MYSTICISM: Saint Teresa of Ávila — The Ironic Doctor by Francine Prose

Saint Teresa of Ávila — The Ironic Doctor by Francine Prose

From A Tremor of Bliss: Contemporary Writers on the Saints

Irony is not the quality we associate first with the saints.

Seen from this distance, and with the modernist’s double vision, their lives appear to us to have been rich in ironic and playful incident and detail.  Consider the vegetarian Nicholas of Tolentino, who, on being forced to eat a pigeon stew, caused the cooked birds’ feathers to regrow, the sauce to flow like blood in their veins, until the revivified pigeons fluttered their wings and flew out the window; or Saint Datius, who exorcised a haunted house by mocking the devil for making the sounds of ghostly animals in the night.  Let us think of Saint Ansovinus, who embarrassed a stingy innkeeper with a miraculous lesson about the ethics of watering the wine, or the gravity-defying Joseph of Cupertino, expelled from a series of monasteries for being unable to stop himself from frightening his brethren by levitating at mealtime or in the midst of saying Mass.  Or let us contemplate the famous — and famously ironic — prayer of Saint Augustine, begging God to send him the gift of chastity. . . but not yet.

Even so, the character of the saint and the nature of sainthood may strike us profoundly incompatible with the ironist’s perspective.  Saints, we feel, are, by definition, impassioned and single-minded, tormented by unruly desires and devious temptations, by demons and doubt — but not by alienation and contradiction.  Their apprehension of the world and of God is immediate and cohesive, not fragmented and conflicted.  The saint’s experience is that of proximity, of presence, of the imminence of grace, not of the world seen through a glass darkly: through the cloudy, fingerprinted lens of ironic distance.

As a Jewish child growing up in New York, I quite naturally longed to be a saint.  Like many little girls (and many saints, one imagines), I intuited at a young age that early martyrdom would preemptively circumvent the problems and pressures of adulthood.  Perhaps enough has been written (some of it by myself) about the allure of a perfect bridegroom who promises that he will ask nothing of us but absolute devotion and (in the case of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux) a fairly daunting amount of housework.  And much has also been said about the appeal of the promise of glory, of an eternity to be spent in a paradise that our imaginations may endow with the pink light and verdant heavenly landscapes of a Sienese religious painting.

For the would-be and future saint, the lives of the saints and martyrs can function as a kind of how-to manual, listing the various obstacles posed and overcome: the pagan background, the stubborn and often violent opposition of parents and of society, one’s own troublesome fondness for the pleasures and comforts of the material world.  But nowhere in the saints’ lives that I devoured with such avidity did I find a single example of a saint who had triumphed over what I sensed early on to be the main stumbling block in my path.

I have heard adults with no knowledge of children claim that irony is an acquired trait, a quality belonging to a later stage of development, like a taste for olives, caviar, or champagne.  But some children are born ironists; I know because I was one.  Almost from the cradle, I watched the world from a certain remove and with the consciousness of watching; everything seemed to me to have several possible (or opposite) meanings and explanations, and that disjuncture, that ambiguity, struck me, more often than not, as at once disturbing, comforting, marvelous — and funny.

Much of the Autobiography of Saint Teresa of Ávila — which I first read in my twenties during the early 1970s — is permeated by that same familiar, ironic, and (to me) intensely sympathetic sensibility.  She is funny, edgy, self-mocking, and extremely sympathetic toward the excesses and self-dramatization that goes along with being young.

Who knows how different my life might have been had her book com einto my possession earlier.

The opening sentence of Saint Teresa’s account of her life is not only one of the great beginnings in religious or secular literature, but it may be one of the most barbed, ironic, and double- (or triple-) edged sentences ever written: “Had I not been so wicked, it would have been a help to me to have such virtuous and pious parents. . . .”

So begins the narrative of the complicated, extraordinary life that began in March 1515 in an aristocratic household in Ávila, the walled city that rose out of the harsh, arid landscape of Central Spain.  Teresa’s father, Don Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda, was a charitable man who taught his daughter to read in an era when literacy was generally not numbered among the requisite feminine virtues, and despite his own disapproval of the distractions of frivolous literature — the chivalric romances that Teresa so loved.  (“So completely was I mastered by this passion that I thought I could never be happy without a book.”)

The little girl’s fascination with courtly romances was shared by her mother, Dona Beatriz, who married at fourteen, bore nine children and, perhaps as a consequence, remained a lifelong invalid until her early death.  (“Though extremely beautiful, she was never known to give any reason for supposing that she made the slightest account of her beauty; and, though she died at thirty-three, her dress was already that of a person advanced in years.”)

In this large, chaotic household, Teresa’s closest ally was her brother Rodrigo, and the most celebrated anecdote of her childhood — clearly the one she most delights in telling — involves their frustrated attempt to run away from home in search of instant martyrdom.  Her description of their escapade typifies her irony, her humor, and the compassion — in this case, for her younger self — that (as the paragraph turns and turns) forms a sort of bridge between her gentle, forgiving self-mockery and the deep seriousness of her moral and devotional purpose:

We used to read the lives of the saints together; sand, when I read of the martyrdoms suffered by saintly women for God’s sake, I used to think they had purchased the fruition of God very cheaply; and I had a keen desire to die as they had done, not out of any love for God, but in order to attain as quickly as possible the great blessings which, as I read, were laid up in Heaven.  I used to discuss with this brother of mine how we could become martyrs.  We agreed to go off to the country of the Moors, begging our bread for the love of God, so that they might behead us there; and, even at so tender an age, I believe that the Lord had given us sufficient courage for this; but our greatest hindrance seemed to be that we had a father and mother.  It used to cause us great astonishment when we were told that both pain and glory would last forever.  We would spend long periods talking about this and we like to repeat again and again, ‘Forever — ever — ever!’  Through our frequent repetition of these words, it pleased the Lord that in my earliest years I should receive a lasting impression of the way of the truth. 

Recognized by an uncle as they were leaving Ávila, the two runaway children were promptly returned home, where, in time, Teresa grew into a handsome, vain, strong-willed and talkative young woman.  (“I began to deck myself out and try to attract others by my appearance, taking great troubles with my hands and hair, using perfumes and all the vanities I could get — and there were a good many of them, for I was very fastidious.  I always had the facet of making myself understood only with a torrent of words.”)

Then with the onset of early adolescence came a series of personal and health crises that conspired (or, as Teresa would have said, manifested the will of God) to lead and then impel her toward the cloister.  The most intriguing and mysterious of these involved a cousin from whom “I learned every kind of evil.  The result of my intercourse with this woman was to change me so much that I lost all my soul’s natural inclination to virtue, and was greatly influenced by her, and by another person who indulged in the same kinds of pastime.”  The normally forthright, ironic Teresa is uncharacteristically elusive, vague, and portentous about the nature of this pastime, but much about her tone inclines one to agree with Vita Sackville-West’s rather delicate and tactful assessment of her in The Eagle and the Dove.  “Since few things are more distasteful than veiled hints, it may also be outspokenly noted that in her own country the name of Teresa has been associated with that of Sappho.  Nobody in their senses would dream of comparing the organized orgies of Lesbos with the rudimentary experimental dabbling of adolescent girls.  The point is in any case perhaps not of very much interest, except in so far as every point concerning so complex a character is of interest.  Above all, it is not introduced here in any spirit of scandalous disrespect to a wise woman and a great saint.”

In flight from guilt and terrors that this incident evoked in her, Teresa was, at sixteen at once distressed and greatly relieved to find herself enrolled as a student at the convent of Our Lady of Grace.  Her confusion about the religious life (and perhaps about her sexuality) may have led to the first of the many terrifying and near-fatal illnesses that would plague her for the rest of her life.  (Like any number of historical figures — Van Gogh and El Greco, among others — Saint Teresa has had the benefit of better diagnostic and medical care after her death than she had during her lifetime: her condition has been variously diagnosed as hyperthyroidism, consumption, epilepsy, and perhaps needless to add, psychosexual hysteria.)

After a recuperative stay at her sister’s house, she stopped for a brief visit at the home of an uncle, to whom she read aloud from holy books.  In the process, she began to understand “the truth that all things are nothing, and that the world is vanity and will soon pass away.  I began to fear that, if I had died of my illness, I should have gone to hell; and though, even then, I could not incline my will to being a nun, I saw that this was the best and safest state, and so, little by little, I was determined to force myself to embrace it.  This conflict lasted for three months.  I used to try to convince myself by using the following arguments.  The trials and distresses of being a nun could not be greater than those of purgatory and I had fully deserved to be in hell.  It would not be a great matter to spend my life as though I were in purgatory if afterwards I were to go straight to Heaven, which was what I desires.  This decision, then, to enter the religious life seems to have been inspired by servile fear more than by love.” 

The italics are my own, and the reason I’ve been quoting at such length from Teresa’s own version of these critical events is in the hope of conveying a sense of her unsparing honesty, her plainspoken urgency, her self-critical humorous sympathy, and, most strikingly, her immense tolerance for ambivalence and ironic contradiction — a tolerance that would seem unusual in anyone, during any era, but that strikes us as all the more stunning in a not-terribly-well-educated Spanish Catholic woman living at a time when the Inquisition had done so much to advance the cause of the vengeful, exquisitely cruel, and fanatically literal-minded.

This tolerance for conflict and for the apparently irreconcilable would not only serve Teresa well, but also prove to be a psychic necessity, since so much of her adult life appears to have been a nest of roiling, insoluble contradictions.  (“When I was in the midst of worldly pleasures, I was distressed by the remembrance of what I owed to God; when I was with God, I grew restless because of worldly affections.”)

What’s most amazing — and most appealing — about her is the fact that she was such a creature of opposites.  She describes herself as weak-willed, vain, shallow, fond of pleasures and comforts, easily seduced and distracted.  (“Anyone who gave me so much as a sardine could obtain anything from me.”)  And yet she possess the courage and steely determination to accomplish (more or less singlehandedly) the strenuous and controversial reform of the Carmelite Order, which, as Sackville-West describes it, had become little more than an ongoing tea party:

Friends and relations, both feminine and masculine, might be received there.  Little presents changed hands, sweetmeats and oranges, jam, scent.  Many a sister had her little private store of provisions in reserve.  Gossip and the latest news circulated freely in that agreeable circle, and the fashionable topics of culture, philosophy, music, literature, and even, more dangerously, Platonic love, came under lively discussion during the long afternoons. 

That was the situation when Teresa became a novice, and for the next quarter century or so, until, in her late forties, she undertook the task for reforming her order.  Under Teresa’s direction, these pleasant amusements came to an end, and the seventeen convents that she helped establish throughout Spain were rededicated to the principles of poverty, purity, obedience, and contemplation.  Though nearly always in ill health, she spent the last twenty years of her life (she died at sixty-seven) traveling constantly to oversee the foundation and operation of those seventeen convents — which represented nothing less than a reproof and challenge to the laxity and self-indulgence of the sixteenth-century Spanish clergy.  (Nor did she accomplish these reforms without, as one might expect, overcoming a great deal of potentially perilous intrigue and strong opposition from the clerical establishment.)

Teresa claimed to hate writing, to be unable to write; her work is full of self-doubt, of protestations that she is unequal to the task before her, of excuses for procrastination and apologies for the repetitions resulting from her lack of time to read over what she’d written.  (Why is she not — for these reasons alone — the patron saint of writers?)  Yet she wrote voluminously, quickly (The Interior Castle was written in the space of four weeks) and under impossible circumstances — in freezing cold, cramped cells, without even a table or chair.  She worked while desperately ill, frequently interrupted by uncontrollable, unbidden visions and by pressing problems within her order.

She was the most practical, down-to-earth, shrewd, and sensible of souls, persuasive and skilled at dealing with the clerical hierarchy and with the political forces of her day — and at the same time a celebrated mystic, famous for the (often racking and paralyzing) transports that removed her from quotidian reality, and from ordinary consciousness.  Certainly, the most striking contradiction in her life involved the disjuncture between her commitment to the active life (to the reform of her order and to the nuns in her charge) and to the more contemplative, meditative, quietist — and visionary — aspects of religious experience.

Her mystical experiences ranged from comforting intimations of the nearness of God (“I used unexpectedly to experience a consciousness of the presence of God, of such a kind that I could not doubt that he was within, or that I was wholly engulfed in him.  This was in no sense a vision; I believe it is called mystical theology, the soul is suspended completely outside itself.  The will loves; the memory, I think, is almost lost. . .”) to horrifying visions of the devil.

“Out of his body there seemed to be coming a great flame, which was intensely bright and cast no shadow.  HE told me in a horrible way that I had indeed escaped out of his hands but he would get hold of me still.  The Lord evidently meant me to realize that this was the work of the devil, for I saw beside me the most hideous little negro, snarling as if he was in despair at having lost what he was trying to gain.  I have learned there is nothing like holy water to put devils to flight and prevent them from coming back again.”  On another occasion, God appeared to her with the gift of a jeweled rosary, which no one else could see.

No doubt the most famous of her visions was that of the angel who pierced her heart with his burning lance “several times so that it penetrated to my entrails.  When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it, and he left me completely afire with a great love for God.  The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God.”

It was this visitation — and her description, with its undeniably and almost comically sexual overtones — that was to inspire Richard Crashaw’s overwrought verse and Bernini’s graceful and equally over-the-top sculpture.  Ironically, we can thank Bernini and Crashaw for the version of Teresa that has survived in the popular imagination: the swooning, hysterical female visionary, brought to the spiritual equivalent of orgasm by the overwhelming force of her religious fervor.

The reality was extremely different.  Teresa was profoundly private about, and distrustful of, her visions.  She tried desperately to hide her transports, which frightened and embarrassed her:

I have lain on the ground and the sisters have come and held me down, but none the less the rapture has been observed.  I besought the Lord earnestly not to grant me any more favors which had visible and exterior signs; for I was exhausted by having to endure such worries and after all (I said) His Majesty could grant me that favor without its becoming known. 

Though she believed that her visions were coming from God, she distrusted them, and feared that they might be the work of the devil.  Partly to ease these fears, her confessor “commanded me to make the sign of the Cross whenever I had a vision, and to snap my fingers at it so as to convince myself that it came from the devil.  This caused me great distress.”

Even her approach to prayer could hardly have been less ecstatically passive than that of the semicomatose woman we see in Bernini’s masterpiece.  What’s striking (and, in a way, hardest for the modern reader to comprehend) about her devotional writing is the cool precision with which she outlines the steps, stages, and techniques for “those who are determined to pursue this blessing and succeed in this enterprise”: “Beginners must accustom themselves to pay no heed to what they see or hear, and they must practice this during hours of prayer; they must be alone and in their solitude think over their past life — all of us, indeed, whether beginners or proficients, must do this frequently.”

And really, it should come as no great surprise: the distance between the pretty, swooning saint we find in Bernini and Crashaw and the plucky, resilient, practical, and extremely capable middle-aged nun who braved the Inquisition, reformed an entire order and, despite a life of illness and hardship, somehow found the time and energy to write several of the great classics of contemplative literature.  One image fits — and feeds — every reductive cliché about the nature of female religiosity.  The other, the historical reality, defies and expands our conventional notions of what it means to be a woman (and a sixteenth-century Spanish woman, at that) as well as a great writer, and a great saint: a soul capable of embracing a dizzying range of contradictions, of keeping an unwavering focus on the nearness and grace of God without losing her humor, her common sense — and her ironic double vision.



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