Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Medieval Feminist Monasticism: Did it Exist and Can it Be Relevant Today?”

An hour-long teleconference with

Teresa Forcades i Vila

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

1 to 2 p.m. ET

Mary E. Hunt: We are delighted to have all of you with us on the Feast of St. Nicholas!

Like all of WATER’s efforts, our purpose is not simply theoretical. Rather, we are focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction. Just this week in the U.S. we have witnessed the shrinking of national parks, a tax plan that will disproportionately disadvantage those who are poor while rewarding the rich, and a continued wave of sexual violence perpetrators exposing just how widespread that problem is in a coarsening culture, not to mention presidential meddling in the Middle East with regard to Jerusalem.

Let me introduce Teresa Forcades i Vila who is a Benedictine nun from the monastery of Montserrat in Catalonia. She is a uniquely qualified colleague who brings a contemplative’s heart and a feminist activist’s feet to her work.

Teresa grew up in a family that was not religious, but went to a Catholic school where she encountered the Christian Gospels.

She studied medicine at the University of Barcelona with a residency at University of Buffalo where she learned to deal with snow! She went on to do a Master of Divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School, a PhD in Public Health from University of Barcelona, and later a doctorate in theology from the School of Theology of Catalonia.

Her amazing career, both as a medical doctor, which has brought her into conflict with Big Pharmaceutical companies which make enormous profits off vaccines, and her practice of feminist theology, which has raised some eyebrows in Catholic circles, would be more than enough for any one person. But on top of all that, she is also a dedicated activist for democracy and Catalonian independence.

So she combines four elements—medicine, theology, monasticism, and politics—into a busy and fruitful life that she outlines in her new book Faith and Freedom that I highly recommend, published by Polity Books.

Here is what we at WATER said about it in our “What We’re Reading” publication: “The daily prayer schedule of her Benedictine community provides Teresa Forcades with a fitting framework for her insights. Medicine, politics, feminism, and spirituality are grounded in deep appreciation of human freedom and divine love. Courageous, relentless explorations of basic human experiences, especially forgiveness, destine this work to be a postmodern spiritual classic.” I stand by that claim!

Teresa, thank you for taking time from your schedule in Germany to be with us. We only wish you were here in the office where you have been before, at our table having lunch and discussing the many issues we face as conscious and conscientious feminists. We wish you a wonderful time there with Christmas Markets and music. We look forward to your insights on our topic, “Medieval Feminist Monasticism: Did it Exist and Can it Be Relevant Today?”

It might seem that our topic today is a little off base, far from the mark. That could be considered if the writer of the piece, our speaker today, were not Teresa Forcades, a friend of WATER from Catalonia who is deeply immersed in the problems of our dear world. Welcome, Teresa.

Teresa Forcades: Thank you, Mary, for this opportunity. I’ll imagine I’m sitting at the table with you. You said my topic is off the mark in the sense that we have so many pressing issues today. So why should anyone care about medieval feminist monasticism? As Alice Walker showed us, it is important to cultivate our mothers’ and grandmothers’ gardens. I think for any feminist today it is important to know more about the women of the past, to see that they are not strangers from another world, but people who can give us strength, courage, and humor to deepen and strengthen our world today.

Is it an anachronism to try and speak of feminism in an era when it did not exist yet? To me, it’s not a matter of names, but what the name means. In a previous book I wrote, Feminist Theology in History, I found that whenever there is a church that precludes women from tasks and responsibilities just because of being women, which is a simple way to speak of patriarchy, immediately women (and also men) appear, now and in the past, that find this unacceptable. When discrimination is justified in the name of God and theology, then those who argue against it can be called not only feminists, even though the name didn’t exist until the end of the 19th Century, but feminist theologians. That is my topic for today: women who have understood the problem of discrimination against women being justified in the name of God.

I gave a text about Gertrude of Helfta to read. I think it can be inspiring for feminists today. I would like to speak of another woman, Isabel de Villena, abbess of a monastery that still exists today, located in the city of Valencia, Spain, south of Barcelona. She lived in the 15th Century. Isabel de Villena dealt with a misogynistic text written by the doctor in the monastery, Jaume Roig, a satirical book called Espill or Mirror. The abbess published a book in response about the life of Jesus written from the perspective of the women who met Jesus. One of the best-written biographies of Christ happens to be from the perspective of women! It can be read in English in a selection of texts. I’m not sure if it’s fully translated, but there are translations of selected texts: Vita Christi.

I want to mention some places where she shows a different view on some well-known passages. For example, the well-known figures of Adam and Eve. Is Eve understood as an example of a guilty woman? A woman that does not behave as she should, or as a symbol of wickedness, deceit, mistrust, negative aspects of our being human?

In her book, Isabel de Villena describes scenes where Eve and Jesus happen to meet each other. This is undoing the theology of Eve as a villain. De Villena is doing something that in Christian theology should be obvious but is an exception: she applies to Eve the Christian idea that sin is overcome by grace and guilt by forgiveness. So – she concludes – whatever Eve did, she is now free by grace and nobody can be a Christian without acknowledging that Eve is fully redeemed and her daughters have not inherited any guilt from her. Eve’s relationship with Jesus is not one of blame, but an example for all Christians: whoever wants to honor Christ cannot do so without honoring Eve as the mother of all and without loving and respecting all women as Jesus did.

How can it be that even for 21st Century readers it’s shocking to read these texts? Her literary and theological work depicts Jesus as someone who respects women, with no presence of mistrust or criticism against them. Isabel de Villena also deals with Mary. There have always been these images of Mary as the mother of God, the saintly woman, and Eve as the wicked woman. In this text by Isabel de Villena, Eve and Mary find each other and love each other. They happily embrace each other and Mary calls Eve her mother, acknowledging her as her own mother in a shockingly positive way.

Whenever we do theology, we are basically filling in the gaps. It’s impossible to do theology without filling in the gaps. There are ways of filling in the gaps that have been consecrated by tradition and go along with power structures of church and society. There are ways of filling in the gaps that sound unbelievable or implausible. But why? Because they don’t fit within the social structures of our day. Hermeneutics, interpreting the texts, filling in the gaps is important because we have to be responsible for our own interpretations. We can never have a final, once and for all interpretation. Every generation needs to interpret anew. What is it that God speaks to the world? This does not happen through a dead text. It needs a living interpretation, which happens through community.

The third example that Isabel de Villena writes about is Mary Magdalene. This text is a joy for me to read. She deals with Resurrection Sunday when she finds Jesus’ tomb empty. This thing happens where she sees a man who she confuses for the garden keeper, but in reality it’s Jesus. She asks him if he’s seen Jesus’ body. And then comes this moment where this man speaks her name to her. This is when Mary recognizes that this is Jesus. Then Mary tries to embrace Jesus, and he says, “don’t touch me.”

This is an interesting sentence theologically. “Don’t touch me because I have not yet gone to the Father.” What interests me is that usually most interpreters assume that this is what happened. But Isabel de Villena isn’t satisfied with this explanation. In her usual sobering and unrestricted way of writing, she explains that Mary Magdalene convinces Jesus that an embrace is necessary. It comes not as a source of temptation but as a source of an expression of love and a welcoming of the resurrected Jesus. So in her text, Magdalene and Jesus embrace one another. This shows Jesus together with women in a way that goes beyond some of the stumbling blocks of classical patriarchal interpretation, which asks what we should do with the body. Instead of asking this, the possibility of experiencing the body as our freedom and capacity to love is put forth. This puts forth an understanding that women are not made as a problem, but that Mary Magdalene is a spiritual being who knows God.

Some of the main texts in Buddhism transform women into men in order to achieve illumination and the discrimination against women keeps reappearing in all major religions. It’s refreshing that Isabel de Villena, in the 15th century, so boldly considers that being a woman not only does not hinder her theology, but also helps her to understand it better.

Another theologian, Gertrude of Helfta, speaks of theology as giving birth. She doesn’t use the word theology, she’s from the 13th Century, and during this time, the word theology was reserved only for men. Women could be mystics, so she’s talking about the fact of opening the world to God. She compares this to giving birth. She means that at the monastery when they would write there is only one of us who gives birth. But everybody else is helping to give birth, they are part of the process. So in her view, the text that’s being produced will look alike to the one who is giving birth, but others will help and that’s how it will come alive. So this is another example that I wanted to give. The importance and potential of women to do theology.

Isabel de Villena’s book was enjoyed within the monastery. It wasn’t distributed widely until after her death. When the Queen of Spain heard about her book, she wanted to read it. So seven years after the abbess died, the nuns of the monastery gave it to the press. This book was one of the most printed and well-respected books of her time.

Mary E. Hunt: Thanks so much, Teresa. I’m glad you’ve called Isabel and Gertrude into our circle today. I think it’s a new conversation that you’re opening from the 15th Century.

Q & A

Q: Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I could listen to you forever. I wonder if it’s possible for you or anyone to know a bit about the culture of Isabel de Villena’s monastery and the way they viewed God that helped give birth to this book?

Teresa Forcades: About the monastery, I had the opportunity to visit them. The nuns who are there today are very proud of their medieval abbess. In most of the women mystics that I have studied, these women, when they experience God, are looking for comfort. But they don’t stop there. They have recorded that God asked them for help. They were experiencing a God that not only gives them support, but that, at the same time, is asking them to support “him” or “her.” Sometimes they use different pronouns. Sometimes they speak of Jesus in female terms, Jesus like a mother teaching us how to speak and walk. Juliana of Norwich did this. There is a whole medieval tradition of Jesus as our mother. This is not a last minute innovation of contemporary feminist theology. This gives us a new way of relating to God.

But back to God asking for help. I relate this to what in the Lacanian tradition today we call ‘precipitation of subjectivity.’ What it means to mature as a human being, that is, taking full responsibility for your life. These medieval women experienced God simultaneously as the support of their lives and as somebody who needed to be supported by them.

Gertrude was 26 when she first had a vision of Jesus. In her vision, Jesus is only 16 and invites her to jump over a fence, the fence of the limitations that she had considered her own.

MEH: Is your first book, Feminist Theology, translated in English?

TF: No, unfortunately it is not.

MEH: Is the intersection between feminist monasticism and feminist liberation theology possible?

TF: Of course. Because, first of all, what do I understand as liberation theology? It’s the experience of theology and encountering God as always jumping over fences. It’s about becoming the fullness of what you can become, especially when these fences are so horrible for certain parts of society. Every year 800,000 women are trafficked across borders and forced into prostitution. Half of them are underage. This is impossible to happen without authorities turning their heads the other way. This is not happening in some periphery of the world. It’s happening everywhere. This is why liberation is adequate as a bigger framework. For me, there is no validity to try to pit different reasons for liberation against each other. We know in the 21st Century we have developed intersectionality as a theoretical tool because we don’t want to fall into the pitfall of making hierarchies among discriminations. What is the concrete place from which you can fight the best? Try the image of the quilt—rooted in the experience of oppression that each of us might have. Only from your place, your concrete situation, can you fight the common fight with an open heart and an open mind knowing that we are working together for liberation.

MEH: Let me turn to the question of today’s monasticism, especially contemporary feminist monasticism. I’m thinking of the Erie Benedictines, the Holy Wisdom Monastery, etc. How do you see these and other models as forms of current monasticism? How can this be relevant today? Do you have any further reflections on your own setting? I’m also wondering about your own experience in Catalonia.

TF: I think there are two main ways it is relevant today. The first is preserving the memory of so many women of the past who had very deep experiences of their own selves and started uninterrupted traditions of women communities; preserving their memory not only historically but making it come alive, bringing together the boldness of exploring one’s unique self with the challenge of building a living community with other women. The second way in which monasticism is relevant today is by offering a space of silence and prayer for all who would like to experience it. This is a gift.

So what are monastics today doing? I have an example from the North of Spain. There’s a group of women monastics, Trinitarian Sisters in the North of Spain. They have a small community. They have been pioneers in Spain and Europe in taking seriously their feminist commitment to renew life together: the images they use in their church, how they read the Gospels and Psalms. They fill the gaps in a feminist way. They understand that the text wants to reach you where you are. They pray in the feminine. This can strengthen spirituality.

Teresa of Avila in the 16th Century said we need to pray from the heart, from our own inner experience of God. What is it that you perceive as the presence of God in you? As a woman, praying with an already made prayer is like inviting a friend over, but then talking to a portrait of her instead of talking directly to her. What is the presence of God in me? Do I dare to experience it?

Diann L. Neu: Thank you for this round. I want to invite you to take it into ritual and Eucharist. What does ritual and Eucharist look like in modern monasteries?

TF: This monastery in the North of Spain dances in their prayer. We know Teresa of Avila did this. She incorporated dance into the liturgy. This has been completely forgotten and lost. These women are reviving this. This brings the body to be part of our prayer. And it encourages us to not be afraid of the nonconventional and the emptiness of not having guides.

I also consider it important to use feminine pronouns in prayer. And to avoid the political scheme of dividing people between those who know and those who don’t, this idea that we need experts or guides. Simone Weil in the 1930’s wrote a book on oppression and liberty, where she argued that besides oppression by violence and oppression by money there is a third type, that characterizes the 20th century; she called it oppression by function. This operates when a human being who is born to be free is placed under the direction of another. Nowadays, in Europe we have more and more so-called managers who are actually trained how to tell other people what to do. What does it mean to be trained to tell other people what to do? We have allowed the roles of management and direction to become a vocation, a job on their own.

MEH: Please give us a very brief word about Catalonia if you want to.

TF: Some people might see from the outside that Catalans are people with privilege not wanting to share their money or advantages with the rest of Spain. I wouldn’t be part of the Catalan independence movement if this were the case. I think this is about the principle of self-determination: who defines who gets to have self-determination on how to govern themselves? Who has the will to be a nation? According to Marxist sociologist Benedict Anderson, the nation is the post-imperialist form of political unity. In the past, nations gained and conquered their independence through violence. What I see happening in Catalonia is an example of self-determination that does not involve violence.

MEH: On that note I will simply bring up your book again, Faith and Freedom, because in the chapter for “Lauds,” you talk about social justice. You also published a wonderful piece from The Guardian on why you want independence for Catalonia. It is a wonderful encapsulation of what you’ve been saying about self-determination. So thank you for both your time and expertise!

WATER thanks Teresa Forcades for her time and talent, wishing her well on her many endeavors.

The next WATERtalk will be Wednesday January 17, 2018 from 1 – 2p.m. with Rev. Elizabeth Edman. Her topic is “Queer Virtue 101.”