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  • When Flesh Becomes Word:Teresa of Avila's Handwritten Relics
  • Nuria Sanjuán Pastor

In the "Sala de Reliquias" of the Discalced Convent of Santa Teresa in Avila there is one cabinet dedicated specifically to Saint Teresa's autograph letters. Amongst the objects displayed are two amulets that her devotees would wear in contact with their body: one is an apotropaic amulet containing only Teresa's signature; the other, meant to be sewn into clothing, contains both her signature and fragments of her autograph letters. In the same way as her bodily relics, which were dispersed after her death, these objects evoke the presence of the saint. There are specific aspects of Teresa's doctrine as well as her written persona that make these letters such a powerful material embodiment of her and her thought. The lengthy descriptions of her body in pain and her unadorned epistolary style encourage her devotees to recognize the real Teresa as present in her writing. More than just an intellectual encounter, the act of reading Teresa means coming into contact with her physical body, a body that she has transmuted into language. The power of her handwritten letters becomes doubly significant as they invoke both Teresa's deferred presence and her incarnation into words. In this way, her letters function as the perfect synthesis of material and textual relic.

During the process of canonization at the turn of the seventeenth century, the interest in Teresa's handwritten letters grew in parallel to her physical relics.1 We can see an example of their perceived value in the "exchange" that took place between Juliana de la Madre de Dios and María de San José, the prioresses of Seville and Consuegra respectively. Juliana had recently received Teresa's little finger, which Jerónimo Gracián, Teresa's closest collaborator, had personally removed and used to carry around his neck. But she also wanted to bring to Seville part of Gracián's collection of Teresa's letters, which at the time was kept in Consuegra. In a letter dated April 17, 1610 María de San José, unimpressed by all these demands, denied having any of Teresa's letters and reminded Juliana that she should already be thankful for possessing the finger: "Conténtese, norabuena, zorrica, con esto y con habernos defraudado del dedo de N.S. Madre … y que no nos enoje ahora más [End Page 17] con las cartas" (Archivo MCD Sevilla, qtd. in Madre de Dios and Steggink 60). San José refuses to give any letters to a convent that already possessed a finger of the saint. She treats the agent (finger) and the object (letter) of Teresa's handwriting as parts of a continuum. Hence she deemed the value of the letters to be functionally equivalent to the bodily relic.2

This article argues that the authority of Teresa's letters did not stem simply from their content, but rather from their materiality as holy objects with the power to recreate or re-present the humanity of their writer. The written word always bears witness to the earlier person and this deferred presence is also an essential trait of all relics.3 This is especially true of signed letters, but what makes Teresa's case unique is that her particular style conjures up a presence not merely intellectual but also physical. Her letters may express given ideas about church doctrine, but only insofar as they mediate these ideas through the written expression of her body, the notorious site of her debilitating illnesses as well as of her mystical experience. The language she develops and the physical suffering she endures all contribute to the conflation of her physical hand with her script. Ultimately, by contemplating or touching Teresa's epistolary relics her devotees expected to feel a connection with the physical body of the saint and through it come closer to the divinity themselves.

The Letter As Relic

After Teresa's death, her prolific correspondence posed a significant problem for her friends and collaborators: were her letters the personal property of their addressees or were they valuable for the broader community?4 Efforts to collect them...


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