A House of Equals

By Maria Teresa Morgan

                                                                                           St John Vianney College Seminary

Spain has been embedded in my story ever since I can remember: Spanish grandparents, traditions and teachers along with exiles from the Spanish Civil War that found their way to my birth city of Guantanamo and became family friends. And a great uncle executed by Franco’s guardia civil. What does this have to do with Vatican II, the reader may ask? It so happens that a few lines from the vallisoletano Miguel Delibes (1920-2012), one of the foremost contemporary Catholic writers, prompted me to re-visit Teresa of Avila’s model of the Christian community and its parallels with Vatican II Trinitarian ecclesiology. Delibes stated that had only the Church had a more progressive Pope like John XXIII, the Spanish Civil War could have been avoided (Mary Reichardt, Between Human and Divine; The Catholic Vision in Contemporary Literature: CUA Press, 2010; 91). Stunning words coming from a Catholic who fought alongside the Nationalists (Franco’s forces) during the Spanish Civil War (though he later became disillusioned by the Caudillo’s repressive regime). While alluding to the oppressive societal systems of privilege, exclusion and inequality that have been recycled throughout the history of Spain and the involvement of the less exemplary aspects of the institutional Church in their dynamics, Delibes’ statement also points to the inherent capacity and call of the Catholic Church to be a transformative leaven in society. And that’s where Vatican II comes into my deliberations.    

In this brief essay I will present Teresa of Avila’s radical and progressive vision of community and its similarities with the Trinitarian paradigm of the Church presented in Lumen gentium. I propose that Teresa’s model of Christian community as an ecclesial praxis is co-relevant to Lumen gentium’s conceptualization of the Church as the Ecclesia Trinitatis. From both of these parallel models flow profound implications for post conciliar Christian living as well as possibilities for a more just society. 

But first, some background must be offered on the fractious and conflictive time in which the equally conflictive life of Teresa took place. 

The phrase “A House of Equals” comes from Teresa’s vision of Christian community in the Way of Perfection where she writes: “In this house, all must be equal.” (Way 27:6). The Way of Perfection is a book on “household theology” dealing with prayer, relationships and the management of monastery life. Woven throughout the chapters, Teresa manages to offer her perspective on various issues prevalent in her era.


In her exhortations regarding communal living, Teresa offers specific directives on the conditions that lead to an authentic stewarding, proposing small equalitarian communities centered around Christ. An inquiry into the sources of Teresa’s insistence on the horizontal equivalency of discipleship has led me to identify three formative experiences that led to this vision of community: her family roots, her 27 year experience at the Monastery of the Incarnation, and her insight into the Gospel, an insight flowing from her experience of the Trinitarian God (Daniel de Pablo Maroto, “Camino de Perfección” in Introducción a la Lectura de Santa Teresa, Alberto Barrientos, ed., Madrid: Editorial de Espiritualidad, 1978; 301). Though these issues were particular to her life and her times, they can be reframed and applied to issues that confront us today. 

Teresa’s genealogy provides the first factor. Hers was a century of class distinctions and racism based on whether one came from an “old Christian family” or was a “new” Christian of Jewish or Moorish background. Social and ecclesial status in XVI century Spain was determined by the decrees on “purity of blood” indicative of the religious lineage of the family. Teresa guarded the secret that haunted her family’s memory and led them to relocate to Avila: the disciplining of her grandfather by the Inquisition in Toledo for being a relapsed Jew. She knew first hand the marginalization, fear and societal relegation experienced by new converts and their descendants (Teofanes Egido, “Ambiente Histórico” in Introducción a la Lectura de Santa Teresa, 53-69). The second factor can be attributed to Teresa’s experience at the Incarnation. Life at this monastery was penured by the economic depression of XVI century Spain as well as plagued by a system of rights and duties based on social status that in turn led to hierarchical echelons of favoritism, power and prestige with the subsequent marginalization of the poorer and less gifted nuns. (Ibid., 70-77 and Maroto, 285-293).

These first two factors led Teresa to eventually reject lifestyle differences based on “purity of blood” and affluence, making equality a fundamental basis for her reform (Maroto, 287). She leveled the field of lineage and hidalguía: “But the one who comes from nobler lineage should be the one to speak the least about her father. All of you must be equal” (Way 27:6). With strong words, she sought to banish “the desire to be more than others” (Way 12; 4,5). She did away with economic privilege, opting for the radical poverty of the Gospel (Way, 2:8). In chapters 3 and 36 of The Way and chapter 37 of her Life, she tears down the prevalent contemporary conventions of supremacy and social valorization (Egido, 75). 


She knew that her adherence to rules of honor and prestige, the bartering of her social gifts for the purpose of gaining wealthy patrons for the monastery, and the economic comfort her class afforded, had been key impediments to her option for discipleship (Life 5:1; 7:7). It was only when she turned away from these that her definitive conversion took place. Her structuralization of Carmelite life presents a deliberate contrast response to her former way of life (Life 36) (Egido, 70; Maroto, 285, 286) along with a radical and progressive vision of community that was centuries ahead of her time.  

The final source for Teresa’s equalitarian vision of community is her experience of the Trinity. In chapters 23 and 24 of her Life, Teresa describes her definitive surrender to the Father, in Christ, through the life empowering Spirit. Teresa’s fundamental intuition of the Gospel message, together with her experience of the Trinitarian God, formulates a vision of community based on mutuality, equality and inclusion. A central aspect of Teresa’s reform has to do with how we treat one another. Her sublime experiences of the mystery of the Trinity describe a God who is lavish, inclusive and welcoming (Interior Castle, VII, 1:6). She transposed her ecstasies toward a deliberate turning to the neighbor in concrete manifestations of loving kindness bestowed on all (Soliloquies 2:2).

 Teresa’s response to the radical call of the Gospel formulates a plan for a “house” where “Christ would walk in our midst” (Life 32; 11), where “all must be friends, all must be loved, all must be held dear, all must be helped” (Way 4; 7). The determinant of this equality is the Fatherhood of God who gathers us as children and “makes us sharers with Christ” (Way 27: 2, 5-7). At the center of this communitarian vision is the sense that the Gospel must be lived in loving communion with others unhindered by the pursuit of prestige and dominance (Way 27, 29. See: Jesús Castellanos, Espiritualidad Teresiana, en Introducción, 172-179). She reminds us that love increases when it is shared…”(Life 7: 22) and is manifested in the routine occasions of our interactions with one another (Way 7). Teresa concludes her synthesis of the Christian life, The Interior Castle, by saying that the one who lives in communion with God and with the neighbor has come to experience the fullness of discipleship, and the fruitfulness of this life extends beyond the boundaries of the local to act as a leaven in the Church. (Castellanos, 178).  And I add, referring back to Delibes’ regret, through the Church into society as well.  

In her directives, Teresa approximates the Trinitarian theology renewed in and around the currents emerging from Vatican II (Yves Congar, “Moving towards a pilgrim Church” in Vatican II Revisited; by those who were there, ed. Alberic, Stacpoole; Minneapolis: Winston 1986, 129-152). 


The “way” she proposes bears witness to why unequal models of relationships (I am not speaking of functions or ministries) are incongruent with the Trinitarian nature of the Church affirmed in Vatican II.

The Trinity as source, pattern and goal of the Church is elucidated in Lumen gentium. The Council did not define the Church; rather, it offered a biblical and patristic understanding of “the universal Church…. Seen to be a ‘a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’” (Lg 4). One question that emerges is, how is that unity translated? 

The first lines of Lumen gentium present the reality of the Church in the nature of a “sacrament” in Christ, “of communion with God” (Lg 1); the pastoral consequence of this communion is the image of the Church as a community of believers (Lg 1, 9-17). The resulting praxis of a Trinitarian conception of Church is thus elucidated in Lumen gentium with the image of the Church as a koinonia, called by God in Christ, in the unity of the Spirit.  (J.M. R. Tillard, Church of Churches; The Ecclesiology of Communion, trans. R. X. De Peaux. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1992, 2-45). This koinonia has a vertical dimension, “communion with God” (Lg 1) and a horizontal dimension “unity with all” (Lg 1) (See: Casiano Floristan, La Iglesia; Comunidad de Creyentes. Salamanca: Sígueme, 1999, 163). An example of this horizontal dimension of koinonia is evidenced in the forthcoming Synod on Synodality as well as in the consultative process for its preparation. This conciliar vision of mutuality and cooperation continues in chapter three of Lumen gentium, where hierarchy is defined as service. The vertical and horizontal dimension is furthered in chapter five, where the Constitution reminds us of the ancient Christian belief of the universal call to holiness. All have access to God in every state of life. God calls us to communion, not to compete as to “who is the greater in the Kingdom” (Mt 18;1). Teresa’s insistence on the universal call of Christ to the “living water” of contemplative prayer (Way, 19:15 and 20-22) as well as her impassioned defense of women in chapter 3:7 of the Escorial redaction of The Way of Perfection (the passage was censored and did not make it to the Valladolid redaction) stem from her belief in this fundamental call to holiness and to a relationship with God given to us at baptism. 

In this essay I have attempted to show how according to Lumen gentium, the Church in its essence is the Church of the Trinity, a koinonia that images the very life of God with consequences for the living out of the Church’s mission. Reflecting the Trinitarian nature of the ecclesia, Teresa insisted there be no ranks of privilege, power or subordination in her monasteries. The goal of my endeavor has been to present the legacy of Lumen gentium and of Teresa of Avila as a resource for our post conciliar ecclesial quest. To this end, I sought to establish patterns of connection between the communitarian model of “a house of equals” presented by Teresa as a way toward an egalitarian, relational ecclesiology that corresponds to the communion life of the Trinitarian Church of Lumen gentium. Delibes’ lament and Teresa’s ecclesial intentionality remind us that our dreams for and our individual efforts on behalf of the Church are taken up into the greater metaphor of “the Church, in Christ” (Lg 1) as “a seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race” (Lg 9).

Dr. Maria Teresa Morgan is Assistant Professor of Theology at St John Vianney College Seminary where she also coordinates the Humanities Program.  Her interests lie in Theological Aesthetics and Carmelite Spirituality. She is a frequent contributor to ElIgnaciano. She has been a presenter at national conventions and her writings have been published in the annual volume of the College Theology Society.  Maria Teresa’s chapter, The Sentinel appears in Desire, Darkness and Hope; Theology in a Time of Impasse. (Collegeville; Liturgical Press, 2021).