XVII – St. Therese – The Star

UPDATE: As someone pointed out to me in the comments section, I mixed up my Saints. Place has a quote by the St. Teresa of Avila before he does his write-up for St. Therese of Lisieux. Frankly, I think given the education of Saint Teresa and the influence she had I prefer her on the card. Besides, I got to talk about Bernini.

This is St. Therese or Terese or Theresa of Avila who lived in the 16th century. My introduction to her was in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series when he discussed the famous statue of her in Rome by Bernini called The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. This statue depicts a moment of religious ecstasy that Theresa described in her autobiography. An angel supposedly thrust a divine spear of gold into her heart, inflaming her with a love of God and physical pain so acute and excessive that she moaned with pain in a kind of spiritual ecstasy as she felt her soul caressed by God.

While meant as an expression of divine joy, I can’t help but attribute sexual connotations to this “transverberation,” as she called it. I have found that some of the episodes of religious ecstasy with other Saints, as in the sacred heart of Jesus for instance, do have a tinge of hysterical women celibates getting a bit too wrapped up in devotional love, to the point of intense physical manifestations of. . . well, orgasm. While not meaning to fulfill lust or carnal desire, they do at least in our day, and I’m not sure about then. It was a very different time where faith was intense and miracles and the presence of angels and visions and such were taken for granted. For them, perhaps a physical orgasm was interpreted as the emotional ecstasy of faith? That might be taking it too far. It’s very hard to understand this as spiritual. Even Bernini who was quite religious, seems to have interpreted this physical orgasmic state in the statue although perhaps unwittingly. It seems a stretch that he couldn’t tell how people would view this. I find this slight smirk on the angel’s face rather gloating.

Kenneth Clark puts it: “…but I admit that the civilisation of these years depended on certain assumptions that are out of favour in England and America today. The first of these, of course, was belief in authority, the absolute authority of the Catholic Church.”

Kenneth also found Bernini went shockingly far in his sensual depiction of Theresa the Practical and Plain. Clark thought this illusion in part a reaction to the severities of Protestantism and the affluence of the Baroque. It was all about mythic illusion and art and beauty and emotion and hugely overdone like other things of the time.

Theresa was supposed to levitate as well as have trances and visions. She was literate and learned, writing three books that had a great influence at the time and even today; an able administrator who reformed the Carmelite order; and she had a preference for austerity and a sensible outlook, very practical. Her health was terrible in her youth and she often had dramatic headaches, fainting and pains, and she was middle-aged before some of her more practical reforms took place with improvements in her health, and she founded several convents. Her austerity was not favoured by all and eventually split the Carmelite order into two independent branches. She had a cheerful personality, affectionate, frank and witty according to contemporaries. So, another Saint whose personality and ability to inspire and live with people made her a success.

I like Robert Place saying that after her death, she delivered the stars, in her writing, community building, and witness for faith I suppose, hence her inclusion on The Star card. Place does not mention Bernini’s statue, which I think a pity since it gives us a real feel, literally, for what faith was like back then. She’s really delivering the stars in that statue. It is rather beautiful though, isn’t it?

Theresa understood the dangers of mysticism and losing herself in her rapt ecstasies, and probably put less importance on them then on her practical duties, but the sensationalism of them comes down to us, we who view such experiences with the eyes of cynicism and knowledge of Freud and Jung and human sexuality and psyche. I also view her health problems as tinged with religious hysteria, but who really knows, we weren’t there.

Without doubt, she was an exceptional human who pushed on to do lasting things.