Somewhere in purgatory there must be a very large room filled with artists and writers doing time for the bad paintings, statues, and biographies of female saints they produced during their lifetime.
I do not want this to be the case. Yet, when I think about all the images of consumptive 14-year-old girls that adorned the holy cards of my youth or all the silly stories about saintly young women who would rather die than disobey their parents, I fear it must be so.
I’m sure, of course, that Christ and the holy women those artists gravely misrepresented have forgiven them their sins. But those sins did damage and that damage must be atoned for. Thanks to them, countless Catholics (and non-Catholics too) are running around this world thinking sainthood a boring business and female sainthood more boring still.
For a long time, I was one of those Catholics. Somewhere along the way, between bad religious art and even worse religious storytelling, I picked up the idea that lady saints were like so many of the statues that represented them: cold, untouchable, and decidedly not real. How could they be real? They seemed to have so little life in them, so little blood—never speaking a cross word or giving a cross look, never getting angry, never even thinking a bad thought.
Those plaster women were not like any woman I’d ever met. And they were most definitely not like me, with my red hair and temper and excessively strong opinions. Maybe they were real, I concluded at one point. But they were also the rarest of birds, and neither myself nor anyone I knew could so much as hope to join their ranks.
Then, I met St. Teresa of Avila, who was a giddy flirt, even as a nun, until a mystical encounter with Christ brought her to her knees. When she got back up, she launched a reform of the Carmelite order. Her superiors tried to stop her, but she didn’t give up in defeat. Instead, she launched a letter-writing campaign to King Phillip, begging him to intervene. Which he eventually did, bringing the inquisition against her to an end.
Around the same time, I met St. Catherine of Siena, who in 1376, marched off to Avignon and told Pope Gregory to get himself back to Rome post-haste and stay there. He obeyed.
Next I met St. Perpetua, who faced the lions of Carthage more calmly than I can manage to face the field mice in my kitchen. A lot more calmly.
Then, there was St. Joan of Arc, who commanded a motley crew of surrender-happy French soldiers and began her letters to the English army with the salutation, “Dear Heretics.”
There was also St. Hildegard of Bingen, a woman as gifted in the healing arts as she was in baking, composing, gardening, and expounding on the deepest of theological truths…And St. Paula, the only woman capable of making the irascible St. Jerome behave…And St. Edith Stein, perhaps the most brilliant female philosopher of the twentieth century, who converted from Judaism, became a Carmelite nun, and died a martyr in Auschwitz..And, of course, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, who somehow managed to be a mother of four young children, a successful doctor, and sane all at the same time.
As I got to know these remarkable women and so very many more, they chipped away at the white plaster statue of female sainthood I carried around in my mind. There was nothing boring or cold or lifeless about them. They were full of blood, passion, and more strongly held opinions than even I could muster up. Some were wild. Some were weird. Some were fierce. And some were simply brilliant.
In short, unlike their plaster dopplegangers, they were the most real women I’d ever encountered. In their passion, in their faith, they were fully alive. They were fully themselves, free from the sins, fears, and struggles that hold the rest of us back.
That freedom, however, was a freedom for which they worked. They didn’t glide effortlessly into sainthood. They fought and stumbled and prayed their way to it. God, for his part, matched their efforts and then some, pouring out his graces upon them and helping them die to themselves so they could actually receive those graces he liberally dispensed. They struggled with him on that point too, with St. Teresa once telling God that if he treated all his friends like he treated her, it was no wonder he had so few.
Looking back now, I admit, I feel gypped. I feel gypped that I didn’t know these women sooner, and I feel gypped that I carried around such a ridiculously false notion of female holiness for so very long, thinking that if I wanted to be a saint, I couldn’t be strong or smart or funny, that saltiness was right out, and sweet was the only flavor of Heaven.
The saint whose life we celebrate today, Teresa of Avila, gives the lie to that notion. So, do her holy sisters. In a culture utterly confused about what it means to be a woman—alternately denying femininity’s existence or confusing it with cup sizes and bedroom prowess—these saints remind us that true femininity has nothing to do with being silly, simpering, slinky, sexy, or skinny.
Rather, they show us that authentic femininity is about being the women God made us to be and seeking to serve him, boldly and bravely, as spiritual mothers.
That’s what the lives of these holy women do: They give flesh to the task of spiritual motherhood, to nourishing and nurturing life all around us. And they call us to do the same: to teach and encourage, counsel and correct, welcome and heal, pray and love, hold fast to what’s right and help others to do the same, all in our own singular, tenacious feminine way.
No matter what some long dead Victorian hagiographer may have thought, there’s nothing boring about that.