Fresh roses dropped into her lap every day
January 11, 2016 2:36 PM   Subscribe

I appreciated this article, and any piece that looks with sympathy on how women managed to exercise their strengths in a tightly circumscribed world.

It reminds me of my brief Catholic nun phase, which I had at about 12. I decided I wanted to be a Bride of Christ, and acquired a glow-in-the-dark figurine of the BVM to pray to every night. We weren't Catholic, but my mother looked on with tolerance and probably some amusement; she told me she went through the same phase. I know now it was because boys were terrifying and cruel and attractive and I wanted to prove that I was better than any of them and that I was more Christian than anybody at my school, because they all thought I was a devil-worshipper. This probably accounts for a lot of novice intake.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:54 PM on January 11, 2016 [16 favorites]

My name in real life is the name of an obscure saint and I love her and all her crazy adventures to avoid marriage. A while ago I had an idea to create a graphic novel about her life. Thanks for posting this, it's gotten me excited about the idea again.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 2:57 PM on January 11, 2016 [16 favorites]

I am in Ávila instead of at home, because my sister is in my home. A sister who, after 15 years of sacrificing all of her dreams, her comforts, her desires to a husband that she supported financially and emotionally, suddenly woke up and found she had nothing left, not even an idea of what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. After leaving him, she also had no home. So I opened my door to her.

This is my family default, or the default for the women: the sacrifice of everything for the husband. Women in my family have given up homes, friends, careers, the pursuit of advanced degrees within months of completion to become housewives, stay-at-home moms, or to work in jobs they never would have chosen to pay their male partner’s way.

I understand that this was my female relatives’ choice. Yet I also know how infrequently you truly make the choice to sacrifice something you love; it’s more like a slow erosion. You give up one small thing, which makes it easier then to give up another, then another. After all, the men didn’t ask them to make these sacrifices — asking that would require their acknowledgment there was something of value to give up.

And so my sister is haunting my spare bedroom, moving like a ghost of her former self, and here I am in Ávila.

posted by limeonaire at 3:25 PM on January 11, 2016 [14 favorites]

I've always been attracted to the Hindu story of Mirabai, for similar reasons; the legend that she refused to commit sati on the death of her husband, because she still had songs to sing for Krishna, is one of my favourites. I do think an important element is lost by dropping the religion from these stories - in each case, the person is ultimately claiming they aren't bound by social and cultural norms because they stand in a transcendental relationship to some Person completely outside the ordinary transactions of daily life - but I can see the attraction of that kind of clarity about one's life even without the religious dimension.
posted by Aravis76 at 3:30 PM on January 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

I know now it was because boys were terrifying and cruel and attractive and I wanted to prove that I was better than any of them and that I was more Christian than anybody at my school, because they all thought I was a devil-worshipper. This probably accounts for a lot of novice intake.

My grandma almost became a nun and this sounds exactly like how I imagine her as a young woman. Also the strong need for independence, which she hung on to and created for herself even after marrying and raising a huge family.
posted by bleep at 3:36 PM on January 11, 2016

Jessa is the founder of Bookslut.
posted by Bee'sWing at 3:39 PM on January 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was a postulant in a Trappistine monastery about, hmm, I guess it was about 25 years ago now, my how time flies. It wasn't right for me, and that was mostly because I unconsciously thought that everyone got the difference between symbolic language and literal language. It took a long time for me to be able to formulate that explanation. If metaphorical understanding had been appropriate, I would probably still be there, because all I ever wanted was to wake up in the same bed every day for the rest of my life. So instead I live in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco so at least I got that wish granted.

It was a beautiful life, though. And the fact is that, although I have a delightful boyfriend, I inadvertently hurt his feelings all the time by snorting with derision whenever he suggests marriage or living together. That is certainly not something I can do, which I knew even back then, and which seemed to point toward the claustral life. Oh well. At least I had the opportunity to try it.
posted by janey47 at 4:11 PM on January 11, 2016 [20 favorites]

I was raised Catholic and, though I'm not practicing now, there's this little warm spot deep down for many of the trappings of the faith, and that definitely includes the Church's deep bench of saints, and especially the women. They seemed endless. Got a problem? There's a saint for that.

The female saints were always just a bit me as a kid.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:07 PM on January 11, 2016 [7 favorites]

This is tangential, but: one of the most intriguing people I ever met, in that 'spend a few intense hours together but never see each other again,' was a Buddhist nun that I met on a train to New York City when I was 25.

We met and chatted easily; she was one year older than me, and she remarked on the book I was reading. We sat, she in everyday robes and I in jeans and a hoodie, and we talked for almost three hours straight about poetry and literature. I remember being utterly surprised and captivated by the clarity of her insight, and on and on it went as she posed half-playful counterpoints and raised new issues, mentioned other beloved authors or works.

I wanted so badly to date her. She was incredibly smart, intense but controlled, thoughtful, quick to laugh. But I knew I couldn't. I felt that I had gotten it all wrong with respect to nuns, anchorites, and their close relatives, thinking of them as more timid and traditionalistic than was warranted; and yet, still, this was all because I met an amazing woman whose pants and head and heart I began longing to get into during the course of a journey down the Hudson Valley.
posted by clockzero at 6:40 PM on January 11, 2016 [12 favorites]

It's an interesting piece. I wonder if she completely fails to appreciate the overwhelming religious zeal that animated the great Catholic foundresses like Teresa of Avila... or completely does appreciate it but somehow is resisting the call to the altar for her own conversion.
posted by MattD at 8:33 PM on January 11, 2016

I harbor a deeply repressed urge to be a nun. I am a happily married Jewish mother.
posted by Ruki at 9:52 PM on January 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

MattD, I got a feeling that may have similar roots to yours, but I'd put it rather differently. I haven't read St. Teresa (or her notable follower St. John of the Cross) but I have read some of the autobiographical works of Thomas Merton, who writes of feeling a special affinity for both of those saints. Trying to understand his life, his work, and influence without reckoning with his deeply Christian and very specifically Roman Catholic faith would be like trying to understand the ocean without taking into account the fact that it's water.

Thing is, that's not the point Ms. Crispin was trying to make, and that's OK. She's trying to write a personal reflection in which she uses the experiences of these great women of centuries and millenia past to understand her own experiences and those of the women around her, and find a way to draw inspiration and strength from them. You and I may think this hypothetical other article, reckoning with theology, would be more interesting---I'm sure it would be pretty cool---but that just doesn't happen to be the article we're discussing here. (If you find such a thing, please post it! I know a few amazing women who could each write such an article, but as far as I know none of them has done so yet.)

My own great big beef is not so much that she didn't thoroughly treat religion, but rather that she took St. Teresa's experiences out of their historical context. St. Teresa lived at the intersection of a couple of fascinating historical currents. On the one hand you have the desire of both church and state in Spain to define and impose orthodoxy, driven both by the challenge of the large converso population and the fact that the monarchs of Aragon and Castile had for centuries previously understood themselves specifically as upholders of Christianity (i.e. Roman Catholicism, though use of that term for a period before, oh, let's say 1520 is liable to give the wrong impression) in the face of the Moorish threat.

On the other hand you have throughout Europe the ferment of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and in particular great tensions within the Roman Catholic Church, including even in Catholic places an impulse towards reform of the church and re-emphasis on personal piety, which excited in different times, places, and instances variously the vehement support and the violent suppression of the church hierarchy. Remember, this is around the time that Palestrina (as the story goes) won the survival of polyphonic music within the Roman Catholic church in the face of conservative opposition.

(I should note I'm going off of vague memories of Diarmaid MacCulloch's book on the Reformation, here; it's not like I'm competent to really talk about context. Where's Eyebrows McGee when you need her? Eyebrows, have I badly messed anything up here yet?)

In this connection I badly wish Ms. Crispin had treated St. Teresa's relationship of inspiration and mutual support with her follower St. John of the Cross; as I recall, he bore a substantial amount of responsibility for the spread and legitimation of St. Teresa's beliefs within the church. This would have added a great deal of depth to the piece---it would have let us watch the power of this woman to move the hearts and minds of the people around her run into ideological and political structures hostile to her and to her beliefs, and given Ms. Crispin another vantage from which to look at the compromises required of women in this fallen world.
posted by golwengaud at 10:38 PM on January 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

St Teresa is one thing; most of the saints are surely somewhere between 90% and 100% fictional. I've always assumed that hagiography reflects, not history, but rather medieval narrative tastes and a medieval conception of female virtue. If so it's interesting and unexpected (maybe refreshing, but certainly unexpected) to hear that that can speak strongly to a modern female readership.
posted by Segundus at 5:19 AM on January 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think the focus of this piece is less on the incidents of hagiography - miracles, living only on the Eucharist, having an incorrupt corpse, stigmata etc - than on the sheer concept of nuns and of the monastic life as an option for women. It seems like the same question as George Eliot asks about St Teresa in Middlemarch - whether women can have a life whose meaning isn't fundamentally determined by family life (marriage, motherhood). You don't really need the more colourful aspects of Catholic hagiography to look at how religion provides an unusually uncompromising answer to that question. And you don't need to go back to medieval times - Edith Stein and even Simone Weil have more in common with St Teresa than not on this issue.
posted by Aravis76 at 5:44 AM on January 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

We weren't Catholic, but my mother looked on with tolerance and probably some amusement; she told me she went through the same phase. I know now it was because boys were terrifying and cruel and attractive and I wanted to prove that I was better than any of them

I, too, had this exact same phase, at about 16-17, right after my first boyfriend broke up with me. Looking back, I think it's interesting that I never ever considered just not ever getting married as an option to explore/champion. It was either get married or become a nun, and I was growing up at the beginning of the 21st century, not, say, Sevilla in the 1600s.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 6:18 AM on January 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

When it was time for my Confirmation I paged through the Book of Saints seeking a story that resonated with me. I must have missed Teresa because to me the stories of the women saints were just one horrific attempted-rape scene after another. Essentially women were granted sainthood if they refused sex and were brutally tortured and/or murdered (sorry, martyred) as a result. I was such a good Catholic girl, though, that it still took me another 5 years to extract myself from those teachings. Even longer to override the internalized shame at not being saintly and pure, myself.

My Confirmation name is Julia, because in the end, the Beatles resonated.
posted by headnsouth at 6:49 AM on January 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

I am an avid fan of Crispin's, and she does this thing that golwengaud mentions in most of her work (especially The Dead Ladies Project): using the lives of historical figures she admires to selectively analyze her own life and pet projects (in this case, spinsterhood). It's charmingly narcissistic, I think, but I am also occasionally irritated that she doesn't do her subjects justice or put them in their proper context. That's because her real subject is herself, though, and I find her delightful enough to give her a pass.
posted by libraritarian at 7:26 AM on January 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Tangentially related: I was just discussing that there seems to be a gap in available support for Catholic sexual assault survivors, and the Lives of the Saints could be a great help with speaking to clergy about prevention and raising awareness about healthy relationships and consent. Glad the is more than Angela'sAshes keeping the conversation going. Child abuse awareness training is solid for our area, and domestic violence is an easier discussion, this is where a year of mercy could create some confidence if the Catholics get serious about it.
posted by childofTethys at 7:04 PM on January 12, 2016

When I think of child abuse and the Lives of the Saints, I think of St. Maria Goretti, who was canonized for dying beautifully but forgiving first so that she would not be an inconvenience to anyone. It's a damned shame that there are still schools named after that poor creature; it teaches a terrible lesson.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:45 PM on January 12, 2016

But St Maria Goretti's murderer went to jail and served time; it's a pity that the Church didn't draw the useful lesson that forgiveness of a sin that is also a temporal crime doesn't mean that the criminal shouldn't be properly punished according to the due processes of the legal system. (I believe Goretti's murderer got a much shorter sentence than his offence would normally attract, but I think this was because he was not an adult at the time of the crime. It wasn't because she herself prevented his being sentenced.) It's also an important point that, according to the story, he only got round to repenting after some time in prison. The Church should have drawn the lesson that, both for the sake of justice and for the sake of the criminal's own soul, child abusers and other criminals should go to jail.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:28 PM on January 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

My confirmation name was Teresa, but I never used it after that. My reaction as a little Catholic girl to the gory lives and deaths of female saints and martyrs who would rather die than marry a Roman soldier , was never going out with Italian guys. After all, if death was preferable...
I do not think I got the correct theological message from those stories, and I never wanted to be a nun unlike some of my friends. However, the nuns I know now are generally really interesting women doing lots of good and fighting the patriarchy in the Catholic Church as best they can.
posted by mermayd at 3:08 AM on January 13, 2016

"I can’t remember the last time I saw a television show or a film about a single woman, unless her single status was a problem to be solved or an illustration of how deeply damaged she was."

You know the way you are aware that there is an issue out there, but until it gets stated you sort of gloss over it. Now I'm trying to think of any single female character I've ever seen on telly who wasn't focused on "getting a man/being in some sort of relationship" or damaged by a previous one.
posted by Fence at 11:10 AM on January 13, 2016

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