by Dana Delibovi
I spent ten days in Rome, one summer during college. I walked the Via Appia, heard opera in the Terme di Caracalla. I drank a lot of wine, which never seemed to get me drunk the way the stuff stateside did. I fell in love—well, in lust—hourly.
Of course, I saw the visual arts of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Some of these works transfixed me, among them the sculpture in marble, Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1652), by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. This work shows the young saint lolling back in a moan, while a smiling angel readies himself to pierce her with an arrow. The sexual energies of the sculpture are so strong, it’s a wonder it made it into the Roman Catholic church of Santa Maria della Vittoria (only in Italy, where beauty beats dogma hands down). I count my memory of the sculpture as a jewel, although of late, a poem has illuminated its flaws.
St. Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582) was part metaphysician, part mystic, and part marketer. This Carmelite nun wrote rationalist philosophy, but also created sensual prose and poetry about her ecstatic religious experiences. She lived in a cloister, but travelled through Spain to reform her holy order into the contemplative Discalced (shoeless) Carmelites, opening and upgrading convents like franchises. She mentored the much younger St. John of the Cross so that he could reform the priestly Carmelites.
When I saw Bernini’s sculpture, I had not read a word of St. Teresa’s writing. She is not part of the “Western-civ” canon, but rather is typically assigned in advanced religion courses or women’s studies. I first came upon her philosophic book Interior Castle several months after I wrecked my doctoral candidacy in philosophy. Women in philosophy, then and now, are rare, so I clung to Teresa for solace in the face of my failure. She was the only woman philosopher who I wasn’t ashamed to ask for advice.
Still, I had not read her mystical writings, not even the text that inspired Bernini. I did not read them until just this year. Acting on an impetus that remains obscure to me, I recently began an effort to speak better Spanish. While searching for Spanish podcasts, conversation groups, and tutors, I happened upon snippets of St. Teresa’s mystical memoirs that appear in her autobiography. I found her account of an ecstatic vision in which a short but beautiful Seraph thrust a flame-tipped spear into her heart and entrails. When the spear was finally withdrawn, it left Teresa filled with an intense love for God, while moaning in pain that was “so exceeding sweet.”
Now I could connect the sensuality of Bernini’s Ecstasy with Teresa’s own words. Yet, as I studied more, the connection didn’t seem quite right. Teresa was in her mid-forties when she had the vision (circa 1559); she was not the young woman portrayed by Bernini. The vision she described was one of extreme, lethal violence—a spear to the heart with disembowelment, not the rapturous, pleasing encounter of the sculpture. Why the difference? And why was I becoming so damned obsessed with it?
The answers came from a poem Teresa wrote, “Aquellas palabras sobre ‘dilectus meus mihi’,” considered among her minor works. I could not locate a published translation of the poem, but the original Spanish version is simple, spare, and anything but minor. The title of the poem refers to palabras(words) in the Latinized Old Testament Song of Solomon, which translates as “My beloved is mine” or more literally “My beloved is for me.”
Stanzas in the poem make it plain that Teresa’s beloved was God. This Amado was her Cazador (Hunter). In an allusion to the deer metaphor in Song of Solomon, the Hunter shot and wounded Teresa grievously, but then revived her. As the price of her resuscitated nueva vida(new life, presumably a life in God), Teresa had to submit to a two-way deal: mi Amado es para mí /y yo soy para mi Amado” (my Love is for me, and I am for my Love). The Beloved’s flecha enherbolada de amor (arrow dipped in love’s poison) killed Teresa’s old life so that she could live anew, utterly surrendered to God.
The difference between Teresa the poet and Teresa depicted by Bernini became clear. It is the difference between the actual sensual experience of a mature woman and the assumption that female sensual experience can only be youthful and romantic.
Teresa’s sensuality includes pain and death; Bernini’s work does not grant her that. For Teresa, love is a killer, though God’s love kills in order to save. Sexuality infiltrates her images, but is sublimated toward union with God. For a finite, limited human being, sexual love is the only thing we have available to harness and redirect as a love for God. Bernini gets the sex, the province of the young, but he doesn’t get the sublimation, something that increases as people age.
And that’s why I’m obsessed. For me, Teresa’s transference of sexual desire to spiritual desire is a lot more appealing with age, physical pain, and the ever-closer prospect of death. As a person joined with another, in a decades long two-way deal, I know that actual sex becomes less rapturous as it accrues history, meaning, and kids. I’m old enough to know that love can kill women, whether from violence or sheer emotional exhaustion, and that the trick to safety is reducing the romantic passion while boosting the detachment that can come from spiritual practice. These days, I often feel excitement when I wake to a day of study and contemplation. I drop into churches for fun.
Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa beguiled me when I was young, in Rome, and falling in love physically and incessantly. Now, it’s the real St. Teresa who moves me. My libido, like Teresa’s, is surrendering to the divine. I’m good with that.
Dana Delibovi is a poet, adjunct professor of philosophy, and healthcare industry consultant. Her philosophic essays and criticism have appeared most recently in Teaching Philosophy and The Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. She is the 2019 winner of the James Haba award for poetry.