March is women’s history month, and the Women Studies program celebrated Catholicism’s first female doctor, Teresa of Avila.
PROVO, Utah (March 24, 2015)— Saint Teresa of Avila was born in a time predisposed to change. Less than 20 years before she was born in 1515, Christopher Columbus crossed the ocean and unlocked the New World to Europe. Just two years after her birth, Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation. Born to a world pursuing truth, Teresa became a figure who represented the discovery of inner peace.
Women and spirituality is the theme of this year’s women’s history month at BYU. As part of the celebration, Valerie Hegstrom from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and director of the women’s studies program described a handful of Saint Teresa’s characteristics and experiences that distinguish her as a figure still worth celebrating 500 years later. Her presentation was titled “The Top Twenty Things I Love about Saint Teresa of Avila.”
Despite the high rate of illiteracy in Europe at the time, Teresa knew how to read as a child perhaps because she came from a convert family with Jewish background, in which education was more valued. Hegstrom related that as a little girl, Teresa read books about saints with her younger brother, Rodrigo. The holy martyrs particularly fascinated them.
“They thought the holy martyrs were incredibly lucky because if you got killed while defending Christianity, you got to go straight to heaven,” Hegstrom said. “And they thought that was the coolest idea: they didn’t have to live through all of life and all of life’s problems.”
They decided that they, too, wanted to be holy martyrs. They ran away from home and set out to find a group of Moors in hopes that the Moors would behead them so that they could be holy martyrs. They were saved by an uncle, but, Hegstrom said, the instance gives insight into Saint Teresa’s audacity, even as a child. Teresa and Rodrigo gave up on being holy martyrs, and decided to be hermits instead, attempting to stack pebbles and build a hermitage in which they could live in isolation. Unfortunately, the pebbles kept toppling, so they also gave up on the hermit way of life.
Just as many kids play “house,” “Saint Teresa would gather all of her little friends in the neighborhood,” Hegstrom said, “and she’d pretend to be mother superior, and together they’d play ‘convent.’”
As a teenager, she did enter the convent to pursue a spiritual life, and she began developing some of her spiritual ideas. “One of the things that she believed in was called interior or mental prayer,” Hegstrom said. “What this means is that you’re actually talking to God. She had this idea that when you pray, it’s really okay to think of God as your friend and to prayer the things that you feel in your heart and to talk to God about those things.”
This was a dangerous notion at the time, but the idea has revolutionized the way people pray and interact with Deity today. She believed in personal revelation and had several visions, her most famous vision being called “the transfixion.” The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is a sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Rome that depicts Saint Teresa of Avila and the angel, which is described in the twenty-ninth chapter of The Book of Her Life. Art history associate professor Heather Belnap-Jensen spoke at the celebration, and said that the patron and artist of the sculpture chose to depict Saint Teresa because the popular opinion of the time dictated that “artworks are to look to Christ, to well-known saints, and to the those whom the devout should follow.” They saw Saint Teresa of Avila as a perfect fit.
Saint Teresa reformed the Catholic Order of Carmelites into the Barefoot Carmelites. According to Hegstrom, Saint Teresa perceived that life was getting too easy for the Carmelites, so in her reformation of that order, she instructed that they wear sandals to represent their humility. Saint Teresa eventually founded 19 or 20 convents in her lifetime, and now there are hundreds.
“When we think about nuns and about saints we think they were holy and serious and boring,” said Hegstrom. “But Saint Teresa was not like that.”
When Saint Teresa was a bit older, she had a portrait painted of her, and this is how she responded to the artist: “God forgive you Friar Juan, you have made me ugly and rheumy-eyed.”
According to Hegstrom, Saint Teresa loved to eat. “Convents often do lots of fun things, and one thing that they’re really good at is dessert. Almost every convent that you visit in Spain or Portugal or wherever you might find convents still open sells some kind of typical cookie or candy that those nuns make. Saint Teresa was big on these candies, and she invented recipes.”
Hegstrom showed a photo of a confection called the “yolks of Saint Teresa,” which are made out of egg yolks cooked in sugar.
“Don’t they look like they’d be good to eat? They’re not,” Hegstrom said. “They still make them in Avila, and I try to eat one every time I go.”
Saint Teresa believed in music in the convent, encouraged her spiritual daughters to put on plays and she wrote poetry and four books.
“She had lots of spiritual disciples,” Hegstrom said, and she was revered for her spiritual idea that our souls can be unified with God. According to Hegstrom, Saint Terersa claimed that when that unification occurs, “we have some really amazing spiritual experiences—like a burning in the bosom, a kind of spiritual ecstasy.”
The Catholic Church made Teresa of Avila a saint just 34 years after she died. “She wrote hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of letters,” said Hegstrom, “and after she died people would cut her signature off of letters so that they could carry her signature around with them in lockets.”
Just as Hegstrom self-identifies: “They were her fans.”
—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian ’15)