not only a woman, but wicked: notes on the divine
“lord either let me suffer or let me die”
—saint teresa of ávila
it has always troubled me that i’ve found the allure of the structural divine so illusive. not the allure, i mean the ecstasy. but it’s also the ability to stay still, imitate a gesture, the rhythm of which to chant a sutra, remember which knee to bend, or which hand to use. ecstasy i seem to find in places generally found to be devoid of spiritual charm or absent of god.
on the metro ride to the basilica: two nuns and a woman clown, sitting together in a row yet riding separately. beautiful little girls, sisters, one sitting delicately but speaking ravenously, reciting conjugations and catechism to her little sister, who ignored her. their hair was pulled tight into topknots, wisps of baby hairs reaching away from their crowns.
there’s a saint, maria goretti, who in early 1900s italy, was stabbed to death by a neighbor after he attempted to rape her. she begged him to stop, saying that he would go to hell, and that she worried for his soul. her dying words were that she would pray for him to be admitted into heaven, that she wanted him there with her. she was eleven. maria goretti is the patron saint of youth, rape victims, poverty, purity, teenage girls, chastity, and forgiveness. she is regarded by the catholic church as the saint agnes of the twentieth century. agnes (whose name, while she is often depicted with a lamb, or agnus in latin, is derived from hagnē, a greek word meaning “chaste” or “pure”) was thirteen years old when she was accused of being a christian by a rejected suitor. she had said to him, upon declining his proposal, that her true spouse was immortal, and could not be seen with mortal eyes. among the humiliations agnes was subjected to was being sent to a brothel. so holy was her appearance that no one dared approach her to inquire about her services, until a certain wicked john attempted to. he was struck blind, and fell to the ground, trembling. agnes emerged from this round of punishment as pure and radiant with christ’s love as she had been when she entered. the suitor struck again, dragging her in front of a judge who, depending on who tells the story, she was either beheaded or stabbed in the throat. some fifty or so years later, saint ambrose would write that “she went to the place of execution more cheerfully than others go to their wedding.” saint agnes is the patron saint of chastity, gardeners, girls, engaged couples, rape survivors, and virgins. both maria goretti and agnes are depicted with what’s referred to in catholic iconography as the “martyr’s palm”; and both were victims of serial harassment by someone whom they had rejected. however, unlike agnes, whose existence is actually disputed, maria goretti was a real person, with the testimonies of the doctors and surgeons who tried to save her life and the court documents from the criminal trial of alessandro serenelli, the twenty year old neighbor who murdered her after she refused his sexual advances, to attest to that. “no! it is a sin! god does not want it!” she screamed over and over. he had tried to choke her, then he stabbed her fourteen times. at maria’s canonization, pope pius xii asked a crowd of hundreds of thousands of young catholics: “young people, pleasure of the eyes of jesus, are you determined to resist any attack on your chastity with the help of the grace of god?” a roaring y e s sounded through saint peter’s square.
chastity gardeners girls engaged couples rape survivors virgins children of mary lamb palm branch rape victims crime victims teenage girls modern youth fourteen lilies farmer’s clothing a knife i don’t think any virgin martyrs were betrayed by women they were all turned in by men whose advances they rejected.
a memory: at an improvised mikvah in a barn spa somewhere in the pacific northwest, so it’s technically not consecrated. am watching x [my older cousin] having her eyebrows threaded and her pubic hair shaped with scissors by two of her friends. it’s the eve of her wedding to a north american ashkenazim; yet she, a secularly raised sephardim from latin america living in canada, is insisting upon a traditional sephardic noche de novias, or “night of sweethearts.” twenty of us — women relatives, her mother who doesn’t like my mother, her soon to be sister-in-law who looks horrified, her dearest friends — all of our hands are hennaed with the hand of miriam to ward off the evil eye, and we’re all naked, only steam separating us; laughter and occasional singing, in a mixture of ladino, Spanish, and english floats through. tables (really plywood on sawhorses) are around, laden with alfajores, turkish delight made with rosewater, bagels (???), chocolate hazelnut hard candies, and other sweets. someone - another aunt from this branch of my family i’m so unfamiliar with? - scrubs my scalp as i rub another woman’s neck. i feel lonely in this joy, but i love this memory. at dawn, we all surround her, and pull a rust colored velvet gown embroidered with gold thread over her head, and spin her around, singing and clapping and kissing her. my cousin is crying in delight and in serious fear. the barn door opens: it’s her fiancé. we all scream and push her towards him, towards her new life. i hitch a ride back to the bay area later that morning, uninterested in the actual wedding. the person giving me a ride lectures me on cultural appropriation thru oregon; it’s not until i’m at mass back in san francisco the next day that i realize they were upset about my hands. i confess that i laughed mockingly at my cousin when she told me that she was a virgin.
artemisia gentileschi, whose judith slaying holofernes became so many avatars on social media after trump’s election. when she was seventeen, she was raped by a painter her father had hired to tutor her. she then had a sexual relationship with him for a while, believing that he would marry her, in order to restore her honor. he didn’t, and her father pressed charges. gentileschi was subjected to a gynecological exam in a church court and was tortured with something called a “sybil” (i think they were thumbscrews) during her testimony. it also came about that a second painter was involved. her rapist was sentenced to exile, but that wasn’t carried out, and he ended up working on a fresco with her father. he was that good at perspective. she ended up being patronized by the medici and charles the first of england, and was preceded by her reputation as a woman who had a relationship with her rapist. i first learned about artemisia gentileschi from a paperback novel given to me by the man who raped me at sixteen, and i ended up in a relationship with for a little over a year and a half. gentileschi’s first attributed painting is of the biblical susanna and the elders, and is the first to demonstrate how traumatic being sexually assaulted by two (or any) men is. compare this to bernini’s rape of prosperina. this is a marble sculpture perhaps best known and regarded for how pluto’s right hand digs into prosperina’s ass as she tries to escape his grasp.
three moving sidewalks take crowds across the foyer where the tilmátli of the virgin of guadalupe is displayed. of course, i cried. i had traveled to see her. but i cried harder at the enshrining of the eucharist in the small chapel, where elderly lay parishioners stood carrying small banners bearing a host poised above a golden chalice, in front of an electric blue background.
bernini is the same artist who made the ecstasy of saint teresa, depicting the occasion of ecstasy she felt when a seraph appeared to her, and began to stab her in the neck with a ray of gold. it is very sexy. “the pain was so great,” teresa writes of her experience, “that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that i could not wish to be rid of it…it is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and god, that i pray god of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that i am lying.” it sits in an alcove where an alabaster skylight dapples it with a light evocative of that that passes thru clouds: exactly what one would imagine the light to be like in a celestial heaven.
teresa of ávila is possibly the sexiest saint, and she knew it; and she hated it. “let them be sure,” she wrote in her autobiography, “once a woman — who is even more bound than a man to lead a chaste life — has lost her shame before god, she cannot be trusted in anyway at all. what is more, to gain the gratification of her desires and of an affection inspired in her by the devil, a woman will hesitate at nothing.” i read that to konrad, and he says, “the devil is a woman telling others how to act.” as i write that down, i think, “hell is other women,” and also write that down. i then think of anna karenina, who starts a consensual affair with dashing vronsky, and the sudden snake pit of matriarchs of saint petersburg she has to navigate. what is the difference between shame and chastity? saint teresa is obsessed with the fragility of women’s resolve, and their seeming propensity for dalliances with the devil.
not only a woman but wicked the first second third fourth water the devil’s argument a common temptation the flowers open soul and body in bliss the soul in union the moth’s wings burnt on dealing with women.
what kind of soulless person am to climb the pyramid of the sun with blood caked thighs to feel absolutely nothing? there were two butterflies dueling, german teenagers doing somersaults, and a couple (def anglo) meditating, lotus and mudra and all at the apex. wait, i did feel something: disgust and rage.
women do tend to bring an alchemy to religion.
sarah, prophet in her own right, holy thru intuition.
from someone i love: “the essential idea is that the mind must descend into the heart, must yield itself to compassionate wisdom, must trust the heart and rest in it. whenever i forget what i’m doing with this sort of practice i remind myself THE DIAMOND MUST FALL which sounds great anyway xo.” i am sure they think that i’m an idiot.