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Reflections on the work of St Teresa of Avila

TERESA OF AVILA, DOCTOR OF THE SOUL: Peter Tyler; Bloomsbury, London, 2014; $39.99

Reviewed by Terry Oberg

THIS is not a chronological narrative.

The background to St Teresa’s writing and mystical thought, the content of her four main works and some modern psychological insights combine to form the body of this study.

Within this framework, her life is depicted with its paradoxes, controversies, service and humility.

More so than some of her saintly brothers and sisters, her innate common sense is also apparent.

This is highlighted by her condemnation of the abuses of religion, particularly the self-deception that is never far from even the best intentions.

Looming large like an enveloping shadow over her 67 years is the inquisition.

Her early writings are deferential to the “learned gentlemen” who stalked Europe.

She is under no illusion as to her own ambiguous position, the scrutiny of which grew as she set out to establish her reformed convents.

Her early emphasis on the necessity of good works could easily be a show of orthodoxy when the Reformation leaders were probing doctrine and theology.

This is not to question her sincerity.

Growing confidence led to her becoming more comfortable in her relationship with the inquisitors who became aware that what she offered was a path between fundamentalist iconoclasm and their negative reactionary behaviour.

It is one of the author’s strengths that he is able to capture the characteristics of this middle way.

One of Peter Tyler’s main interests is in the literary style Teresa adopted.

Try as he might, he never explains it satisfactorily.

Teresa’s concern is to communicate to her audience what Holy Scripture tells us is incommunicable.

To capture the essence of the human-divine relationship, Teresa eschewed established literary techniques.

She spiced her vocabulary with Castilian slang, jargon and the idiom she knew was accessible to her people.

In her Interior Castle, she quickly dispensed with the term “mystical.” It was too “high falutin” as one of her liberal translators expressed it.

However in attempting to evaluate this literary style the author comes close to trying to justify the unjustifiable.

He admits much of her native language is difficult to render in English, citing the different meanings that various scholars have read in to her original scripts.

Despite these considerable obstacles, Tyler thinks her message has been communicated accurately.

Her ideas on the mystical life, with her particular emphasis on detachment, in the hands of this author, are clear and practical. Her call to reform is presented dramatically, including the personal observation that before she could interfere in the disturbed world of her order, she had to amend her own ways.

Her early religious life featured “finery and the desire to please and look pretty, taking great care of my hands and hair”.

Perfumes and empty things attested to her vanity.

Her zeal transformed convents into models of communal love and renunciation of all worldly foppery.

Tyler uses established translations and his own insight to make this spiritual revolution plausible and heroic.

As is his custom, he ends his study by putting his subject’s thought under psychological examination.

He uses Carl Jung as his sounding board to effectively demonstrate that what this revered woman wrote 500 years ago is still regarded today as a sound way to describe the tantalising relationship between God and man.

Some recent canonisations were speedy and untimely. They did the notion of sanctity no great service.

Tyler’s presentation of the struggles and accomplishments of a woman whose humanity is just as obvious as her holiness might restore virtue to its rightful place in Christian thought.

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