Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Our "Strange Communities" class is reading Teresa of Avila's autobiography as part of our discussion of monastic life. I first read her Life as a graduate student in a class on the Reformation, and I've been fascinated by her ever since. Her voice and sense of self seem so modern, making the experience of reading her writing surprisingly intimate. As she examines herself and explains her spiritual progress at the behest of her superiors, we recognize an energetic, mostly unspoken discussion going on underneath the text -- a debate about culture, religion, gender, and the verdict of history.

I had the chance to give a presentation today on the strange fate of Teresa's body after death. Immediately after burial, nuns at the convent of Alba reported such a strong, sweet odor filling the building that they had headaches. The body was disinterred nine months later during a dispute over ownership with the convent at Avila, and it was found to be completely undecayed and oozing a sweet-smelling oil. The next several years saw it hacked into several pieces -- a hand, several fingers, an arm, and other parts were cut off and sent around the world so their miraculous powers could be experienced by Catholics everywhere.

The times in which Teresa happened to live made her far more significant than a nun, a mystic, or even a saint. Catholics asserted God's continued intervention in the human world, against the conclusion of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, and others that the biblical age of miracles was past and that history now unfolds according to God's primordial predestination. Teresa was Exhibit A for the Catholic worldview: Personal holiness is possible; heaven and earth intersect in the saints and their relics; the resurrected spiritual body exists among us now, tangible and concrete.

The Reformation and its associated culture wars are endlessly intriguing. The ideological issues are permeated with social, economic, and political freight. Maybe instead of the Great Depression, the historical precursor of our troubled and highly ideological times could be found in the sixteenth century. In any case, negotiating its rapid changes while trying to keep the faith certainly makes me feel a kinship with Teresa -- in terms of self-reflection, not sainthood.

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