Gillian Ahlgren attended Oberlin College, where she first began studying church history after travels through Europe spurred questions about spirituality and monasticism. She then attended the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, where she received her Ph.D. in the History of Christianity with a specialization in the study of Christian mysticism. She studied with Bernard McGinn, Martin Marty, among others.
She lived in Spain while researching and writing her dissertation, on the challenges that Teresa of Avila faced as a writer, reformer and mystic of during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. She later revised and expanded her dissertation, publishing it under the title Teresa of Avila and the Politics of Sanctity (Cornell University Press, 1996; paperback 1998).
While doing her dissertation research, she discovered stories of other female reformers less successful than Teresa—women tried by the Inquisition for alumbradismo (“false mysticism”). She recovered and translated one of those trials, giving readers access, for the first time, to the strategies of a visionary woman defending her vocation and experience of God. The Inquisition of Francisca (University of Chicago Press, 2005) received the 2006 annual award for “Best Translation” from the Society for the Research of Early Modern Women.
Her research and teaching on Teresa of Avila led her to write a second book on Teresa, this time focusing less on Teresa’s context and more on her inner life. Entering Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle: A Reader’s Companion (Paulist Press, 2005) explores the seven stages of growth leading to union with God and captures a wealth of insights about how to advance in the mystical life. These insights, long with those of John of the Cross, are captured in her recent book, Enkindling Love: The Legacy of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2016).
Her most recent book, The Tenderness of God: Reclaiming Our Humanity (Fortress Press, 2017), weaves the insights of Francis and Clare of Assisi into an exploration of the challenges of our contemporary world, attempting to open a path toward the “new and universal solidarity” Pope Francis characterizes in his Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. The book also draws upon her extensive experience leading spiritual immersion experiences in the footsteps of Francis and Clare in Assisi and La Verna.
Dr. Ahlgren has been teaching the Christian mystical tradition to college-age students, graduate students, and adult learners for over 25 years. She is an internationally-recognized scholar of the tradition, an experienced spiritual director, and engages a regular practice of contemplative prayer. A popular teacher, public speaker and writer, she also gives workshops and consults with communities seeking renewal and resources for growth. She is the Founding Director of Xavier University’s Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice.
Her pastoral commitments include retreat work and spiritual accompaniment of women seeking recovery after domestic violence and women actively in recovery from addiction.