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st teresa de avila

Did this nun find God or her clit?

*This article discusses religious experiences relevant to the Catholic Church; the information presented is merely based upon theories and does not reflect official Church doctrine or Christian beliefs.

St Teresa de Avila is one of the most significant women in the history of Catholicism and, by extension, Christian history at large. While many people today may not know who she is, Teresa is a revered and respected mystic and nun from the 16th century who had many religious visions and experiences. These visions are often described as erotic visions. Now, as we all know, nuns take a vow of celibacy, and this was the case back in 16th-century Spain too. This might make you wonder why would her visions be described as erotic then? 

The erotic, or often described as ecstatic, visions of Teresa are not unique to her alone. She was considered one of many women from this period of time who practised ‘bridal mysticism’, which in many ways is understood as an almost romantic union with Jesus or God during one’s visions. Of one of her visions, she wrote, “This [a cosmic spear] I thought that he thrust several times into my heart and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear, he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceedingly sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God.” The language here has been understood by many to be amorous and erotic in nature, noting the similarities between her description of her vision and experiencing sexual pleasure. The nature of discourse around St Teresa is that often she is thought of as experiencing an orgasm while undergoing her religious visions. 

Diving deeper into the life of St Teresa, she was sent to her convent at the age of 15 for sins of ‘depravity’. Something she herself recorded and expressed in her writing stating that the convent was a place for “girls like myself, although there were none there as depraved as I.” This has led some to argue, given the social climate and attitudes toward sexuality in mid-1500s Spain, that Teresa may have either been caught engaging in self-pleasure or some have even gone further to suggest that she may have been a lesbian. If that was the case, you have to question the logic of sending her to a place associated with femininity and women-exclusive spaces. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that she was queer, embracing masculine energy and encouraging other women to do the same, subverting gender roles, and having several close female companions. 

While scholars have speculated for decades, if not centuries, about the life of St Teresa de Avila and her so-called ‘depravity’, the arts have been far more liberal and eager to express her life and religious visions through a highly sexual lens. The famous sculpture The Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila by Gian Lorenzo Bermini, has frequently been interpreted as overt in its eroticism showing Teresa in the throws of passion, mouth agape, to convey the subject as she encounters visions of divinity. It has to be stated that nobody but Teresa herself can truly know the intimate details of her religious experiences, and even if she did in fact have them at all, but the language she uses to describe what she witnesses does lean toward sexuality within the confines of religious conservatism that feels both bold and subversive. 

This has led some to argue that St Teresa de Avila, when she had her visions, was actually masturbating. It is important to note that in the eyes of the Catholic Church, masturbation is considered a sin, and all sexual activity a person can engage in without sin should be in the marital bed with the potential of pregnancy. This means no LoveHoney deliveries to the Vatican. With this in mind, to suggest a respected Catholic nun was actually discovering her genitals instead of Christ is quite a controversial claim. I have to ask, though, would that really be so bad?

The concept of women masturbating has historically been one of the most stigmatised and socially shunned acts a woman can do, right up there with wearing pants and entering the workforce. One of the main reasons for this is because masturbation is associated with sexual agency and autonomy. This threatens patriarchal understandings that sex is something that men do to women and not with them. In a space like a convent where women are divorced from environments with much patriarchal influence, it is not actually very surprising that a figure like St Teresa de Avila would arise. Simone de Beauvoir in her work, The Second Sex, singles out St Teresa as a woman who truly lived life on her own terms and praised her for her autonomy. Part of autonomy is sexual autonomy.

Whether St Teresa was experiencing orgasm during her visions or not, through her own words, there is a clear eroticism and sensuality that is central to how she understood what she went through. She wrote in the book of her life “The loving exchange that takes place between the soul and God is so sweet that I beg Him in His goodness to give a taste of this love to anyone who thinks I am lying”. While this can be interpreted in a way that is divorced from sexuality, it is valid to see her visions through a decidedly feminist sexual lens. St Teresa expressed the sentiment of exchange and pleasure in her visions that in many ways contradicted the typical father-child dynamic that is central to how most Catholics understand their relationship to divinity. In this way she almost places herself as an equal to God with something to give as well as something to take from interactions with the divine. 

Sacred, sexual, or sacrilegious in nature, the visions of St Teresa de Avila are one of the most famous in a collection of testimonies from Catholic women in history who encountered their faith through sensual visions. The bridal mystic tradition feels to me as almost a subtle subversion of the chastity of nuns and a statement of agency. In the 1500s, a woman like St Teresa and her peers had very little agency. Teresa was presented with the options of marriage or the convent and whether chosen or not, she utilised the convent as a platform to subvert subtly. Her erotic visions have mystified scholars of religious experience for centuries but they did something more impactful too. They presented one of the first accounts in Western Christian culture of a woman having the ability to experience pleasure and passion without the presence of a husband. Through her writing, she started to cultivate a narrative within conservative Christianity about sex and sensuality.