Have you heard the one about the Augustinian and the Carmelite? No, this is not a joke of the priest-minister-and-rabbi variety, but a true story about the profound influence of a little-known Augustinian nun on the life and vocation of Saint Teresa of Ávila, the heart and soul of the Carmelite reform, and one of the great figures of Spain’s siglo de oro (golden age).
Certain well-known saints (notably St. Francis Borja and St. Peter of Alcántara) influenced St. Teresa in her mid-life period, considerably after she had entered Ávila’s Carmel of the Incarnation. St. John of the Cross was a saint she knew in later life. Without any diminution of the proper roles of man and woman, friar and nun, it can be said that she influenced him more than he her. She was older, and succeeded in keeping him from becoming a Carthusian, urging him to stay in the Order and reform the friars as she did the nuns.
But earlier in her life, there was a saintly nun that had a profound influence on St. Teresa. This was in her very sensitive years, when the motherless little girl of sixteen was being influenced for the worse by silly novels and the unwholesome companionship of a cousin she does not name. At that time — the year was 1531 — Don Alonso sent his daughter to a certain convent school in Ávila run by cloistered Augustinian nuns. The Convent of Our Lady of Grace had been founded only recently, in 1508, but had, for several years (1520-1526), been under the direction of the renowned Augustinan friar, St. Thomas of Villanova. It was known for its austerity and observance, as St. Thomas noted when he visited there again in 1531, the very year Teresa entered its finishing school for young ladies. In this, the convent was quite unlike the German houses of that Order, which were being infected at that very time by the heresies of a less renowned Augustinian, Friar Martin Luther.
The exemplary nun of that convent, who was such a good influence in St. Teresa, was Sister María Briceño. William Thomas Walsh tells the story beautifully, so I shall be lazy and let him do it:
She [Teresa] became especially fond of the Mistress of Pupils whose duty it was to sleep with the lay boarders at night. This maestra, Sister María Briceño, was a Castilian lady to her finger tips, descended from one of the illustrious families of Ávila, and so evidently capable of enjoying life that Teresa wondered how she ever renounced the world and all its diversions for an existence of hard work and penance. One day Sister María explained the paradox: “She began to tell me how she had come to be a nun merely by reading what the gospel says, ‘Many are called, but few chosen.’”
It had not occurred to the young doncella de piso [boarding scholar] that nuns do not choose to be nuns, but are chosen by Christ for that particular life. They are free to accept or refuse. If they accept, they must literally, like the merchant who sold all he had to buy the pearl of great price, give up everything, wealth, friends, liberty, everything that is most dear to the people of the world. Christ had made it easy for those who loved Him to do this by giving the example: and those who took Him at His word discovered presently something of the divine paradox of Christianity. They saw that whereas the people of the world, who sought their own gratification, had the discontented and unhappy faces of those who had not found what they sought, the others who asked nothing had received a positive and radiant joy which sustained them even in poverty and pain, and was unlike anything that the fleshpots of the world could offer — to say nothing of the perfect and everlasting joy of the next world which was promised to those who followed Christ.
Sister María loved her Lord most tenderly in the Blessed Sacrament, under which He had hidden Himself that He might better keep His promise to be with His Church all days, even to the consummation of the world. She used to receive Holy Communion every morning [a great rarity in those days, even in convents]; she would go to some other church, at great inconvenience, if there happened to be no Mass in the convent. One Holy Thursday, when she had been unable to receive, and the Host was already reserved in the tabernacle for Good Friday, she wept in great dejection. After some minutes she saw two hands approaching her, holding the Sacred Host, which was placed on her tongue; so Saint Thomas of Villanova reported, adding that Sister María had not volunteered the information, but had admitted the miracle to him when ordered to do so under her vow of obedience. It is recorded also in the annals of the convent that shortly after Teresa went to bord there, a light appeared in the presence of all the community, and took the forma of a star, which, after floating around the choir, paused over Sister María, and then disappeared into her heart.
The influence of such a woman was bound to make itself felt on a motherless girl. (Saint Teresa of Avila: A Biography, pgs. 33-35)
St. Teresa’s spiritual daughter, Sister Mary Lucy of Jesus and of the Immaculate Heart, O.C.D., tells us that “the devil does everything to overcome souls consecrated to God, because in this way he will succeed in leaving the souls of the faithful abandoned by their leaders, thereby the more easily will he seize them.” By this, she principally meant priests and, especially, bishops, who, under the Holy Father, are the leaders in the Church. However, religious are also “consecrated souls,” and, in certain epochs of the Church, it was they who passed on the torch of Faith. A large part of Europe was evangelized by Benedictine monks, Scotland by Irish monks, the new world by Friars, etc. Here in our United States, Catholic teaching sisters had an unprecedented role in passing on the Faith during an era when the Church was growing by leaps and bounds. While a nun like Sister María Briceño is not a “leader” in the sense a bishop is, her consecration and dedication to the formation of Catholic girls made her a leader in a crucially important order of things: the delicate souls of impressionable young ladies, whom she helped make better Christians. That one of these young ladies became “the Doctor of Prayer” is a testimony to her influence.
In these days when so many convents have been reduced to spiritual and physical desolation, we can pray for more Sister Marías to respond to God’s call, so that we will get more St. Teresas.