One of my favourite historical persons is St Teresa de Jesus (or St Teresa de Avila as she is also known). I would actually go as far as to say this lady is my favourite saint – but that may of course be because she is one of the few saints I have found interesting enough to read up on.
What I like about Teresa is how down-to-earth she seems. This woman doesn’t get her visions from God while fasting and praying, no her visitations come as she is busy in the convent’s huge kitchen. Imagine the dark, cool space. Over the open hearth the kitchen maid is turning the spitted birds, to the side the dough has been set to swell under a rumpled but clean linen cloth, and by the huge table stands Teresa, busy stirring a mixture of herbs and oils in a copper pan. Which is when Jesus says “Teresa, can you hear me?”
She most certainly can. Her face grows slack, her eyes glaze over, and her hold on the pan loosens to the point that it clatters to the floor. Teresa doesn’t notice; she is levitating a couple of inches off the floor, face turned upwards, towards the sky, towards the sound of the heavenly voice that fulls her spirit with joy, her heart with content. Moments later, Teresa is back to her normal capable self. The pot has been picked up, the mess on the floor wiped clean. But all the while she goes about her work, Teresa’s head rings with the words of her Lord and Saviour.
Let’s start at the beginning. Teresa was born 1515 in Ávila, an ancient and beautiful Spanish city. On her mother’s side, Teresa’s bloodline was impeccable – true Christian blood as far back as one could go. On her father’s side, things were somewhat more fuzzy – borderline dubious, as her father was of Jewish descent, however much a Christian he might be.
As a child, Teresa’s father had been subjected to the humiliating experience of having to do penance for not being a true convert to the Christian faith. Not that the poor boy had done anything, but his father was accused of still holding to Jewish traditions such as not eating pork, and so the entire family had to wear sambenito robes (gowns and conical hats in a bright yellow colour, decorated with flames and crosses – a discreet little hint as to what end awaited a heretic) and for seven consecutive Fridays walk from church to church in Toledo, admitting their sins. At every stop they were pelted with offal and submitted to verbal abuse, and as there are very many churches in Toledo, this was quite a harrowing experience. No wonder that Teresa’s father was so keen to marry beautiful Beatrix de Ahumada, what with her Christian lineage. He even took her family’s name as his, attempting to erase all traces of his own ancestry.
Teresa’s mother was fourteen when she married, dying at 33 after nine childbirths. The poor woman had spent a lot of time in bed, what with one pregnancy following on the other, and to while away her time, she devoured romances starring brave knights and demure damsels. As a consequence, Teresa was very young when she developed an interest in books, even though she would upgrade from romances to heavier tomes as her life progressed. The influence of her early reading matter can, however, be seen in her own writing, which lacks the stiff formality usually present in religious writings of the time.
With her mother dead, Teresa had to assume certain responsibilities in the household of her father. Marriage contracts were discussed, but Teresa was less than interested. The life of a well-born woman in 16th century Castille was very restricted, the wife’s role being to orbit round her husband and give him as many children as she could. The wives of the well-to-do led most of their lives behind the walls of their homes, and when they went abroad they would be adequately covered so as not to give rise to any gossip about their flightiness. Adequately covered in this case being everything but one eye, veils intricately arranged so as to achieve “tapada de medio ojo” (covering half the eyes).
Teresa had no wish to end up like her mother. A year in a nearby convent to calm her down, didn’t initially make her desire to become a nun either. Young Teresa was confused as to what to do with her life, but after some consideration she decided to elope to a nearby convent and take vows – very much against her father’s wishes. Supposedly, as she got into the carriage that was to take her to the convent, a man came by and made some complimentary comments about her ankle, for an instant visible below her skirts. The young woman laughed and thanked him, hoping he would appreciate that he was the last man ever to have the joy of seeing her skin thus uncovered.
This little episode gives us an insight into another aspect of Teresa. She was pretty enough to attract male glances, and she had no compunction about utilising this attraction to her benefit, wheedling donations and support out of almost every rich man she met. There was a lot of muttering about this handsome woman and the men who surrounded her. On one occasion, Teresa was hauled before the Inquisition on charges of fornication, with her confessor. At the time, Teresa was sixty plus, her confessor was around thirty, and the accusations were quickly laid to rest. But, some would snidely say, no smoke without fire, hey? Teresa never deigned to confront these malicious gossips.
It is said that Teresa’s decision to enter the convent was not due to devotion, but rather reflected her fear for her soul. Teresa considered herself prone to sin, and what better way to combat such tendencies than to remove oneself from the outside world? Still, she remained lukewarm in her religious convictions – which worried her. One day she became seriously ill, was ill for the coming three years or so, and during this period she had repeated experiences of religious ecstacy. Some people suggested her visions were the work of the devil, and Teresa, being convinced of her own sinful nature, was initially worried that they were right. Luckily, one of her confessors concluded that was not the case, and so Teresa could allow herself to be swept up in the passion of religious ecstacy.
Teresa was a prolific writer – her visions and spiritual experiences were committed to large tomes in which she developed her religious thinking. Today she is considered one of the great Christian mystics, but at the time this was a dangerous thing to do. Very, very dangerous – and especially if you were a woman. Which is probably why Teresa is so depreciating of herself in her books “I am but a simple woman” or “I have been asked by men much wiser than I to relate…” or “This calls for a simile, and I beg you excuse me, silly woman that i am for…” At times, her depreciation borders on sarcasm. Maybe it was…
So why this animosity towards women? Well, what’s new? The Church had been a male dominion for most of its existence, women relegated to be supporting “Marthas”, i.e. they should cook and feed, they should nurse and comfort, but they should preferably do this in silence, obsequiously bowing before the greater wisdom of men. Hmm. Very much hmm, come to think of it… Anyway, some men were enlightened, charming characters, such as Cardinal Ximénes Cisneros, who had the Bible translated to Spanish in the early 16th century and encouraged women to read and study the Holy Writ and other divine texts. Women leapt to the challenge. They read, they discussed, they did some more discussing – well, you know, like us women do, we talk things over, and while we’re at it, we digress into tangential discussions about Mercedes’ latest baby (seven sons, I tell you!), and is it true your hair becomes blonder if you wash it in chamomile water (yes), and has anyone else tried this new, strange vegetable called potato? (no way, was the resounding reply, patatas were for pigs and peasants)
The more serious and devout among the women joined groups with male members, groups with the sole purpose of striving to understand the Holy Writ. They were called alumbrados, or enlightened, these laypeople who took it upon themselves to make their own interpretation of the Bible, and the priests were not happy. Not at all. Especially as many of the more vociferous alumbrados were women – and conversos (Christians of Jewish origins), which, in the eyes of the Inquisition, was quite the toxic combo. Once Cardinal Cisneros died in 1517, there was a major backlash. The female leaders of the alumbrados were tortured, whipped, exiled, forced into convents – and in some cases burnt. All for the temerity of developing a personal relationship with God – and for being of Jewish descent, of not being sufficiently “pure” in their bloodlines.
This was bad news for Teresa. Not only did she have Jewish blood, but she also had a very personal relationship with God. She experienced utter joy when taken over by her visions, total abandonment when the moment passed. As she moved upwards through the hierarchy of the convents (she started quite a few herself), she studied the holy books, she had more visions and felt compelled to share her experiences. The Inquisition hovered over her – repeatedly. Teresa chose to handle this by applying a healthy dose of self-censorship – at least to her books. She was somewhat more forthright in her criticism of the Church and its prelates in other circumstances – which was why she founded her own order, which advocated a return to a simpler monastic life, with ample opportunity for contemplation and prayer.
On several occasions, Teresa had the less than pleasant experience of having to defend herself – and her writings – before the Inquisition. In 1580, she was forced to burn her commentary to the Song of Solomon, page by page, before the assembled Inquisitors – most of them men young enough to be her sons. And yet, for all that it hounded her, the Church also admired this tenacious woman, this nun who wrote enormous tomes about her close relationship with her King and Lord, Jesus. I suppose her sincerity shone through, as did her devotion and love.
When Teresa lay dying, her every word, her every expression was recorded. The nuns around her bedside whispered among themselves; were they witnessing the death of a saint? Yes, yes, they murmured, look at her face, lit from within, look at the joy blazing from her eyes! Excitement rippled through the room. Imagine that! A saint, dying here, in their convent. They’d build her a nice tomb, and soon the pilgrims would come, and…the abbess may have rubbed her pudgy hands together, calculating the potential profits this would mean. Teresa was beyond caring.
“Who are you?” her Beloved one asked her one afternoon.
“I am Teresa of Jesus,” she mumbled in reply, “and who are you?”
“I am Jesus – of Teresa.”
In 1583, Teresa was called to her heavenly father. For her sake, I hope he was there, waiting for her. Maybe He took her hand and led her towards the brilliance of heaven, maybe He just smiled, somewhat enigmatically, at this woman who loved Him so much.
No sooner had Teresa died, but the nuns hastened to bury her, wanting to ensure her bodily remains remained in their convent, Alba de Tormes. Not to be. Some days after her death, her confessor, Jerónimo Gracían rode in. His plans were to take the body with him to Ávila. The body was disinterred, the (male) witnesses marvelled at her beautiful body, free of all signs of putrefaction and firm and round, this despite her advanced age of 67 (and the fact that she was dead). Gracían produced a saw and cut off her left hand. A major quarrel re the remains broke out. The body was taken to Ávila to be buried there (but an arm was chopped off and left at the convent where she died).
The bereaved convent protested, all the way to the Holy Father. Teresa’s body was yet again dug up. And again. And again. Five times in total, the poor corpse was dug up and reburied, and every time it was returned to the grave, it was several limbs/organs poorer. An eye was popped out, a finger was nipped off, her heart ended up in a reliquary, her upper jawbone was removed, her dainty foot was cut off….
Over the centuries, Teresa’s body parts have done quite the walkabout. And her hand, the one so callously chopped off by her dear confessor, was one day to adorn the pillow of Franco’s deathbed. I guess the old dictator hoped that by holding on to it, he’d be led all the way to heaven. Fat chance. Teresa wouldn’t have liked him, and neither, I’m sure, would God.