The Making of a Mystic: Seasons in the Life of Teresa of Avila

The Making of a Mystic: Seasons in the Life of Teresa of Avila

 by Francis L. Gross, Jr., with Toni Perior Gross; State University of New York Press, 1993.

The approach to the life of Teresa taken in this book has an aliveness and a n immediacy that are often missing from biography, especially when the biography reaches back as many hundreds of years as this one. Imagine a biography of Teresa beginning, "Truman Capote once wrote…"

It works, and exceedingly well. This is an engaging and provocative study.

Francis L. Gross is professor of religion at Western Michigan University, and approaches religious subjects from the perspective of developmental psychology. His wife Toni Perior Gross is a psychotherapist in private practice. They use psychological tools drawn from Piaget, Freud, and Jung, by way of Erik Erikson, Robert Coles, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, James Fowler, and others.

Erikson's biographies of Luther and Gandhi and Coles' studies of Dorothy Day and Simone Weil modeled the approach taken here. In looking at Teresa's life, the authors have drawn remark able parallels with Maurice Sendak's Max, J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Sylvia Plath, and others.

Of Teresa, they say, "She is by turns a coquette, a housewife, stern, compassionate, a banker, a mystic, an organizer, a solitary. We have found her to be the kind of person who cuts across male and female stereotypes and archetypes."

If she had a dark side, the authors conclude, it would be in terms of willfulness: "I thought of her running off to the Moors at age seven, of her being packed away to the convent boarding school in her teens, of her clandestine slipping off to join the Carmelites against her father's will at twenty. I thought furthermore of her tried and true method of making new foundations by buying a house in secret, moving her new nuns in by night, and confronting the local authorities the next day with a fait accompli and a charm that somehow managed to let her get away with such brass, boldness and, you have to say it, duplicity. We have a strain of willfulness and charm that runs through Teresa's life from the time she was two until her death at sixty-seven."

As the book states, she defied male/female stereo types; the "willfulness," one might observe, would be "determination" in a man. She got things done.

The book is organized in three sections -the first tracing her story from childhood through adolescence, adulthood, and old age; the second describing her family background and the Spanish situation; and the third taking up various themes of her life, such as "the journey to her own voice," psychology and prayer, and her playfulness.

Spring 1994