nonstop manueverings of Teresa and her contemporaries. On the other hand, it's hard to figure out what was going on with her and her recurrent ecstacies. She had such an interestingly bland view of them. All in all, quite a character- such a blend of spiritual and practical matters. What a gal.

Mary Kay

I read this book in preparation for a visit to the walled (11th century) town of Avila, Spain in February. Teresa was a Carmelite nun, a 16th century Renaissance mystic, a spirited woman who struggled while speaking freely and navigating the male world of 16th century European Catholic Church. She is Spain's most important female saint andthe first woman named Doctor of the Church. Great background for my visit to Avila.


remarkably readable and interesting. i'm enjoying this


I had to return this to the library, I'll pick it up again sometime.

Chris Zinn

This difficult, plodding biography covers the life of St. Teresa of Avila, Spain (not Mother Teresa of Calcutta). If you've read "Angels and Demons" by Dan Brown, you might remember St. Teresa being depicted in the statue by Bernini, in the midst of what appears to be a "toe-curling orgasm". I thought that sounded a bit much, but after reading St. Teresa's own description of the vision that led to the image, I think Bernini nailed it. Teresa definitely had some issues. Her relationship with God is patently carnal, and the "maladies" she suffered, according to modern medical professionals, were largely psychosomatic. Were she alive today, she would be undoubtedly considered mentally/emotionally unstable. But in context, given the choices for wealthy Spanish women in the 16th century (slavish marriage or a nunnery), coupled with the prevailing climate of extreme religiosity of the era, she seems less insane and more just an eccentric. Frequently prone to spontaneous raptures (sometimes transfixed for hours), and apt to speak her mind in a time where women were strongly discouraged from doing so, Teresa was an extremely provocative figure - not the wisest course in the midst of the Inquisition. Still, her leadership, skills of persuasion, and remarkable fortitude gave her divine inspirations the chance to be realized. Her reform of the Carmelite order and her autobiography each stand as monuments to her industry and rigorous self-examination. This book is a tough slog - not difficult, just rote and surprisingly pedantic, given the subject matter. The author takes a slightly mocking tone to her subject, an off-putting (if somewhat understandable) choice. If you're interested in understanding her relationship with God, I imagine that reading Teresa's autobiography would be a better option.

Kristin Stephens

A fascinating life, but a slow read.


Wonderful biography of a fascinating woman. I really enjoyed the presentation style the book takes: the book is absolutely not a religious text or some sort of guide to prayer, and yet chooses to present her spiritual experiences without excessive modern comment or secular qualifications either. It reads vividly -- I had a hard time putting it down. That said, it was hard to keep track of every figure in the book; one remembers St John of the Cross and the mad Princess of Elba of course, but many of the others will likely go forgotten.Most importantly, the book splendidly shows her development both spiritually and as a driven leader, determined to push her reforms through within the Carmelite order. Her struggles and worries followed her constantly throughout her life as she worried about the spiritual (the favors of God, the progress of prayer, and the meanings of her frequent raptures) and as she struggles with the more mundane: funding for her convents, political battles with the Spanish nobility, etc. She really only felt at peace in the last few years of her life. Her, a Saint, who undoubtedly triumphed in both Spiritual and Earthly matters in the end.


This was my carry-along book, meaning I read it in bits and pieces--perhaps not the best way to read this title but I did enjoy it. Not that that was hard. I already admired St. Teresa's spirit after studying her "Way of Perfection" and found myself admiring her even more after reading this biography.


An interesting person but there are definitely more interesting bios of her.


** spoiler alert ** this is kind of an odd book, but a truly fascinating one. i think perhaps the easiest summary of it would be, "do you know that dirty statue by bernini? well, this book is about that saint. unfortunately her ecstasies often ended up helping her solve administrative problems, rather than something more salacious."anyway, it was a nice book to read during lent - st. teresa is, in my estimation, a wonderfully lenten saint.


Ultimately this book is just boring. Beyond that I think I was disappointed because it wasn't what I was looking for. Lionizes Teresa of Avila without any discussion of what makes her different than any other person from the sixteenth century with strange views on the world. In particular, this book seems to really skirt the way she threatened the Church and came up against the Inquisition, in favor of focusing on her bizarre religious practices and chronic illnesses. Totally one dimensional.


I have learned that our inner life is far more important and a key to happiness than our outer one.


Didn't finish it.


So far an interesting biography....not sure if I will get through it, but the author has a very engaging writing style. We'll see....

Fictionista Du Jour

Historically based biography of my favorite saint.

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