Saint Teresa of Avila
The Way of Perfection (New York: Doubleday 2004)
Citation: Saint Teresa of Avila. The Way of Perfection. New York: Doubleday, 2004
Reading Level (choose all that apply): Young Adult / Parent / Adult
Author Biography: Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was a Spanish nun who dedicated much of her life to leading and implementing Carmelite Reform, a movement that reinforced the foundations of austerity and contemplation in the Carmelite Order. Shortly after her profession, Saint Teresa was stricken with serious illness for some time; after her recovery she began to have a series of mystical experiences. Although at first her superiors considered these experiences troubling and perhaps even temptations sent by the devil, they later began to understand them as indications of Saint Teresa’s intense relationship with God. She wrote many books explaining these experiences, her understanding of many theological issues, and her program of reform for the sisters under her direction. After her death, Saint Teresa's body was moved to Avila, where it is still preserved incorrupt. She was beatified in 1614 and canonized in 1622. In 1970 Pope Paul VI named her a Doctor of the Church; she is the first woman to receive such an honor.
Plot Summary: Saint Teresa intended The Way of Perfection as both an invitation to holiness and as a source of practical instruction for Carmelite sisters. The text of The Way of Perfection included here is a translation of the Valladolid Autograph, Saint Teresa’s own revision of an earlier text she had written for the first sisters living under the Carmelite Reform. This text can be divided thematically into four sections: Chapters 1-3 provide an introduction to Saint Teresa’s motivations and goals in undertaking this reform, Chapters 4-15 explain how and why Saint Teresa advocates such strict adherence to the Rule of the Carmelite Order, Chapters 16-26 present Saint Teresa’s understanding of the different types of prayer and of the necessity for prayer and contemplation, and Chapters 27-42 provide Saint Teresa’s word-by-word analysis of and commentary on The Lord’s Prayer.
1. The introduction to our text presents Saint Teresa as a woman of great spiritual understanding and practical insight, a combination that we can clearly see in the instructions she offers to her daughters in the convent. How would you explain the intersection between the practical and the spiritual in this text? If you were to reconstruct the day-to-day realities and difficulties that these women face, based on the knowledge that Saint Teresa refers to as her “personal experience,” what would they be like? That is, what is the practical “reality” of the lives of these women that corresponds to the reality of their vocations and their life as a religious community?
2. Saint Teresa often addresses the reasons behind the severity of the demands she makes of her daughters. How would you explain her insistence on such severity, and how can a person not living in a religious community adapt some of these principles to daily life?
3. Saint Teresa explains that a personal relationship with Jesus is the foundation of spirituality for the sisters in her care. How do the terms of address that she uses for Jesus provide insight into the many nuances of this relationship? How does the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus apply to those who are not professed Brides of Christ?
4. How might we explain the apparent paradoxes that underlie the kind of life Saint Teresa invites her daughters to pursue? For example, how do we reconcile the tensions between freedom and obedience, between liberty and servitude, between discipline and abandon?
5. How does Saint Teresa treat the issue of gender in both her spiritual and practical instruction? Are there inherent limits placed on her daughters because they are women? Are there certain limits that Saint Teresa instructs her daughters not to accept simply because they are women? In what ways – and within what boundaries – does she empower her daughters to assert themselves in the face of men’s authority?
6. From a literary standpoint, how do the metaphors and patterns of images in this text help us to understand what Saint Teresa is teaching? Are there specific images that you find especially resonant: the game of chess, the beautiful palace, the journey, fire, or water, for example?
7. How does Saint Teresa explain the reality of the devil and of evil? What is its source? How does it manifest itself? How are we to recognize it? How do we combat it.
8. What are the physical, intellectual, emotional, attitudinal, and spiritual elements that prayer requires, according to Saint Teresa? How does she explain the distinctions and parallels among verbal prayer, mental prayer, and contemplation? How might this instruction be of help to us, especially at particular times in the Church calendar such as Advent and Lent?
9. Consider the various approaches to reading Sacred Scripture: literal, historical-cultural, literary/aesthetic, theological, and moral.* Can we see these approaches to reading and prayer in Saint Teresa's discussion of the "Our Father," and how might we bring them to bear on our own reading of prayer? *These categories are derived from a lecture given by Fr. Jerome Joseph Day, O.S.B., PhD, Pastor, at Saint Raphael the Archangel Parish in Manchester, NH.
Prepared By: Ann-Maria Contarino
Date: August 2008