Born 500 years ago, Teresa of Ávila can certainly be said to have been ahead of her time. As a reformer of the Carmelite order and mystic, she had a significant amount of influence within her own religious community and her order as a whole. Not bad for a motherless girl from Ávila.
Researching this post I found that Rowan Williams refers to Teresa as having experienced status inconsistency. Intrigued, I searched for a definition.
Definition: Status inconsistency is a condition that occurs when individuals have some status characteristics that rank relatively high and some that rank relatively low. Status inconsistency can be quite pervasive, especially in societies in which ascribed statuses such as race and gender play an important role in stratification.
Teresa had authority as a reformer within her order as well as one who received mystic revelation but this was not recognised by the religious authorities at the time. She had to walk a fine line between sharing her intense religious experiences of God whilst remaining submissive to the (mainly patriarchal) authorities around her.
She did this by frequently apologising for her female weakness while, at the same time, using the weakness of women to justify why they may receive more spiritual experiences than men. She writes,
‘in the case of a poor little woman like myself, weak and with hardly any fortitude, it seems to me fitting that God lead me with gifts…… but servants of God, men of prominence, learning and high intelligence…. When they don’t have devotion, they shouldn’t weary themselves.’
It is always problematic to read historical texts through the lense of modernity. Weakness and suffering were more highly regarded as a spiritual advantage then than they are now by the modern church. By declaring her weakness and unworthiness Teresa is implicitly elevating herself. But I cannot believe that Teresa really thought so little of her female nature.
I don’t think that it’s implausible to suggest that Teresa’s writing was to protect herself from appearing to be claiming the authority her influence merited. While the sisters and laity who read her works generally approved and saw her experiences as God-given, others did not. Weber writes that ‘the Inquisition was moving to reaffirm the traditional ecclesiastical association between women’s power and women’s fallen sexuality.’ Even those men who were sympathetic to her experiences and saw her as a virtuous woman still saw her as infringing on the male magisterial authority. The careful line Teresa had to walk was between proving her worthiness and showing humility. Her influence vastly outweighed the authority she was given.
Today, women in the church have a similar experience. True, the stakes are not as high. I’ve never heard of a woman being cloistered or killed for asking to preach in a British church. But status inconsistency is prevalent.
The children’s leader whose role is not given weight.
The clergy wives whose support and wisdom is not acknowledged.
The female clergy who are seen as less than their male colleagues.
Women who have influence which is not acknowledged by the church community.
It is no wonder, then, that so many women with influence within the church experience imposter syndrome; the feeling that they are a fraud, undeserving of their position and are at risk of being ‘found out’ at any moment. This insecurity is only affirmed when the influence they have is undermined by the effects of status inconsistency. An example of this is women feeling as though they don’t belong on a church committee which is only confirmed when their comments are not given the weight they merit. This leads to them tip-toeing around, justifying their suggestions, not realising their potential.
When I first read about imposter syndrome I breathed a sigh of relief. Phew! I’m not the only one who feels like that! I’m not the only one who feels as though me asking to preach or lead means that I’m less called than those who are asked. I’m not the only one who feels awkward when suggesting that preaching teams ought to have a better gender (age and personality type) balance because I would say that as a young woman who wants to preach.
I feel for Teresa. It is so tiring to have to constantly justify to others what you are convinced God has called you to do; to make sure that you don’t step on, often insecure men’s, toes. But Teresa managed to walk that line where many other women failed, either scared into silence or silenced by violence. By trusting in the vision God gave her she achieved remarkable things, not least a new order. She had faith that her Jesus would see her through; that she could trust him enough to step out in confidence.
The most famous pieces of Teresa’s writings is a prayer: The Bookmark Prayer. Considering her experience, I think that it could also be titled, The Imposter Syndrome Prayer.
Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks
With compassion on this world.
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Those who have God
Find they lack nothing;
God alone suffices.