Exhibition ‘Teresa of Avila – Mysticism and Transgression’

Many projects have been presented since March 2014 to commemorate the 5th Centenary of the Birth of Saint Teresa of Avila, most of them precisely in Avila. We decided to present ours in Valladolid, conferring on it two qualities which, in our opinion, make it different from others. On one hand, the feminist perspective in our approach to the Saint, on the other, its cross-border nature: the project will travel to Berlin after the presentation in Valladolid. So it’s about a Spanish-German project where Teresa brings together the contemporary glances of 21 artists from 10 countries.

The interest Teresa stirs up nowadays seems not to come so much from her condition as the reformer of a religious Order as from her feminism and mystical experience. Experience permeates all her writings, placing her in the very centre of modernity: “I won’t talk about anything I haven’t experienced deeply” (V18,8). Such an assertion, or rather self-assertion, inevitably put her under the scrutiny of the Inquisition, as a suspect of belonging to the “Alumbrados”, to which indeed many conversos belonged. It is well known that Teresa descended from a Jewish family converted to Catholicism, like Saint John of Avila.

Teresa fearlessly transgresses the laws her time inflicts to her as a woman. She breaches the prohibition imposed on women to read the Holy Scriptures. She ignores the obligation for women to pray out loud, and stands up for inner prayer. She drinks – through Francisco de Osuna (The Third Spiritual Alphabet) – from sources of oriental mystical theology. She foregoes the sensory, as well as the intellectual activity in prayer, and opts for intuition or non-thinking, to attain knowledge, to illumination, though “the very attention you put into not thinking anything may awaken you to think much” (4 M 3, 6).

A woman reforming an Order of monks, a “poor barefoot nun, without any help from anyone” (F 2, 6) but God showing His power giving “boldness to an ant” (F 2,7). How outrageous! She goes beyond what is socially and politically acceptable by addressing herself in thousands of letters to potential benefactors, to the nobility, to King Philip II himself, in whose birthplace, the Palacio de Pimentel in Valladolid, this project will be inaugurated. In referring to the Gospel stories, to the relationships Jesus maintained – nothing less! – she dares to claim the role of women, maintaining “that our times do not admit any reason to reject virtuous and strong spirits, even if they are those of women” (CE 4, 1). This is only one among many examples of Theresian feminism. Her criticism to official positions of Church and society regarding the treatment of women is ferocious, extending to the misogynistic conduct of “judges” (the Inquisitors). How intelligently she backs up her allegations by referring to the Holy Scripture to protect herself from the Inquisition! The passage from “and more faith…” until “even if they are those of women”, complete in the autograph of El Escorial, was deleted by the (male!) censors, and so does not appear any more in the Valladolid text.

Teresa was to die without seeing her enormous work publicly recognized: having restored the ancient Carmelite Rule and achieved an special province in Spain for the barefoot Order. Its management was assigned to her great friend Jerónimo Gracián. Teresa won her battle, but none of the high prelates even mentioned her. She professed a life “pushing aside our self-worth and own will, renouncing clinging on things of the earth” (5 M 2, 6), so she did not mind. But we do mind! Therefore, the date chosen for the presentation of our project in Valladolid is March 8th, International Women’s Day. We aim to vindicate the huge efforts of countless women who have fought through hell and high water for women’s rights, equality, freedom and justice, and like Teresa, have been brushed aside. At best, whose ideas have been usurped by politics, religion and society in self-interest and total disregard of their aspirations and objectives.

Teresa of Avila is one the most notable exponents of those women. To her we pay tribute on the 5th Centenary of her birth by presenting 21 international and heterogeneous female visions that show us a mystical Teresa, of course, but also a woman transgressing to the core.

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