You’d think, by some accounts, that women had no voice (particularly in the Church) until the feminists came around a few decades ago. St. Teresa would beg to differ. Or, perhaps more true to her nature, she’d not care at all, choosing instead to humbly go on with her Gospel work without calling attention to herself.
I discovered Teresa shortly after discovering St. John of the Cross, the extraordinary Spanish mystic whose works of reform within the Carmelite monasteries of the 16th century paralleled the ‘other’ reform work of people like Luther and Calvin. To be sure, in my Protestant education I had not learned that some Catholics at that time had much to say about many of the same vexing issues within the Church of Rome – a ritualistic, externalized faith, propped up by hollow devotion and lacking in grace. It didn’t take long for me to discover that St. John’s reforming work in Spain (which landed him in prison) was championed by his mentor, St. Teresa of Avila, and that these two great saints led a very different, yet extraordinarily effective reform movement in Spain in the 16th century.
Best known for her classic work, The Interior Castle, what is less known is her courageous devotion to the cause of the reform in Spain. The Gospel had been compromised. Many of the convents and monasteries of her day were no longer places of prayer and Gospel work in the cities, but had become comfortable habitats for lukewarm souls. St. Teresa famously prayed, “From silly devotions and from sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.” And she went to work making that happen.
Teresa was no inward mystic who avoided the world. Instead, she believed that a journey into that “interior castle” was required for any man or woman who wanted to live boldly and freely in the world. What you discover as you look inward, she posited, is the spirit of God, given by grace, dwelling in beautiful union with your soul, freeing you from the need to climb some ladder to God or work some program to muster up his presence. From there, you’re free to live – and, in Teresa’s case, live missionally. Union with God was core to her doctrine of grace, something Calvin certainly would not object to. (see theologian Todd Billings excellent new book on this).
As women were in her day, Teresa was self-deprecating. Living in a patriarchal culture, women were not supposed to start reform movements! But as she traveled from city to city, strategizing with local authorities, working to open new convents, campaigning for her cause, she’d typically engage in a bit of self-deprecation, a version of “This isn’t a woman’s work but somebody’s got to do it!” When she was canonized many years later by Pope Gregory XV, she was praised for “subduing her female nature.” Women, it seemed, could only do God’s work if they suppressed their gender in the process.
That didn’t stop Teresa, though, who worked tirelessly throughout her relatively long life, planting convents and monasteries, mentoring men and women (like St. John of the Cross), continuing drawing upon the gift of grace, which she knew was not something earned, but something discovered within, where the Spirit resides like a beautiful hidden treasure that is revealed. She wrote, “We can only learn to know ourselves and do what we can – namely, surrender our will and fulfill God’s will in us.”
From her humble and yet extraordinary life, both men and women can learn much.
For more, my favorite biography of Teresa is The Progress of the Soul.