Thursday, November 20, 2008

St Teresa of Avila - ‘The Patron Saint of Hysteria’


Popular Name: St. Teresa of Avila
Real Name: Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada
Country of Birth: Spain
Time-frame: 1515-1582
Claim to fame: Mystical cloistered Discalced Carmelite reformer and nun. Foundress of St. Joseph's convent in Avila, the first reformed Carmelite convent.
Quote: "This prayer is a glorious foolishness, a heavenly madness where the true wisdom is learned; and it is for the soul a most delightful way of enjoying"


History: Born into a family of 10 kids, when her mother died her father shipped her off to be looked after by Augustinian nuns at age 13. She decided, against her fathers wishes to become a nun, but life must have been fairly rudimentary in the nunnery game, and she soon fell seriously ill. Worried at the lack of treatment his daughter was getting at the hands of the Church, her father decided to take Teresa to a ‘health spa’ to recover. But rather than getting better her health deteriorated to the point she lapsed into a coma and when she regained consciousness found she had temporary paralysis of her legs.

At the age of 39, her biological clock ticking away, Teresa began to have visions of Christ and vivid experiences of ''mystical marriage'' with Him and of His presence within her. The last film in the U.K to be banned for blasphemy ''Visions of Ecstasy,''(1989) depicted the supposed ''erotic imaginings'' of St. Theresa of Avila during these visions. Her life was hence-forth littered with visions & raptures described by one writer in this way: "Her record of raptures and visions answers to nothing, in the experience of most modern Christians".

She claimed to have the gift of ‘extraordinary favours’(which she was able to bestow on others, whilst still suffering ill-health herself? ) and ‘dominion over demons’. During her ‘visions’ she became a regular visitor to hell (yes, ‘the’ hell), the description of one such ‘trip’ is outlined in her autobiography....

“Oh, my goodness! I see--oh, it's a stench! The odor is so horrible! I see a huge pit, and it's real burning. The walls are orange and burning hot. Oh! Oh, and I see these horrible creatures; they're clinging to the sides of the rocks. Some have wings on them with horrible--they look almost human, half human, half animal, but they have pointed ears. And they have ... "oh, my God! Please, Blessed Mother, take me out of here!" Oh, my God, they have feet that look like claws and arms with hair, but they also--the fingers have long fingernails; they're like claws. And they have the most horrible grinning expressions on their faces. Now I see, I see bodies of humans falling, falling. As they fall they're starting to glow. They're glowing like an orange color, like coals. And they're screaming, "Help! Mercy! Mercy! Too late! Too late!" Oh!”Oh, my God! And I see they're going so fast. I don't know where they're falling from. They seem to be raining, like almost from the sky into this pit. And I see--oh, my God! I see some are priests. Oh! Oh, and I see one, he has oh, my God!-a cardinal's hat on his head. And there are three. Now I can count them, there are three. They have mitres on their heads. Oh, my God! Oh, it's so horrible! The heat is so great, and the stench! I feel like I'm just burning"....

I’m sure there’s plenty of hospital staff that hears this sort of thing, shortly prior to sedating the patient. The Robbins & Roth Study of 1999 reported 28% of all patients with psychotic symptoms, involved delusions & hallucinations with religious connotations – so we what we see here is not unusual, nor is it divine.

In her most famous vision, the subject of the statue by Bernini (main photo above): "I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form ... He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire ... In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by the intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one's soul be content with anything less than God.".

The most popular modern-day diagnosis of Teresa’s mental condition is contained in the pages of ‘Psychology of The Future’ by Stanislav Grof.

He describes her as a ‘severe hysterical psychotic’, one which seems fair given the nature of her visions & founded also in her claims she was able to physically levitate and ‘fly around my room’ (claims the Catholic Church backs-up) Her psychosis was similarly highlighted in ‘Saints and Madmen’ (by Russell Shorto)

Another re-occurring theme in the analysis of St Teresa’s life is: sexual repression (the topic of the fore-mentioned British movie) By all accounts Teresa was a beautiful woman, with many admirers. Her sexual desires unable to find a physical outlet, she finds ‘pleasure’ and ‘release’ in her visions.

In her autobiography she wrote “During ecstasy the body stops moving, breathing becomes slower and weaker, you only sigh and pleasure comes in waves…”. For all intents and purposes, she is describing an orgasm. Many interpret her most famous vision (above) as having strong sexual connotations, and the angels golden spear to be phallic symbolism.

Even in the 19th century, when psychiatry was in its infancy, it was obvious to those who read her ‘rambling’ autobiography Teresa was suffering what would now be termed ‘mental health issues’. Sigmund Freud's colleague, Joseph Breur, dubbing her ‘the patron saint of hysteria’ after finishing her story (an herculean effort in itself, the book being almost unreadable to anyone, in any age, past or present)

Others modern psychiatrists like Dewhust & Beard (‘Handbook of Health & Religion), attribute her visions to temporal lobe epilepsy. Just may be, the Catholic Church does have a sense of humour after all, or begrudgingly agree with the diagnosis - St Teresa just happens to be ‘The Patron Saint of headache sufferers’!

Even Teresa herself considered she was “mad” at times, an opinion shared by many of her fellow nuns, villagers surrounding her monastery etc. In one examination of her powers the two priests involved concluded she was ‘deluded’- but not enough to prevent beatification. In many of the Catholic Churches official writings they do point to her issues, framing them as “mental agonies”.
Morbidly, her body was exhumed several times after her death, and the Church reports of the time describe her corpse as ‘sweet-smelling, firm, and incorrupt’( if you are thinking of becoming a saint, it would help to remember this) Her heart, hands, right foot, right arm, left eye and part of her jaw are on display in various sites around the world. She was canonised by Gregory XV in 1622, and in 1969 proclaimed a Doctor of the Church for her writings (the first female)



This article is part of my series on ‘Churches of Christchurch’ in which I investigate the lives of the Saints, exploring the real stories behind the names synonymous with some of our cities most famous landmarks. We look behind the official church rhetoric, and examine more closely their often flamboyant & sometimes disturbing lives.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ja, your re-write of Teresa's experience of Hell is hilarious, but, honestly, The Church doesn't canonize every nun who says she has experienced 'favours' from God: Teresa's mystical experiences were backed-up by a life that was lived in the service of God and others - she travelled extensively; founded numerous convents; wrote (under obedience to her Superiors) the 'rambling' accounts of her life and mystical experiences, etc. Such productivity is not usually associated with hysteria, neither is the remarakable alteration, for the good, in Teresa's personality, which "coincided" with the start of her mystical experiences.
There are numerous inaccuracies in your portrayal of St Teresa and Christian mysticism; however, it is your using psycho-analysis, to back-up your criticism of her, which I take exception to: psycho-analysis is considered by many to be a psuedo-science and even - in its "talk cure" - to be akin to the Catholic confessional.
Yes, Bernini's depiction of St Teresa's ecstasy - at the paw of an angel - is definitely erotic, as are her writings on the subject, and that's because mystical prayer is a profound experience of God which those who experience struggle to comprehend let alone describe. But, what you have failed to understand, or at least write about it, is that this ecstasy, like many of the other supernatural "favours" Teresa writes about, isn't seen by Teresa, or The Church, as an end in itself: such favours have no intrinsic value - they are merely "side-effects" of a deepening prayer life. In fact, if all goes well, these 'favours' eventually disappear and one is left, as Teresa was, a better, stronger, happier, and saner human being.

Anonymous said...

I think that if you have such a skeptical view of anything miraculous already that whatever anyone tells you, you will find every single saint hilarious and stupid which I think is a little sad. Try to see beyond that modern indoctrinated thinking of yours :)

clay said...

O dear, yet another spiritually shrivelled-up atheist splashing about in a piss-puddle of his own disbelief. I'm afraid there's no cure for terminal adolescence, but for others unfortunate enough to stumble onto this page I suggest gaining an insight into tantra – true tantra – and its practices of communing with libidinous forces, the energic stuff of life (god to some).

In our obsessively sexualised western culture a spiritual orgasm can only be likened to a sexual orgasm. If you have no idea as to the nature of a spiritual or psychic orgasm then I suggest you shut up and go read a comic.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I love seeing the insecure know-it-all spiritualists and god-botherers rushing to defend this poor victimized saint, an exploited tool who happily placed her manic energies at the service of the church which indulges any ally in its institutionalized foolishness.

Special secret orgasmic knowledge, the hallmark of tantric nonsense. It's just another cult game: make me master of your soul and I'll teach you the best orgasms! It is to laugh. Apparently the Catholic church also did not shy from this sexual abuse.

The abuse of sex for mind control is truly horrifying. When will people stop giving others power over their innermost mind? It is within your power to be free.

Troy said...

Read the Bible dear sir,repent and there will be hope for you yet. You just might become half as good as was the holy saint. God bless.

Anonymous said...

My God you lot are obsessed with sex aren't you?

You cannot understand spiritual ecstasy and therefore label it sexual because it is the only thing that fits within your limited perspective . . .

'There is more in heaven and earth that your philosophy Horatio'!

Justin said...

Wow, you guys need to loosen up. Fist clenched so tight around religion and "belief" you have to troll atheist blogs and shoot down conflicting world views with crude vitriol. Don't play the ad hominem game, if you have a meaningful, lucid counterpoint then share it. Keep the nasty piss fantasies to yourselves.

Peter Choi said...

Many thousand years ago a prince was born. He was disillusioned with his life and chose a life of a monk.

After many self-torture, he finally realized that it doesn't really help. Then found his enlightenment.

Suffering and pain, ultimately, won't enlighten you. They will only break you down. Religions are, ideally and at best, supposed to be accessories and tools.

I tried to be an atheist, but it didn't work. But when I realized the true nature of Christianity, my original belief, I felt pure horror. It shouldn't exist at all.