“From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, Good Lord deliver us!”
“May God preserve us from stupid nuns!”
No matter how hard they try, hagiographers can’t camouflage Teresa’s tart brusqueness. In her day, the sixteenth century, the Inquisition tried to force change through threats, imprisonment and violence. One suspects that Teresa’s humor had longer-lasting effects.
She reformed not only the Carmelite order, but also attitudes about women and approaches to prayer. Because her early training had shoe-horned her into trivial conversation with too many women jammed into one house, she created orderly spaces where her sisters could turn inward. “My daughters, we are not hollow inside,” she reminded them.
Then she took on the prevailing ideas of prayer: mindless repetition of rote formulas imposed by the clergy. Most people considered direct experience of God, without priestly intervention, subversive. Teresa gave images of contemplation that were close to daily life: the watered garden, beehive, interior castle, heart of God like the innermost, edible core of the palmetto. The face of God that Teresa reveals is not punitive or distant, but precious as a lover, close as a friend.
All the while she was dancing around the Inquisition, coyly claiming she had no idea what she was talking about. How could others condemn her when she beat them to it? Meanwhile, probably grinning self-protectively, she focuses on God’s generosity: “Do you think it’s some small matter to have a friend like this at your side?”
Excerpt from Women of Mercy by Kathy Coffey, art by Michael O’Neill McGrath, Orbis Books, 800-258-5838