My saints, Momma always says, will you just look at that. She says it whenever she sees something unusual. It doesn't have to be very unusual to excite Momma. A flock of turkeys crossing the road. A lady wearing curlers at Walmart. A picture of a giraffe in the newspaper. Something she catches on NPR in the car. Isn't that something, Momma asks me. I never thought I'd see the day.
More Things in Heaven and Earth
Momma's not dumb. She read all of my books when I went to Our Lady of Grace High School, and she's reading all my college books now. There was a line made us both laugh when we read Hamlet: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Sometimes we say that when we read or hear something odd. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio. And we bust out laughing all over again.
Momma likes the saints, because their stories are full of marvels and wonders. She's always brought home calendars from church and you’d be surprised, but pretty much every day is a saint’s day. When I was little, she read their stories to me at bedtime along with Grimm's fairy tales and Dr. Seuss.
God, deliver me from sullen saints, Saint Theresa said. There are not many saints who made jokes like that, Momma points out. Maybe that's why Momma named me after Saint Theresa. At school I was mostly Terry. In college I'm Ter. It’s only Momma and my professors who say Theresa.
Theresa's Bodily Ecstasy
In Introduction to Art History, we learned about Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. I doubt Momma knew about Theresa's swoony look in that statue. There I was with a couple hundred other students in a big auditorium, all of us looking at a larger-than-life Saint Theresa, eyes closed, head lolling back, lips parted in a gasp. Definitely mid-orgasm. Everybody in the room knew it. Freshman year I had my first orgasm with a boy and I think it surprised us both. Naturally an orgasm that lasted forever like Saint Theresa's would be even more astonishing.
If you read the stories of the female saints you’ll notice how saint after saint was ready to die or lose essential body parts rather than lose her virginity. That seems pretty extreme to me. I mean aren't you kind of gaining more than you're losing? Some of them lost their heads. For example, Saint Agnes, Saint Barbara, Saint Dymphna. Saint Agatha cut off her breasts. Saint Lucy gouged out her eyes, and in pictures she carries them around on a plate like she doesn't know what else to do with them. Even those who didn't lose body parts in life were dismembered after death. They're scattered all over the place, a finger bone here, a tibia there, skulls displayed in churches, splinters of bone in altars.
At My Church
We learned about the saints in catechism class at Church of the Sacred Heart when I was growing up. Sister Immaculata glowed like a frosted light bulb when she talked about Saint Catherine of Siena's stigmata. Sister Bridget blushed pink when she told us how Saint Agnes was sent off to a brothel but remained a virgin nevertheless. Inviolate, she whispered. Father Flanagan didn’t care for the female saints. Mostly he wanted women and girls to wear hats in church, even though it wasn’t a rule any more. He liked Saint Paul and told us that the pope was the head of the church like the man was the head of the family and women should practice modesty at all times. Momma sniffed and said Thank goodness we don’t have to put up with that, Theresa. She meant because Daddy was long gone. Good riddance to bad rubbish, my Aunt Feely always said, and Momma agreed.
The Holy Virgin Martyrs
Adamantine, Athena, Akrive, Antigone, Arivea, Aspasia, Aphrodite, Dione, Dodone, Elpinike, Erasmia, Erato, Ermeneia, Evterpe, Thaleia, Theanoe, Theano, Theonymphe, Theophane, Kalliroe, Kalliste, Kleio, Kleonike, Kleopatra, Koralia, Lambro, Margarita, Marianthe, Melpomene, Moscho, Ourania, Pandora, Penelope, Polymnia, Polynike, Sapfo, Terpsichore, Troada, Haido, and Harikleia. Forty Christian virgins put to death by the Emperor. Nothing like the goddesses and queens they were named for. Practically nameless, the list goes on so long. Some were burned, some beheaded, some slain with swords or knives, some forced to swallow hot marbles. September 1 is their feast day. Just girls, so they didn’t each get their own day.
Everybody Knows Saint Jude
But Saint Rita is also the patron saint of hopeless causes. Her husband was a drunk, but was stabbed to death, praise be to God. Her sons died of dysentery before they could avenge their father's death, and she thanked God for that too. An end to bloodshed. She was turned away from the convent three times because she was a widow and not a virgin. Finally they let her in and she turned out to be holier than them all.
There are two Saint Theresas, maybe more, but two famous ones. My namesake is Theresa of Avila. She was a visionary with headaches, founded seventeen convents, and was rewarded, by Bernini at least, with an eternity of orgasms in the afterlife. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, achieved bliss in this life by scrubbing floors and doing laundry. Don’t you take after that one, Momma said. Fat chance, I laughed.
Another thing I learned, in my Women in Early Christianity class. Saint Mary Magdalene’s been misunderstood, I told Momma. That doesn’t surprise me at all, she said. This book we're reading says she was one of Jesus's favorite disciples. She wasn't a prostitute or repentant. She had a mouth on her, she had followers. She could've been the first pope instead of Peter, and he was jealous, I told Momma, who shook her head and laughed out loud. Mary Magdalene's got her own gospel, but they didn’t include it in the Bible. Saints alive, Momma said. If that don’t beat all.