Teresa of Avila and the Politics of Sanctity.
Following in the critical footsteps of her recent predecessors, such as Alison Weber, Carole Slade, and Jodi Bilinkoff whose interest in Teresa of Avila has focused on the nun's political and linguistic skill in expressing herself as an early modern woman in a position of religious authority, Gillian Ahlgren contributes an excellent study Teresa of Avila and the Politics of Sanctity that complements their works by these scholars. The discursive strategies useful to the sixteenth-century founder of Carmelite convents as she set about to record her labors in that undertaking, or to detail her own life story, or to instruct the nuns in her order are, as Ahlgren demonstrates, political necessities that served as the only buffer between the saint and the Inquisitional forces that determinedly sought out heretics. Shadows of the heretical loomed over Teresa's shoulder because her gender afforded her the difficult sociological reality of blocked access to theological education, without which she was denied the right to interpret and expound upon dogma, or to affirm directly women's spirituality and their inner experiences of it. She faced the drive to write and express herself while striving always to do so in ways considered appropriate to her gender. The written results of these efforts produced in Teresa's case, as well as in others of her religious sisters, "heavily encoded public and written expressions of self which historians are just beginning to decipher and interpret" (168).
Ahlgren begins her examination with evidence of failures in early modern religious women's attempts in Spain to comply with the post-Tridentine strictures on them to live cloistered lives of contemplation, following the demands for obedience and humility, while functioning as spiritual leaders. They were often accused of spiritual arrogance if they articulated their mystical and visionary experiences. The taint of association with the alumbrados or the alternative religious life of the beatas could bring the harshest penalties from the Inqusition. Ahlgren traces Teresa's "literary vocation" as one directed toward countering "the suspicions cast on women's religious experience by the Inquisition's procedures against the alumbrados in several ways: (1) by offering explanations of the technique of mystical prayer; (2) by presenting an alternative to the potentially confusing mystical doctrine of the leading representative of the recogimiento school, Francisco de Osuna; (3) by emphasizing the importance of the sacramental life of the church; and (4) by recovering the role of revelations and visionary experience in the mystical life" (29).
The body of the study is a sophisticated and detailed consideration of how in myriad documents Teresa composed and manipulated her response to the cultural challenges to women's practice and expression of spirituality within a framework of articulated obedience to church authority and within the sacramental life of Catholicism. The ground already broken by Alison Weber's examination of Teresa's rhetorical femininity is reworked and expanded in Ahlgren's study through consideration of how the sixteenth-century nun relied on "textual survival strategies" to articulate her reforms based on contemplation and prayer at the same time that she skillfully survived denouncements to and investigations by the Inquisition. Mapping out some of Teresa's tools for expression, Ahlgren demonstrates the importance of strategies such as those of "subordination" and "instrumental authority" that led to the "success of paradoxical self-representation" (3).
Teresa's confrontation with the "misogynist and anti-mystical biases of her day" comprise, as Ahlgren explains it, the nun's "agenda as a writer" in her drive to "provide guidance and to empower women and men to achieve a meaningful relationship with God" (85). Ahlgren's chapter 4 focuses on the saint's efforts to expound the interconnection of the mystical and visionary traditions and to foster an acceptable and working relationship with confessors and church officials. This section nevertheless also contains evidence of the ongoing criticism to which Teresa and her mystical works were subjected. In the subsequent chapters, Ahlgren considers the saint's posthumous fate as topic of debates about the legitimacy of contemplative prayer and mystical union, the passivity of the soul, and the locus of mystical union, until finally she was canonized in a period when the male saints outnumbered their female counterparts by four to one.
Ahlgren demonstrates that in the process of the "transformation of Teresa de Jesus into Saint Teresa of Avila" the story of her accomplishments - and indeed of her life - was rewritten "so that it became a role model for Catholic women acceptable to Counter-Reformation church officials" (148). Ahlgren argues that the canonization of "Saint Teresa" effected an ironic shift in the cultural acceptance of this woman who "became the instrument by which the Roman hierarchy propagated its own gender ideology" (166). The limits within which women's sanctity were defined were those into which the Church fit a posthumously reconstructed Teresa whose piety, humility, and obedience were deemed exemplary but whose independence and spiritual authority were affirmed as exceptional qualities based on divine favors not to be emulated by or expected of other women. In her "conclusion" Ahlgren proposes an approach to Teresa's legacy that understands her rhetorical survival strategies into which are deeply encoded both her age's limitations on women and her challenges to patriarchal language and attitudes. The accounts and evidence of her political and spiritual astuteness are left to us in the writings that she produced as a very carefully articulate authority of the church.
Complete with an appendix of primary and secondary sources of inquisitional investigations against Teresa, a thorough bibliography, and a modest index, Teresa of Avila and the Politics of Sanctity adds considerably to the growing body of well-researched and theoretically profound cultural and literary analyses of the life and works of the best known of Spanish nuns. Ahlgren's study complements those examinations of Teresa that precede it and will no doubt be an underpinning of any that may appear henceforth.
TERESA SOUFAS Tulane University
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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