PRINT March 1987



FOR THE SECOND TIME, I have been involved in a case of mistaken identity having to do with a woman called Theresa. The first time it happened I told no one, afraid it would ruin the romantic atmosphere we were then living in. “We were a college class of women around 1973, building a room of our own, or, as the curriculum read (in keeping with the feminist terminology of the time), being students in an experimental women’s studies program. I had been sitting in the library reading Interior Castle, written in Spain in the 16th century by Saint Theresa of Avila. The book had been suggested to me as a great model of vision and freedom, a kind of early feminist expression of the liberating life of the imagination. At the start, I loved it—who wouldn’t adore a sentence like ”Think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.“ The book got even better when it began to read like an erotic love story between a woman and her unseen lover, a kind of cross between Ivanhoe and the Marquis de Sade, with the woman as the narrator. There were lots of pretty parts, sensual parts, wise and witty parts, and then the blow fell: ”We women are slow and need instruction in everything." I shut the book; so much for God and women’s lib. To me, Theresa had become the enemy in the ranks, a double agent working for the other side.

I had forgotten Theresa until recently, when I overheard colleagues of mine discussing a woman named Theresa and her sainthood. I launched into my opinions about Saint Theresa. My sense of betrayal had relaxed over the years, and I was prepared to accept her as a creature of the 16th century, and truly remarkable in her own way, but I was still very much her critic. My colleagues looked at me like the confused person I was. Their Theresa, they told me, was a 76-year-old woman, Mother Theresa, alive and well and working in Calcutta, the subject of a recent documentary, and a woman people consider a “living saint.” Surely the Theresa I meant, they continued, was Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who died in a French convent in 1897, and whose life is also the subject of a recent film. It felt to me as if Saint Theresas were coming out of the air like rabbits out of a hat. At that count there were three: Saint Theresa of Avila, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and Mother Theresa. Say it s’ain’t so, I thought, but then I remembered something I’d forgotten—staying in the library that day in 1973 after closing the book, pulling apart the letters that spell the name “Theresa,” and rearranging them till I got two new words—see hart. I said them out loud and they sounded like see heart. I whispered them as if praying and the h became soft; the words sounded like see art. Picking up on the code, I found my way to Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts, which friends in the theater department were working on and which I understood also had to do with Saint Theresa of Avila. It does, or rather it doesn’t; as Stein says, it has to do with “Saint Therese something like that,” which is not the same thing as being about Saint Theresa, the vehicle for beliefs that promote the behavior of acceptance, obedience, subservience, and suffering, the themes that had driven me to close Interior Castle—I thought forever. So now there was a fourth Saint Theresa, Stein’s Therese, the type of saint I’d wanted Theresa to be.

Thérèse is enough to restore one’s faith in the power of the movies.” That was the critical mot quoted in the ad I looked at to find out when the film was playing Walking out after the show, I thought it strange that this quote was the one picked, since the movie is practically a demonstration of the Church’s betrayal of people who put their faith in it. When a doctor brings morphine to relieve the pain of the young Thérèse, dying of tuberculosis, the mother superior tums him away, saying that the girl’s suffering is not the concern of the Church, and in any case the convent can’t afford the treatment. This is a tragic moment, as is the moment of Thérèse’s death, and although the saint keeps her faith to the last, it is difficult for the viewer, in the face of these tragedies, to share it. For us, then, the movie is in a way about a betrayal of faith, but it also brings out the real need we have to believe in things, including the critic’s need to believe in the power of movies. The issue of the breach of faith, but the need for it, that Thérèse is about is all around us right now. In fact, this word “faith” and its cousins have slipped back like the Bible’s endlessly multiplying fishes into our 1987 vocabulary. We speak of a lack of faith in science, of miracles in medicine, of the death of faith in painting, of the spiritual in art. You find words you thought long buried, like “tuberculosis,” connected to other words like “plague” in all the weekly magazines, which once paid scant attention to AIDS, a disease their editors probably felt was not their concem (as Thérèse’s suffering was not her mother superior’s concern). Words like “chastity” and “purity” are also showing up in the press, and it becomes ever so apparent why a popular TV program about a hospital is titled St. Elsewhere.

However, the subject of this picture story isn’t Saint Elsewhere. It isn’t even Saint Theresa, whether of Avila, Lisieux, or Calcutta. It is the code—see art—that the letters of Theresa’s name embody, and that the pictures in this article address. These pictures are about the time after you find out that divine justice is not justice, and that faith is not a matter of getting down on your hands and knees. In them you see heart, which is the beginning of compassion, and the end of our conformity to apocalyptic systems fueled by the dynamic of “superior” and “inferior.”

On this subject it occurs to me that in writing about Theresa of Avila but spelling her name “Therese,” Stein might have left us a clue as to the identity of “Saint Therese something like that.” Perhaps she was playing with the name, transforming it so that it could encompass her ideas and feelings—see heart. The word “saint” is one of the most musical in the language. When we hear or read it, it gets at our insides, as music does; with music, it’s as if our inmost feelings are somehow brought outside us to vibrate in the air. The word “saint” has an immense capacity for carrying emotion; whether that power comes from its history in religion, where it suggests the arc between earth and heaven, suffering and ecstasy, or whether the power is innate to the word and led to its use in that way, is hard to say. I think Stein was sensitive to the music of the. word “saint,” and perhaps she felt that “Therese” was a more musical complement to it than “Theresa.” There’s a simpler explanation for her choice, of course—she was living in France, and this is the French spelling of the name. Or maybe Stein’s Therese was really both Theresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux. She wrote the piece in 1927; Thérèse of Lisieux was canonized in 1925, and there must have been a lot of sanctified smugness about her in the Pans papers. Stein had written about saints before, for example in the 1922 play Saints And Singing, but as far as I know had not brought up Saint Theresa, even though she knew about her and had visited her church at Avila. If one considers the faith and doubt of the period in which Stein was writing her get-up-off-the-knees remarks, and her knowledge of and interest in medicine, it begins to make sense that “Saint Therese something like that” is in part Stein’s deep dig at all faiths that turn their backs.

In Four Saints in Three Acts Stein wrote, “There can be no peace on earth with calm with calm. . . . / This amounts to Saint Therese. Saint Therese has been and has been. / What is the difference between a picture and pictured.” There is a world of difference, as the “Saint Therese something like that” beatitudes on these pages show, all with a message of not turning your back, of getting up off the knees and actively disturbing the calm of things as they are. The curtain seems to be pushing itself back up for yet another act of Four Saints in Three Acts, an opera of faith and doubt, an opera “to be sung,” Stein says. Saint Stein, who was no saint, has been singing her lines from 1927, and to me they sound as if they were composed yesterday on a commission by this magazine to write about the contemporary heart on these pages. Please tum the page for the curtain call.

Ingrid Sischy