Reflecting on the possible movement of the Holy Spirit during the Plenary Council, I was prompted to wonder if there were lessons from history that could speak to the present situation of our Church. I was especially interested in seeking some wisdom from the past which could shed light on that moment during the Plenary interpreted by many as the pivotal point, the key moment when the Holy Spirit was most keenly felt to be present.
Not everyone sees the actions of around sixty people who refused to take their seat after morning tea as the pivotal point. Yet many do. The protest stemmed from the ‘no’ vote on the matter of women’s participation in certain areas of Church leadership.
My wondering led me to take a journey through fourteen centuries of Monastic and Church History, as the names of women who had taken a stand in one way or another came to mind.
Scholastica of Subiaco, Hilda of Whitby, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Ávila and Mary MacKillop all in their own time and their own way either led or challenged their brothers to see certain matters from a different perspective. So, in this reflection, I would like to share what one of these women might have to offer us for further reflection.
“Truth suffers, but never dies.” – Teresa of Ávila
St. Teresa joined the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation just outside Ávila in 1535 and took vows in 1536 as Teresa of Jesus. In the Book of Her Life (1562–1565), Teresa confesses that she was not totally given to what she had vowed to live until 1556 when she had two spiritual experiences that had such a powerful impact on her that she turned away from secular life completely. She had apparently been a beautiful young woman with a very engaging personality who, before she entered religious life, had enjoyed her social life and all that it offered.
In her forties, Teresa gradually became disheartened with what she regarded as the lukewarmness and laxity of life in Carmel at that time and wanted something more, something that would enable the deep longings of her heart to be realised. She knew that the something more would be enabled by a more strict observance. And so began the reform of the Carmelite order for both men and women as part of what came to be known as the Counter-Reformation.
Teresa met a lot of opposition from Church superiors and the people of Ávila. They were used to being able to mix easily with the nuns and were opposed to her changing that by decreeing that the nuns live in poverty and not mix with villagers.
After two years, with support from St Peter of Alcantara, Teresa participated in movements to reform the Church from within. To this end, on 24 August 1562, a house in Ávila was consecrated as the Convent of Saint Joseph under a constitution Teresa based on the 1247 Carmelite rule requiring strict asceticism and complete poverty. She designed habits of coarse fabrics and straw sandals and the nuns became known as the Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites.
Teresa’s religious reform was supported by some but she also had her enemies in the Church, in monastic orders, and the aristocracy… and they resisted her. Giovanni Battista Rossi, the Carmelite prior general from Rome, however, found Saint Joseph’s, her first reformed monastery so impressive that he gave Teresa permission to found monasteries throughout Spain.
In spite of this, Teresa was closely watched by her enemies because she was suspected of heresy. They were never able to find anything that contradicted the idea that she was obeying God’s will.
Teresa also established two houses for men who wanted to adopt the reformed lifestyle. They became known as Contemplative Carmelites and were led by the mystical poet, St John of the Cross. St John of the Cross didn’t enter the Carmelites until 1563, a year after Teresa had begun the reform.
Teresa’s vision was to have a community of priests as part of the reform, partly so that her nuns would have well-formed confessors and spiritual directors. When she became prioress of a convent in 1571, she recruited John, then just 29 years old, to help her. She had found in him someone who would strongly support the needed reforms and, as well, he had become for her a spiritual director and a kindred soul. John too had found someone he could confide in.
Teresa spent the next nine years travelling throughout Spain, establishing 12 monasteries. As stated earlier, she faced a lot of opposition and, ironically, given her desire for just the opposite, became very well known. By 1575 however, she was being investigated by the Inquisition on a number of charges and as a result, Carmelite officials stripped her of all leadership roles and placed her in a convent in Castile where she was ordered to stay. Not to be daunted, in 1580, probably with the help of aristocratic friends, she was given permission to found more convents.
Teresa died of Tuberculosis on 15 October 1582 at the age of 67. In 1622, she was declared a saint and in 1970 she became the first female doctor of the Church.
Teresa was described as a ‘powerful personality, pioneer feminist and a literary figure who has made a great contribution to our knowledge of human psychology’. Sr Cristiana Dobner, who lives in a Carmelite monastery in Italy and who knows, reads and writes about her, says that Teresa overcame bureaucratic and economic obstacles and also the male chauvinism of the time.
As I was reflecting on the life of St Teresa, I smiled at the memory of one of her better-known quotes: “God save us from gloomy saints!”
Another more sober quote however shows us that in addition to her wonderful down to earth sense of humour, she also had great strength of character. She says: “To have courage for whatever comes in life – everything lies in that.”
Teresa, though a saint and doctor of the Church, was by no means perfect. Like all of us, she had her weaknesses. In his book No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton says:
We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.” – Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island.
I wondered what Teresa would have to say to us, were she here today. Having undertaken Church and Carmelite reform, what would she do now? I suspect that she would challenge authority where it needs to be challenged and especially male chauvinism in the form of clericalism. I suspect she would say to both men and women: Go to God with your weaknesses, with your need for courage and with your humour intact. Ask God to show you the way. Listen and act. She was never afraid to speak the truth she treasured in her heart. After hearing the deep longings of her heart, she took action and, even in the face of severe criticism, she kept going.
So perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves what is the reform that needs to happen today? Where is the lukewarmness and lack of direction? Where the harshness and hard-heartedness, the desperate clinging to ways that no longer serve life in Christ? Who needs to be challenged?
Sr Antonia Curtis OSB is a member of the Benedictine Sisters community at Jamberoo Abbey, NSW.
You can read the full series of six reflections by Sr Antonia Curtis:
- Gifts from the past – St Teresa of Ávila
- Gifts from the Past – St Scholastica of Nursia
- Gifts from the Past – Saints Hilda of Whitby and Hildegard of Bingen
- Gifts from the Past – St Catherine of Siena
- Gifts from the past – St Mary of the Cross MacKillop
- Gifts from the past – Conclusion