“These are Dangerous Times…”: Writing around the Inquisition

“These are dangerous times,” Teresa wrote in 1562.  Inquisitor General Fernando de Valdés’s Index of Prohibited Books had appeared in 1559, specifically banning some of the books that Teresa had read earlier as part of her spiritual formation.  A general cloud of suspicion hung over those who claimed to have had a direct experience of God, and women, often considered more susceptible to “deception by the devil,” were under intense scrutiny.  How did an “unlettered” woman without a theological education dare to write and share her experience of God with others?

Teresa employed a complicated set of rhetorical strategies in order to survive as a writer and theological teacher.She was careful to signal her constant willingness to be subject to correction by church officials, and her tone often seems self-disparaging.  But her writing also indicated her strong awareness that God was asking her to model a way of contemplative intimacy that provided an example to others, and she exhibited keen skill in her many roles as writer, teacher, counselor, administrator, and reformer.

Teresa was under no illusion about the double standards of her age.  In one passage that a censor required her to delete from an early version of her Way of Perfection she expressed her candid lament to God at her culture’s disparagement of women, writing:

Isn’t it enough, Lord, that the world keeps us silenced and incapable of doing anything of value to You in public, nor can we dare speak the truths that we weep over in secret, but that You won’t hear our rightful plea?  I cannot believe that of your goodness and righteousness, Lord, since you are an honest judge, not like the judges of the world, who, since they are sons of Adam and, in short, all men, there is no virtue in a woman that they do not hold suspect.

The later version of her Way of Perfection carried a much more veiled defense of women’s equal claim to the apostolic life:

All of us women must try to be preachers in works, since the Apostle [Paul] and our own inability keep us from being [preachers] in words.


Since we women are not educated, all of this [explanation] is necessary, so that we truly understand that there is something most precious, beyond compare, within us…  And pray God that women are the only ones who proceed so heedlessly.

Without outright denouncing the Index of Prohibited Books, Teresa used irony to signal her views of the Inquisition’s censorship of spiritual books, writing, “Daughters, at least they will not take away the Our Father or the Hail Mary…”  But this passage, was also deleted by the censor, who wrote in the margin of the manuscript: “She seems to be reproving the Inquisition for prohibiting books on prayer.”

By the time she wrote her Interior Castle, in 1577, Teresa had been investigated by the Spanish Inquisition in Seville, and her first book, The Book of Her Life, had been sequestered.  In these challenging circumstances, obedience to her religious superiors and a strong dependence upon God to “speak for her” provides her with the rhetorical strategy she needed in order to take pen to paper again.  In the prologue she frames the entire work with a prayer for assistance from God, writing:

May the One in whose mercy I trust and who has helped me in other, more difficult things so as to favor me, do this work for me…  If the Lord wants me to say something new, His Majesty will provide it.

These strategies were so successful that, after she died, Teresa was often portrayed seated at her writing desk with a dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit over her, providing her with direct illumination as she wrote.

For further reading, please see:

Gillian T. W. Ahlgren, “Negotiating Sanctity: Holy Women in Sixteenth-Century Spain,” Church History vol. 64, no. 3 (September, 1995):373-388.

——, Teresa of Avila and the Politics of Sanctity.  Cornell University Press, 1996.

Alison Weber, Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity.  Princeton University Press, 1990.


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