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The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

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I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. - James Joyce, "Araby," 1914

The statue was profane. Not merely suggestive or inappropriate for children, profane! Siobhan had thought the art museum would be a pleasant outing with her granddaughter. She shouldn't have brought her here. Now, her impulse was to shield Emma's eyes. At eight, though, Emma was far too young to understand what made it so shocking. It was a replica of Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. The original was life-sized, marble, and in a basilica in Rome, the plaque read. Even this smaller copy was here on loan. The lifelike woman in the statue had her lips parted sensuously, her eyes half-closed as her head lolled back. An equally beautiful male angel lifted the saint's garment to penetrate her heart with a gold-tipped spear. The angel's coy smile showed that - unlike Saint Teresa - he was still in full control of his reactions. Siobhan was familiar with the passage from Saint Teresa of Avila's spiritual autobiography that inspired the statue. In her early teens, back at her convent school in Dublin, Siobhan had read many books about saints' lives. She returned to this passage compulsively, equally horrified and captivated, without understanding why.

"I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying."

The saint's writings hinted at a level of pleasure Siobhan had never even dreamed was possible. The statue depicted it, clearly.

And no, this couldn't be - Siobhan was suddenly weeping uncontrollably in the middle of the museum. She knew what she looked like: some hysterical, sentimental, old woman, overwhelmed by the art or by her own memories. Maybe people would think she was having some kind of religious experience of her own. She removed a few facial tissues from her purse and sat on a bench in the middle of the gallery.

"Grandma, what's wrong?" Emma asked in alarm, grasping her hand. "Do you miss Grandpa?" He'd died only months earlier.

"Yes, very much so, dear," Siobhan replied, feeling grateful for the suggestion. She led Emma into a room with age-appropriate artwork. "I wish he could have seen this. He loved art, and he loved you. As I love you."

"Oh, I love you, too! He made those beds out of wood. For my dolls, for Christmas."

"Yes, I remember. Such a great artist. What else do you remember about him?" That made him sound like a stranger - but maybe, in a way, he had been. Hearing her children and Emma's stories, their Dad or Grandpa was almost a different person entirely from her husband. She was proud they'd loved him so dearly. She'd chosen well and made a good life, after all.

Halfway home from Boston, they stopped in a restaurant off the highway. It was a newfangled place - a chrome diner with vinyl booths and a jukebox playing pop songs in the background. All the waitresses wore pink poodle skirts.

"Emma, when I was a girl - " Siobhan began wistfully.

Emma got a mesmerized look on her face. Her grandmother was using that lilting tone she used to tell stories about fairies, selkies, and changelings, but she was talking about herself. She never did that. Soon after Emma's grandparents were married, they'd immigrated from Dublin to Boston. They'd never seen their parents, siblings, or grandparents again, and this was too heartbreaking to discuss casually in public. She began again: "When I was a young girl in Ireland, I wanted to go to a bazaar."

"What's a bazaar?"

"Well, it's like - a bit like an outdoor market or the state fair we went to last year. Except it was much smaller and less exciting. I never made it there, but no matter, Emma. It was ages ago. Museums are much better anyway, dear. I want you to see as much of the world as you can, with me or without me!"

"Do you feel better now, Grandma?"

"Yes, thank you. I'm fine! Why don't we get dessert, too?"

"Chiffon?" The waitress repeated after Siobhan said her name. Most people born in the US could not pronounce it. Siobhan realized her mind was drifting again. Siobhan ordered chicken soup, tea, and water. Emma apparently loved the big, messy cheeseburger and fries. Siobhan disliked most food in American restaurants, especially beef, fish, and potatoes. It was food from an assembly line: a plastic parody of the fresh fish, bread, butter, and grass-fed lamb from the Dublin of her childhood. She still liked the desserts, though.

The bazaar in Dublin had been called Araby. Siobhan had been an adult when she'd realized that Araby was not a real place. Yasmin Karam, a friend from work, had laughed and scorned a novelty song playing on the radio at their dressmaking factory. The lyrics went something like an Arab sheik or the sheik of Araby.

"Araby," Yasmin had whispered contemptuously. "Ha. There's no such country!" She'd been born in Lebanon, she'd told Siobhan.

Siobhan remembered feeling ashamed at her own ignorance. All of her fantasies of an exotic land, which she hadn't thought of in decades, resurfaced, then dissipated. On the way home from work that day, she stopped at the library, combing through the card catalog by subject for Arab, Arabia, Araby. In the process, Siobhan had found a story titled "Araby," which seemed written specifically for her. Of course, that young boy pining for her had considered himself the main character of the story, as she was in hers. And here she was - vapid and vain, through the distorted mirror of the story. Dreaming of her or someone very much like her, the narrator said: "I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes."

Those were a callow, lovestruck boy's words, not a man's, even in retrospect. Don't you understand, silly boy? she thought. The chalice isn't your adolescent crush. Sacrilegious though it is, the holy chalice isn't a torch you carry for me. The chalice is me. My body, my soul. I alone carried it safely and intact through the throngs of my foes. And she had made it through, safely, uncorrupted by the world. Untouched until she married Al. So.

It may as well have been a chalice for all the nuns and her mother had told her about it. No one had ever taught her the real names or functions of the private parts of her own body. Al had used crude nicknames that she'd thought he'd made up. She told him this mortified her, so he laughed and did it more often. Even some of the acts, she thought - he must have invented those somehow. Only a depraved soul would want that.

Marriage was for procreation, after all. Sister Mary Frances had at least told them that much. She had been their most eccentric teacher at Siobhan's all-girls convent school back in Dublin. She often closed her eyes and swayed back and forth in her black habit as she prayed in Latin. "Ave Maria! Gratia plena!" she intoned, rocking. The girls would laugh silently but thought the Latin made the nuns sound mysterious. Mary Frances was as distant as Father Cassidy, chanting the Mass in Latin with his back to them.

"Girls!" Sister Mary Frances had insisted once. "Don't make your lips a lunch counter for any hungry lads!"

Siobhan and her friends had blushed and giggled amongst themselves, scandalized, imagining kissing boys. But their thoughts on what happened between men and women, beyond that, remained vague. Sister Mary Frances made boys and men sound like voracious monsters - animals. Perhaps Siobhan wanted to remain at the convent after she graduated. Becoming a Bride of Christ seemed a safer bet than marriage.

Of course, Siobhan couldn't have articulated any of this back then, when her younger brothers' friends had stared at her. Or even years later, at 19, when she'd first met Aloysius. Al - no one called him Aloysius, so the name had been a secret, a private litany she whispered to herself. He'd been tall and athletic, with blond hair, green eyes, a mustache, and dapper hats and suits. He was gorgeous, charming, funny, and came on too strong at first. But wasn't that what she'd always wanted: to be pursued and swept off her feet? Every girl wanted Al, and now he wanted her. And she'd gone on an adventure with him, traveling farther than she'd ever dreamed.

No one had ever told her this, but Siobhan had somehow learned - absorbed - that her body belonged more to God and to Al than to herself. When pregnant or nursing, it belonged to her children. Any lust outside of marriage was a sin. So, those urges to explore what her own body wanted, its secret capacity for pleasure - those were sinful as well. How could you ever please another person if you don't first figure out who you are and what you like and want?

In hindsight, she felt sorry for Al. No one had ever taught him, either. How to stop or wait for her in bed. That sex was not an obligation and anyone could say no. "Damn, you always just lie there!" he'd exclaimed once in frustration. (The word "damn" had been profane back then, too.)

Maybe sex was meant to be painful or shocking for women, at least at first. She did anticipate and enjoy it sometimes. Even then, she held back, because Al laughed at her reactions. His laughter was most likely involuntary, but it showed a smug side of him that she hated. Everything was always about him and his body, his prowess, somehow. Her vulnerability was his power.

When she was between the ages twelve and fourteen, boys had begun to notice Siobhan. She'd relished the attention and the heady feeling of power. She desired; she was desired. Usually, these didn't match up. Until she met Al, she had never wanted same person who wanted her. She wanted to look, to be seen, and not to be touched. But how was she to know those were actually three separate desires? Everything was conflated.

Mangan's sister, her brother's classmates had called her in whispers, so long ago, not even knowing her first name. Then, she became Al's wife. Now Sally and Kieran's mother and Emma's grandma. She loved her children and granddaughter and would never wish them out of existence. So, she could never regret her marriage either, she reasoned. There was good and bad in everyone, including Al. She refused to wish away most of her life.