“The Orante: Teresa of Avila, Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae”

By María Teresa Morgan
St John Vianney College Seminary

A testimony from Ana de San José referring to Teresa of Avila has intrigued me for years. The witness states that on occasion the Saint would assume the posture of the Orante, a Christian image in the catacombs depicting a standing figure with hands raised in prayer (Proceso de Salamanca, BMC 19, 20, pp 8, 120, cited in Jesús Castellano, “Espiritualidad Teresiana, Experiencia y Doctrina” in Introducción a la Lectura de Santa Teresa, ed. Alberto Barrientos, Madrid; Editorial de Espiritualidad, 2da edición, 2002, p. 224). I have wondered how a nun in Sixteenth century Spain had access to this symbol from early Christianity, adopting that somewhat subversive posture as a preferred expression of her own charism: that of a woman standing, facing the world, taking upon herself “the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of the people of her age (GS,1) and lifting the brokenness of that world in prayer. I have chosen this lead image as prototypical of Teresa of Avila because her radical option for a life of prayer brought her to a process of awareness of the social ills of her time, to her conversion in her attitude toward the poor and to her denunciation of the ecclesiastical misogyny of her era. As she journeyed in the spiritual way, she integrated the contemplative and active dimensions of the Christian journey, challenging the facile dualism of some theologians of her time with her affirmation that authentic spirituality requires Martha and Mary to walk together (Interior Castle VII; 4.12) and that contemplative prayer and union with God manifested itself “always in good works” (IC VII; 4.6). Today, Teresa’s mysticism not only hands on to us the riches and challenges of the way of prayer but also her prophetic courage in confronting the injustices and violence of her era. 

Continuing the thread of my previous article in the June issue of El Ignaciano, this reflection considers three key themes in Teresa of Avila’s writings that correspond to passages in Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae: her defense of women and of the marginalized, her opposition to violence, and her option for the poor. I have chosen to provide Teresa of Avila’s citations in Spanish so as to convey the richness of her prose.   

In assuming our humanity, Christ has raised us to “a dignity beyond compare.” (GS 22) The intrinsic rights of the person, inherent in this dignity, will be the first topic I present. 

The Saint herself has provided ample documentation regarding her defense of women and of the rights of women. I will limit myself to citing the most controversial (and subsequently censured) passage found in The Way of Perfection. But first, a brief historical background is in order so as to offer some insight into the vehemence of her words. Within the official circles of orthodoxy at the time, there was strong opposition towards the practice of mental prayer among lay people. In the case of women, this aversion became even more pronounced. The consensus was that women were inept for exercising any social or ecclesial function (see Daniel de Pablo Maroto, “La mujer orante en el siglo XVI” in Introducción, 457-461; Teófanes Egido, “Ambiente Histórico,” ibid., 119-134 and Enrique Llamas, “Libro de la Vida,” ibid., 370-73).


An example of this misogyny is evidenced in Francisco de Osuna, a popular Franciscan writer whose Tercer Abecedario ironically influenced St Teresa: “Desque viereis a tu mujer andar muchas estaciones y darse a devoterías y que presume ser santa, ciérrale la puerta; y si esto no bastare, quiébrale la pierna si es moza, que coja podrá ir al paraíso desde su casa sin andar buscando santidades sospechosas. Bástale a la mujer oir un sermón y hacer, si mas quiere, que le lean un libro mientras hila, y asentarse so la mano de su marido.” (Norte de estados, Sevilla, 1531 f. 160v, cited by Egido, 122). Other spiritual writers who mistrusted women and their piety include the censor of Teresa’s work, Domingo Bañez, as well as the theologians of the Inquisition. The cutting words of the Apostolic Nuncio Felipe Sega, referring to Teresa of Avila are well known: “Femina inquieta, andariega, desobediente y contumaz que a título de devoción inventaba malas doctrinas andando fuera de la clausura contra el orden del Concilio Tridentino y prelados, enseñando como maestra contra lo que San Pablo enseñó, mandando que las mujeres no enseñanzen.” (Cited by Castellano, 268). The formidable Dominican, Melchor Cano, the Jesuit Ribadeneira and the Dominican Bartolomé de Medina referred to praying women, including Teresa, as “mujercillas.” (Alison Weber, Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity, New Jersey; Princeton University Press, 1990, 18, 27, 31-33, 36, 159) It must be added that a considerable number of men offered support and encouragement to Teresa. Among these is St. Francis Borgia, St. Peter of Alcántara, Fray Luis de León (the first to publish her works in 1588) and, of course, St. John of the Cross. Fortunately for Teresa and for us King Philip II protected her.  

In addition to the opposition of theologians, the Inquisition generated a climate of fear and intimidation toward women who exercised their right to the fundamental Christian practice of prayer. People were well aware of women given to prayer who had been processed by the Inquisition such as the abbess of the Poor Clares in Córdoba, Magdalena of the Cross, who was brought to judgment in 1544. Others, including María of St. Dominic, Isabel of the Cross and Francisca Hernándes, were tried by the Inquisition in 1529. In the Autos de Fe in Valladolid and Seville in 1549, several nuns and beatas were burnt alive at the stake (Maroto, 307, in first edition of Introducción). In view of these events, and of the interest shown by the Inquisition in Teresa, it is all the more amazing to consider Teresa’s reform, based on small communities dedicated to prayer, her writings and her defense of the right of woman to pray. 

In considering the historical context of Sixteenth century Spain one becomes keenly aware how the question of human dignity became prominent in Teresa’s search for truth and in her conversion process. The first pages of the Way of Perfection contain a brilliant apologia of the right of woman to pray as well as a lament for the way women were treated in her time. For Teresa, prayer meant relationship and when she argues for this right for women she is defending the right of woman to a relationship with God and to self-transcendence. Her words lay claim to freedom for discipleship and for a commitment of the person to God in Christ Jesus. In the first, uncensored redaction of the Way of Perfection, known as El Escorial or WE, she issues not only a courageous defense of women but also a criticism of the uselessness to which society had reduced them, a recovery of the authentic message of Jesus regarding women, as well as a bitter memory of how the Inquisition had acted towards the praying woman: “No aborrecisteis, Señor, cuando andabais en el mundo, las mujeres, antes la favorecisteis siempre con mucha piedad y hallasteis en ellas tanto amor y mas fe que en los hombres…No basta, Señor, que nos tiene el mundo acorraladas… que no hagamos cosa que valga nada por vos en público, ni osemos hablar algunas verdades que lloramos en secreto, sino que no nos habiais de oir petición tan justa. No lo creo yo, Señor, de vuestra bondad y justicia que sois justo juez y no como los jueces del mundo, que como son hijos de Adán, y, en fin, todos varones, no hay virtud de mujer que no tengan por sospechosa. Si, que algún día ha de haber, Rey mío, que se conozcan todos.” (WE 3, 7)   


In the passage cited above, Teresa engages in the prophetic function of denouncing and announcing. She denounces the suppression of freedom and of fundamental rights foisted on her and on women at a time when doing so was to take an immense risk. Her words came from a vision deeply rooted in the Gospel and because of this, those words also serve to announce the fundamental freedom and dignity of the human person. The defense of this freedom and these rights, as well as the condemnation of whatever threatens religious liberty, would be taken up four centuries later in Gaudium et Spes and in Dignitatis Humanae. 

Recovering an ancient tradition in the Church, Gaudium et Spes offered a renewed articulation of the dignity of the intellect in its search for truth and wisdom (15), freedom of conscience (16), the excellence of freedom (17) and, in affirming the equality of all people, condemned “all forms of discrimination of the basic rights of the person on grounds of sex…” as being “incompatible with God’s design.” (29). Particularly relevant to Teresa’s steadfast struggle, the Pastoral Constitution exalts freedom stating, “authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the image of God” and the means for the person to “relate to and cleave to the Creator.” (17)  

Dignitates Humanae, one of the most controversial and influential documents to emerge from the Council, follows the orientation of Gaudium et Spes, elaborating on the foundation of human rights based on the intrinsic dignity of the person (DH 1-4, 9-11).  Both documents affirm that the root of human dignity and respect due to all is based on the biblical and patristic concept of the Imago Dei (GS 12,17; DH 10) adding that religious freedom stems from this very dignity (GS 12, DH 10) and calling the Church and the State to respect this freedom. (GS 41; DH 9,11) 

Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae affirmed Teresa’s intuition: that regard for human rights, in her case, the right of all people to engage in a relationship with God, did not depend on the social, political or religious conventions of her time, but were called for by God. (GS 15-17, 41; DH 3)

Teresa sought ardently for the truth and for the conditions that make possible this seeking. The Declaration on Religious Freedom calls for immunity from the many coercions that Teresa experienced, claiming that all beings are endowed with reason and free will and defends the right of the person to seek this truth, especially, as in the case of Teresa, religious truth. (DH 2)  

A less known example of Teresa’s advocacy on behalf of the marginalized is found in her letter of January 17, 1570 to her brother, don Lorenzo de Cepeda, expressing her distress about the abuses committed by some conquistadores against the indigenous populations of the New World. Aware, through her brothers and her friendship with the Franciscan Alonso Maldonado (Foundations 1;7-8), of the events taking place in “the Indies” she communicated her anguish to her brother Lorenzo in the following words: “…y esos indios no me cuestan poco … El Señor los de luz, que acá y allá hay harta desventura, que como ando en tantas partes y me hablan tantas personas no se muchas veces que decir sino que somos peores que bestias, pues no entendemos la gran dignidad de nuestra alma.” (cited in Castellano, 279)  Chapter II of Gaudium et Spes, and specifically #24 reminds us that “God … has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood” for we have all been created in God’s image. 


The second correlation I propose to establish between Teresa’s writings and Gaudium et Spes refers to her opposition to the violence endemic in her time and her efforts on behalf of peace. Grieved at the spectacle of violent deaths, such as the “autos de fe,” she experienced in them the burden of what St John Paul II would call “the structures of sin” (see: Castellano, 279). Following the directive of Pope Francis, the 2018 revision of # 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reformulates the Church’s position on capital punishment affirming that no matter the seriousness of the crime, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person” (CCC 2267). Teresa’s opposition to the violence of war is evidenced in her July 22, 1579 letter to don Teotonio de Braganza, writing of her anguish at the threat of war between Portugal and Spain and offering her prayers for peace between the two nations: “Vuestra señoria me mande hacer saber si hay allá alguna nueva de paz, que me tiene harto afligida lo que por aca oigo… Por amor de nuestro Señor.. procure concierto… y se tengan delante los grandes daños que se pueden venir…Plega a su Majestad ponga en ello sus manos como todas se lo suplicamos …El Señor de luz para que se entienda la verdad sin tantas muertes como ha de haber si se pone a riesgo...” (cited in Castellano, 280) Gaudium et Spes in 77-81 denounces the violence of war and urges every person to work on behalf of peace: “Christians are urgently summoned to do in love what the truth requires, and to join with all true peacemakers in pleading for peace and bringing it about” (GS 78). 

The last parallel I would like to underline between Teresa’s writings, Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae is found in Teresa of Avila’s Spiritual Testimonies 2a, 6. This surprising passage evidences her own process of conversion regarding her attitude towards the poor, acknowledging her own previous repugnance towards them:   “Paréceme tengo mucha más piedad de los pobres que solía, teniendo yo una lástima grande y deseo de remediarlos; que, si mirase a mi voluntad, les daría lo que traigo vestido. Ningun asco tengo de ellos, aunque los trate y llegue a las manos. Y esto veo ahora es don de Dios que, aunque por amor de él hacía limosna, piedad natural no la tenía. Bien conocida mejoría siento en esto.” (Cited in Castellano, 277) We are reminded of the poignant opening words of Gaudium et Spes: “… the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the … grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.”  

 Throughout this reflection we have seen how the dignity of the human person is the pivotal hinge of Teresa’s impassioned defense of women and the marginalized, her denunciation of violence and her conversion regarding the poor. She experienced how gender and ethnic identity were used as tools for marginalization, how violence of any form went against that indispensable dignity and recognized as a gift of God her transformation regarding the poor. Today, this great woman continues to fulfill the task entrusted to us by Dignitatis Humanae: to form others “to be lovers of true freedom” and “to strive for what is true and just…” (DH 8) 

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).