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Mother Maravillas de Jesús: Guarding the Teresian Reform

Author’s Preface: The following article pertains to the ongoing campaign against traditional contemplative life unleashed by Pope Francis. I had drafted my article in full prior to the fortuitous appearance of two other articles on Madre Maravillas, namely, Mary Cuff’s “The Beauty of Austerity” (Crisis Magazine, January 8, 2022) and Sr. Gabriela Hick’s “St. Maravillas: A prophetic witness for Vatican II” (Where Peter Is, January 13, 2022). There’s enough of a difference between my articles and theirs that all three can be considered complementary, although I find the one at WPI to be unconvincing in its attempt to fit out the saint as a precursor of the Council, for reasons that will become apparent.

In a remarkable address from 1966, “Catholicism after the Council,” Joseph Ratzinger already expresses the essential problem of the direction in which the Church was rapidly heading.[1] First, he sets the stage by pointing out the two basic opposing views:

For some the Council has done much too little, it got bogged down at the very start and bequeathed to us nothing but a series of clever compromises, it was a victory of diplomacy and caution over the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit who wants not complicated syntheses but the simplicity of the Gospel message, and so on. For others again the Council was a scandal, a delivering up of the Church to the evil spirit of our time, which has turned its back on God with its mad preoccupation with the world and with material things. They are aghast to see the undermining of all that they held most sacred and turn away from a reform which seems only to offer a cheapened watered-down Christianity where they expected stiffer demands in regard to faith, hope and love.

It is with heavy hearts and anxious misgivings that they compare this reform, which by its concessions and compromises seems to them to whittle away the great seriousness of following Christ and the necessity of unconditional surrender and service, with the reforms of past times, as for instance with that reform which is linked with the name of the great St. Teresa.

Reform Means Return to Form

With an eloquence that suggests sympathy, Ratzinger then describes the awakening and eventual mission of the great reformer Saint Teresa of Avila (1515–1582):

Before her conversion, the convent in which she lived was a perfectly modern place in which the old-fashioned idea of the enclosure with its petty annoying restrictions had given way to more generous “modern” ideas and in which she was allowed to have visitors at any time; it was a modern convent in which the gloomy asceticism of the old rule had been replaced by a more “reasonable” manner of life, more suited to the tastes of people of the new era which was just then beginning; it was a modern convent which had an open-minded attitude to the world and all belonging to it and which permitted all kinds of friendly contacts.

But one day she was touched to the quick by the Presence of Christ and her soul came face to face with the inexorable truth of the Gospel message, untrammeled by all the petty phrases of excuse and extenuation which had been used to obscure it, and then she realised that all that had gone before had been an unpardonable flight from the great mission to which she had been called and a shirking of the conversion of heart which was being asked of her, whereupon she rose up and was “converted.”

And what that meant was that she rejected the aggiornamento and created a reform which had nothing of concession in it but was a challenge to all who heard it to give themselves up entirely to Jesus Christ for the sake of an eternal reward, to divest themselves entirely of all possessions along with the Crucified Saviour in order to belong fully in Him to the whole Body of Christ.

Thus, St. Teresa’s reform consisted precisely in opposing the modernity of her time, denying the spirit of her age, closing the door to a broader, more “humanistic,” more “sensible” approach, yielding not an inch to the fashionable concessions of her day. As Martin Mosebach likes to say, “reform” means return to form—that is, a return to a purer, stricter, more committed way, not a loosening and relaxation. Ratzinger draws the sharp conclusion:

That section of the faithful of whom we are now speaking [i.e., the more traditionally-minded] asks whether the Council has not, in fact, taken the opposite direction to Saint Teresa, going away from true conversion to worldliness on the part of the Church.

St. Teresa Speaks for Herself

For her part, St. Teresa, who never minced words, spoke very plainly of the problems of religious life in the sixteenth century and the urgency of just such a reform away from worldliness. She was particularly insistent on the value of strict enclosure and an unmitigated observance of the Rule:

Everything connected with the religious life caused me delight; and it is a fact that sometimes, when I was spending time in sweeping floors which I had previously spent on my own indulgence and adornment, and realized that I was now free from all those things, there came to me a new joy, which amazed me, for I could not understand whence it arose.[2] […]

For that reason, I think it was a very bad thing for me not to be in a convent that was enclosed. The freedom which the sisters, who were good, might enjoy without becoming less so (for they were not obliged to live more strictly than they did, as they had not taken a vow of enclosure) would certainly have led me, who am wicked, down to hell, had not the Lord, through very special favors, using means and remedies which are all His own, delivered me from this peril. It seems to me, then, that it is a very great danger for women in a convent to have such freedom. For those who want to be wicked, it is not so much a remedy for their weaknesses as a step on the way to hell….

Oh, what terrible harm, what terrible harm is wrought in religious (I am referring now as much to men as to women) when the religious life is not properly observed; when of the two paths that can be followed in a religious house—one leading to virtue and the observance of the Rule and the other leading away from the Rule—both are frequented almost equally! No, I am wrong: they are not frequented equally, for our sins cause the more imperfect road to be more commonly taken; being the broader, it is the more generally favored….

I cannot think why we should be astonished at all the evils which exist in the Church, when those who ought to be models on which all may pattern their virtues are annulling the work wrought in the religious Orders by the spirit of the saints of old. May His Divine Majesty be pleased to find a remedy for this, as He sees needful.[3]

A Traditional Carmelite in Modern Times

A major Carmelite figure of the twentieth century, Mother Maravillas de Jesús (1891–1974), who suffered through the Spanish Civil War and founded many Carmels in her life, was a true daughter of St. Teresa of Jesus—a clear-sighted nun who resolutely guarded the reformed Carmelite way of life handed down from the sixteenth century on. Mother Maravillas strongly opposed efforts made both before and after the Second Vatican Council to deform the Carmelites in the name of modern adaptations. In other words, exactly the problem Ratzinger described in 1966.

One of Madre Maravillas’s collaborators, Sr. Magdalena de Jesús, published as an octogenarian some recollections of the saint in a book entitled Admiración, Amor y Dolor.[4] Chapter 13 discusses Madre Maravillas’s attitude towards the Second Vatican Council, which Sr. Magdalena regards as ill-informed, suspicious, and reactionary, but which, in retrospect, we can see to have been intuitively accurate, illumined with a prophetic light.

When, for example, in 1965 the Father General Anastasio announced obligatory liturgical changes, such as the nuns making the responses at the Mass with lights on and veils drawn, the convents under Mother’s guidance did not follow these stipulations. Communion under both kinds was resisted. The erection of free-standing altars facing the people was highly displeasing to Madre and was kept at bay as long as could be managed. A new translation of the psalter was brought to the nuns but was rejected. In some parlors signs were posted that said: “No admittance to priests without cassock, religious without habit, or women in pants.” The Madre grasped clearly that beyond the confusing and ever-growing list of changes suggested or demanded of Catholics in general and of religious in particular was a spirit of relaxation and dissipation that threatened to undermine Catholic life and religious life and, in point of fact, did exactly that, as every plummeting statistic has unambiguously indicated for over fifty years now.[5]

I appreciate Sr. Magdalena’s honesty in noting that many official biographies of Madre Maravillas tell fibs about her “prompt and wholehearted obedience to the Council, the bishops, the liturgical reforms,” etc. This outstanding Carmelite understood a thing or two about the limits of obedience; she knew that it could not be given at the cost of the primacy of the spiritual life, the integrity of the Rule, or the common good of the Church, and that the hierarchy do not enjoy a monopoly on the perception of these realities.

“Perfection is Imperfectible”

In history, certain things do actually achieve a perfection that cannot be surpassed in the same sphere. For example, in regard to Christological dogma, the formulas of Pope Leo the Great are perfect and cannot be improved upon. In regard to Gothic architecture, the cathedral of Chartres is a superlative masterpiece; any attempt to modernize a Gothic cathedral’s interior or exterior would result only in its degradation. The piano concertos of Mozart realize the highest possibilities of the genre; a rare composer may be worthy of mention alongside him, but none rivals him. (It was the musicologist Alfred Einstein who described Mozart’s concerti as an achievement “beyond which no progress was possible, because perfection is imperfectible.”)

The same is true with regard to the greatest work of art known to Western man: the Solemn Pontifical Mass of the classical Roman Rite, which possesses a splendor and sublimity that cascades through all of its derivatives—the Missa solemnis, the Missa cantata, the Missa recitata. The Roman Rite attained its providentially-guided perfection in the late Middle Ages; in response to heretical distortions of liturgy, St. Pius V codified and canonized this rite in the sixteenth century, after which, with eminent good sense, the Church held fast to it with only minor additions until the unhappy experiments of the post-War period. Traditionalists maintain that this rite is the rite of the Church of Rome, and that Catholic piety has but one responsibility, namely, to receive it and cherish it.

The same, finally, is true of the great religious orders. Each, in its own way, achieves a certain perfection in its rule of life and its unique role within the Mystical Body that cannot be improved upon and will only tend to be degraded by adaptations, relaxations, and modernizations. The Benedictine life, for example, has been fixed in all its essentials since the Holy Rule was written in the sixth century, and every great reform movement in monasticism has taken for its polestar renewed fidelity to the Rule—not only in its general lines but often in its most concrete details. Benedictine communities flourish to the degree that they adhere to the Rule. Renewal means rediscovering the horarium, the days of fasting, the manual labor, the strict individual poverty, and so forth. Similarly, the cloistered Carmelite life achieved perfection in the sixteenth century under St. Teresa of Avila; its strength, too, will typically be measured by adherence to that perfect form, not only in general principles but in specific details.

This article will no doubt be read by some religious who, supportive of Cor Orans, will object that their communities are doing fine and are benefiting, or will benefit, from the new Vatican provisions. Although reasons for serious skepticism exist, let’s say for the sake of argument that such claims may be true for some communities. It would still not follow that the provisions of Cor Orans are beneficial for all, or that they are so necessary and urgent that every house of Carmelites—or of any other branch of religious—must adopt them.

A more traditional way of life in customs and liturgy, a stricter observance of the rule, has its rightful place in the Church and will always have a place of honor. Unity properly understood has never demanded absolute uniformity, otherwise we wouldn’t have many religious orders to begin with—some active and others contemplative, some confederated and others autonomous, some making use of modern technology and others eschewing it for good reasons.

So many today talk about “freedom,” but how few are willing to live lives free of ideology or to let others live freely according to their charism, conscience, and calling! At the very least, Christian charity together with respect for one’s own heritage demands that all those who wish to live according to an order’s original rule should be allowed to live it unmolested.

A Carmelite “Resister” Vindicated

Against the objections of those who accused her of defiance against ecclesiastical authority, disobedience to reforms mandated by the Holy See, and inflexible adherence to Carmelite tradition, Mother Maravillas was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1998 and canonized by the same pope on his apostolic visit to Spain in 2003. Doubtless the Polish pope—a keen student of St. John of the Cross and one who had not been afraid to ordain clandestinely against Paul VI’s policy of Ostpolitik—understood, in a way many others could not, the time-tested wisdom and burning fire of charity that nourished Madre Maravillas’s firmness of principle. She had resisted, to the best of her ability, the whirlwind of change that had swept through the Church during and after the Council and had reaffirmed the permanent value of St. Teresa of Avila’s heaven-inspired vision of enclosed Carmelite life.

Just as St. Teresa was misunderstood and opposed in her time, so was Madre Maravillas in ours; and the same incomprehension and incredulity will meet us today and in every age, whenever the advocates of aggiornamento confront the champions of constancy. At a time when her virtues are needed more than ever, Madre Maravillas is a model for her own religious family and for all who adhere to the traditional beliefs and practices of Catholicism. Ours is the resistance of love, the defiance of devotion, the tenacity of tradition.

St. Maravillas de Jesús, pray for us.


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[1] The address was given at the Katholikentag of 1966 in Bamberg and then published in English in The Furrow, vol. 18, n. 1 (January 1967): 3–32. Dom Hugh Somerville Knapman, OSB, discusses the article in a post but does not provide the whole text. I was sent a PDF of the article by a friend in the FSSP.

[2] Life, ch. 4.

[3] Life, ch. 7.

[4] The full title is Admiración, Amor y Dolor: Testimonio directo acerca de su vida solicitado por los Carmelos de Holanda y Alemania (Burgos: Monte Carmelo, 1992).

[5] And of course, wherever stricter religious life is practiced, the vocations begin to flow in. There are by now dozens of communities that one could point to as examples.

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