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The Transgendered Sexual Imagery of St. Theresa of Lisieux

Paul Halsall
©August, 1997

In a recent email, concerning the elevation of the 19th century French mystic St. Theresa of Lisieux to the status of "Doctor of the Church", Luis T. Gutierrez wrote:

I wonder what might be the significance of this for the ordination of women in the RCC, since Therese expressed a desire for the ministerial priesthood. Would the RCC name "doctor of the church" a person who has written what Cardinal Ratzinger recently described as a "grave doctrinal error"?

Prof. Guiterrez did not specify the passage he referred to, but it was posted by Gerald Bugge, with an accusation:

Here's the entire (beautiful) passage you refer to, claiming that Therese "expresses a desire for the ministerial priesthood." How could you so twist these magnificent words to further your own ends and attempt to disparage Josef Ratzinger. See her desire in its context! And maybe we can all deepen our love for the Church through this great saint, truly deserving to be a Doctor of the Church:

In fact, although Gerald sees the passage as "magnificent", he overlooks, as indeed he must in a certain Catholic tradition of reading, the source of the power of the passage.

What Theresa does here is combine a saccharine language of sentimentality with intense sexual and gendered imagery which places her own self outside human norms. She claims and names both male and female desires, and presents Jesus as both a lover and a beloved. Some of her language derives the commonplaces of nineteenth-century French Catholic piety, but, as whenever we have use of common tropes, we cannot ignore that the writer used these tropes and not others.

The power of Theresa's words derives not only from their fervor - which is the traditional Catholic reading of such prose - but from her willingness to approach liminality. By this I mean her use of words and concepts which destabilize her gender, and the gender of her God, but depend on the reader to overlook such meanings. The complicity between writer and reader is exciting and powerful.

Theresa writes:


From St Therese of Lisieux: Story of A Soul

O my Beloved! this grace was only the prelude to the greatest graces You wished to bestow upon me. Allow me, my only Love, to recall them to You today, today which is the sixth anniversary of our union. Ah! my Jesus, pardon me if I am unreasonable in wishing to express my desires and longings which reach even unto infinity. Pardon me and heal my soul by giving her what she longs for so much! To be Your Spouse, to be a Carmelite, and by my union with You to be the Mother of souls, should not this suffice me? And yet it is not so. No doubt, these three privileges sum up my true vocation: Carmelite, Spouse, Mother, and yet I feel within me other vocations.

The language here is nuptial. Theresa is the bride, Christ the bridegroom. The language is so common its outrageousness might be overlooked. But here Theresa is the receiver from Christ, her spouse, of union. This union is explicitly procreative - Theresa wants to be penetrated and impregnated by Christ so that see can be the "mother" of souls. Again, this is common language among mystical writers [both male and female as it happens.]

But now, Theresa performs a gender reversal upon herself:

I feel the vocation of the WARRIOR, THE PRIEST, THE APOSTLE, THE DOCTOR, THE MARTYR. Finally, I feel the need and the desire of carrying out the most heroic deeds for You, O Jesus. I feel within my soul the courage of the Crusader, the Papal Guard, and I would want to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church. I feel in me the vocation of the PRIEST. With what love, O Jesus, I would take You in my hands when, at my voice, You would come down from heaven. And with what love would I give You to souls!

It is quite common for female saints to be ascribed masculinity [see Gregory of Nyssa on Macrina], or even to state that they feel male [See Perpetua in the arena]. But here Theresa goes further. She proclaims her active desire for essentially male roles (in usually cultural conceptions). She not only wants to be the receiver of Jesus, a conventionally female role, but to be a male hero for Jesus - to defend him, to present him to others, to actively take him within [her] hands. Theresa wants to be Jesus' husband as well as his wife. She proclaims her desire to fulfill typically masculine roles for him. In masculinizing herself but retaining gendered roles, she implicitly feminizes Jesus. [Again, something that is rather common]. These are intense, and erotically charged, desires she is expressing, so:

But alas! while desiring to be a Priest, I admire and envy the humility of St. Francis of Assisi and I feel the vocation of imitating him in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood.

Theresa invokes the humility topos, but in an odd way. It is common for female religious writers, and in fact female writer's in the past in general, to proclaim their own unworthiness. The topos works to disarm criticism. Theresa'a humility, here, however, is rather different. Her humility is not the expression of unworthiness but a claim to emulation of the greatest of medieval saints. Hers is not a humble humility: it is the greatest of all humilities.

O Jesus, my Love, my Life, how can I combine, these contrasts? How can I realize the desires of my poor little soul? Ah! in spite of my littleness, I would like to enlighten souls as did the Prophets and the Doctors. I have the vocation of the Apostle. I would like to travel over the whole earth to preach Your Name and to plant Your glorious Cross on infidel soil. But O my Beloved, one mission alone would not be sufficient for me, I would want to preach the Gospel on all the five continents simultaneously and even to the most remote isles. I would be a missionary, not for a few years only but from the beginning of creation until the consummation of the ages. But above all, O my Beloved Savior, I would shed my blood for You even to the very last drop.

Having made her text safe, by the expression of her humility, Theresa now riffs on a series of contrasts She apparently understood well that her initial lines were a series of exciting, one may say titillating, oppositions, and here she continues to play: "poor little soul" and "littleness" are immediately confronted with massive triumphalist desires, not just to be active in the world, but to achieve massive success "on all five continents", and for all time. This is sheer literary bravado - the claims of humility scarcely cover the massive ambition. But Theresa knows that such occlusion is precisely what a pious Catholic reading will do.

Martyrdom was the dream of my youth and this dream has grown with me within Carmel's cloisters. But here again, I feel that my dream is a folly, for I cannot confine myself to desiring one kind of martyrdom. To satisfy me I need all. Like You, my Adorable Spouse, I would be scourged and crucified. I would die flayed like St. Bartholomew. I would be plunged into boiling oil like St. John; I would undergo all the tortures inflicted upon the martyrs. With St. Agnes and St. Cecelia, I would present my neck to the sword, and like Joan of Arc, my dear sister, I would whisper at the stake Your Name, O JESUS.

Having expressed her desire for supremacy in the status of Apostle, Theresa moves on to the next category of Christian sanctity - martyr. Again these desires are quite commonplace. The desire here is frankly masochistic. Freely invoking nuptiality again, Theresa expresses a desire for pain and suffering to be mixed with love. [Literature like this should probably be kept from impressionable children.] Her models are of both genders. And the acme of her desire - the figure represented as Theresa's sister - is the most flamboyantly transgendered of all Christian heroines, Joan of Arc. Universally Joan was known for her masculine clothing [which she retained even rather than being allowed to receive communion]. And of all famous women in the European past, it was Joan who lived the most conventionally heroic life. At the time Theresa was writing Joan was not even a canonized saint, and yet she is the acme of Theresa's models.

When thinking of the torments which will be the lot of Christians at the time of Anti-Christ, I feel my heart leap with joy and I would that these torments be reserved for me. Jesus, Jesus, if I wanted to write all my desires, I would have to borrow Your Book of Life, for in it are reported all the actions of all the saints, and I would accomplish all of them for You.

Theresa continues in this passage to combine the masochist [what else can one call the continual equation of pain with joy?] and the supremacist language of the earlier paragraphs.

O my Jesus! what is your answer to all my follies? Is there a soul more little, more powerless than mine? Nevertheless even because of my weakness, it has pleased You, O Lord, to grant my little childish desires and You desire, today, to grant other desires that are greater than the universe.

Again we have the poetic pattern of decline and rise :folly, weakness, desire, greater than the universe....

During my meditation, my desires caused me a veritable martyrdom, and I opened the Epistles of St. Paul to find some kind of answer. Chapters 12 and 13 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians fell under my eyes. I read there, in the first of these chapters, that all cannot be apostles, prophets, doctors, etc., that the Church is composed of different members, and that the eye cannot be the hand at one and the same time. The answer was clear, but it did not fulfill my desires and gave me no peace. But just as Mary Magdalene found what she was seeking by always stooping down and looking into the empty tomb, so 1, abasing myself to the very depths of my nothingness, raised myself so high that I was able to attain my end. Without becoming discouraged, I continued my reading, and this sentence consoled me: "Yet strive after the better gifts, and I point out to you a yet more excellent way." And the Apostle explains how all the most perfect gifts are nothing without love. That Charity is the excellent way that leads most surely to God.

Here is the resolution of Theresa's immense masochism and overweening desires. She will sublimate all in her role as a nun.

I finally had rest. Considering the mystical body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather I desired to see myself in them all. Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church had a body composed of different members, the most necessary and most noble of all could not be lacking to it, and so I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was burning with love. I understood it was Love alone that made the Church's members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that Love comprised all vocations, that Love was everything, that it embraced all times and a word, that it was eternal! Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love, my vocation, at last I have found it ... my vocation is Love! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God. who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I SHALL BE LOVE.

What Theresa does is succeed in expressing the sexuality, masochism and massive desire of her mysticism, and yet also succeed in proposing a resolution with her humdrum and rather common life as a nun [hardly a rare occupation in Catholic France in her time]. She does this by seeing her life as nun in itself as martyrdom and apostleship, as, in fact, a triumphalistic vocation. This realization is orgasmic ["excess of delirious joy...cried out...O Jesus, my Love"]. Desire, Life and sexuality are all combined. The passage is pious and sweet, but it works by evoking the most intense considerations of sexuality and gender, and by transgressing them.

© Paul Halsall: August, 1997
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