When women doctors speakBy: Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo CSJ
St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux rank among the thirty-three Doctors of the Church. Their lives have played decisive roles in the building up of the Church, and their writings enrich for their theological content and spiritual doctrine. Who were these women?
St. Catherine of Siena (1347-80)
As a Third-Order Dominican religious woman, Catherine experienced God’s love not from books but from the immediacy of her own experiences in prayer. “Her doctrine was infused, not acquired,” declares the Papal Bull of canonization. She told her confessor that she never learned anything about salvation from others, but only from “the sweet Bridegroom of my soul.” It is said that Catherine could not finish the Lord’s Prayer without falling into an ecstasy. “Match love for love,” she writes; God is a Trinity of Power, Wisdom, and Mercy, and it is fitting that the Wisdom should take upon himself our human nature so as to remedy our disobedience, ignorance, and selfishness.”
From 1376 to the end of her life, she influenced public affairs, first concerning a Crusade against the Turks, and the second, dealing with her efforts to return the Avignon papacy to Rome. She spent her final days in Rome pleading for the unity of the Church. In “The Dialogues of Divine Providence,” she addresses Christ with clarity, force, and sweetness. Concerning his passion and death, she writes: “Oh Loving Madman! It was not enough for Thee to become Incarnate, that Thou must also die?”
In 1939, Pius XII declared St. Catherine of Siena and St. Francis of Assisi as the chief patron saints of Italy. A contemporary portrait of the mystic-saint, painted by Andrea Vanni, hangs in the church of St. Dominic in Siena, Italy. Her feast day is firmly fixed for April 29.
We now turn to consider two Carmelite saints, one who shone like a glittering star and the other, like the tiniest pearl of great value.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82)
In her autobiography, St. Teresa of Avila gives a vivid account of her early Carmelite life as worldly and indulgent. As she began to receive remarkable graces in prayer, she came to see that her vocation within a vocation was to reform the Carmelite Order. Those who knew about her tepid religious living and who themselves lived lukewarm lives opposed the reform. For the former group, she seemed a hypocrite, and for the latter, reform would show up their own mediocrity. Nevertheless, with St. John of the Cross, she undertook the reform of the Carmelite Order.
Teresa was a shrewd woman but lacked any formal theological training. She writes therefore from her own personal experience with a lively charm, ever astute, but with a disregard for orderliness in her writing. This may be partly due to the fact that her confessors directed her to write down her thoughts in the swirl of her reform.
Ascetical theology is indebted to Teresa for describing in words an ordinary lay person can grasp the four stages of the mystical life: mental prayer, the prayer of quiet, the prayer of union, and the prayer of ecstasy. Her best known book is The Mansions of the Interior Castle, a beautiful metaphor for the inner life of man and woman.
On prayer, her counsels are practical: “Never, for any reason, neglect to pray.”…“The quality of one’s life and the quality of one’s prayer interact with one another. Both must be steadfastly oriented toward God.”
Teresa’s sense of humor is legendary. One day, as she rode on a donkey traveling from one convent to another, she was thrown to the ground. She quipped to the Lord, “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!” Below is one of her many prayers, universally loved and often quoted:
Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you.
Everything passes. God never changes.
Patience obtains all.
Whoever has God wants for nothing.
God alone is enough.
The original sculpture of “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” by Gian-Lorenzo Bernini (1645) is located in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. Teresa’s feast day is October 15.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-97)
St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face, who died at age 24, entered the Carmelite Order at the age of 15. Two of her older sisters were also nuns in the same monastery. She sought to live a prayerful life but she could find no explicit ministry that she could practice when she reflected on First Corinthians, chapters 12 and 13. But then she made a startling discovery–it was really a grace.
The Mission of Love
Thérèse offers all in the Church a valuable lesson on 1 Corinthians 12-13. She goes to the heart of First Corinthians:
I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In a word, love is everlasting. (“Liturgy of the Hours,” Oct. 1, 1450-51)
As Thérèse read the ode to love in chapter thirteen, her heart was filled with joy:
Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my calling is love … In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction (Ibid).
She became convinced that the power of the love of one person could build up the Body of Christ, anywhere and at any time.
In her autobiography, Thérèse writes: “I knew that the Church had a heart that appeared to be aflame with love. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love embraces every time and every place.” At last, she found her answer. Her calling was love, and she perceived the power of the love of one person to build up the Body of Christ.
Unfortunately, photographs of her can be insipid, and many look on her ‘little way’ as sentimental piety. If it were, it should be rejected. But in fact, it is a heroic way concerned with the present moment.
Why has the Church ranked this cloistered nun with such a short life among the Doctors of the Church? First, she grasped the heart of the Church’s mission. In the vocation of love, there is no separation or opposition between love of God and love of neighbor. Limitations of the cloister would not curtail her ministry or her total self-giving, which she knew was the most effective and most fruitful action of the Church. Second, her ‘little way’ is simple, direct, and universally accessible, especially to the homebound, the infirm, and the forgotten.
Finally, Thérèse embraces a theology of Christian hope. Sooner or later, every person comes to the edge of the cliff, and perhaps many times during one’s lifetime. The time of unemployment is one example of this. It is a dynamic faith and unshaken trust that casts one’s care on the Lord. For her, the Carmelite vocation was an apostolically-fruitful life, a life lived in the heart of the Church. Though St. Francis Xavier spent his life as the itinerant apostle to the Indies, Thérèse spent herself as a cloistered missionary, and for this, she has been named with him as Co-Patron of the Missions. “Thérèse’s ‘little way’ no longer seems little.” (Stephanie Paulsell, Reading St. Thérèse, Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Summer/Autumn, 2010. 74) Her message, Paulson concludes? “More love.” Her feast day is October 1.
Here we have three women-saints, three Doctors of the Church, each so different in personality yet one in purpose. Their message to women as well as to men: pray, work your best, and let God do the rest. Of saints, Phyllis McGinley writes: “What are saints except geniuses–geniuses who bring to their works of virtue all the splendor, eccentricity, effort, and dedication that lesser talents bring to music or poetry or painting?” (Saint-Watching, 17)
Like musicians, painters, poets, saints are human beings but obsessed ones. They are obsessed by the goodness and beauty of God as Michelangelo was obsessed by line and form, as Shakespeare was bewitched by language, and Beethoven by sound.
Saints are not born; they become God’s masterpieces. They are made into God’s works of art.
Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (PhL), musicology (PhD), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (PhD). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her Email address is email@example.com.