As Teresa de Ávila edited her Camino de perfección (The Way of Perfection), she crossed out a passage in chapter three, that nevertheless remains legible in the manuscript. She had been exhorting her sisters to be constant and persistent in prayer, both for the world’s sake and for their own, remembering that the Lord was always listening. As she often does in her writing, she paused her instruction in order to offer a passionate prayer:
Ni aborrecisteis, Señor de mi alma, cuando andabais por el mundo, las mujeres, antes las favorecisteis siempre con mucha piedad, y hallasteis en ellas tanto amor y más fe que en los hombres, pues estaba vuestra sacratísima Madre en cuyos méritos merecemos —y por tener su hábito— lo que desmerecimos por nuestras culpas. ¿No basta, Señor, que nos tiene el mundo acorraladas e incapaces para que no hagamos cosa que valga nada por Vos en público, ni osemos hablar algunas verdades que lloramos en secreto, sino que no nos habíais de oír petición tan justa? No lo creo yo, Señor, de vuestra bondad y justicia, que sois juez justo y no como los jueces del mundo, que —como son hijos de Adán y, en fin, todos varones— no hay virtud de mujer que no tengan por sospechosa. Sí, que algún día ha de haber, Rey mío, que se conozcan todos. No hablo por mí, que ya tiene conocida el mundo mi ruindad y yo holgado que sea pública; sino porque veo los tiempos de manera que no es razón desechar ánimos virtuosos y fuertes, aunque sean de mujeres.
For when you were in the world, Lord of my soul, you did not despise women, but rather always showed them great favor and compassion, and found such love in them, and even more faith than in men. It was your most holy Mother—whose habit we wear—whose merits returned to us what we had lost through our faults. Is it not enough, Lord, that the world has us locked up and incapacitated so that we can do nothing that is of any use to you in public, nor do we dare speak of the truths over which we weep in secret, fearing that You may not hear our just prayer? I do not believe this, Lord, of your goodness and justice; for you are a just judge, unlike the judges of this world, who are sons of Adam and, after all, men, for whom there is no virtue in a woman that ought not be considered suspect. Yes, my King, the day will come when all will be known. I am not speaking on my own account, for the whole world is already aware of my wickedness, and I am glad that it should become known; but I see that the times are such that it is wrong to reject virtuous and strong spirits, even if they be women.
She wrote that in 1577. It is hard to appreciate the magnitude of such a thing. That there is a manuscript at all is astonishing; we hardly ever get a woman’s thoughts in her own hand during this time period, rather than that of a confessor, lawyer, or other mediator. And we can read that manuscript now, but for the longest time, the only Teresa anybody knew was edited—first by her own hand, then by the censors, and ultimately by countless editors and translators over the years.
The first print edition of her collected works, published in 1588, was prepared by the Augustinian friar Luis de León, a literary giant in his own right. His poetry and biblical commentaries were praised in his day, and one of his books became a popular wedding gift for brides across Spain. It wasn’t his commentary on the Song of Songs, and it certainly wasn’t his edition of Teresa’s writings. No, it was La perfecta casada (The Perfect Wife), which reminds a woman to be content with being locked up in her own home for the rest of her life, serving her husband’s every need. It is confusing, I have to admit, to imagine Luis editing Teresa. It must have been a labor of love—why else take the risk to invest such time and material resources in publishing a tome that promoted a woman, of all things, as a spiritual authority? How can this have been the same man? We know he had access to her original manuscript; what did he think when he read this passage?
In the end, she is a saint and a Doctor and he is neither; the day came when all was known. It just hurts to think of all those brides in all those houses, reading him, and all those women in all those monasteries, never knowing the real her.