Thursday, September 23, 2010

St.Teresa of Avila As a Woman

This morning I began reading the chapters on the sixth mansions. There are eleven and I got through six. I've decided to wait until I finish them all before I write about them. Instead, today's blog is about St. Teresa as a woman. I'm writing about this because I've been thinking of it quite a lot through all these chapters.

The role of women during the times she wrote was very different than the roles today. Women were not allowed to teach spiritually. They were believed to be incapable of being “learned” in theology. Therefore, St. Teresa was not allowed to write authoritatively. Instead, she was only allowed to write about her experiences, in a journal format, of herself in relation to Christ. She also wrote repeatedly about how limited she believed her understanding was because she was a woman. In fact, in may ways, the whole book is a tirade of put-downs and about her womanliness and stupidity. She is even said to have often referred to herself as a “mujeralla,” or worthless little woman.

There is a slight possibility that St. Teresa wrote this way in part to save herself from the perils of the Inquisition and also the judgments of her confessors. St. Teresa once said, “Without a doubt, I'm more afraid of those who are so scared of the devil than I am of the devil himself!” However, it is much more probable that St. Teresa really believed herself to be woefully inadequate due to being a woman.

There's a great advantage in this: Unlike men who could speak and write with authority, St. Teresa is more personable in her accounts and perhaps more self-scrutinizing. She even writes at length about the difference between true rapture or ecstacy and “ordinary womanly weakness.” It is all the more troubling to me that Breuer, a colleague of Sigmund Freud, called her the “Patron Saint of Hysteria.” If he only knew the level of scrutiny both she and her superiors put her through, the low regard placed on female emotinality and the level of care she took to differentiate her states, he might be ashamed of making such an accusation. However, during Freud's time, “hysteria,” the women's illness, also belittled women and their capacities.

Because she is a woman, St. Teresa is able to speak of marriage to “His Majesty” (Christ). This marriage involves unique feminine emotions and needs. In fact, this “guidebook” she has written may speak more strongly to women than to men for this reason, although study of this book can also lend remarkable discovery to men. Did St. Teresa's view of herself as a woman at the time paradoxically lead to her message being all the more potent? God can make the best of topsy-turvy cultural beliefs sometimes, you know. The soul can grow regardless of the culture.

My boyfriend, who has read this book many times and benefited from it has noticed the difference between her description of “mansions” versus St. John of the Cross's allegory of “mountains” leading to God. Mansions are more domestic and womb-like, whereas the “mountain” imagery may be more male. Because of her femaleness, she is able to offer a unique perspective that may speak to people in different ways.

Did it matter how much St. Teresa put herself down? Why would a fully enlightened woman do such a thing? We all know you just don't do this in today's society without people thinking you are neurotic and sending you to self-esteem classes. It's almost the cardinal sin in many New Age traditions to judge yourself at all. I once attended a New Age gathering where we substituted the word “soul” for “wretch” in the song “Amazing Grace,” due to the concern that anyone might feel the slightest negativity against themselves.

It was just as bad to think well of yourself then as it is to think well of yourself now. About humility, St. Teresa wrote, “False humility constricts the soul and body, creating a dryness of spirit, while true humility is tranquil.” Apparently, viewing herself as a stupid wretch did not take away from her tranquility. Low self-esteem is just not a barrier to union with God, no matter how many workshops we attend to “fix it up.” Maybe what we refer to today as “good self esteem” isn't a barrier or a help in our spiritual process either. After reading St. Teresa's work, I just feel self-esteem and self-image in general is irrelevant to spiritual movement, although it is healthy for psychological movement and getting by in society. These are just two different things, I have come to understand.

Don't let your guru or minister become your therapist, and don't let your therapist become your spiritual adviser either. While pastoral counseling can be great, unless they are licensed pastoral therapists, go to therapists who are trained in treating mental illness. On the one hand, you have growth of the soul. On the other hand, you have needs to cope with and heal from trauma, for example. God can and does help us heal. But mix-and-match no longer works for me. I prefer Jungian therapy, as it does try to bridge the two, but I still do not consider Jung an authority on religion or a priest or minister an authority on my psyche. That's just my opinion, for what it's worth.

When St. Teresa was canonized in 1622, she was praised in the papal bull for “overcoming her female nature.” Thus, she became the very first female Doctor of the Catholic Church. What an amazing thing her female nature was, as it led her to the creation of such detailed and in-depth writings, and to such a rich and fulfilling life within herself and towards others. During a time when women were considered so much less than men, St. Teresa laid down a solid and tangible example of what fullness women (and men) can become.


  1. I think Teresa was caught between a rock and a hard place, having to deny her sexuality and act subservient to the Church norms of the day which were horrible and continue to be horrible. Poor thing, having such a great mind and open spirit and then still having to show obeisance to the horrible fascist men who dominated the church. I think it did cause her some emotional illness, who under that kind of strain wouldn't have big problems?? Christianity overall then and now, doesn't have a clue about the simplicity of wisdom, about the arbitrariness of it's own tenets and about how harmful trying to control people's bodies and minds is, to the humans who succumb to it as a guide to their inner and outer lives.

  2. St. Teresa did not deny her sexuality. She knew she was an extroverted woman who enjoyed the company of others, many times men. She wrestled with the knowledge that her being a woman could get her places and tried to find that happy medium between being the woman she was without using it for egocentric purposes. Her wanting a stricter Carmelite order was her way of trying to control her willfulness, not her femininity. And her views were fought against by both women and "horrible fascist men".

    It was in fact her seeming lack of subservience that caused her the problems she faced within the Church. The nuns in her convent were nothing short of pissed off when she insisted on a stricter rule for the order. The men in charge who liked visiting them and hanging out weren't any happier. Bishops often times refused her entry into their dioceses for fear she would make waves against their looser lifestyles. Her showing obedience to the "horrible fascist men" in the end only served to let her have her way, not theirs. The Inquisition sought to find fault with her and in the end agreed with her, not her with them. How fascist of them. After all it is this fascist anti feminine Church that made her and St. Catherine of Sienna doctors of the very Church that is so anti-woman.

    Accusing Teresa of mental illness was actually used by the "horrible fascist men" to discredit her. Enough said here.

    Christianity understands that wisdom is simple. It also understands that getting there isn't. Just because getting at the simple may be complex doesn't make the simple complicated. And something isn't arbitrary merely because we misunderstand it or disagree with it.

    The United States has laws against suicide. And there are hate crimes. And as citizens we agree to live under and abide by the laws of the land and succumb to these controls of bodies and minds. And those who choose to be Catholic agree likewise with regard to their religion. To be fair we must tar every governing body that fits the description, not just the ones we disagree with and/or dislike. After all, nobody is making us be Americans or Catholics. We make our own decisions. Let others make theirs. And let St. Teresa make hers.