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Posted August 28, 2005

Book: Teresa of Avila’s Autobiography: Authority, Power and the Self in Mid-Sixteenth Century Spain
Author: Elena Carrera
Legenda, England, pp.211

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

The Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila (1515-82) is the author of one of the most acclaimed early modern autobiographies (Vida., 1565), yet this is the first study to examine the impact of textual models on her self-construction. In looking at the issue of the self, Carrera draws on the theories of Ricoeur and Foucault, and also applies a valuable historical perspective. Through a close analysis of devotional books and confessors’ manuals, she establishes significant connections between Teresa’s autobiography and the practices of meditative reading and confession in sixteenth-century Spain.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Besides the role of confession in guiding souls of pious people who went to it frequently, for most people confession had the primary function of providing some sort of elementary teaching and discipline. The function of the confessor as remedial teacher is stressed, for instance, in one of the oldest printed books in Spanish, Breve confessionario, based on Andreas de Escobar’s Lumen confessourumm, in which confessors were instructed to ask set questions intended to assess the penitent’s knowledge of basic Christian practices and principles, namely, the basic prayers (Our Father, Hail Mary, Creed), the Articles of Faith and the Ten Commandments. Discipline was enforced by asking penitents whether they had carried out the penance imposed on them in the previous confession, and by refusing them communion as a form of punishment if they had not. But even in this ‘basic’ form of confession, discipline was not simply intended as a form of social control; it aimed at redirecting people’s will and emotions, by giving them a Christian purpose. The questions which confessors were instructed to ask their penitents about whether they repented and intended to change their attitude established a clear connection between truthfulness and the involvement of the will. As Trent was later to emphasize, for confession to be valid, it needed the individual to internalize Christian values, and involve himself or herself emotionally in the experience, through ‘free and voluntary’ ‘true contrition’. It also needed to involve the will in cultivating repentance and the intention to amend (‘a sorrow of mind and a detestation for sin committed with the purpose of not sinning for the future.’). Without the involvement of the will, there is no true contrition or true confession. The will was not simply engaged by being subjected or surrendered to God’s grace, but through a complex set of emotional states which penitents were expected to cultivate: hope and trust in the divine mercy, as well as ‘a certain vehement hatred of their past life’ an ‘an exceeding detestation of sins.’

The traditional format of the sacrament of penance was based on a series of ‘leading questions’, intended to assess erroneous thoughts, ‘wrongs’ desires and failures, interpreted according to Christian paradigms. It also encouraged penitents to overcome any resistance of reservations through explicit questions about their act of confessing. In seeking the emotional involvement of the subject, the aim of this sacrament was not solely to ‘uncover’ the truth about unavowed sins, but rather to give the subject’s inner world an ‘acceptable’ shape through acts of the will and the practice of repentance.

. . . To facilitate the penitent’s involvement in confession and make it a less threatening experience, confessor’s manuals stressed the notion that authority and discipline had to be exercised in a friendly and gentle way, which would encourage persuasion.

Table of Contents:

The backgound of Teresa’s writing: spirituality as a subjective form of knowledge

Experience versus intellect: the ‘will to knowledge’ and the practice of recogimento

Redefining the boundaries between truth and error (1525-1559)

Teresa’s criticism of confessors (1539-1554)

Practices of self: mortification, obedience and general confession (1554-1559)

Subverting the structure of confession: role reversals (1560-1565)

Writing the self (1562-1565)