Revealing Voices: Zachary Agoff on Teresa of Ávila

Posted on October 30, 2023

This post is part of our Revealing Voices blog series.

I have been personally engaged with questions about God’s existence, the relationship between science and faith, and other concerns quite typical of contemporary philosophy of religion as far back as high school. But those questions sent me down a long philosophical rabbit hole that has led me to my current avenue of research on a certain 16th-century nun, mystic, and reformer of the Carmelite order – Teresa of Ávila.

I was drawn to Teresa for many reasons. First, I had been researching Descartes, and there were some recent scholarly suggestions that he had utilized Teresa as source material for the drafting of his Meditations. (1) It also seemed that Teresa had garnered a great deal of attention outside of philosophical circles, and I was curious to see whether there were substantive philosophical themes in her work so as to bring her into the philosophical fold a bit more. (2) But when I began to read Teresa, I was introduced to what was for me a completely foreign approach to introspection. In short, Teresa develops a nuanced method for becoming better acquainted with oneself and with God.

Teresa’s life is the subject of great scholarly attention, given that one of her most celebrated works is her autobiography (The Book of Her Life), which was written for the review of the Inquisition in a style akin to Augustine’s Confessions. (3) Teresa was born in 1515 into a relatively well-off Spanish family. As a young child, she exemplified great religious fervor. While only seven, she attempted to run away with her brother to the “land of the Moors” in order to be killed and achieve martyrdom. When their plot was discovered, Teresa settled on building hermitages in her family’s garden. As Teresa moved into her teenage years, her religious impulses were obfuscated. By her own account, she became engaged in problematic relations that led her father to send her to an Augustinian convent to receive some education and keep her out of trouble. While there, Teresa was initially resistant to the idea of becoming a nun, but she ultimately decided to join the Carmelite order. Teresa soon fell ill.

Teresa’s illness was so serious that she was sent home from the convent, and was passed between her family’s homes as they sought a remedy. During these travels, Teresa became acquainted with one of her uncles who had an affinity for spiritual literature. It was during one of her stays with him that she was introduced to the work of Francisco de Osuna, who proved to influence Teresa greatly. Though she had always been an avid reader, Teresa began to dive headlong into spiritual literature. Yet, it appeared the illness had gotten the better of her.

While at her father’s house, Teresa lost any sign of life and was presumed dead. Just before her scheduled entombment, one of Teresa’s brothers accidentally knocked over a candle, and she was jolted awake, apparently raised from the dead. After some time recovering, Teresa moved back to the Carmelite convent. She soon experienced a religious awakening, which drew her to more fully embrace religious life. What followed is one of the most enigmatic stories I have ever read. Teresa claims to have been gifted with powerful intellectual and imaginative visions, mysterious locutions, and, even, levitation.

No biography of Teresa’s life, however brief, is complete without some statement about her political prowess. Against all odds, Teresa sought to reform the Carmelite order, to which she belonged, and founded cloistered convents that observed the order’s asceticism. (4) In the wake of theological controversies in Spain, Teresa was able to accomplish her goal of founding these convents, reinvigorating the Carmelite order with fresh spiritual vitality.

Teresa is most well-known for three of her works of prayer – The Book of Her Life, Way of Perfection, and The Interior Castle. Prayer was a broad category in these times, including introspective mental states like meditation (which involves laborious discursive activity of the intellect and imagination) and contemplation (which is a more passive mental state wherein the subject enjoys the divine). Teresa’s method primarily engages with supernatural (or ‘infused’) contemplation, which comes in a variety of forms or degrees. It is supernatural because these states are gifted by God – i.e., no amount of human effort could achieve them without divine intercession. The first degree of infused contemplation is recollection, where the faculties are drawn within the soul; the second degree is spiritual delight, where God begins to fill the entire soul with His presence; the third degree is the prayer of union, where the soul begins to be unified with God and many spiritual gifts begin to be given to the subject; the fourth degree is spiritual marriage, where the person becomes wedded to God and a new harmony stabilizes between the internal prayer life and the expression of God’s will in the active life. This is a very coarse-grained version of Teresa’s treatment of infused contemplation, but it captures the primary joints of her work, especially in The Interior Castle.

Now, it may seem that what I have summarized above is a distinctly non-philosophical project. However, there are ways to approach Teresa philosophically. For instance, as Teresa details and interprets her mystical experiences, she does so within a certain cognitive framework, mostly passed to her from earlier writers. We can approach Teresa philosophically by grappling with the structure and use of that framework. Teresa also develops a robust epistemology of mysticism throughout her work. For 16th-century thinkers, there are many deceptive demons about, and it is important to confirm that one’s experiences are a product of God’s grace and not the product of demon-deception. Consequently, she develops criteria for testing the veridicality of such experiences. This is a patently philosophical theme.

But what excites me most about Teresa is the delicate balance she strikes between leading a contemplative life and serving as a practical actor in everyday life. In short, she is interested in the question of how one can live a life of contemplative prayer, which seems to require a great deal of solitude, while also serving as an expression of God’s love in a given community. Her answer seems to be that it is through the life of contemplation that one can be prepared to lead an effective, loving social life.


(1) See: Mercer 2017. Other recent (and relatively recent) treatments of Teresa in philosophical circles include: Secada 2023; Coakley 2009; Fales 1996.

(2) For a small sampling, see: Burrows 2007; Eire 2019; Kutarňová 2017; Slade 1995; Tyler 2011; Weber 1996; Williams 2004.

(3) For far more detailed biographies, see: Eire 2019; Medwick 2001. In the biography provided here, I draw from both of these sources, but mostly from Teresa’s The Book of Her Life.

(4) For more on Teresa’s reforming of the Carmelite order, see: Medwick 2001.

Zachary Agoff is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation, Essays on Moral and Theological Themes in Teresa of Ávila and René Descartes, offers a reading of Descartes’s account of the love of God and develops Teresa of Ávila’s philosophy of mind and epistemology of mysticism. Aside from his interests in the history of philosophy of religion, he also has interests in the intersection of contemporary philosophy of science and sport, and other interests in environmental philosophy.