Saints Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila & Thérèse of Lisieux

Sr. Ronda Marie Chervin, Ph.D.

Three Doctors of the Church and not a single one with a doctorate! Three Doctors and not a single one whose original writings include her own laboriously assembled pages of footnotes! My, oh, my!

The proclamation of these three women saints as Doctors of the Church can be seen as almost a sign of contradiction. There is a wisdom in the Church greater than can be measured by the standards of academe. That the women Doctors are a sign of contradiction is true not only because none of the three were scholars in the ordinary sense of the word, but also because their stature breaks through the stereotypes so widespread today about the second-class citizenship of women in the Church.

Sometimes in talks about such issues, I challenge audiences in this manner: raise your hand if you can tell me who was the parish priest of St. Catherine of Siena? Occasionally someone thinks of Blessed Raymond. He was her confessor, biographer, and her spiritual son, but probably not her parish priest. The fact that no one knows for sure who this parish priest was demonstrates that the priesthood being solely male is not a bar to the spiritual authority of women who are holy. And such authority, contrary to fundamentalist notions of headship, extends not only to the woman saint's female disciples, but also to all those male disciples whose names have been long forgotten. Not to say, of course, that in God's eyes fame is more important than hidden sanctity or the specific incomparable call that is the priesthood. Still, when we see how holy women, Mary, Seat of Wisdom, first of all, rank in the Church, it helps us to overcome any cultural biases, either feminist or chauvinist.

When Catherine herself objected to Jesus that as a woman she could not preach and mingle with men in the world, the Lord told her he was sovereign in his graces!1

Before quoting words of wisdom from the three women Doctors of the Church, I would like to share a little bit about what the study of them has meant to me personally.

St. Teresa of Avila

I will start with St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) who has always been my favorite of all the women saints. As a woman of Jewish ancestry myself, who converted from atheism to the Catholic faith many years ago, it was a delight to learn that there is evidence that the family of Teresa was of the same background. (There is also evidence that Judaism was in the ancestry of St. John of the Cross.) However distant the influence on her own personality and thinking might actually have been, I found this theory of Teresa's Jewish heritage illuminating. There is, perhaps, a Jewish flavor to the particular combination in the character of Teresa of vivacity, passion, analytic ability and thirst for union with God.

The story of St. Teresa, like that of St. Augustine, has always been a great help to those of us whose footsteps have deviated from a straight path of piety from childhood to old age. How human was her fear of the burdens of the life of a housewife, her distaste for convent life, her flirtatious youthful attractions! And when she finally decided to enter the convent as the only way out of the conventional roles for women of her time, how feminine was her love of gossip in the parlor.

Most of all what has always encouraged me about this Spanish saint is how God transformed the negative side of her character, especially her talkativeness. Having, with great difficulty, drawn his beloved bride away from the parlor to the chapel by incredibly compelling mystical graces, her bridegroom did not gag her. Instead he used her wordiness as a channel for his words of wisdom. Her writings, accomplished in spare moments amidst distractions of all kinds, not the least of which was perpetual chronic illness, are like a babbling brook, not of trivia, but of the reflections of a mind intensely critical and communicative. Being myself garrulous and scattered, I identify with her, but with hope that just as contemplative prayer redirected her energies, so God may someday transfigure mine.

Out of Teresa's personal experience of the evils of double-mindedness, once her conversion was complete, we find her insisting on total surrender to God as essential to spiritual growth: 'We should give ourselves to him with complete determination... He never works in the soul as he does when it is totally his without any obstacle.'2

The most famous of St. Teresa's writings is The Interior Castle. I wonder how many others like myself have taken hope from reading about the mansions of those famous 'castles in a celestial Spain,' described by St. Teresa. Her descriptions help us to see that there is much further to go, and certainly more beautiful rooms than those in which we are presently dwelling. A quotation about the fifth dwelling place such as the following can open us to want to beg the Lord to lead us further: '...anyone who refuses to believe that God can do much more... to communicate favors to his creatures, has indeed closed the door to receiving them.'3

We are not to seek such favors simply to bask in supernatural pleasures, but rather, as the great spiritual theologians explain, because it is only through special graces that we will be lifted above our weak state into a receptivity to the love of God sufficient that we might be purified and sanctified!

Given limitations of space, it is impossible to include here more than a smattering of passages from the writings of each of the women doctors. In the case of Teresa, I want to be sure to include some that delight me simply because of the way Teresa mingles common sense with spirituality: God is not at all touchy; he does not bother about trifling things.4

I beg you that your conversation always be directed toward bringing some good to the one with whom you are speaking.5

God is your business and language. Whoever wants to speak to you must learn this language; and if he doesn't, be on your guard that you don't learn his; it will be a hell.6

(Referring to fault-finding) It could happen at times that she (a Sister) doesn't see her own faults because of her intense zeal for religious observance.7

How often the famous lines written in her breviary and included in the Tuesday Night Prayer of the Church have helped me to overcome some fear or dread:

Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Patient endurance
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth.

St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) has always impressed me as a holy woman by the intimacy of her union with Jesus, moment by moment. As you probably know, Caterina was a twin, the 23rd child of her parents, Benincasa by name. These worthy folk were so heartbroken when the twin failed to survive her birth that they immediately conceived another child as a replacement. What pro-life witnesses that mother and father were! In any case, a twin myself, it struck me that Catherine's own way of replacing her missing sibling was, eventually, to let Jesus be a twin for her. It seemed that he wanted to be with her in every aspect of her daily life, just as would a twin! Who cannot read with amazement, for instance, how the Lord helped the older Catherine to learn how to read by praying the Divine Office with her every day word by word!8

How edifying the story of how Benincasa was moved finally to give up on making matches for his beloved most marriageable daughter. Furious that she refused to consider any suitor, being wed to Christ in her soul, her parents punished her by firing the servants and making her do all the housework for the huge extended family. Catherine bowed her head and accepted it all, reasoning that Jesus could meet her in the chapel of her heart while she did the chores. The Lord finally opened the father's eyes by giving him a vision of himself, Jesus, in communion with Catherine. Astonished, the father proclaimed: 'Perhaps we will never find a bridegroom more worthy of our daughter than the Lord!' After that, he allowed her to live as a consecrated woman with her cell in the house.

An episode of the intimacy between Catherine and Jesus that I love to think about is this: Once when Catherine was weak and sick (from eating very little more than the Eucharist each day— Blessed Raymond describes her as nothing more than a bag of bones) Jesus woke her in the night. He told her that there was a family up in the hills starving to death. Would she rise, collect food and drink, and bring it to them? Indefatigably sacrificial as Catherine was when it came to corporal works of mercy, she hesitated. She thought it would be simply impossible to transport the load Jesus was telling her to carry such a long way. Obediently, though, she managed to tie huge kegs of oil and food onto a rope around her waist and, with the help of her ever-present Spouse, lug it all up the hill to the needy family. Blessed Raymond insists that the weight of these objects was such as to make it impossible for any man no matter what his size or strength to lift and carry them such a distance!

Before presenting quotations from Catherine's writings, I want to remark on something that has always impressed me about the Dialogues. The words of the Lord are presented as direct locutions. Have those of you familiar with the Dialogues also noticed that the style is totally masculine? When we hear Catherine ask questions they sound like the words of a woman saint— impassioned and legitimately subjective. But when the voice is that of Jesus the tone is sublime, objective and authoritative. I have always found this to be a special sign of the supernatural origin of the words Caterina attributed to the Lord.

Of the many wonderful passages that could be quoted from the Dialogues, some of the most important for our times concern how we should regard mediocrity and scandal in the Church.

Speaking to Catherine about the great gift of the Eucharist, Jesus includes these thoughts:

I have told thee all this, dearest daughter, that thou mayest the better recognize the dignity to which I have called my ministers, so that thy grief at their miseries may be more intense. If they themselves considered their own dignity they would not be in the darkness of mortal sin, or defile the face of their soul. They would not only see their offences against me, but also, that if they gave their bodies to be burned, they would not repay the tremendous grace and favor which they have received, inasmuch as no greater dignity exists in this life. They are my anointed ones, and I call them my Christs, because I have given them the office of administering me to you, and have placed them like fragrant flowers in the mystical body of the holy Church. The angel himself has no such dignity.... Even as these ministers require cleanness in the chalice in which this sacrifice is made, even so do I require the purity and cleanness of their heart and soul and mind....and I do not wish them to feed upon and wallow in the mire of filth, or to be inflated with pride, seeking great prelacies, or to be cruel to themselves or to their fellow-creatures, because they cannot use cruelty to themselves without being cruel to their fellow-creatures; for if by sin they are cruel to themselves... (they do not) care to draw (others) out of the hands of the devil....

I will now speak to thee, in order to give a little refreshment to thy soul, and to mitigate thy grief at the darkness of these miserable subjects, of the holy life of some of my ministers... who are like the sun... a man must either have the light, warmth, and color of grace, or none at all.... For as soon as the eye of the intellect lifts itself with the pupil of faith above sensual vision in the contemplation of me, affection follows it...The Sun illuminates them and causes the earth of their souls to germinate with its ardent love... they cause barren souls to bear fruit... driving away the darkness of their mortal sin and infidelity, by example of their holy and regular life, and reforming the lives of those who live in disorder and darkness of sin, and in coldness, through the privation of charity.9

Lest reflection on the miseries of the Church lead to anger, Our Lord tells Catherine: 'Not by ... violence will she (the Church) regain her beauty but through peace and through the constant and humble prayers and sweat and tears poured out by my servants with eager desire.'10

Typical of the wisdom of this Doctor of the Church are the words so important for those who might wish, in comparison to those who have made themselves enemies of the Church within the Church, to rest on the plateau of righteousness: 'When the soul has arrived at the attainment of the general light... she should not remain contented, because, as long as you are pilgrims in this life, you are capable of growth, and he who does not go forward, by that very fact, is turning back... For if the souls truly have light, she will wish to arrive at perfection.'11

Thérèse of Lisieux

Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) is the third woman to be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. I must admit that when I first heard about this possibility, I thought perhaps it was a sentimental gesture of homage rather than a due response to her wisdom. Pondering the matter, it was not long before I realized that there is more to the influence of Thérèse than personality and miracles. Her teaching of the Little Way to heaven has all but dominated 20th century spirituality.

I chose little Thérèse as my confirmation saint, at the age of 22, not because I identified with her, but more because everything about her was a challenge for me. Where she was patient, I was irritable; where she was penitential, I was comfort-loving; where she could efface herself, I was looking for the limelight. How many times I have prayed that she intercede for me concerning these faults. Whenever, every five years or so, I reread her story or take up other books about her family, I am overwhelmed by the logic of her Little Way. Often, at times of extreme crisis in my faith, I have found signs of her love for me appearing unexpectedly.

How can we understand the wisdom of that Little Way of St. Thérèse for our lives today? When our saint understood that her place in the Church was not to be a missionary or a martyr but to be love, she taught all of us to think in these terms— to measure our Christian life not in terms of dramatic choices but more by the loving-kindness that could be manifested in the tiny matters of daily life. But such a life of small sacrifices and the offering up of small difficulties, frustrations and pain is precisely uninteresting to the world— a sign of littleness. A sign of being 'poor in spirit,' and therefore blessed.

How light-hearted could be our anxiety-ridden people today if we, like Thérèse, could write in this charming trusting way of our failures:

O Jesus, your little bird is happy to be weak and little.... to fall asleep in front of you. Yes, this is still one of the weaknesses of the little bird: when it wants to fix its gaze upon the Divine Sun, and when the clouds prevent it from seeing a single ray of that Sun, in spite of itself, its little eyes close, its little head is hidden beneath its wing, and the poor little thing falls asleep, believing all the time that it is fixing its gaze upon its Dear Star. When it awakens, it doesn't feel desolate; its little heart is at peace and it begins once again its work of love.12

This passage from a letter of St. Thérèse could also be seen as prophetic for 20th century Catholic life: 'Sometimes, when I read spiritual treatises... my poor little mind soon grows weary, I close the learned book, which leaves my head splitting and my heart parched, and I take the Holy Scriptures. Then all seems luminous, a single word opens up infinite horizons to my soul.'13

Recently, writing a book called The Kiss from the Cross: A Saint for Every Kind of Suffering (Servant Publications), I was looking for a saint for doubt and was surprised to find that Thérèse was a perfect model.

Many Catholics of today are plagued by doubt. This could be simply the result of theological dissent percolating into the minds of the faithful. It could also be the shadow of the horrors of the multiple holocausts of our bloody century. When we read the writings of Thérèse about her doubts during the last years of her life, we are forced to realize that such doubt is a classical means of purification, a part of the dark night of the spirit so well described by St. John of the Cross. These words could have been as well written by a contemporary depressive as by the saint we often think of as naively childlike:

Down there, at the side of the chestnut trees, do you see that black hole wherein nothing is distinguishable?... Well I am in a place like that, as regards both body and soul....Ah! Yes, what darkness!14

...the veil of faith is almost torn apart; yet it is no longer a veil— it is a wall reaching almost to Heaven, shutting out the stars. When I sing of Heaven's happiness, of what it is to possess God forever, I feel no joy.15

Jesus....allowed pitch-black darkness to sweep over my soul....I suffered it for months and am still waiting for it to end... it is a sunless tunnel... the voice of unbelievers came to mock me out of the darkness: 'You dream of light, of a fragrant land, you dream that their Creator will be yours forever and think you will one day leave behind the fog in which you languish. Hope on! Hope on! And look forward to death! But it will give you, not what you hope for, but a still darker night, the night of annihilation...'16

What does this new Doctor of the Church have to teach us about coping with doubt?

I offer up these very great pains to obtain the light of faith for poor unbelievers, for all those who separate themselves from the Church's beliefs.17

I dwell (in the black hole) in peace.18

I simply sing of what I want to believe.19

I forced myself to act as if I had faith. I have made more acts of faith in the last year than in the whole of my life.20

Unlike ourselves, at least sometimes, Thérèse did not let doubt lead her to hedge her bets. In our worst moments of doubt, we must cling, as did St. Thérèse, the tighter to the Light; to our memories of the light we have seen in the past 'shining in the darkness'; to our only hope. Like our little Doctor of the Church, may we die in ecstasy seeing our Redeemer come for us.

Long have I nurtured my soul at the table of the words of the women Doctors of the Church. Never do I read these words without feeling drawn to ascend upward beyond my present state of soul to closer union with the all-beautiful One who they dared to call their Bridegroom!


Sister Ronda Marie Chervin is presently a visiting professor at the new small College of Our Lady of Corpus Christi, in Texas. For more information about this college call (512) 289-9095. Author of many books about the saints including Treasury of Women Saints and Prayers of the Women Mystics (Servant Publications), Sister Ronda has recently become a member of an emerging religious community open to women of any age, The Handmaids of Nazareth. For more information about this community, call (716) 248-8951 after 9:30 PM EST.


1. Catherine of Siena's Way, by Mary Ann Fatula, O.P. (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989), p. 54.
2. The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa of Avila: Collected Works. Vol. II, edited by Otilio Rodriquez O.C.D. and Kieran Kavanaugh (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1980), p. 145.
3. The Interior Castle, Collected Works. Vol. II, p. 339.
4. The Way of Perfection, p. 126.
5. Ibid., p. 115.
6. Ibid., p. 116.
7. The Interior Castle, p. 295.
8. The most wonderful anecdotes about Catherine can be found in the biography by her dear friend and spiritual son, Blessed Raymond of Capua, The Life of Catherine of Siena (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1980).
9. The Dialogues of St. Catherine of Siena, translated by Algar Thorold (Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1974), pp. 240-242.
10. Catherine of Siena's Way, p. 111.
11. The Dialogues, p. 210.
12. Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, translated by John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1976), p. 199.
13. Lives of the Saints, edited by Fr. Joseph Vann, O.F.M. (N.Y.: John J. Crawley and Co., Inc., 1954), p. 456-457.
14. Cindy Cavnar, Prayers and Meditations of Thérèse of Lisieux (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1993), p. 76.
15. Ida Goerres, The Hidden Face: A Study of Thérèse of Lisieux, translated by Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Pantheon, 1959), pp. 374-375.
16. Cavnar, p. 72.
17. Ibid., p. 75.
18. Ibid., p. 76.
19. Goerres, p. 360.
20. Cavnar, p. 72.

This article first appeared in Catholic Dossier