St. Teresa of Avila's survival guide for Catholic women

St. Teresa of Avila is depicted in a church in Troyes, France. March 28 is the 500th anniversary of her birth. (CNS/Crosiers)

When I was a young girl falling madly in love with God, a nun gave me two books about St. Teresa of Avila. Later, I discovered that Teresa and I had another thing in common besides love of God: concern for women's equality. Teresa witnessed women suffering in a church that did not value their gifts, so she set out to make changes. As part of her reforms, she wrote a prayer manual, or, as I like to think of it, a 16th-century feminist survival guide.

At the time, church officials did not think women capable of accessing God through prayer on their own. "Mental prayer," or contemplative prayer, was considered dangerous without guidance. The Inquisition had recently banned a number of prayer books, and women's prayer was particularly suspect.

After Teresa's confessor forbade her to share her autobiography with her fellow nuns, she turned around and wrote another book, The Way of Perfection. Today, it is considered a spiritual classic on prayer. I also consider it a spiritual classic on Catholic women's liberation.

Teresa was a church reformer par excellence. She knew it wasn't enough to reform external structures. One also had to reform internal ones, the beliefs we carry around inside us.

So as she went about reforming her Carmelite order, she also sought to transform women's understanding of themselves.

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Teresa wrote the prayer book for her fellow brave reformers, the sisters of her new communities. She seemed to know that it is in deepest prayer that we discover the truth about ourselves; that in prayer, her fellow sisters could discover that they, too, were equally beloved of God.

In the book, Teresa roots her thoughts in Scripture, proclaiming, "Nor did you, Lord, when you walked in the world, despise women; rather, you always, with great compassion, helped them. And you found as much love and more faith in them than you did in men."

And she reminds her fellow sisters that the officials of her day who pronounced judgments against women were not in accord with the Great Judge, "since the world's judges are sons of Adam and all of them men, there is no virtue in women that they do not hold suspect."

Teresa exhorts her fellow sisters to believe in their own ability to pray and access God. "Should anyone tell you that prayer is dangerous, consider him the real danger and run from him."

Most of all, she encouraged her fellow sisters to continue their prayer, despite injunctions against it by church officials: "Hold fast, daughters, for they cannot take from you the Our Father and the Hail Mary."

This line was later retracted from future manuscripts after one of her censors wrote in the margin, "It seems here that she is reprimanding the Inquisitors who prohibited books on prayer." Indeed.

Teresa certainly suffered for her bold beliefs. From church officials who said her "experience was from the devil" to house arrest, she faced myriad trials. In her earlier writing, The Book of Her Life, she concedes, "There were enough things to drive me insane."

But Teresa knew that things would eventually change. "Yes, indeed, the day will come, my King, when all will be known for what they are. ... I see that these are times in which it would be wrong to undervalue virtuous and strong souls, even though they are women," she wrote in The Way of Perfection.

She tells her fellow sisters that God will give them the courage they need. She suggests that if "one or two ... fearlessly do what is best," that things will begin to change.

Most of all, she assured them to continue confidently: "It is harmful to walk on this road with fear. It is very important for you to know that you are on the right road."

That "right road" led to the transformation of Teresa's religious order so many years ago. It is just one reason Carmelites around the globe will celebrate the 500th anniversary of her birth next month.

The transformation of the church to one that truly values women, however, clearly isn't finished. When the pope considers women "the strawberry on the cake" and Catholic women still lack full equality, it is helpful to turn again to Teresa of Avila, the 16th-century saint who knew women's worth and wrote a powerful guide for their prayer. Teresa's writing spoke to the heart of women nearly five centuries ago. It still speaks volumes today.

[Nicole Sotelo is the author of Women Healing from Abuse: Meditations for Finding Peace, published by Paulist Press, and coordinates WomenHealing.com. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.]

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