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The metamorphoses of Teresa

· Who really was the woman who died saying ‘In the end, Lord, I am a daughter of the Church’ ·

Teresa’s strong personality emerged with too great a freedom in the Church of the Counter-Reformation: already the first editions of her works were purged of passages deemed too bold for a woman – and they were numerous – in such a way as to guarantee her perfect orthodoxy with a view to her canonization. It was a triumph. It was celebrated in 1622 – together with great saints of the Counter-Reformation, her fellow countryman, Ignatius of Loyola and Philip Neri – after only a short time had elapsed since her death in 1582. It was an exemplary canonization because for the first time holiness was evaluated on the basis of the heroic exercise of the virtues and no longer solely on proof of the capacity for miracles. In this too Teresa was a pioneer, the first woman to be sanctified for her virtues.

Tamara de Lempicka, “St Teresa of Avila”(1930)

Teresa was also the first in the unique other form of glorification which the Church envisages for women: indeed she was the first woman to be declared by Paul VI in 1970 a Doctor of the Church. It must be admitted that her personality was so strong and full that it opened ways ever new and to be imposed upon all, despite the attempt using several means to stifle it.

Who really was Teresa of Jesus? The answer to this question has a long and complex history. She herself contributed to concealing parts of her life out of prudence since her actions were always regarded with suspicion by the Inquisition. She always said “I write out of obedience”, making it an effective formula of exhibited protection, almost with irony, at the beginning of all her writings.

However, naturally the custodians of orthodoxy, all those who thought that a woman could only write if she was given permission to do so by a representative of the clergy, took her seriously. This became a habitual practice in the following centuries and was followed by the confessors of all the nuns who were eager to tell of their own mystical experiences. They were able to write only if they were asked to do so by their confessor, out of obedience.

Hence the image of Teresa that emerges from her canonization and from her appropriately “purged” writings is that of an obedient nun who adhered absolutely to the closed Counter-Reformation culture, aggressive to the outside, which had prevailed: thus the saint is depicted as a very bitter enemy of the Lutherans – she who knew almost nothing about them – and of any form of behaviour that was not established and accepted by the Church.

Yet the description of her by María de San José, a Carmelite who knew her personally, enables us to grasp the force of her personality and to understand that her spiritual freedom was visible in her face: “the saint was of medium height, tall rather than short; in her youth she was famous for her great beauty which showed even in her old age; indeed, her face was not in the least ordinary, but rather extraordinary, and could not be described as either round or thin”.

However for several centuries this dazzling image – this strong personality who had declared “I shall speak of nothing of which I have no experience”, thereby detaching herself from all the preceding devotional literature – was clouded, almost lifeless.

This was true to the extent that someone who certainly had little to do with her true personality could declare himself devoted to the saint: Francisco Franco, who in 1939 was given a relic of her – an arm – from which he never separated himself until the end. In Teresa the caudillo saw the saint as de la raza, in other words a descendent of pure Spanish blood, she who inflexibly defended the most traditional Church and made a political use of it to support her ideology. Essentially Franco constitutes the apotheosis of a process of normalization of the saint which began on the occasion of her canonization.

But the situation was shaken up once and for all in 1946, when the hardworking erudite Narciso Alonso Cortés found in the Valladolid archives the letters that prove, beyond any doubt, the Jewish origins of Teresa’s family. In this way came to light the trial of Teresa’s grandfather, accused of being a marrano, his condemnation to walk through the city of Toledo clad in a sanbenito [a yellow garment that those condemned by the Inquisition were forced to wear], and his subsequent move to Avila, a less important town, but where this dishonour was less known. This was followed by his acquisition of a certificate of limpieza de sangre [cleansed blood] to make people forget his origins and to redeem the family’s honour. From this moment Teresa too was seen differently and returned to illuminate herself with her own light. People began to interpret with different eyes the answer the saint gave to the Carmelite superiors who questioned her about her noble forebears: Teresa is supposed to have said that “it troubled her more to have committed a venial sin than to be a descendent of the vilest and lowest of villains and conversos [converts] in the world”.

After this discovery – in spite of a certain resistance – Teresa’s biography was reviewed and rewritten, and room was at last made for her figure as a woman writer, beside that of mystic nun. For Teresa always accepted censures and inspections without stopping writing, making notes and proving herself in minor literary genres that escaped these inspections. She never stopped having recourse to the written word, also in letters, in order to face the Order’s problems, to denounce injustices or to confide the states of her soul.

What was to constitute a new aspect of interest to scholars began to be highlighted: Teresa’s “femininism”, her being one of the first authoritative examples of “women’s discourse”. Teresa – it was discovered – had not only faced her condition as a woman with irony but also had anticipated what was to be one of the feminist pièces de résistance: the presence of women in the New Testament. Facing the umpteenth repetition of the only sentence of condemnation, that of St Paul who prohibited women from speaking in church and reduced them to the strictest seclusion, she answered by writing: “Go and tell them not to stick to only one part of the Scriptures, to go and look at the other parts and see if they are permitted to tie my hands”.

Already in 1943, the attention of secular feminists was turned on her by a biography by the English author Vita Sackville-West. Far from being a hagiographical work, it met with discreet success. Feminists found in her the model of a strong and authoritative woman, who knew how to fight male hierarchies with courage and with positive results.

Teresa’s history was thus turned upside down: from being a model of obedience she became a model of the affirmation of an individual’s will and projection in a society like that of our own times, in which women seek authoritative and positive models in the past. One of the most important texts among the works in this vein is without a doubt Alison Weber’s book Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity, published in 1996, which investigates all the ways the saint used to defend herself from the persecutions she suffered as a woman who wrote theology.

Yet surely the feminist author who has contributed the most to a contemporary interpretation of Teresa is Julia Kristeva, semiologist and psychoanalyst, who has dedicated a very long novel-essay, Thérèse mon amour [Teresa My Love, An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila] that came out in 2008. The book tells of a lively relationship, a sort of full contact between the two women, the mystic writer and the author, one a passionate believer and the other an atheist. Teresa’s fascination, however, even for the famous intellectual, lies in her faith: “the infinite is in her and in all things”, Kristeva writes, considering her a therapist of souls, capable of connecting mind and body, culture and nature, matter and representation. Kristeva recognizes in Teresa “a premonition of Freud”, since she is expert in “the interior space of the loving sentiment”.

However these recent interpretations, which certainly liberate the saint from the constrictive model in which she had been imprisoned, all too often forget that this was a woman passionately bound to God, who died saying, “In the end, Lord, I am a daughter of the Church”.

Sometimes, moreover, the impression is that of passing from one excess to another. When shall we find the true Teresa? 

Lucetta Scaraffia




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 29, 2020