Saint Teresa as a role model for single women

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Here is an unusual opinion:

Her book “Life” got her called before the Inquisition to investigate whether her teachings lined up with the era’s strict orthodoxy. Many of her writings were radical, but she used charm to convince her inquisitors that she was harmless. “But what do I know, I am just a wretched woman.” She advocated for reform, and in her convents the emphasis was on piety, poverty and charity. And while her books were originally intended only for clergy and her fellow nuns, after her death they were published widely.

She wrote volumes, about the role of women, about compassion, about the power of art, about living through dark times. She was a philosopher, and yet even today she is rarely mentioned in philosophy survey classes and rarely listed with her brothers Spinoza, Descartes, Aquinas, Kant and others.

The writing of St. Teresa’s that I am most interested in is on the creation of a woman’s life, outside of a life with a man. Her account of building convents across Spain, “The Book of Her Foundations,” is essentially her argument that such lives are important. She sometimes tired of the younger nuns, writing that they “do not recognize the great favor God has granted them in … freeing them from being subject to a man who is often the death of them and who could also be, God forbid, the death of their souls.”

Five hundred years after St. Teresa, and there are still very few models for women of how to live outside of coupledom, whether that is the result of a choice or just bad luck. I can’t remember the last time I saw a television show or a film about a single woman, unless her single status was a problem to be solved or an illustration of how deeply damaged she was. This continues even as more and more women are staying single longer and longer.

I’ve been single for the most part going on 11 years now, and so I have heard every derogatory, patronizing, demeaning thing said about single women. “There has to be someone for you,” a married woman friend once said exasperatedly after I recounted another bad date. Implying, unconsciously, that there must be one man somewhere on the planet who could stand to be around me for more than a few days at a time.

And so it’s hard to get people to understand why a woman would ever choose to live a life alone. We no longer have to choose between being a brain and a body, but I can’t help but think that we lose something when we couple up, and maybe that thing is worth preserving. I pointed out to a different friend that it was the nuns who were the most socially engaged, working with the world’s most vulnerable. My friend, married, asked “as devil’s advocate” whether they were simply compensating for the lack of romantic love and children with their social concern. Yes, I said, maybe. “But we all have needs that aren’t met, and we’re all looking for substitutes.”

…I understand loneliness, as do the many women I know who are building lives on their own. But loneliness and vulnerability can be tools, if you can stand the pressure of them. Loneliness awakens not only your attention, as you scan rooms in the hopes of finding someone to alleviate it, but it also drives your empathy. One friend, a political activist in Romania, writes, “I’m afraid of many things, but loneliness is not among them, and it’s actually quite depressing to have to witness the lengths most people are willing to go just to avoid being alone.”

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