- John of Avila: Audi, filia—Listen, O Daughter
In 1574, the followers of the renowned Spanish priest and writer John of Avila (1499–1569) published his most famous work, Audi, filia.Avila derived the title of this treatise from Psalm 45:11–12, an ode to a royal wedding: "Listen, O daughter, and see; incline your ear, and forget your people and your father's house. And the King will desire your beauty."Through 113 chapters, Avila offered a figurative interpretation of this passage, addressing issues such as the value of prayer, the role of faith and works in salvation, and the nature of sin. The theological arguments of this work reflected his lifetime of experience in early modern Spain. The initial inspiration for Audi, filia arose from Avila's patronage of a growing circle of disciples, when one of his female followers requested guidance in meditation. Avila began writing the book in the prison cells of the Inquisition, and the first, unauthorized edition of the work appeared on the inquisitorial Index of 1559. Despite his failing health Avila carried out the necessary revisions for the approved edition of 1574. First translated in 1620 for the persecuted Catholic minority in England, this treatise now appears in elegant modern English, bringing this valuable and reflective work to a broader reading audience.
The introduction by the translator, Frances Gormley, presents a thorough discussion of Avila's life and work, concluding with an overview of Audi, filia. Turning from the hagiographical approach favored by biographers such as Fray Luis de Granada (1587), Gormley situates Avila's career amidst the controversies of the Reformation era. Avila's Jewish ancestry and his focus on interior prayer informed his accusation before the Inquisition of Seville in 1531, for statements against clerical corruption and the persecution of conversos. Following his reconciliation, he founded several schools and attracted communities of disciples in Granada and then Córdoba, maintaining [End Page 371] his advocacy of silent prayer and charitable work. When Avila's illness prevented him from organizing these groups into an order, many of his followers logically entered the Society of Jesus, drawn by its similar focus on contemplation in action. Gormley also draws important distinctions to Erasmus, who shared Avila's concern over abuses in the Church but adopted a more satirical, less sacramental critique. The Introduction concludes with an excellent synopsis of the text, but misses the opportunity to comment on its influence. Avila's warnings against false revelations (p. 157) prefigure the subtle balancing act of Teresa of Avila, who upheld female mysticism while deferring publicly to her confessors to ensure her legitimacy. John of Avila's canonization in 1970 raises the question of why he was not canonized in the seventeenth century alongside so many of his generation, including his former disciple Francis Borgia.
Gormley's translation of Audi, filia captures the style of Avila's unostentatious prose very well. Interpreting the husband of the psalm as God and the wife as the Church,Avila advises his disciple to listen for God's voice, rather than the language of the world or the devil. Pursuing the motif of the senses, he urges the reader to see herself, recognizing the "dunghill" of her own littleness and defects (p. 179), before turning to recollection or union with God. The king desires her, not in the flesh but in the "spiritual light of grace and knowledge enlivening the beauty of the soul as colors do to the body"(p. 299). The present translation reproduces faithfully the content and language of the 1574 edition, indicating Avila's patristic and biblical references in endnotes so as not to interrupt the flow of the text. Including one or two examples of Avila's final revisions in the endnotes would have given scholars a sense of the tenor of these changes. On the subject of justification (pp. 80–81), for example, he added the italicized words in the...