Even though the subject is one of my lifelong fascinations, I don't plan on making a habit (no pun intended, honest) of featuring nun books; I just happened upon yesterday's entry and today's at the same time. One of the nuns featured in yesterday's book, Scary Nuns, was Teresa of Avila, founder of the Discalced Carmelite order, "who liked to whip herself when feeling bad."
Barbara Mujica, in her historical novel, Sister Teresa: The Woman Who Became Saint Teresa of Avila (Overlook, 336 pages, $24.95), tells us quite a bit more about the 16th century sister from Avila, Spain:
"Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was a heartbreaker....
"When she walked to church, head covered modestly but eyes flashing, armies of young men appeared out of nowhere and formed brigades on either side of the path. Those who caught her dart-like glance swooned and fell to the ground, some never to recover. People said Teresa caused more fatalities than the king's militia."
Teresa's story is told by the fictional character Pancracia, a poor seamstress' daughter who becomes Teresa's best friend and confidante when called upon to accompany Teresa to a convent as her servant. Teresa's wealthy father sends his daughter to the convent when she starts getting too close to her cousin Javier, who's in love with her. She may be in love with him, too, but she confesses she doesn't want to get married for fear of dying young in childbirth, as her mother did.
That her father listens to her wishes and takes action is uncharacteristic of men at the time, who viewed women pretty much as property. Teresa's ultimate feminist move was to answer her calling to God and become a nun. Not that the Catholic Church ever gave nuns much say or power, but there was definitely a higher level of respect given their connection to the Almighty.
Pancracia soon followed Teresa to the spiritual life — and became Sister Angelica del Sagrado Corazon — when her intended husband rejected her upon discovering that she could read and write. (Good lord, a literate woman!)
Mujica used a similar literary device in her 2000 book Frida as she does here, telling the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo's story through the eyes of a narrator — Frida's sister Cristina — as told to her psychiatrist. Sister Teresa is supposedly a translation of Sister Angelica's testimonio personal (diary).
It works well enough. The story is swift-moving, entertaining and, at least for me, educational. I finally got around to reading a story about my own patron saint. (She is also, by the way, the patron saint of headaches, according to Answers.com.)
I found some spots troublesome however salaciously entertaining they were. Instead of keeping to the subject at hand — Teresa — Angelica at one point recounts her own fall from grace at the hands of her confessor, Father Braulio, also a fictional character. Angelica and Braulio carry on an eight-year affair until Angelica wants to call it quits and get on with the business of God. Braulio then turns from sweet, handsome seducer to mad, brutal rapist. By the end of the tale I felt dirty for initially finding it at all titillating.
The thing is, Sister Teresa's story is compelling enough without making up sexy stories to keep the reader interested. Teresa soldiered on through many illnesses, bouts of faithlessness, founding convents all across Spain and with her revolutionary ideas on prayer. All this drama — amid the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition to boot. I mean, let's see a feature film about this woman!
Note: Lo and behold, a quick check on the Internet Movie Database tells me there is indeed a feature film scheduled to be released in November, starring Paz Vega as Teresa. I anxiously await its release.