A Portrait of Teresa of Avila from her Letters. Sheila Grimwood. Saint Albert’s Press, Faversham, 2016. ISBN 978-0-904849-46-2. Pbk. Pages 64 (including 4 illustrations). £2.95
Five hundred years after the birth of St Teresa of Avila, it seems hard to imagine that any corner of her life and writings remains unexplored. Yet five centuries on, Teresa’s prodigious correspond- ence (four hundred and sixty-eight letters survive) continues to be a neglected aspect of Teresian studies. While introductions, commentaries and guides to her major spiritual writings abound, only one major study of the letters exists in English.1 They are, moreover, typically given minimal attention in studies of Teresa’s life, and many of us (shamefully) have failed to complete any comprehensive reading of them. As Sheila Grimwood demonstrates in this excellent introduction to Teresa’s letters, this is a major omission on our part and it means that we neglect a significant source for understanding the saint, her means and her purpose.
A Portrait of Teresa of Avila from her Letters began life as a series of articles in the Order of Carmelites’ publication Carmel in the World. Now brought together and published by Saint Albert’s Press to mark the close of the fifth centenary celebrations, the book signals that the fruits of the centenary are far from exhausted. Grimwood’s text is accompanied by a thoughtful foreword from Wilfrid McGreal, O Carm and includes a brief biography, as well as pointers for further reading. Written clearly and in an engaging manner throughout, the book can easily be read in a single sitting and provides, as promised, a thought-provoking, affectionate and yet perceptive portrait of the saint whom so many of us meet only through her more formal writings.
Grimwood takes a thematic approach to the letters, exploring their contents under seven headings which include health, poverty, family and writings. To keep things contained, direct quotations from the letters are brief, but the entire book is meticulously sourced with footnotes providing references to both the Kavanaugh (ICS) and Peers editions of the correspondence; there is no excuse for not following up the original texts.
As Grimwood points out, Teresa’s letters provide us with details and insights that we don’t get elsewhere, and this is perhaps most amply demonstrated in the longest section, ‘Judgements and Personal Comments’. Teresa is less guarded, more spontaneous, even startlingly frank in her correspondence, where she is released from the concerns of inquisitorial censure which overshadowed her formal spiritual writings. Although fear of sensitive material falling into the wrong hands caused Teresa to employ pseudonyms and code words at times, she is at her most relaxed in her letters; and the vital, vibrant Teresa of everyday life emerges: unafraid to vent her frustration, issue severe reprimands, or express concern, partisanship and almost embarrassing levels of affection for her dearest friends, family and collaborators in the Reform. The con- tours of her personality emerge in vivid fashion, and one falls in love with her all over again, while yet wondering just how exasperating she might have been actually to live with!
Despite the stature of her subject, Grimwood is not overawed by Teresa and is unafraid to point out some of the inconsistencies in her thinking and to reflect on some of the more colourful aspects of the correspondence. Teresa is, for example, described at one point as rather a ‘stern aunt’, and taken to task for occupying epistolary space on her own symptoms whilst simultaneously cautioning her correspondent against excessive complaining over his own ‘trifles’. Grimwood thus paints a vibrant and refreshingly ‘real’ portrait of a saint who in other studies can all too quickly become obscured by an overly reverent respect for her spiritual stature and ecstatic experiences. Here we meet a Teresa who is convincingly human, enmeshed in the practicalities of completing God’s mission, and not afraid to do whatever is necessary to accomplish the task at hand.
At the end of this brief work, the reader is left with multiple questions: how the identified themes might develop over time; how the letters relate to and contrast with the spiritual texts; their reception over the last five hundred years – to identify just a few. It is to the work’s credit that it leaves us so thoroughly enthused and eager for more. It is to be hoped that Grimwood’s introduction pres- ages a more detailed study by this author who has so clearly got the measure of her subject. In the meantime, it should serve as an excellent prompt, to us all, to revisit the letters ourselves without further delay.
Jo Robson, OCD
1. Bárbara Mujica, Teresa de Ávila: Lettered Woman, Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2009.