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Teresa of Avila and the Politics of Sanctity
By Gillian T. W. Ahlgren
Cornell University Press
240 pp.; $29.95
More than anything else, Teresa of Avila (1515-82) "taught women . . . about the process of survival in the church," contends Gillian Ahlgren in this thoroughly researched and thought-provoking first book. To survive, play by the men's rules. Behave the way men think women should behave. Submit to men's judgment. And, once you have died, prepare to be immortalized as someone you weren't.
Ahlgren, an assistant professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, makes her case through two contrasts. First, she highlights the changes Teresa made, under threat of the Inquisition, in subsequent editions of her published works in order to mollify or forestall her critics. Second, Ahlgren opposes the solid accomplishments of Teresa's life-monasteries founded, books published, bishops counseled-to the image of her presented for canonization only a generation after her death. Mother Teresa had been a strong-willed entrepreneur, if not a revolutionary; Saint Teresa, by contrast, embodied the female virtues of humility and obedience.
Teresa's humility and obedience, says Ahlgren, were less her natural characteristics than the result of "a process of self-construction." Widely read but uneducated in Latin and Greek, she willingly submitted her writings to theologians and continually proclaimed her obedient loyalty to the church and its representatives, even when her own cherished projects were at stake. By thus conforming to the Counter-Reformation's image of the ideal woman, Teresa was able to transcend the limitations imposed on women and achieve a sort of transgendered success. As her biographer Francisco de Ribera put it in 1590: "Those women who with fortitude overcome their passions and submit to God must be called men. . . . Much attention must be paid to [the revelations] of a woman more manly than many big men." This strategy resulted in Teresa's canonization, ...