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Doctrix Teresa: A Churchly Theologian
By Timothy George

This year marks the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, best known to history as St. Teresa of Ávila. A sixteenth-century Spanish reformer and spiritual writer, in 1970 she became the first female named as a Doctor of the Catholic Church. A friend and devotee of St. John of the Cross, Teresa is often depicted as the patron saint of Catholic Reformation spirituality. In recent years, a number of Protestant thinkers have begun to study Teresa, not only as a famous mystic but as a genuine theologian in her own right. One of these is Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who published a book about Teresa in 1991. Another is Elizabeth Newman, a Baptist ecumenical theologian, whose 2012 book, Attending the Wounds on Christ’s Body: Teresa’s Scriptural Vision, examines Teresa’s theology and spirituality with special attention to what all Christians, Protestants no less than Catholics, can learn from her about Christian unity today.

Teresa came from a large family, with nine brothers and three sisters. Having lost her mother at the age of twelve, Teresa faced many alluring temptations in her adolescence. She was flighty, flirty, and given to trendy fashions and profane books. Her time in a convent school run by Augustinian nuns helped to wean her from such frivolities. At the age of twenty, she became associated with the Carmelite Order. After that, however, her religious life was anything but smooth or straightforward. She became ill and nearly died. She underwent a series of crises, with confessors and spiritual counselors who gave her contrary advice. At times she despaired of God and experienced what would likely be called today a form of severe depression.

When she was thirty-nine years of age, a turning point came when she was drawn to the statue of “a very wounded Christ.” The image of the crucified Savior transformed her. At the same time, she was drawn to the Confessions of St. Augustine and found her own story in that of the great theologian of grace. “It happened,” she wrote, “that all of a sudden I had a sense of the presence of God, which in no way could I doubt was within me or that I was all absorbed in him.”

Unlike the redoubtable Catherine of Siena—who was also recognized as a doctor ecclesiae in 1970—Teresa was neither a counselor to popes nor an entrepreneur among society’s movers and shakers. Her paternal grandfather had been a conversos, a Spanish Jew who in 1492 was compelled to embrace Christianity rather than face exile. Thus Teresa could not boast the “pure blood” so valued as a sign of honor and status in her world. As a woman who became the teacher of others, she also lived under the shadow of the Inquisition. It is not hard to see how her account of prayer as an intimate friendship with Christ could be read as the rantings of one of the alumbrados, the “enlightened ones” whose private revelations of the divine flouted the ordinary means of grace.

In fact, the image of Teresa as the ecstatic visionary is the one that most people have in mind when they think about her today, thanks to the remarkable statue carved of her in Rome by Gian Lorenzo Bernini some seventy years after her death. The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, as Bernini’s famous sculpture is called, can still be seen in the Santa Maria de la Vittoria Church in Rome. It even shows up in Dan Brown’s notorious novel Angels and Demons, in which papal authorities banish the statue to an obscure chapel because it is “too risqué and sexual.” Bernini’s sculpture is based on Teresa’s own autobiography, in which she describes her heart being pierced by an angel with a fiery dart. In a world where everything is interpreted through the lens of Freudian narrative, how could such a graphic depiction fail to generate numerous psychological-erotic interpretations? Even apart from Freud, the image of Teresa depicted in stone by Bernini has reinforced the stereotype of her as the paragon of spiritual individualism, the apostle of interiority. In this view, Teresa’s “interior castle” becomes a hall of mirrors in which the individual soul, while aiming to seek God, is actually gazing at its own projection (shades of Feuerbach).

Both Williams and Newman challenge this modernist reading of Teresa by focusing on her as a churchly theologian. While we are accustomed to looking at Teresa from the end of the sixteenth century—she died in 1582—Williams points out that her formation took place in the context of an earlier, pre-Tridentine reform. Teresa was just two years old when Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. This was the age of the great Cardinal Ximénes de Cisneros, Archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain, who supported the “new learning” of European humanism. He assembled a team of scholars who completed the first critical text of the Greek New Testament in the year before Teresa was born, although it was not published until 1520, four years after the editio princeps of Erasmus in 1516. This was also the age of the “young” Martin Luther, who had not yet broken with Rome. As Williams points out, Luther and the spiritual reformers of Spain “shared a profound hostility to scholastic theology in and of itself; a reverence for the tradition of passive abandonment to God in ‘mystical’ prayer (Luther much admired Tauler); a suspicion of externals, both the busy habits of piety and the attempt to secure God’s favor by amassing a record of virtuous deeds; and a confidence in the possibility of hidden, interior transformation by grace.” Fed by the traditions of Franciscan spirituality and Augustinian theology, such streams of spiritual renewal would shape Teresa’s own quest for God no less (though in a very different way) than that of Luther and countless others.

Newman’s creative study of Teresa’s theology aims to show how she, as a doctor and saint of the Catholic Church, illumines God’s Word in a way that offers healing for the whole body of Christ. She does this by tracing “key providential patterns” in the writings of Teresa that focus on “the dwellings” (Newman’s preferred translation of Las Moradas), the abodes in the interior castle; divine marriage; and pilgrimage. Newman frames these themes in terms of the worldly realities of politics, economics, and space. This means that “the journey of the ‘soul’ through the castle is ultimately the journey of the church universal since it is the church that participates through grace in the communion between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Teresa belongs among the doctores ecclesiae, Newman argues, because her work interprets and illumines Scripture for the whole Church. “To journey through Teresa’s castle, then, is not to go alone or even with a community. It is rather to become part of what God is doing in the world: creating a people and reforming bodies so that the Body of Christ becomes visible.”

Newman is not claiming that Teresa was an ecumenist before her time. She was not well versed in the technical theology that would be debated by the Protestant reformers and the theologians of Trent—though she did make a few critical comments about “those Lutherans,” by which she meant the French Protestants whom she saw as disrupting the peace of the Church. But as one of the doctores ecclesiae, Newman thinks, Teresa has something important to say to the Church across time, including our own time. In particular, Teresa’s focus on the humanity of Christ and the centrality of prayer invites believers today to approach the Christian past not in self-justifying ways, but rather in ways that transform through the lens of forgiveness, repentance, and love.

Elizabeth Newman is not the only Baptist thinker who is found in Teresa a worthy guide and mentor. The late Dallas Willard, whose many writings placed spiritual formation on the evangelical landscape for many pastors and students, published in 2006 an introduction to Teresa’s Interior Castle. He wrote:

This book and this author immediately announced themselves as a unique presence of God in my life. The book provided instruction on a living relationship with God that I had found nowhere else. . . . Teresa’s entire treatment of redemption in the spiritual life with Christ is unsurpassed and unlikely to be surpassed in the future.

Indeed, Teresa’s Christocentric faith and her sense of the sovereignty of God in every moment of life speak across the ages to believers of all confessions. Teresa’s true spirituality is perhaps best discovered in this lovely prayer:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

Published at First Things, 5.4.15


Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. Listen to Elizabeth Newman talk about her work on Teresa of Ávila on the Beeson Podcast.