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St. Teresa of Avila inspired Dorothy Day – Saint Teresa of Avila and Dorothy Day rebelled against Mediocrity

This is the seventh article in a series on the philosophers and spiritual guides who inspired Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in founding and living out the vision of the Catholic Worker. In this issue we feature St. Teresa of Avila.

When she came into the Catholic Church soon after the birth of her child, Dorothy Day named her daughter Tamar Teresa, for St. Teresa of Avila.

Long before becoming interested in the Church, Dorothy Day tells us in her autobiography The Long Loneliness that she had read about Teresa of Avila in William James’ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. James was skeptical on religion, but he presented Teresa as one of the ablest women on record–even though he felt it was “a pity that so much vitality of soul should have found such poor employment.” James’ emphasis on the correlation between prayer and personal life and action in her life drew Dorothy Day to Teresa.

In the 1920’s and ’30’s Dorothy read Teresa’s Life and her Foundations, which tell the story of Teresa’s search for God and the working of God’s grace in her life and her growth and experiences in prayer; the Foundations also recounts the establishment of her first reformed Carmelite foundation, St. Joseph’s at Avila. Dorothy concentrated on Teresa’s teachings regarding the fruits of prayer, not on her visions and extraordinary experiences.

Dorothy Day’s devotion to St. Joseph originally came from her reading of St. Teresa, who counted on his prayer for practical help for her foundations. Dorothy also relied on St. Joseph as her banker and asked his help in all kinds of practical situations.

Some recent biographers have tried to recast both Teresa and Dorothy Day as forerunners of or participants in the contemporary feminist movement. Both of these great women were active, strong, independent leaders who greatly influenced their times. While not actually stating that they were protofeminists, writers do emphasize that they challenged the existing order. But what they both challenged most was the mediocrity of women and men.

The contrast with much of contemporary feminism lies in their motivation, in the correlation for them between prayer and personal life and action, all carried out in love for the Church, Christ’s body. These two women were almost combative in doing the Lord’s will in their lives, rather than their own will. Nothing stood in their way in carrying out the commitment to contemplation and growth in prayer combined with action that led to the founding of communities. They recognized the humanness of the Church people, but never for a moment forgot that the Church was instituted by Christ for the salvation of saints and sinners, even though the tremendous profundity of their lives overshadowed many contemporary Church representatives.

Both Teresa and Dorothy were good negotiators who knew human beings, especialy church people, and how to make a point with being destructive.

With insult, desecration, and bitter confrontation, one may win a battle, but lose the war. The way of Jesus is different. It is the power of self-sacrificing, non-violent love. As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. today, we are very conscious of those who practiced non-violence. We do not celebrate the birthdays of those who do not.

Women like Teresa of Avila and Dorothy Day are indeed the kind of feminists we need today.

Teresa lived and wrote at the time of the Inquisition, at a time when they were investigating a movement which emphasized unrestrained infatuation with ecstasy and other extraordinary phenomena. Teresa’s works were read in detail by the Inquisitors, but never called into question. For Teresa, interest by the Church in her writings was a grace which helped her to focus on the core, profound truths of the faith rather than fringe elements and exotic devotions. She feared the disguises of Satan and her own self-will much more than she feared the Inquisition. Teresa was repeatedly reported to the Inquisition, as was Dorothy Day to the chancery office in New York. When people cautioned her about the dangers of the Inquisition, she responded, “This amused me and made me laugh. And I said they shouldn’t be afraid about these possible accusations; that it would be pretty bad for my soul if there were something in it of the sort that I should have to fear the Inquisition; that I thought if I did have something to fear I’d go myself to seek out the Inquisitors.”

In Teresa’s day, reputable Church people such as the Jesuits recognized the profundity of her spiritual life, and so the Church authorities of New York recognized that of Dorothy Day. People asked why Cardinal Spellman didn’t close Dorothy Day down during World War II when she so strongly opposed the war. The Cardinal knew she was a saint, even though she provided the pickets for the famous Catholic cemetery strike. The pressure of reports to the chancery insured that Dorothy would be faithful to the doctrine of the Church.

Politically Correct Spiritual Directors

For seventeen years Teresa lived a life of boredom and mediocrity even while a Carmelite nun, thanks to the advice of politically correct confessors and spiritual directors, who kept telling her she was doing fine: “There was no sin.” They encouraged her not to worry about the time spent in gossip and frivolous pursuits in common parlors, as well as more serious offenses which Teresa does not write about.

Teresa tried to give herself to prayer and convinced others, including her father, to give themselves to prayer. Her father died a contemplative, but Teresa continued her life of mediocrity–a life that the New Testament indicts so strongly–it suggests people would be vomited out of the Lord’s mouth because they were neither not nor cold. In other words, she was living a life that made the Lord sick.

Teresa blames half-learned confessors who allowed her to wallow in this light-weight existence so long. “What was venial sin,” she says, “they said was no sin at all, and what was serious mortal sin, they said was venial.” (from The Book of her Life, Chapter 5)

Teresa felt guilty indicting incompetent confessors and spiritual directors, but felt that she had to “in order to warn others against so great an evil.”

According to several authors of books about St. Teresa, she went along with this shallow spirituality because of her feelings of inferiority about her family roots. At that time obsession with one’s family and an undue attachment to the things of this world, even though it were incompatible with the religious life, were considered features of “honor” of the well-to-do in Spain. Teresa’s family, though rich, had a family tree that was considered tainted because her grandfather was Jewish. More important than riches was the possession of “honor,” that complex set of qualities connoting gentle birth, purity of blood and reputation (Jodi Blinkoff, The Avila of St. Teresa).

Along with lightweight confessors, the inferiority complex of blood inhibited Teresa from making the break and running the race that St. Paul speaks of. Ultimately, Teresa replaced the emphasis on “honor” with a tremendous emphasis on humility, asking that her Sisters whose fathers were most wealthy and well-known speak least about their families.

Dorothy related Teresa’s struggle with mediocrity over the course of many years to a fear of total dedication to God. In From Union Square to Rome Dorothy writes:

“‘I wished to live,’ she (Teresa) wrote, ‘but I saw clearly that I was not living, but rather wrestling with the shadow of death; there was no one to give me life, and I was not able to take it….’

“The shadow of death that she spoke of was the life she was leading, purposeless, disordered, a constant succumbing to second-best, to the less-than-perfect which she desired.”

“As a convert I can say these things, knowing how many times I turned away, almost in disgust, from the idea of God and giving myself to Him.”

This is the fear of conversion and its consequences that Dorothy Day, like Teresa, had to face. Society depicts those who go through a conversion as choosing a life of narrowness and boredom, where as a matter of fact, converts seem to have all the fun, and all the truth, too, like Dorothy Day and St. Teresa. Society will do almost anything to avoid conversion.

Contemporaries today may identify more with Teresa of Jesus’ (as she later chose to be known) active life, reforming her Carmelite order, founding many new convents and bringing them to the original vision.

Dorothy Day also identified with Teresa’s organizational abilities and her writing, as well as her commitment to voluntary poverty. But Teresa’s life, like Dorothy’s was a union of contemplation and action, with love of neighbor and the building of communities flowing out of prayer.

All are Called

A central theme of St. Teresa’s writings is that all are called to the summit of the mountain in prayer, that the mercy of God is reaching out to every soul, even though it may take a long time for a person to respond. What is required of each of us is a change of heart, a change so profound that a person will be able to perceive and follow the voice of the Spirit of God.

Great saints and mystics like St. Teresa helped to convince Dorothy of the universal call to holiness of the Gospel, a call which includes lay people as well as priests and religious. The Catholic Worker embraced these ideas long before the Second Vatican Council promulgated them.

The choice made by St. Teresa and by Dorothy to direct their lives to God freed them not only to love God, but also inspired lives of dedication and loving service, which had a powerful impact on the Church and society of their times. The depth of their commitment was rooted in the profundity of their spiritual lives.


The authors looked at many books on Teresa of Avila. Listed below are those that were found to be most helpful for this issue:

Jodi Blinkoff. The Avila of St. Teresa: Religious Reform in a Sixteenth-Century City. Cornell University, 1989.

Brigid O’Shea Merriman. Searching for Christ: the Spirituality of Dorothy Day. University of Notre Dame, 1994.

Saint Teresa of Avila. Collected Works, 3 Vols. ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1976 (Introduction also helpful).


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Jan. Feb. 1996.