In “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” 17th-century sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini captured Teresa in the throes of a Christ-fueled passion: Golden rays pour over the figure of the robed woman, her mouth agape and limbs splayed. An angel smiles on her.
St. Teresa sure knew how to make a nun’s life look sexy.
Georgetown University Spanish professor Barbara Mujica seeks to encapsulate the life of this enraptured woman in her new novel, Sister Teresa. Mujica happened upon a yellowed manuscript in an antiques shop in France. She discovered it to be the personal journal of Angelica del Sagrado Corazon, who by her own account was Teresa’s closest companion. Angelica thought Teresa would surely be beatified and then canonized. In such proceedings, people are called to testify on behalf of the candidate for sainthood; this journal was to be Angelica’s testimonial of Teresa’s life.
In the book, however, both Angelica and the journal are fictionalized—narrative devices Mujica uses to paint a more personal portrait of the enigmatic Teresa. In her author’s note, Mujica writes not only of her extensive research but also of the way in which fact and fiction are intertwined: “Although my portrayal of Teresa’s career in the Reform is historically accurate, because this is a novel, I took certain artistic liberties.”
In Mujica’s version of Angelica’s narrative, Teresa is the most beautiful girl in Avila, Spain. She’s also a wild child on the verge of scandal with her handsome cousin, Don Javier. Her father tries to force Teresa’s hand into marriage by sending her to a convent. Much to her father’s chagrin, Teresa embraces the austere life and decides to offer vows to Jesus rather than to Javier.
Angelica’s own attempt at an arranged marriage fails, so she follows Teresa to the convent not out of faith but out of necessity: In those days, a convent provided a woman a place to live out her days if her appearance or money wasn’t sufficient to lure a husband. Angelica’s worldly outlook in the convent contrasts sharply with Teresa’s spiritual immersion.
When Teresa confesses her unnamed (but we can guess) sin with Javier, she’s elated at the forgiveness she feels. Angelica is jealous and doesn’t believe her friend’s transgression should be absolved. Prone to illness her entire life, Teresa appears to die at one point, falling into a coma for days. When she wakes, she’s paralyzed and Angelica grudgingly cares for her.
At times, Angelica is an envious younger sister, writing of Teresa: “She got to be a real pest. Not because she was mean. She wasn’t. On the contrary, because she was good. So good, so sweet, so pious that nobody could stand her.”
When a clairvoyant prophesies Teresa’s sainthood, fellow nuns are even less fond of her.
Teresa’s beauty and humor continue throughout her life, though they mature into something more refined. When Teresa dies in 1582, Angelica says: “Years from now, when I close my eyes and recall Teresa, what I’ll see in my mind is a woman of dazzling beauty, a woman in a brown habit and a black veil dancing, twirling, leaping joyously in the air while she bangs a tambourine and sings (slightly off key).”
Teresa’s relationship with God matures as well. Her journey to know Jesus takes the form of fasting, self-flagellation, and repeating rote prayers, but then she discovers “mental prayer,” which comes to characterize her faith. Mental prayer is emptying the mind and praying to God without words, as opposed to reciting the Rosary, for instance. Teresa turns into a visionary, experiencing at first Jesus’s presence in dreams; later, she experiences him during an ecstatic fit on the floor.
The historical Teresa lived a hard life of self-induced poverty in service to God and others. Later, she looked with disdain on luxury and indulgent wealth—she herself struggled with vanity, but that too, was a vice.
“To the world, what is a woman, Angelica?” she asks in the novel. “Poets sing about her beauty, her golden hair, her emerald eyes. But do they ever talk about her soul or her mind? To them, a woman is nothing but an empty casing, a beautiful shell that inspires and excites. What I’m thinking of is a new kind of convent, where women could divorce themselves from everything worldly. . . . A woman could just be herself, her soul, her heart. Status wouldn’t matter. Money wouldn’t matter.”
She says God gave her the mission to found first one convent, then multiple ones, and she spends the rest of her life accomplishing this mission. The real Teresa was founder of the Discalced Carmelite Order, which has established convents across the world.
It can sometimes be hard to relate to Teresa, the famed nun who reformed the Catholic Church during the Spanish Inquisition. When the Church was persecuting anyone even rumored to be engaged in un-Catholic activities—at the threat of imprisonment, torture, and death—Teresa was a steady voice reminding Spain how God wished people to live. But Angelica’s comfortable, honest voice makes it easy to relate to this intimate novel’s central themes: a siblinglike love-hate relationship, forbidden sexual attraction, the struggle to find and keep faith, and the miracle of salvation.