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The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila by…

The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila

by Saint Teresa, of Avila

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This is an immeasurably valuable book. It contains an outline of Teresa's understanding of the four levels of contemplative prayer, and it includes the vivid account of overwhelming charismatic experiences and 'locutions' which were a distinctive part of her own spiritual life - including the famous piercing of her heart by an angel's spear, radically transcribed in Bernini's extraordinary sculpture in Rome. For the most part, however, it is simply a description of the development of her spiritual life during the first quarter-century of her life as a Carmelite nun; for twenty years conventionally so - and then, after what she describes as a vivid conversion experience at the age of forty, as one of the pioneers of reform and renewal not only within her own Order, but in the whole of counter-Reformation Spain.
What is striking about her account is the way in which she does not dwell on the spiritual 'phenomena' themselves: she is forthright about how 'it makes me sick to listen' when intelligent people complain that they have not experienced 'sensations'. Rather - and it is surely this which is really the basis of her genuine spiritual greatness - she guides us back, time and again, to the very ordinary exercise of the spiritual disciplines to which we have committed ourselves (our 'Rule'), the fulfilment of charity (especially towards those whom we perceive to have wronged us), and, in particular, in the exploration of the spirit (and, it has to be said, the actuality) of poverty. That is to say: her understanding of the spiritual life is that its core is the practice of love, in a spirit of poverty. These are, of course, the fundamental precepts of the Gospel itself - and again and again it is to the Gospel that Teresa directs us: her whole interpretation of herself and of her experience is as an exegesis of the Scriptures. For Teresa, much of this had to be worked out against a background of frequent poor health, and one of the themes of the book is the way in which, this, too, has been a means through which she has found grace and blessing - 'but I shall not be surprised,' she says in a typically spirited aside, 'if the inexperienced think it nonsense'! So part of what this book is about is the discernment of spirits, especially in situations where things are not working out very well.
Teresa's style is effusive, chatty, and spontaneous: she often turns from the thread of her narrative on digressions which can be very long and tangential; some people find this aspect of her self-expression to be untidy and irritating - there was a time when I thought so too - but they are, in fact, what make this text deeply human and humane. Do not - she asserts, for example - overburden yourself with exercises which are beyond what is reasonable, or which are beyond what anyone has expected of you; do not go to excess; do not seek sensational 'experiences' - keep close to the psalms and the scriptures and the assurance of the presence of Christ; and above all, be kind and gracious, as best you can. This down-to-earth quality is hugely attractive - and loses none of its pertinence in a world today where many seek spiritual gratification instead of the plodding exercise of mutual goodness in the here-and-now. There is a beautiful image which she shares with us of Mary and Martha co-operating with each other: recognising that many 'spiritual' people will perhaps look down on Martha, Teresa asserts in a remarkable discourse on these two women that none of us should aspire to be like Mary (the 'contemplative') until we have become fully reconciled to the Martha within ourselves. This seems to me to be absolutely characteristic of Teresa's understanding of the life of the Gospel - that the 'spiritual' is not in any way an escape from the practical; and our own 'spirituality' must be embodied, and 'incarnational', and grounded on planet earth: 'we are not angels, but have bodies', as she emphatically puts it!
Teresa has a huge respect for the office of preaching, and for the work of the theologians: she sometimes laments that they are not as devout as they might be, but is always at pains to recognise in them the charism which they, too, have been given: in this way she models, particularly, a spirit of conciliation and mutual grace even in the face of the enormous criticism and opposition which she sometimes received from these people - and it is all detailed here. So too are exquisite and tender portraits of some of the other great figures of the period - her admiration for people like the hugely venerable Franciscan, Pedro de Alcántara, is warm and affectionate; her later relationship with John of the Cross was to become, of course, one of the great phenomena of the age.
The Autobiography reaches its conclusion with a detailed account of the establishment in central Ávila of the small convent of St Joseph - the first of the foundations which marked the beginning of the return of the Carmelite Order in Spain to an embodiment of its strict Rule. It is a fitting point for this book to end (the process of reform which continued through the rest of Teresa's life is detailed more specifically in her equally wonderful 'Book of Foundations') - because the autobiography is essentially about the movement of the spirit - the rekindling of fervour - which can take place in any one of us, and which does not require withdrawal from the world: as Teresa puts it eloquently in the autobiography (paraphrasing the prophet), 'When you are strong, it may be that the Spirit will lead you into the desert' - but the tracking of the desert, and of the kind of life which can be nurtured there and come into radiant bloom, is really another kind of subject. But the two books complement and complete each other, and the later book is a powerful account of the practical implementation of the principles which Teresa explores first of all here.
This is a wonderful book, in which Teresa comes fully to life; and it continues to help many of us, even now, come to life too, with this amazing and wonderful woman. Peace to her! ( )
  readawayjay | Aug 22, 2011 |
St. Teresa's life is filled with spiritual inspiration and instruction. She resonates with me in a way I cannot share publicly, but her influence and closeness helped me and does to this day, in times of doubts, suffering, and as I grow older. She expresses the human aspect of holiness in a functional, practical, yet poetic manifestation of love. She is an accessible saint!
  catholichermit | Feb 5, 2009 |
Review on the Blog a Penguin Classic website: http://www.blogapenguinclassic.co.uk/site/pc_ReadReview.php5?review_id=332 ( )
  mari_reads | Jul 23, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Saint Teresa, of Avilaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lewis, DavidTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Peers, E. AllisonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140440739, Paperback)

Written at the command of her confessors, the books of this 16th century Spanish saint and mystic (a beloved friend to another great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross), St. Teresa's writings remain classics of Christian mysticism. Less abstract and theoretical than her friend, Teresa's works are no less noteworthy for the brilliance of their ability to convey with both warmth and rigor some flavor of this most extraordinary experience: union with God. Her autobiography may well be the best entry point into her work and into the great mystical literature of the Christian church. Here she describes her early life and education, the conflicts and crisis she underwent, culminating in her determination to enter fully into the path of prayer. Following a description of the contemplative life, which she explores in four stages, she returns to her own life in order to describe (in erotic language reminiscent of the Song of Songs) the ecstatic experiences given to her by God.

If the idea of mysticism seems hopelessly otherworldly to you, try a taste of St. Teresa, who can be as down to earth as Oprah--and sometimes just as amusing. --Doug Thorpe

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:18 -0400)

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"She was the last person anyone would have expected to become a nun, yet she became one of the most celebrated nuns of all time. She was a brilliant administrator in a world where such vocations were all but closed to women. And above all, she combined an astonishing proclivity for ecstatic union with God with down-to-earth practicality and good humor. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) is one of the most beloved of the Catholic saints. Her texts of spiritual instruction, such as The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection, speak so plainly and eloquently about the interior life that they have become undisputed classics, studied by people of many faiths. In 1562, during the era of the Spanish Inquisition, Teresa sat down to write an account of the mystical experiences for which she had become famous. The result was this book, one of the great classics of spiritual autobiography." "With this translation of The Book of My Life, Mirabai Starr brings the Spanish mystic to life for a new generation, with contemporary English that mirrors Teresa's own earthy, vernacular Spanish, and that presents us with - four centuries after Teresa's death - someone we feel we know: a woman intoxicated with love for God yet filled with an overflowing love for the world."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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