Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Teresa of Avila by Rowan Williams

Oh, as for riches!  If people have easily what they need and a lot of money in their coffers and guard against committing serious sins, they think everything is done.  They enjoy what they have.  They give an alms from time to time.  They do not reflect that their riches are not their own but given by the Lord so that they, as His stewards, may share their wealth among the poor, and that they must give a strict account for the time they keep a surplus in their coffers while delaying and putting off the poor who are suffering.

—  Teresa of Avila, Meditations on the Song of Songs, Chapter 2

Good Kirsty (the uptight academic one):  I have a confession to make.

Bad (i.e. somewhat more outspoken) Kirsty:  *puts on radiantly tolerant face and nods encouragingly*

GK:  When I was asked to supply my line for the Coming Up post, I made a category error.  I referred to Rowan Williams’ concise and excellent study of Teresa of Avila’s life and works as a biography, but it isn’t.  It’s more of a systematic study with a biographical introduction.

BK (sotto voce):   Gosh, you’re boring.

GK:  What?

BK:  Nothing.   Anyway, I see what you mean.  This isn’t a biography in the sense of a narrative of Teresa’s life, but a companion to her writings.  And yet I felt that it got much closer to the essence of her ideas and motivations than a traditional biography might have done.  Williams has clearly studied Teresa’s output very thoroughly, and he has that particular gift some experts have of communicating his expertise in such a way the reader is drawn in rather than overwhelmed.

GK:  Rather like a well-written lecture series.  In fact, that’s quite an apt comparison here.  Williams expects you to do the reading (the text is copiously cross-referenced) but, in return, you receive a thorough education.  This book is entirely accessible to people without a background in theology, but it does require a degree of commitment.

BK:  When you say accessible, you mean…?

GK:  Well, this book is a demanding read, in the sense that you need to be prepared to follow Teresa’s texts in order to get the most out of Williams’ commentary.  That’s what I mean by commitment.   It is a book for the desk and not for the armchair.  But I don’t think it assumes prior knowledge so much as a willingness to learn, and in that sense it is very accessible.  What might be more of a barrier for some readers is that Williams uses the language of Teresa’s own faith in order to elucidate her meaning; to borrow a phrase from the Marx scholar S.H. Rigby, he is reading Teresa by her own standards.

BK:  And faith isn’t exactly an academic matter for Rowan Williams, either.

GK:  Yes.  I don’t think prospective readers need to share that faith in order to enjoy this book, but it won’t be to everyone’s liking either.

BK:  So, in summary, this isn’t a biography but it’s dam… er, jolly good.  If you don’t mind religion.

GK:  Pretty much.  And I am really pleased to see Teresa get her due.  She’s a fascinating subject: one of the great Christian radicals.  A woman in sixteenth-century Spain who reformed her particular corner of the Church in line with the principle of absolute poverty, which earned her persecution and very nearly martyrdom in her own time, and canonisation forty years after her death.  Teresa’s writings are copious and lively and deserve to be read.

BK:  Of course, most people these days remember her for the angel with the fiery dart.  Thanks yet again, Dan Brown.

GK:  She’s also variously named as the patron saint of — among other things — headaches, writers, lace workers, people ridiculed for their piety and (wonderfully) opposition to Church authority.  It all rather depends on which source you consult.

BK:  No change there then, mad Gerald.  (No, I haven’t gone insane.  It’s a Blackadder reference.)  Well, we like this book.  Perhaps you will, too.  Until the next time!

Continuum, paperback edition (2003), 225 pp. ISBN: 0826473415

4 comments on “Teresa of Avila by Rowan Williams

  1. Hilary
    August 16, 2011

    Thank you both, I think I will! (Like the book, that is). It’s a horrible number of years since I was exposed to Teresa of Avila’s writings when I was a student, but somewhere at the back of the bookshelves I think she’s still there, and I must get her out and remind myself why I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for her.

    On the other hand, with my ability to read her in the original shot to pieces over the past horrible number of years, I think I’d far better read Rowan Williams on Teresa of Avila, after all.

  2. annebrooke
    August 16, 2011

    Sounds interesting indeed, thanks, both Kirsties! 🙂 I must admit to not being a huge fan of Rowan but you’ve tempted me …


  3. Jackie
    August 16, 2011

    I don’t know much at all about this saint, but she sounds like someone I’d like to learn more about. This would be a good guide through her writings, something that would be a good project on long winter evenings.
    Thanks to both Kirstys, it’s been too long since we heard from them. But worth the wait. lol

  4. ChrisCross53
    August 16, 2011

    I don’t know much about Teresa of Avila, but I do find saints fascinating, so maybe I’ll do some serious reading.

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