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The modernity of a mystic

· Interview with Julia Kristeva, an aetheist intellectual who has spent years studying the saint of Avila ·

“I came across Teresa”, Julia Kristeva told us, “at a publisher’s request: I spent about 10 years with the extravagant Spanish nun whom I had barely heard of, who became for me an indispensable figure of European culture. I am glad to have found, thanks to her, that Baroque dynamic which transfigured medieval Catholicism and opened the doors to the Enlightenment”.

How did you confront Teresa’s faith?

I threw myself into the writings of this woman who lived and described a faith now called mystical in which she celebrated her union with Jesus thus: “the soul… is consumed by desires yet knows not what to ask, for it realizes clearly that its God is with it” (The Interior Castle). “The pain [of the wound] was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. 

The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one” (The Life of Teresa of Avila by Herself). “We are not angels, for we have a body” and “the Lord as a man”. And so forth. I also accompanied her in Baroque art which brings her even closer to us today, starting with the Ecstasy of Bernini who makes that marble ecstasyvibrant: it liquefies before my eyes in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome; Ialso, however, accompanied herin the Mass that Haydn dedicated to her and in Tiepolo’s painting in Venice. Since I am not a believer, I sought to familiarize myself with her way of feeling and thinking, that is, to interpret her. Teresa invites the secularized world to reassess tirelessly and without prejudice the need to believe which underlies the desire to know.

And her extraordinary writing?

Indeed, through reflection on her works and on the fervour of her prayers, but also byletting ourselves be pervaded by music, painting and sculpture, the writings of this woman without boundaries offer us her body – physical, erotic, epicureand anorexic, hysterical and epileptic – that becomes a word and flesh, that makes and unmakes itself in images that flare upwithout frames, constantly in search of the Other and of the mot juste; it isan open womb that quiversfor the beloved who is ever present without ever being there. St Teresa’s ecstasies are all at once and without distinction words, images and physical sensations, spirit and flesh or perhaps precisely flesh and spirit: “the body never tires of taking part in the game, and even very much so”. Object and subject, lost and found, inside and outside and vice versa, Teresa is a fluid, ina constant state of flow. Water was to be her element: “I am particularly attracted by this element because I have observed it with special attention”; and the fluid metaphor is her way of thinking. Is it a flash of deep inspiration or a return to the evangelical subject of baptism? The Teresian style is intrinsically rooted in images, themselves destined to transmit those visions that are not perceived by sight (or at least not only by sight) but dwell in the whole body-and-spirit, in the psyche-soma. Such “visions” can first and essentially be obtained through touch, taste and hearing, and then reach sight. Ifwater is the emblem of the relationship between Teresa and the Ideal, one understands why her The Interior Castle does not tower as a fortress but lets itself be arranged like a jumble of dwellings – moradas – with impenetrable walls, which the divine does not dominate but rather inhabits. I would just like to say that transcendence, according to Teresa, also proves immanent: the Lord is not beyond her but within her! This leads to her predictable troubles with the Inquisition. In short, rather than in these raptures Teresa’s enigma lies in the story that she herself tells of them: do her ecstasies exist outside such accounts? Sheis fully aware of this question: “I mean the use of this figure to explain my point”, she wrote in The Way of Perfection (28, 10). She denies being a theologian, and only claims – with modesty or with brave modernity? – to be the author of a fantasy “that vital element of the sciences of the spirit”, as Husserl was later to say).

What is Teresa’s testimonial role in today’s humanism?

The narrator of my book, Thérèse mon amour, the psychoanalyst Sylvia Leclercq who resembles me, concludes her cohabitation with Teresa by addressing a letter to Denis Diderot who in his time censured the abuses of religion in his famous unfinished novel, La religieuse [The Nun]. But Diderot, a former canon and writer-philosopher of the Enlightenment, wept, when he realized that he was unable to finish his story, for once liberated from the abuses of monastic life his nun was thrown into a meaningless existence. I am convinced that Freudian psychoanalysis which questions the myths and history of religions, at the same time opening the doors of the interior life of modern beings, is the main means of assigning the correct value to this tradition which precedes us but with which we have severed ourrelationship. We non-believers, that is. But believers too are often reduced to “elements of religion”. The reinterpretation we owe them must be purely abstract, a bird’s-eye view. It involves the particular affective memory, the intimacy of each individual person. Lacan’s seminar makes Teresaa discoverer of “female enjoyment” with the suggestive title Encore. Would female enjoyment therefore be insatiable? More and more... For it is not limited to the sexual organs but inflames all the senses and transports the body into aninfinity of sense, while at the sametime plungingsense itself into nonsense, symptoms and manifestations ofinsanity. It is ajoy of which Teresa is the best explorer and which exiles her from herself: a perpetual transport towards the Impossible, the Ineffable, which does not, however, stop inviting her to speak of, to think of, body and soul, her passion for writing. This is an extraordinary testimony, if onewere necessary, of the fact that a Christian humanism exists which is still misunderstood and that it is necessary to reinterpret European culture continuously if one wishes to survive the thought-calculation and constantly re-establish oneself.

Why did you take on a woman of the 16th century whom you continued to get to know and study?

I hope I have convinced you of this mystic’s modernity as it appears in my interpretation, but perhaps I can explain better to you the seduction that Teresa exercises on me by recalling two characteristics of my favourite work of hers. The first would be that holy irony that borders on atheism. In a seldom remembered passage from the Way of Perfection, Teresa advises her sisters to play chess in monasteries, although the game was not permitted by the regulations, in order to “checkmate this Divine King”. This impertinence re-echoes the famous formula of Meister Eckhart: “I pray God to make me free of God”. The second characteristic is formulated by Leibniz who, in a letter to Morell dated10 December 1696, wrote: “As for St Teresa, you are right to esteem her works. One day I found in them this fine thought: that the soul ought to conceive things as if there were only God and itself in the world. This thought gives rise to an idea which is significant even in philosophy, and I have made good use of it in one of my hypotheses”. Is Teresa the inspirer of Leibniz’s monads that contain the infinite? Is Teresa the precursor of the infinitesimal calculus? However modest her writing may be, this act of loving language is still today – and always will be – an experience that does not overlook these raptures, these ecstasies. This Carmelite woman did not invent psychoanalysis, nor modern writing, yet 500 years before us she clarified that strange experience which is thought on the boundaries of meaning and of what is perceived through the senses, body and soul together: the secrets of writing. Teresa is a contemporary of ours.

Does her femininity tell us something today?

And what if Teresa’s femininity were post-modern? This Baroque saint is of an exaggerated sensuality but is also sublime, something unprecedented and unique among mystics (both men and women) who are inclined to suffering and to pure abandonment rather than to the fullness of the senses. But Teresa is also “the most virile of nuns” (Huysmans): namely of a psychic bisexuality – to borrow Freudian terminology – almost assertive and demanding.

What is the sense of this saint’s motherhood that has flowed through thecenturies?

Secularization is the only civilization devoid of a discourse on motherhood. While Teresa, in her prayers, but also in her work as refoundress of Carmel, described in detail in her Book of the Foundation, she presented a vision and a practice of her symbolic motherhood as “mother superior”.However surprising this may seem, some of her reflections in this regard – still today – can illuminate genetrices (women who are carrying children in their wombs) when they become mothers: when they live the passion and the dispassion of this first bond to the Other, which is the bond with the child, and become able to transmit tenderness, language and thought. Teresa begins by glorifying suffering as a way towards God and also as an inevitable path of motherhood. However she has the talent of detaching herself from mute feeling, whether suffering or joy. And she recommends “not enjoying more (whether it be the enjoyment of suffering or the enjoyment of pleasure) but rather “doing God’s will” which consists of “considering others without tying one’s hands”.Extraordinary, this unswerving dedication to others, supported by the otherness of the Other! So this is what could be called maternal dependence: not being content to enjoy in oneself and for oneself, but considering the existence of a Third, acceding to the will to respect and support others and never to disappoint! After the Shoah Hannah Arendt diagnosed that “radical evil” begins the moment when human beings become incapable of “thinking from the other person’s viewpoint”. Well, to put it briefly, for Teresa, being a mother would be quite the opposite: the capacity to think from the other’s viewpoint. Teresa’s freshness today makes it possible to rediscover that a complex, an unusual, Catholicism exists that “speaks” to the intensity of our need to believe and our desire to know, for which we lack corroboration.

Julia Kristeva, an atheist intellectual of Bulgarian origin and naturalized French, is an academic who works with linguistics, psychoanalysis, philosophy and narrative. She teaches semiology at the State University of New York and at the Université Paris 7 Denis Diderot. Her books include, Thérèse mon amour (2008) [Teresa, My Love: An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila]. She is Honorary President of the Conseil National Handicap: sensibiliser, informer, former and since 2015 has been a Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur (Commander of the Legion of Honour).

Cristiana Dobner




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 14, 2019