Sarah Biggs, anthropology and religious studies
Written for REL-R300: Nuns and Guns
Instructor: Prof. Sonia Velasquez
Saint Teresa of Avila was born in Spain in the mid-16th century. She lived as a nun during the time of the Spanish Inquisition and the coinciding Counter Reformation that was occurring under the Catholic Church. She is famed for her mystic experiences, involving visions and a type of prayer that she would perform on her own as a part of her individual devotion to God. For these mystical – and, one might say, personal – experiences with God, St. Teresa is known to this day mostly positively in the Catholic community, especially those believers in Spain of which she is a patron saint.
However, her experiences during her own time both amazed her fellow Catholics, nuns and laity alike, and attracted the questions and attention of the Inquisition. It was questionable for a woman to be able to have such a personal – nearly Protestant – relationship with God under the male-dominated hierarchy of the Church. It was thought that only men could have these experiences and that generally a woman’s visions should not be trusted as they were more likely to be brought on by Satan than Christ. However, followers of St. Teresa, including religious thinkers, needed a way to justify her within this realm of thinking. Therefore, they introduced the argument that, although St. Teresa had the body of a female, she had the soul of a male (Rowe 2011). In this essay, I will further detail the subject of femaleness and maleness during the time of St. Teresa, delineating why people came to such conclusions, as well as considering the way that St. Teresa might have pictured herself in regards to the gender of her soul and spirituality.
In his biography of St. Teresa published in 1590, Jesuit priest Francisco de Ribera writes:
Those women who conquer their passions through strength and subject themselves to God…are to be called men, and men who are conquered by passions are called women. This is not a result of bodily differences, but of the strength of the soul … So here we are talking about the visions of a woman more manly than many great men.
Ribera is writing this as a form of defense against those who deride the female mystic with heresy (Rowe 2011). Why did he feel the need to defend St. Teresa? The Inquisition was occurring during this period, along with the Counter Reformation, which marked as heresy anything that was not understood to be undeniably Catholic. Therefore, Teresa’s methods of prayer and personal relationship with God were called into question for resembling Protestantism, especially since she was a woman who seemed to distance herself from the influence of clerical men. However, in order to fully understand this concept, it is important to consider the ways gender was (and is still today) viewed in the Catholic Church.
What makes a holy woman in Catholicism? Since the options are quite limited, the question can be narrowed down to what makes a nun. More often than not, one of the primary requirements that comes to mind is that of virginity, or sexual purity. In the case of female anatomy, it is also important to note that virginity often signifies a more closed-off vaginal area because generally the hymen is still intact. This is significant because one of the essential differences between the male and female anatomy is the presence of that opening in women, which can be easily infiltrated with impurity.
The definition of virginity, as a sign of purity, is enclosed in the definition of the word “virtue” as well, which signifies a type of moral excellence and chastity. However, another definition of a specific Christian virtue is put forth by Pseudo-Dionysius in the ca. 5th century A.D. in his book, On the Celestial Hierarchy: “The name of the holy Virtues signifies a certain powerful and unshakable virility welling forth into all their Godlike energies; not being weak and feeble for any reception of the divine Illuminations granted to it.” Here, Virtues are defined as fifth from the top in the hierarchy of angels. They are significantly identified with “unshakable virility,” which can be defined as a sort of strength or manliness by way of the root (of “virginity,” “virtue,” and “virility”) “vir-,” which is understood to mean man, manliness, or masculine. Another significant feature of this definition of Virtues is how they are not too “weak [or] feeble for any reception of the divine Illuminations granted to [them]” (“Christian Angelic Hierarchy” 2015). This is probably due to the strength that they have and is part of their general virility. However, the fact that they receive Illuminations at all is rather poignant when speaking of St. Teresa of Avila.
Alison Weber writes in her book Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity that “humanists began to reject explicitly the idea of the spiritual inferiority of women,” and delineates how this notion flourished under the reign of Cardinal Ximenez Cisneros (Weber 1990, pp. 20-21) at the beginning of the 16th century, right around St. Teresa’s birth. During this movement, the education of women in regards to the Scripture was widely advocated. Because of this movement during the Reformation, later years saw the rise in the drive for personal understandings of the Scripture through the Illuminations of the Holy Spirit. Most of the leaders of these groups of “Illuminists” were, indeed, women; and because of the Protestant nature of the endeavor, they attracted the attention and the condemnation of the Spanish Inquisition. Therefore, when St. Teresa started to experience what might be called mystical illuminations, Church leaders were extremely reticent of her as a female who was having personal experiences with Christ despite the fact that she still participated and held to high importance the intermediate necessity of priests and the male hierarchy of the Church (Weber 1990). Therefore, it became necessary for her followers to provide her with the adequate amount of virtue to make her mystical experiences worthy in the eyes of the male-dominated holy community. In doing so, they had to instill in her a specifically virile virginity to make her soul masculine.
It is true that even St. Teresa saw this difference in the virtue that a woman might hold versus a man. In her confession, or autobiography, she writes of her parents’ respective virtues in quite different ways: her father is non-slanderous, charitable to the poor, and compassionate to the sick. These are all qualities that come to mind even today when we think of good, virtuous people. However, her mother’s virtue takes a different form. Her mother endured “severe sufferings” and a “great sickness;” she died in the “most Christian manner;” and she “dressed like a woman advanced in years” (Cohen 1957, p. 23). All of these qualities imply a type of physical work that had to be done in order to achieve virtue. She physically suffered much of her life; and she dressed like an elderly woman, who is commonly known to have more testosterone (or the “male” sex hormone) than a younger woman, who is “trapped” by her own femininity and beauty (Cohen 1957). In the way St. Teresa viewed her own parents, her opinion that females must work harder to be virtuous, and thus closer to God, becomes prominent.
She also agreed with the views of her time that women are generally and naturally helpless, weak, simple and in need of a spiritual advisor. It should be noted that she did, indeed, have a spiritual advisor(s) for whom she wrote her confessions. In them, she wrote: “We must have a learned man as our director and hide nothing from him” (Cohen 1957, p. 179). This is just one example of her views involving the necessity of the male hierarchy in the Catholic Church. Indeed, one of the most frustrating parts of reading her confessions is the way she speaks of herself with a type of abasement. However, in this simplicity and fragility, there is something else, something which arguably gives women the natural ability to become closer to God in the opinion of St. Teresa: humility.
One deadly sin lies in knowledge, power, and strength: pride. This is the danger for those who are naturally graced with virility, i.e. men. In her work, Interior Castle, she writes of how woman are luckily free of an inherent pride: “You, my sisters, are free from such dangers, as far as we can tell; God keep you from pride and vainglory!” (Teresa of Avila, 2013). Along with admitting the necessity of men, St. Teresa also understands the weaknesses they might have when she is defending the reality of her visions in her confessions: “I do not think that learned men could have possibly have impressed on me so strongly or have shown me so clearly the vanity of this world” (Cohen 1957, p. 307). This is because they have a natural tendency for vanity themselves, and in order to have a true understanding of the Divine, one must be humble, which she clearly implicates herself to be.
Another point worth discussing is St. Teresa’s understanding of a transition towards holiness, which indeed requires virtue and necessitates humility. The work is a large metaphor of the soul as a castle with different mansions, or levels, which must be passed through in order to achieve a relationship with Christ. It is a long, difficult transition towards virtue, which is reminiscent of the aforementioned definition that she gave to her own mother’s virtue. In the very first mansion, she mentions the evils which must be overcome in order to achieve the primordial quality of humility. There are five mansions in total; and in her writings on the fifth mansion, St. Teresa utilizes a silkworm metaphor to describe the final transition towards a fulfilling, personal relationship with Christ (Butler-Bowdon n.d.):
The silkworm symbolizes the soul which begins to live when, kindled by the Holy Spirit, it commences using the ordinary aids given by God to all, and applies the remedies left by Him in His Church, such as regular confession, religious books, and sermons; these are the cure for a soul dead in its negligence and sins and liable to fall into temptation. Then it comes to life and continues nourishing itself on this food and on devout meditation until it has attained full vigour, which is the essential point, for I attach no importance to the rest. When the silkworm is full-grown as I told you in the first part of this chapter, it begins to spin silk and to build the house wherein it must die. By this house, when speaking of the soul, I mean Christ.
Of course, this metaphor can symbolize a number of concepts that have to do with joining with Christ. It can symbolize death and entering into heaven, wherein, she might live with God forevermore. She describes this as the true life, more true than life on Earth, in her poem, I Live Lacking Life in Me. However, it can also contemporaneously symbolize the attainment of a certain personal virtue (or virility) or even the marriage to Christ, which is often done when a nun is finally accepted in her convent as a nun. What should be noticed here is a certain irony that exists when contemplating the necessity of virginity, virtue, and virility when being considered holy enough to enter into marriage with Christ as a woman beginning the devotion of her life to the imagined ideal man.
Although St. Teresa did not directly identify her soul as masculine in her works, she did contribute to the identification that others gave her in having a male soul or likeness. As an example, in her poem In the Hands of God, she devotes two stanzas to a comparison between herself and a number of male prophets from the Bible:
Calvary or Tabor give me,
Desert or fruitful land;
As Job in suffering
Or John at Your breast;
Barren or fruited vine,
Whatever be Your will:
What do You want of me?
Be I Joseph Chained
Or as Egypt’s governor,
Or exalted high,
Or Jonas freed:
What do You want of me? (Potter 2015).
Indeed, the saint with whom she identified the most was a man: the human father, St. Joseph, of Jesus. He was her patron saint; and in 1562, St. Teresa even dedicated the reformed Carmelite order that she founded to him (Rowe 2011, p. 50). It is worth noting here the significant increase of import that was given to St. Joseph around the time of her life as artists started to portray St. Joseph more than the Virgin Mary as the loving and caring guardian of Jesus. He was portrayed with a certain gentle masculinity that revolved around him being a father and husband. His masculinity was in his relationship with God as a caretaker as well as a submissive follower, very similarly to the way St. Teresa imagined herself (Black 2006).
Why did St. Teresa identify with men? Certainly, it is not because she only had them from which to choose. Rather, she saw her relationship with Christ as superseding all other aspects of her identity. Virtue, as inherently masculine, in the Catholic Church is defined by the actions of Christ Himself. Indeed, St. Teresa’s description of her father’s virtue is reminiscent of the actions of Christ. Through Jesus, St. Teresa was able to have every kind of relationship with God: child, servant, wife, and most importantly, vessel. In her poem, Christ Has No Body, St. Teresa writes of believers in Christ as His vessels, acting as he would act and having true virtue:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
St. Teresa of Avila did not see her soul as masculine. She saw herself as inherently female, for she embraced what Alison Weber (1990) calls mujercilla, or “little woman.” Involved in this definition are the inherent, stereotyped qualities of women: passivity, gentleness, weakness, ignorance. Indeed, she even recognized the necessity of a transition towards virtue. However, a part of this transition is the humility that can present itself in the absence of pride, a quality to which females are more drawn than men. She was given a masculine soul by her defenders because of the identification she found with men who had the same relationship with God as she. The human man with whom she most identified, St. Joseph, had undeniably effeminate qualities in his perceived gentle and caring nature towards Jesus. He was not perceived as a warrior or king; he was a husband and father. Most significant, though, is Jesus, who was neither pictured as anything but compassionate and thoughtful. Certainly, he had a mix of stereotyped male and female qualities a well.
In the identification of St. Teresa’s soul as masculine, one might see that the soul of most believing men necessitates some female qualities, as well as the suppression of pride. Holy men must be married to the Lord, and therefore, remain abstinent like holy women. They are warriors, but not physically so. In them is required a certain portion of compassion and humility. Therefore, it might be that St. Teresa had a masculine soul because having a masculine soul is fundamentally different from being masculine. The same can be said for a feminine soul. Rather than being strictly masculine in the way that one might perceive gendered differences today, the holy soul is one that blends and, in so doing, transcends the differences between femininity and masculinity.