Saint Teresa With Her Legs Spread |Nonfiction|
SAINT TERESA WITH HER LEGS SPREAD
SKIRT BUNCHED UP AROUND HER THIGHS
HANDS RELAXED IN A LOOSENED FIST
POINTER FINGER UP, BECKONING
Bernini’s sculpture, where it is perched high in the Cornaro chapel of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, is timeless. It tells the story of Saint Teresa, and the moment God’s angel pierces her with an arrow which carries the full force of the love of God. Beneath the sculpture, resting on the gate which keeps tourists at bay, a small, laminated information sheet explains what is not immediately evident: “the ecstasy of saints and their visions of the divine represents one of the themes most dear to baroque art. The moment of ecstasy, understood as ‘death through love’ on the basis of Teresa’s understanding refers to a mystical experience that involves body and spirit.”
He carved her in 1652. A favorite of the Catholic Church, and Pope Innocent X in particular, Bernini’s success in life was remarkable. One of his more impressive skills was the way he sculpted intimacy. His other feats were the Rape of Proserpina, a sculpture which depicts Pluto abducting a young woman, the marble giving way to his fingers on her flesh, her waist dimpling at his touch; and Apollo and Daphne, telling a similar tale of abduction and a woman in flight. Daphne’s limbs sprout twigs where Apollo grasps her, the fear plain on her face and her body twisted in desperation. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is different from these. There are two figures in the sculpture: Teresa, lying on her back with her knees apart, bare feet hovering above the ground, and an angel standing over her, small and childlike, an arrow nestled in his palm and pointed at her heart. Teresa is not in flight. This is no abduction. Her mouth is open as if to beg.
We can look at David, at Michelangelo’s attention to homoerotic detail in the lines of David’s abdomen, his massive calves–but Bernini did what Michelangelo might not have dared to do. He sculpted Teresa in the exact moment of ecstasy. David is beautiful, and Michelangelo’s desire for him is clear if you’re looking for it. But Bernini makes it obvious. He does not allow us to shy away from the eroticism of the body. At once, Teresa is outside of her body, and acutely aware of the way it is responding.
The first time my girl made me come I couldn’t look her in the eye. After, face buried in her pillow, I felt her hands on my back, kneading in, morphing marble. She said breathe. She said you did so good. She said are you alright? I’m in Rome and I’m looking at Teresa’s chest carved mid-heave and I’m thinking about how afterward, my fists clenching and unclenching up around my face, her mouth on my sternum felt like lightning. I cock my head to the side, sizing Teresa up. She is not carved mid-heave, she is heaving. Her body, reclining on a cloud, is shapeless–a mass of drapery and rippling robes and I am watching the wind whip through them. I am watching her fingers grip her dress, and I am watching her other hand flex and relax, and it reminds me of the involuntary way I move my hands after my girl makes me come. Our tour guide ushers us out of the basilica. I look over my shoulder at Teresa and wonder what else we have in common.
A JURY OF WHITE MARBLE MEN WATCH HER FROM THEIR BOXES
WANT HER PLEASURE AS THEIR OWN
HER EYES ARE OPEN BUT SHE IS SEEING STARS
“The suspended scene…involves the spectators…the different members of the Cornaro family, depicted in boxes on both sides…are present at the scene while they converse among themselves and reflect on the sacred event.” Teresa and her angel are dead center, suspended about seven or eight feet off the ground. Nestled in the walls of the chapel to each side of her, are six men–the Cornaros–which Bernini sculpted upon request. The Cornaros commissioned this piece, asked to be included, because even a saint’s body belongs to everyone but her.
Bernini was not a stranger to physical intimacy, not like I am. He had several lovers throughout his life and was undoubtedly familiar with the way a woman’s back arches, the way her jaw drops open on a gasp. And then there’s me, who at twenty-one, has just learned what to do with myself when my girl runs her tongue along the back of my knee. I’m learning her cues while I’m learning my own, and I feel spiritual. I feel elevated, out-of-body. I never believed in God, or Heaven, or anything I couldn’t touch or taste. And I’m really not trying to be cheesy here, but now I see God when my girl gets her mouth on me.
Who’s the boy and who’s the girl?
I’ve left Rome. We are in Venice, now. I’m kicking my heels against cobblestone corridors, following the water’s will. It is dark, past sunset, and my new friends and I are drunk and dreaming of sexy affairs on gondolas parked just off of Saint Mark’s Square.
Who’s the boy and who’s the girl? Briana asks me this with her chin tipped upward, throat bared to the Italian sky. Our other friends snicker and gasp, recognizing Briana’s mistake. She does a double-take. Was that not politically correct?
I decide to make this an educational opportunity, which is generous of me. Usually, I would not be as patient–but I mentioned the Italian sky, didn’t I? I feel romantic, all of history lapping at the stone archway beneath us. It’s not a great question to ask, Bri.
Well, shit. I’m sorry.
The point is that we’re both girls (I choose not to delve into the genderqueer aspects of my relationship–one battle at a time). I think you mean to ask who fucks and who gets fucked?
My friends’ bellowing laughter echoes against the ancient, Venetian maze of buildings, and Briana throws her hands up in surrender. Trust me, I do not want to know that.
Who’s the boy and who’s the girl? This is what our spectators ask. I’d rather you ask who’s the saint and who’s God? My girl is God, she is always God—or at least her fingers are God. Her tongue is God. Do I go to hell for the act itself, or just for putting words to it? When you name a thing, you bring it to life. “Our love is God, let’s go get a slushie.”
LIPS AND LEGS PARTED
SO GOOD IT HURTS—GOD
IT IS SO GOOD—
Teresa’s testimony said, “In [the angel’s] hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God.”
What does it mean for two girls who don’t believe? Christianity is colonialism, that’s what my girl says, but I think she knows—she has to know—that her hands in the dark are the only proof I have against her.
We’re lying beneath a redbud in the middle of June. She has seen Teresa, too. Loved the fluidity of her robes, the fleshy stone, and full lips. An artist herself, my girl loved the structure. I ask her what spirituality means to her. She says I feel spiritual with my hands in the dirt. When I’m growing something, planting something. Making room in the earth for a new body. To have a hand in the creation of something…yeah, that’s spiritual.
Okay, I ask, and what about ecstasy?
She grins. She knows I can’t get Teresa off my mind. She stretches out on the ground, back arching a little, fingers slithering through green blades of grass. Her hands in the dirt. I can’t compare my ecstasy to Teresa’s ecstasy. Her ecstasy is the ecstasy, you know? She saw God. I don’t even believe in God.
Humor me, baby.
She hums. It’s about the little ecstasies. A good cup of coffee. Crunching an autumn leaf under my Dr. Martens. The little ecstasies of everyday life are more important than seeing God because some of us never will. You’ve got to see ecstasies in the little things.
I mull this over. In the heat of another Oklahoma summer, I am wearing less clothes. My body, thick at the bottom and thin at the top, is barer than I usually allow. So, ecstasy isn’t physical for you?
Define ‘physical,’ she smirks. She rolls over, looks at me, brown eyes big and piercing. Physicality is the space my body takes up, not what my body does. I don’t really think all that much about my physicality.
I feel almost jealous for a moment. With the summer in full swing, my dysphoria won’t let me alone. I am hyper-aware of my physicality on most days, but with my body exposed like this, and her body so close, it’s all I can think about. I think they’re inherently connected, I say.
What are? Spirituality and physicality?
Yes. Think about it. Spirituality is experienced through the body. I mean, people eat Christ’s cartilage every morning at mass, for fuck’s sake. You can’t perform rituals without some aspect of physicality, and rituals are how you engage the spiritual. And then when you factor ecstasy into the equation, it becomes fundamentally physical. What is a ritual?
She blinks her big brown eyes at me. Am I supposed to answer that? A ritual–it’s a repeated action.
And in what situation are repeated actions necessary? Sex. It’s a ritual that allows for ecstasy.
I think, she says after a moment, now rolling onto her back to stare at the leaves dancing above us, speckled light drifting over her mouth, that ecstasy–orgasmic or otherwise–can be an avenue for spirituality. And rituals aren’t just repeated actions, they’re methods of worship.
So, who are we worshipping?
Each other? She asks. Our own queer bodies?
I nod in agreement. We’re worshipping the physicality denied to us for so long.
Who knows if she was queer, my girl says, but Teresa was denied her physicality too.
FROZEN IN THAT DRUNKEN GAZE
THROUGH WHOSE EYES DO WE WATCH HER?
Teresa’s testimony said, “The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share…If anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God, in his goodness, to grant him some experience of it.”
I want to take Teresa by the hands and ask her where they’ve been. I want to watch Bernini’s experienced hands grasp her liquid marble body and ask him if he really believed her. I want to ask her if God was a girl. I want to ask him what did you think you were doing when you gave her those heavy eyes, that open mouth? I want to ask them both if they can tell I’m faking it.
No wonder Teresa called it God. When it feels this good, what else? When it feels this guilty, what else? She covered her tracks, or she really didn’t know. Maybe she got caught. Maybe she lied and was sanctified for it. Or maybe it’s simpler than that. I think she realized what happens when you slip your fingers further down, had no other word but God to define it. She needed a girl like mine to say here, this is how, and I know, baby. I know. When it feels this good, what else?
Bernini knew what else. His affairs were legendary. One look at Teresa’s parted knees and it’s evident that he knew his way around a woman’s body. What, then, did the Cornaros think of the finished sculpture? Hailed now as a turning point in Baroque art, was Bernini’s masterpiece accepted initially? Surely the Cornaros were familiar with orgasms (they weren’t nuns, after all). Surely Pope Innocent X, in an age where popes were not quite as pious as they are now, saw what I see in Teresa. Whatever Bernini’s intention might have been, he accomplished something truly spectacular. His Baroque masterpiece, dedicated to Saint Teresa’s moment of divine spirituality, has finally prompted a young, American lesbian to explore the spirituality of a genderqueer orgasm. Truly remarkable.
So, I’m in Rome and I’m watching Teresa’s chest carved mid-heave and my eyes rake up and down her body until they land on the angel leaning over her. I realize now why Teresa means so much to me. Queer and not quite woman, physicality is uncharted territory for me. My girl is my guide, my God, the reason I know the little ecstasies. Teresa had no one but her God, and in that, we are the same. Her physicality was denied to her, as was mine. It only took one divine orgasm for both of us, and we were freed.
The angel towers over Teresa, and Teresa towers over me. She writhes with pleasure, with divine love.
It almost feels as though the arrow is aimed at me.
GOD HELP US
(THE WAY YOU HELPED HER).
DO YOU WANT ME TO SAY PLEASE?
WE ARE VOYEURS, EACH OF US.
Jerakah Greene is a nonbinary lesbian from Tulsa, Oklahoma. They are soon to graduate from the Creative Writing program at Columbia College Chicago, where they study fiction, literature, and gender studies. They have published fiction in The Lab Review, and a review and interview in Hair Trigger 2.0 where they were the reviews editor in the fall of 2018. They were also a production editor on the last print edition of Hair Trigger (41). They are editor-in-chief of Antithesis, an academic journal coming spring 2019. Currently, they are an intern and junior editor with F(r)riction of the Brink Literacy Project and are loving every minute of it. When they are not writing intensively about the queer experience, they can be found baking blueberry pies and hiding from tornadoes.