First published in 1991, prior to the author's becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams' Teresa of Avila has been reprinted in 2000, 2002, and, most recently, in 2003. These multiple editions testify to the outstanding contribution that this work makes to the field of Teresian studies. Williams' careful scholarship is evident in his familiarity with the work of other prominent Teresian scholars as well as the work of Teresa herself. He does not hesitate to point out inconsistencies and errors in each case. Carefully documented notes follow each chapter and support his textual critiques and observations. This text is accessible, respectful, and an interesting read.
The stated purpose of the book is "to understand [Teresa] as a theologian, as a 'Doctor of the Church' (the first woman to be granted this title-by Pope Paul VI in 1970)" (13). In order to accomplish his purpose, Williams argues that "we need to look at those factors in her environment that brought out specific concerns and themes for her" (13). If we are to achieve an understanding of the kind of theologian she was, then we must grasp what it meant to be a contemplative. Williams takes considerable pains to make that definition clear. He insists that "we do not begin to understand her as a religious, as a reformer, as a theologian, unless we see her as a 'displaced person' in the Spain of her day" (49). Her Jewish blood in seen in this context.
Williams approaches Teresa's thought from a developmental perspective. He first situates her life in the context of her times by creating a biographical sketch followed by a consideration of the world in which she lived. Next he examines her autobiography, The Way of Perfection, and The Interior Castle. Finally, he discusses mysticism and the Incarnation. Throughout his study, he emphasizes Teresa's courage and radical Christian conviction. He also discusses her difficulties as a woman in the Church as well as her ingenious responses to her predicaments. He makes it quite clear that "she sets out to demystify mental prayer" (114), and he presents an appealing synthesis of her comments on how to determine the authenticity of genuine prayer.
In the Preface, the author states that Teresa "was a woman reacting to a particularly difficult epoch in the history of the Spanish state and Church; and . . . she was an independent theological thinker" (vii). These are prominent themes throughout the book. In the Introduction we learn about the role of the Inquisition and the Index of Forbidden Books in Teresa's professional and convent life. Williams takes a sympathetic but honest approach to what is commonly thought to be excessive control exercised by the ecclesiastical authorities of Teresa's time. He presents Teresa as someone who was constrained by her own deep respect for the Church even as she strove to maintain her own integrity. The author does not minimize Teresa's struggles, and he occasionally describes her thinking as "muddled." He also points out her lack of understanding concerning the Lutherans.
While it would be helpful to know the writings of Teresa first hand, Williams does not make it a requirement for understanding his assessment of her life and work. Because he treats her work in chronological order, it is possible for him to state clearly how her brilliant images mesh and grow. He explains how "Teresa in effect defines a kind of 'lay' piety, non-cerebral and non-technical, as a kind of middle way between the intellectual activity of meditation and pure contemplative passivity" (92). He notes that the way of perfection, according to Teresa, does not allow individuals to flee from their problems into the arms of "a detached divine absolute" (206). Rather, "the way of perfection leads back to taking our active place in the human community" (206-07). Closeness to God manifests itself in honest and generous human relationships.
If one wished to read only one book about Teresa of Avila, then I recommend this one. It is comprehensive, clearly written, and engaging.