Reading Teresa of Avila: Women's Friendships, Sappho, Melancholic Nuns, and other Puzzles

Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), the first woman Doctor of the Catholic Church and reformer of the Carmelite Order, wrote extensively about her life and her mystical experiences. She also wrote the Constitutions of the Discalced Carmelites, described her experiences founding convents, and kept an active correspondence with women and men, most of which has been preserved. In her autobiography she describes a period in her adolescence in which she lived in sin because of her relationship with a female cousin and another girl. Some of the editors of Teresa’s works have assumed the cousin facilitated her relationship with a boy and fervently denied and refute any commentary or possible comparison between Teresa’s adolescent experience and the Greek poet Sappho. Teresa herself, wrote about the danger of “particular friendships” between nuns, but she puts emphasis on how these relationships can disturb the interactions and interpersonal balance in religious communities. She believed that friendship among women is a fundamental Christian relationship. Her writings about the value of women and about the practice of personal “mental prayer” were profoundly subversive in 16th century Spain, a society constructed on strict religious norms of conduct, misogyny, honor, and shame. In some of her writings, she addresses issues of what we now call mental illness. She astutely recommends different forms of treatment for “melancholic nuns,” recognizing that psychological distress is real but can also be faked. Other authors discuss the constant presence of lesbian relationships in convents and use Teresa’s writings as one of the alternatives offered to navigate possible conflicts in an enclosed women’s environment.

In this workshop we will look at Teresa’s writings and other authors who discuss these as a way of understanding the life experiences of Teresa herself and of other women in convents then and now.