Posted by: njs44 | August 18, 2010

Teresa de Cartagena

Reading about disability, as I have been doing intensively of late, led me to discover this obscure 15th Century Spanish nun, who some argue is the first feminist writer. Her family were Jewish and converted to Christianity in 1390. Her grandfather had been the Chief Rabbi of Burgos and was reckoned to be the leader of the Jewish community in Spain. He took his conversion very seriously, went to study in Rome and later rose to become Bishop of Burgos by 1412. Prior to this he had been Bishop of Cartagena, which is where Teresa’s name originates.

Some sources allege that Teresa was educated at the University of Salamanca, but this is unlikely as no women were allowed a University education in those days. More likely she was educated at home, possibly by tutors who were also professors at the University. Another view is that she joined a convent in Salamanca and that gave her access to the best education of the day in theology and philosophy. Her two books, Arboleda de los Enfermos and Admiración Operum Dei, have references to numerous scholarly works, including The Bible, Boethius, St Jerome and St Augustine.

What is significant about Teresa is that she went deaf in early life and retreated into a world of silence, where she communed only with her books. She suffered other afflictions, too, those these are never explained in enough detail to work out what they were. Suffice to say that hers is the voice of one who suffered a great deal, and yet managed to turn her afflictions into something positive. She realises that the noise and hustle and bustle of the world are a distraction and that she can get closer to God in the silence of her cell.

After she wrote her first book some people claimed that it could not possibly have been written by a woman. She wrote the second book in order to answer these critics. Some consider her to be the spiritual pre-cursor of her more famous countrywoman, Teresa of Avila.

Teresa’s take on her sufferings is very different from the way disabled people are expected to view suffering in the modern world. She considers her suffering to have been inflicted by God, in order to bring her closer to him. All this would not get you very far with the Disability M0vement of today. I am not sure what to make of it when she says “A good and lasting ailment is a bridle to humble the proud neck and a bit to constrain desires dangerous and injurious to the soul.”

Teresa does, however, have a point when she describes herself, when she could hear, as being “enmeshed in the confusion of worldly chatter, with my understanding disordered and bound up in worldly cares”. Through the silence of her deafness, Teresa came to appreciate the inner voice of God. She was able to spend more time with her books. She was able to concentrate on prayer and seems to have reached the point where she could be grateful, to God, for her deafness. Towards the end of the second book she has this to say:

Oh what sublime wisdom it is to know God and what true prudence to know and recognize His blessings! And what a healthful and beneficial science it is for us to know ourselves and our own defects and faults!

[From the translation of The Writings of Teresa de Caragena, by Dayle Seidenspinner-Nunez]

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