From the time I was old enough to process and understand names, I have hated mine. There was something ominous is the way my parents used it to call me to attention. When I heard Teresa, I understood that I had committed some grievous wrong. When they tacked on my middle name, Louise, then severe physical punishment was coming.
There were other issues that I encountered once I entered school. First of all, no one knew how to spell it. In Ohio, Teresa was always spelled with an h. My mother’s limited education must have negatively impacted her academic skills as it wasn’t just my name she had difficulty with. She struggled with grammar, sentence construction and subject-verb agreement as well. But Teresa instead of Theresa affected my perception of how others saw me.
Because my brother’s nickname was Billy, my parents called me Terry whenever I wasn’t in trouble. Which, by the way, I frequently found myself embroiled in one controversy after another. Terry is a boys’ name. Girls whose names are shortened spell it Teri. Because mine was the male version, I was ridiculed mercilessly.
In the Catholic Church at that time, when a child was confirmed a new middle name was added. My brother took on my father’s first name. When it was my turn the next year, I chose Marie, my beloved grandmother’s middle name. Forever on I would be Teresa Louise Marie.
I never knew that names could be legally changed. It never came up in a class and I never heard anyone mention it in casual conversation. If I had known such a thing was possible, today I would go by Marie, a beautiful name in honor of our Virgin Mary.
Another error my mother made was theoretically naming after St. Therese the Little Flower. She told me repeatedly that’s who she chose as my saint-name. Obviously it wasn’t, I discovered when as an elementary-school student I was assigned to research and write about my patron saint. Imagine my embarrassment when I found out the error!
All my little life I’d been the Little Flower. Now I was not.
So who am I really named after? St. Teresa of Avila. Last year when we traveled through Spain, one of our rest stops was at an overlook of Avila. Off in the distance was the city where she lived. Along the path leading to the city were a series of signs that spoke of the history of the city as well as that of St. Teresa. In fact, she was such a huge factor in the beliefs of the time that her burial spot and the church at which she worshipped are now part of a pilgrimage tour.
It’s ironic that my mother got things wrong. The Little Flower lived a cloistered life and died at the age of 24. Unlike many saints, she never left the cloister to go on a mission, she never founded a religious order but chose to live within hers, and she is not credited with performing any great works. There is a collection of prayers attributed to her, the only book that she was known to write. She grew up in a family of nine. Most of her sisters entered religious orders.
When Therese fell seriously ill, she prayed to Mary, not aloud, but in her mind. After that her goal was to be a saint and the way to accomplish that was to live in a cloister. While she was not a vocal participant, her quiet way of praying impressed those who knew her.
Those of you who know me, understand that I am, in no way, the Little Flower. I will admit that at the age of 13 I wanted to join a convent. Not due to religious fervor, but as an escape out of what I felt was a miserable life, one in which I was treated as inferior to my older brother and my younger sister. That was the only reason. I did not fully understand the dedication to prayer that life would entail, not did I care. I was only searching for a way out.
In actuality I am more like St. Teresa of Avila, who was a mystic, a writer who published several books, and extremely well-educated. She had earned a Doctorate in Theology and was a reformer who challenged her religious order who was incensed at religious laxity. Her books contribute an important understanding to mysticism and meditation. Her beliefs have inspired a variety of researchers, namely philosophers, theologians, historians, neurologists, fiction writers and artists.
When she was young, during a bout of severe illness, she came to believe in the power or prayer to overcome sin. This led her to split off from her cloister and to establish a new one with stricter rules. She then received dispensation from the church to travel about instituting new cloisters.
While I am not a leader in the church, I do pray daily, and have from childhood. I enjoyed attending Mass, and when we didn’t go due to inclement weather, I was despondent. To this day I am active in my church, choosing to sing in the choir and to be a lector, one who reads sections of the bible from the ambo at the front of the church.
Like my namesake, I love to write. Many of her works were published after death. I hope I don’t have to wait that long! She persevered in her writings, as so do I. She was the inspiration for changes within her order. I tried to inspire changes within how special education students were perceived and taught. Teresa was a leader in her time. In many ways, when I was still teaching, I was also seen to be a leader.
When I look at this image of her, I see myself in the shape of her chin, the wrinkles about her eyes, and the way she holds her pen.
Although my mother made a mistake in spelling, her choice more closely matches who I have become.
I still don’t like my name, but it has grown on me. If someone called me Marie now, I wouldn’t know who they wanted to speak with. I will always be Terry, the Little Flower.