The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila
by Carlos Eire,
Princeton, 280pp, £22/$26.95
This incisive, insightful book gets to the heart of the matter about St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). The author is professor of history and religious studies at Yale University; but he wears his learning lightly and writes wittily, weightily and warmly about St Teresa, a Doctor of the Church.
Also known as Teresa de Jesus, she was a 16th-century Carmelite nun who lived in Ávila, a walled city in central Spain. Her mother died when she was 13 years old.
Her parents were virtuous, so sure enough she “began to awaken to piety … at around the age of five or six”. In November 1536, she became a novice and donned the habit of a Carmelite nun. There were no fewer than eight daily prayers. Despite her family’s wealth she also had to perform routine tasks such as cooking and cleaning. “These menial tasks were lessons in humility,” she later reflected. “The Lord walks among the pots and pans in the kitchen.”
She fell ill in her early twenties and her father removed her from the convent in the hope of finding a cure. She became so weak that she received the Last Rites, but she recovered and returned to the community; although she abandoned silent prayer.
In 1555, an image of Christ was brought to the convent. This inspired her and she begged for Jesus’s help, asking him to “strengthen her once and for all”.
The book includes fascinating chapters about how artists such as Bernini interpreted her life. Another chapter gives intriguing insights into her influence on later figures including St Thérèse of Lisieux;St Edith Stein, the Auschwitz martyr; and Dorothy Day, the American social activist.
This is an important, though occasionally sensationalistic, tribute to a great saint by an intelligent, erudite and humane author. Beautifully illustrated and typeset, it would make a handsome present.