Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Teresa Forcades: "I left Harvard University for the convent"
La Repubblica (in italiano)
June 12, 2017
It isn't easy to imagine what a nun's life might be without thinking of the condition in a certain sense of exclusion in which it is mostly poured out. So when I first met Teresa Forcades and heard her speak not of God but of men and women, not of souls but of bodies, not about abstinence but about sexuality, I felt disconcerting wonder. It was as if an actually loving conscience were hiding in the cycle of religious words. Teresa Forcades is a Benedictine nun of Catalan origin. She is just over fifty years old and observes the rules of the cloister, with some room devoted to socializing. She is a doctor (she studied in the United States), a theologian (Ph.D. in Barcelona and Berlin), she is interested in psychoanalysis and feminism.
How did you move from medicine to theology?
"I would have willingly served as the medical officer in any small village in Catalonia, where there's greater contact with people. But when I finished university, I felt a need for recollection. For about a year, I retreated alone in a country house."
How did you spend the day?
"The hours were marked by a simple order: eating, sleeping, meditating. I had the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola with me. But I wasn't ready for a different life. I was young, still eager to deepen the study of medicine. I was preparing for admission to an American university. I was accepted and spent a certain time in a hospital in Buffalo. It seemed like a secure career but fate had other things in store."
"I met Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a Roman Catholic theologian and feminist, naturalized American. She was the one who drew me to theology and feminism. But it was difficult to keep the hospital together with new interests. I had also applied to Harvard and the university had accepted my resume. I found myself in a complicated situation: I didn't want to give up my theology studies."
Did you have to choose between the Church and the University?
"More precisely between a final interview that would have then allowed me to get into the best hospitals or..."
"In that period -- it was 1995 -- I returned briefly to Spain, to the monastery of Montserrat. I was confused and restless. But that place felt familiar to me."
Was it a Benedictine monastery?
"For cloistered nuns. I spent a few weeks in prayer. One day, I was summoned by the abbess who told me she knew about my past as a doctor, especially as an infectious disease expert. She asked if I could explain to her and her sisters what the AIDS virus, which in those years claimed many victims, was. We organized the meeting on an afternoon during which I also wanted to talk about homosexuality and how in people's minds the wrong message was being passed that the illness was to be attributed to the sin of being gay."
How did the nuns react?
"To my great amazement, very well. There were many questions and the discussion continued during dinner. It seemed to me that I had found my world. The next day, I expressed to the abbess my intention to enter the convent. She started to laugh. She wasn't expecting it. I was convinced that I preferred Montserrat to Harvard. She tried to curb my enthusiasm. She advised me to go to Harvard and, if after the two-year scholarship, I still felt the "call," we would talk about it again. Time didn't affect that decision. In fact, I took the vows in 1997."
And how did your parents react?
"My father was incredulous, my mother very angry. Only my sister firmly supported the decision. As for my friends, almost everyone thought I was crazy. Leaving the prospect of Harvard for the convent was an inconceivable choice."
Is yours a bourgeois family?
No. My father was a salesman and my mother, a nurse. They separated when I was eleven years old. I was the first of three sisters. One day, my father, while accompanying us to school, told us that he had fallen in love with another woman."
How did you take it?
"I kept silent. It was a strange reaction. It seemed like a huge gesture to me but at the time I feared for him."
What year was it?
"It was 1977. The caudillo Franco had died a couple of years earlier, after a very long agony. Spain seemed like an immobile country. Isolated from everything. I remember that when I went to Paris in 1978 with my sisters and my mother, I felt a sense of freedom and was moved by everything I saw there."
Do you have any memory of the Franco dictatorship?
"As Catalans, my people were not in favor of the regime. In the family, the story of my two grandfathers circulated. The paternal one had fought for the Left. The maternal one was a doctor and during the civil war he was arrested by the Republicans. He didn't have Franquist sentiments, but the fact that he was one of the authorities in the country convinced the "reds" that grandfather was an enemy of the people and as such he was to be shot."
Was he executed?
"My grandmother wept and begged the commander. She handed over the family jewels and said she was expecting a child (she was pregnant with my mother) and that if the father were shot nobody could take care of their livelihood. This was to save his life."
How did you experience your role as a novice?
"At the beginning there was enthusiasm. Then the doubts began, accompanied by a feeling of oppression, boredom, a lack of perspective."
Were you realizing the difficulty of those vows?
"I felt the comfort of prayer and the simplicity of that world, governed by a harmonious silence. And yet I seemed to sink into despair. It was as if I didn't have the strength, the conviction, the tenaciousness to sustain that choice. I wondered if God would help me. I saw happy people around me and in contrast, I experienced a sense of deep uneasiness."
Did you know what was wrong?
"I didn't get any cultural stimulus around me. I had been around the world and discussed with the most open minds, learned languages. Suddenly I found myself in a kind of dead calm."
Did you doubt your vocation?
"I was in crisis. I had not yet taken the vows. It happened at that time that I fell in love with a young doctor. It was a test of my true feelings. I had to choose between God and the world. It was at that point that I felt the strong need to become a nun."
What does it mean to be called? I'm asking you because maybe in that "voice that's calling" there might be suggestion, misunderstanding, self-projection, with the use of weapons and murder.
"There can be all that; only time determines the degree of authenticity of that voice."
Don't you feel the weight of exclusion?
"On the contrary, I feel at the center of everything I do." What do you mean by centrality?
"I don't mean domination or control of an environment. I'm thinking rather of radicalism without dogma. Every time you search for a center, you're looking for a void."
Doesn't it risk being an illusion?
"I imagine the center not as a principle of stability but of rupture."
Perhaps both are needed.
"Stability and rupture can also alternate. Like order and disorder. History teaches it. But I think my life is resting in an invisible center that can not be defined. And that's why I would call it a mystical experience."
I read in your Siamo tutti diversi! ("We Are All Diverse!", published by Castelvecchi) that you connect the experience of a void back to Lacan's thought.
"It might be surprising that a nun reads Lacan and draws any useful hint from his thought. I've been dealing with psychoanalysis and in particular the notion of the 'unconscious subject'. Freud argues that the inner authenticity of a person has been repressed."
That can thus be liberated?
"It's the role that psychoanalysis should play. We're talking about a modern ideal -- liberating man's strengths! From the moment he substituted himself for God, man has developed an infinite desire for himself. In theory, he thinks he can do everything."
And in parctice?
"Society, the State, the Church are the institutions that oppress him. So the subject finds that he has no authentic interiority. That's why Lacan says that interiority is a void and that this void can be represented as the subject's death."
Does the subject's death come after the death of God?
"There would not be that without this."
Yet we want to become authentic people.
"In the worldly horizon, our identity comes from outside -- like desires are, it is induced. In childhood, it comes from the relationship with the mother. We think that our authenticity results from this original relationship, but this isn't so. The mother passes away and we seek a new identity that we will find in something else or some other situation. This is what drives Lacan to say that there is no authenticity in us. We are only inhabited by a void."
Is desire also a form of void?
"The desire that takes place in the void is precisely what I call mysticism. But it's an undetermined desire."
Desire always arises as a form of absence.
"But it is almost always caused by what is missing from outside -- a pair of brand name pants, an elegant jacket, a custom-built car. I don't mean desire in that sense. Augustine went so far as to say that everyone desires God, but not everyone gives the same name to [that desire]."
What does it mean to desire God in the era of His death?
"For me it means defending the truth."
Everyone argues, religiously, that they want to defend it, even with the use of weapons and murder.
"That's not the truth; it's just fanaticism. On the other hand, truth can't be a relative concept, so each one has his own good truth ready to use."
"The truth for me is all that it is not. But the point is that one must argue that "is not" every time." Don't you feel privileged?
"In what sense?"
I'm thinking of the simplicity of your sisters, the fact that they don't own or use sophisticated instruments, that they don't deal with philosophy and homosexuality, that they respect the cloister.
"I'm very envious of the sisters who live in their cloister permanently. I wouldn't talk of privilege, but of a disposition to complete an action. As for the cloister, after the Council of Trent, the partial one was introduced. The monastery community decided on the dispensation, how to apply it and when to revoke it."
How is your life in the monastery?
"It's divided into equal proportions between work and prayer."
What do you mean by work?
"I mainly engage in intellectual activity -- I translate, write articles, teach. This year my lesson is divided into two parts: the need of the soul, which is inspired by Simone Weil's book The Need for Roots, and feminist theology in history."
You've talked about "queer theology." What does that mean?
"Queer is a term that started to circulate in the nineties. It can mean 'crossing', 'passage', 'transition'. Then it took on the meaning of bizarre, strange, extravagant."
It has been brought back to the transgender universe.
"That's true and it's a possible variation. What I mean is dealing with a theology out of the pre-established schemes. Theology is not the conceptual defense of God's existence, which could create many misconceptions. No. It's a form of co-creation."
"I think God didn't just create the world and us in seven days. Co-creation means that we continue to do his work with other tools."
But we aren't perfect.
"Creating is also risk-taking. Without risk, says Weil, there is no freedom. God has created unique pieces. It is up to us to continue to be so."
For you, does that mean being a nun?
"It means that too."
You could be approaching heretical thinking.
"I have never been indoctrinated in conservative Christianity. Each passing day we should be willing to learn something new."
Don't you fear excommunication?
"I'm prepared, I don't fear it. Excommunication has been the worst thing of Catholicism. Equal to the Greeks' ostracism."
Are you happy?
"I am every time I go back to the monastery. Every time I do something that helps to change things. Augustine has said, 'God created us without us, but he did not will to save us without us.' Happiness is also this awareness of our being human for and with others."