St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Martin Family

Juan Rodríguez Juárez (1675-1728), “The Virgin of Carmel With St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross”
Juan Rodríguez Juárez (1675-1728), “The Virgin of Carmel With St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross” (photo: Public Domain)

My family was blessed with having three sisters not only in blood-relation, but in religion. Three of my great aunts became nuns: Sr. Mary Di Camillo, FMA (d. 1999), Sr. Ann Dolores Di Camillo, OSF (d. 2000), and Sr. RoseMarie Basil Di Camillo, OSF (d. 2003). Out of eleven children, more than one-quarter of them joined a religious order!

This was due, in no small part of course, to their solid Catholic upbringing. But one must also factor in how important their spiritual directors were.

In the history of Holy Mother Church it’s fascinating to see how important spiritual directors were to great saints. Like the earlier saints we looked at, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac, two other great saints (and Doctors of the Church) were the result of great spiritual direction: Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila.

Sts. John and Teresa, who predated the aforementioned Vincentian saints by about a generation, were both products of staunchly Catholic Spain in the 16th century—though the Moors were still milling about in the south. Together, they went about rebuilding and reforming the great, ancient Carmelite Order, according to its original constitutions and incredible austerities.

St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila are often described (correctly) as “mystics”. But this label does not capture their full sweep of import—mystics sometimes being seen with their heads-in-the-clouds and full of poetry and piety, but very little earthly common sense. But both John and Teresa were accomplished authors as well: John of the Cross penned the inimitable Dark Night of the Soul, and Teresa wrote The Interior Castle. These are two classics of Catholic literature. Further, both saints were do-ers, reformers, and strangely for mystics, administrators as well. Teresa traveled all over Spain founding new Carmelite monasteries and reforming existing ones. John of the Cross was deputed by St. Teresa to do the same for the men of the Carmelite Order. And, like so many other saints, their good deeds did not go unpunished.

John was imprisoned in a ten-by-six foot cell with only one tiny window and was regularly beaten before his escape after nine months of internment. Teresa was given the “choice of which convent to which to retire”, which was in a sense, her own form of imprisonment.

In short, both Sts. John and Teresa suffered not only spirituality (John with his “dark night”, Teresa with her painful “ecstasy”), but bodily as well. Still, they persevered in their prayer life, even when it grew arid and they seemed abandoned by God. After all: they still had each other.

For Teresa had found in St. John the man who could push through the needed reforms to bring—or bring back—the original spirit of penitence in the Carmelite Order. Further, she had discovered not only a kindred soul, but a spiritual confessor. And John had found someone he himself could confide in, telling Teresa that he was considering transferring to the Carthusian Order of monks to satisfy a desire for deeper prayer. However, Teresa, not to be deterred—or abandoned!—persuaded him to remain in the Carmelites and to stay with her in their reform movement of that ancient and august order.

Further, Teresa affectionately called St. John “Half-a-Friar” because he stood just under five feet tall. Only best friends can call each other such names without recrimination or mean-spiritedness.

Inspired by each other, Teresa went on to found sixteen Carmels for women and John did the same for about a half-dozen O.C.D. (Order of Discalceated or Discalced—“barefoot”—Carmelites) for men.

But Teresa—and for that matter, John—had a long line of solid spiritual directors before they ever met each other. St. Teresa was early encouraged in her endeavors—which at the time were considered radical, and in some places even heretical—by St. Louis Bertrand, O.P., St. Peter of Alcantara, O.F.M. and a certain Father Ibañez.

For his part, John, during his formative years as a young priest, was encouraged in his vocation by the Augustinian biblical scholar Luis Ponce de León, years before ever meeting St. Teresa.

These two Carmelites are the “spiritual parents”, in a sense, of a third Carmelite mystic, saint and Doctor of the Church, separated by three centuries and a country: Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.

St. Thérèse's story is so well known and told by Butler’s Lives and the saint herself in her own The Story of A Soul that there is no need to re-tell it poorly here. What is worth mentioning is that St. Thérèse, too, was the product of a family in which all of the surviving children—Marie, Pauline, Celine, Leonie—became religious, and the parents, Louis and Zélie Martin, themselves became saints! In fact, her sister Leonie is also on the track for sainthood, now styled “Servant of God”, the first step in the canonization process.

While one cannot call Pope Leo XIII St. Thérèse's “spiritual director” her dramatic meeting with that pontiff is remarkable—one, for her daring to speak directly to the pope at all,  and, two, for begging him to let her enter the Carmel in 1887. The pope wisely told her to obey the decision of her superiors. Soon after Bishop Flavien-Abel-Antoinin Hugonin allowed her to be admitted to the Carmel where all her sisters, save Leonine (who became a Visitation nun), would live out their lives.

Closer to home—at home, in fact—St. Thérèse had a spiritual desire to follow three of her four sisters into the Carmel. One can’t help but think that her sisters-in-blood were a huge and continuing influence on their youngest sister, as they led by example lives of purity, obedience, chastity, and poverty in the strictest iteration of the Carmelite rule.

St. Thérèse's “Little Way” can be read as an extraordinary document in its own right, but it is perhaps best understood as being in the Carmelite tradition—and triad—of St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle and St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul—that is, a work of great Catholic mysticism born out of spiritual and physical suffering. Unlike the two great doctors who preceded her, St. Thérèse was not destined to live long: struck down at age 24 by tuberculosis, she is the co-patroness, with St. Francis Xavier, of Missionaries. This may seem strange, as Thérèse travelled very little before entering the Carmel—and then not at all once she became a Carmelite. However, she prayed fervently and constantly for priests—“apostles” who had been sent out to evangelize the world.

And her effect is both catholic and Catholic: saints and laity of all stripes and types have admired and meditated on and been inspired by “The Little Flower”, as she came to be known—from Mother Teresa to Henri Nouwen, James Martin to Jack Kerouac, Padre Pio to Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton to Maximilian Maria Kolbe, Pope John Paul I to Pope Francis—there seems few who aren’t touched, if not moved, by her incredible faith and “Little Way”.

Sts. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Thérèse of Lisieux: a trinity of Carmelite saints, mystics, and Doctors who remain relevant to all of us today with their message of penance, and the redemptive value of suffering.