Teresa, Feminism, and the Humanity of Christ
by Vilma Seelaus

Summer 1990, Vol.42 No.2, pp. 111-125.

Vilma Seelaus, O.C.D, is a nun of the Carmelite monastery in Barrington, Rhode Island, where she also serves as vocation directoress. A member of the Carmelite Forum, she has published many audio tapes on spirituality. She has also contributed articles to Spiritual Life, Review for Religious, Mystics Quarterly, Living Prayer, Anima, and The Way.

By developing a relationship with Christ which elevated friendship and love over hierarchical and oppressive models of conduct, Teresa of Avila fashioned a spirituality revolutionary in her own time and richly promising for ours.

RELATIONSHIP with Christ is a contemporary feminist issue. For many women Christ has become the symbol of an all-male God used within patriarchal structures to keep women in a position of inferiority.(1) Yet Christ remains central to Christian belief. What follows is an attempt to revision a place for Christ in the lives of women today through a conversation with Teresa of Avila in which their experience can lead to the birthing of a Christ-centered spirituality significant to both women and men, both today and in the future.

Beginning as a marginal sect within the messianic renewal movement of first-century Judaism, Christianity was transformed during the following centuries into the new religion of the Roman Empire. Within this process, the patriarchalization of Christology took place. An imperial Christology developed. As was true in the Roman empire, all of life became integrated into one vast hierarchy of being. The Logos of God governed the cosmos, as the Christian Roman Emperor, together with the Christian Church, governed the political universe. Masters governed slaves and men governed women. Christ was defined as founder and cosmic ruler of the existing social hierarchy. Jesus of the gospels evolved into Christ as "the male disclosure of a male God whose normative representative can only be male."(2)

Since then, women have been both revered in the image of Mary and at the same time hurt, oppressed, and marginalized by church structures. Disillusioned, many women today leave the Church. Others ask with anguished seriousness, "Is the religious tradition redeemable?" "Can it be rescued from the male domination that has characterized it since its birth in a patriarchal culture?"

Women determined to remain within the Church are searching to find deeper meaning for their lives from Christ and the gospels. Feminist theologians and scripture scholars are attempting a critical revision of scriptural texts relating to women, one which shows that Jesus of the gospels models a style of relating different from that of dominance and submission. Jesus offers women equality and friendship. (3)


Relationship with Christ and a gospel spirituality brings women to a place of next steps. They move past the initial anger and frustration inevitable to a consciousness awakened to women's subordinate place in the Church. Carolyn Osiek writes,

Much as we would like to think such attitudes are anachronistic, the vast majority of women now in adulthood, regardless of social class have been and are still being taught by family, the educational system and the media, that their most effective way of expressing themselves in the world is through a man, that they will never do anything outside the home as well as he does, and that to even try to do so is to risk rejection.(4)
How are women who choose to remain committed church members to grow as persons within existing church -structures? Often they invite the church to institutional conversion. But there is no structural conversion without personal conversion. Too often women collude to their seeming advantage with that which in fact diminishes them. In her efforts toward a feminist spirituality, Carolyn Osiek calls women to moral, intellectual, and spiritual conversion.

Moral conversion is the invitation to turn away from the sin of acquiescing to oppression. Such acquiescence might be rooted in fear of violence, fear of failure, refusal to take responsibility for oneself, relish of the convenience of being taken care of. It fosters selfishness and lack of concern for poor women who suffer most from the oppressive system. It also generates lack of self-confidence and self-respect. Worst of all, it gives rise to self-hatred and mistrust of other women as incompetents or competitors for the privilege of male attention.

Intellectual conversion enables women to see themselves with new eyes. They can admit into consciousness a radically changed perspective regarding themselves and so come to consciousness of their own power. Carter Heyward calls this "the power to do all we can, which is the ability to create, to forge bonds of friendship and to empower others."

Spiritual conversion challenges women to live the spirit of the gospel radically. This means from the root of the tradition that claims its origin in Jesus the prophet. Spiritual conversion also challenges women to live from the roots of women's own universal experience as women. The claim of the gospel cuts across all human pride and selfishness. It confronts all desires that do not have the reign of God for their center.

Osiek also shows the need for forgiveness, for the refusal to take vengeance or repay injury. The final call is to love those who oppress and oppose us. But this requires women to remain in a position where more pain is possible. Thus women who have been seen traditionally as weak must show that strength does not lie in abusive force or arrogance. The ability to claim one's own authority calmly and to acknowledge one's limitations and weakness without fear manifests strength. No weakness is more destructive than the inability to admit weakness. Those strong enough to be weak can be effective disciples. (5)


Women are not alone in efforts toward more authentic womanhood. Men's self-understanding is necessarily challenged as women increasingly come to their own intellectual conversion. In his book, A Choice of Heroes, Mark Gerzon shows how men in America are slaves to society's assumptions about what it means "to be a man" -- the attitudes which shape contemporary manhood. He examines five archetypes of masculinity: the Frontiersman, the Soldier, the Expert, the Breadwinner, and the Lord.

These hero images influence men's behavior whether they are aware of it or not:

These archetypes of manhood exist because they were once useful. They promised survival and well-being. The Frontiersman explored new lands. The Soldier symbolized greater security. The Expert marshaled new knowledge. The Breadwinner fostered economic prosperity, both for his family and for the nation. And the Lord, a symbol of divinity, offered salvation and immortality. Such hero images served vital purposes. They led Men to protect their loved ones, to defend cherished values, and to enrich and expand their lives. (6)
Gerzon then raises the question whether these symbols of manhood are still useful today. For men continue to retain such images even though the world from which they derived may have disappeared -- if it ever existed. But even in private, men no longer feel like heroes:
Inevitably, some who wish to redefine masculinity have put forward an image of a 'liberated' man. They extol the new male without ever exploring why the old one has been with us for so long. They exhort us to transform ourselves without admitting that the old masculinity cannot be exorcised overnight. It still influences each of us.
He continues:
Whether we cook dinner or call cooking woman's work, whether we call women Ms. or Mrs., the old images of manhood live within us. Our task, as Jung argues, is not to deny these images or archetypes but to become conscious of them. The purpose of such re-examination is not to make us all suddenly fit the mold of the new male. Just the opposite: it will enable us to see that molds, whether liberated or macho, are dehumanizing. Thinking about our own masculinity will enable us to take responsibility for ourselves. We will not be so quick to blame our problems on the finite earth, on our ungrateful wives and children, on some subversive enemy at home or abroad, or on some other force apart from us. Instead, we will find the courage to tell the difference between existential dilemmas inherent in life and the unnecessary pain caused by our own unexamined selves.


Remnants of imperial Christology operative in the Church today inevitably affect both women and men. Efforts of theologians to renew Christology has only gradually found its impact in everyday life. In sixteenth-century Spain, Teresa of Avila also struggled with an imperial Christology and social order. At that time' according to the Aristotelian biology adapted by medieval scholasticism, the male alone is the normative or generic sex of the human species. Only he represents the fullness of human nature; woman is defective physically, morally, and mentally. (7)

Such attitudes towards women formed the background against which Teresa's own Christology developed. Her society did not readily lend itself to spiritual maturity and inner freedom. The hierarchy was rigid. On top were the king, the nobility, and those of pure blood, persons untainted by Jewish or Moorish ancestry. These had only scorn for persons of lesser rank. An elaborate system of etiquette controlled interpersonal relations. How one was perceived by others was more important than personal integrity.

Doctrine and religion were tightly controlled by the Inquisition. In "The Historical Setting of St. Teresa's Life," Teofanes Egido shows that the reigning climate of suspicion identified Lutheranism, illuminism, recollection, and mysticism without any great effort to distinguish them from one another.(8) Jews were especially unwelcome and converted Jews lived in a climate of suspicion and discrimination. Many religious orders barred candidates of mixed blood. They were also excluded from government and military service.

Since Teresa's grandfather was a converted Jew, she belonged to the most vulnerable social group within the monarchical, aristocratic society of her century. When Teresa was born, her family had already obtained full social integration. Jews could erase the stains of ethnic descent through legal fraud by buying titles of nobility. Honor was identified with purity of blood. No wonder Teresa's writings show an obsession with honor. We need continually to keep this in mind to grasp the significance of the transformation underwent in Teresa through her relationship with Christ.

Every human concern, claims Jozef van Beeck, is capable of becoming a name of Jesus. (9) With its strengths and limitations, Spanish culture both formed and deformed Teresa, and from it came her names for Christ. The Way of Perfection discloses four main titles for Jesus -- King, Teacher, Provider, and Beloved or Friend. Transcendence, yet intimate presence characterizes the relationship. 'King' captures for Teresa the majesty of God, while 'Beloved' expresses the intimacy with which Christ relates to her.

Teresa drew her models for living from Jesus and His gospel of love. King Philip II lived in a luxurious castle surrounded by magnificence. Her Divine King lives differently. Teresa tells her daughters, "Let us in some manner resemble our King, who had no house but the stable in Bethlehem where He was born, and the cross where He died" (2.9).


Teresa's self-understanding as a woman grew through her relationship with Christ. That was not easy in her time. Considered emotionally unstable and mentally inferior, a woman became the property of her husband at marriage: "They say that for a woman to be a good wife toward her husband she must be sad when he is sad, and joyful when he is joyful, even though she may not be so. See what deception you have been freed from Sisters! The Lord without deception, truly acts that way with us." But Teresa discovers that Christ will match her mood. When she is sad, he is sad with her in his agony in the garden; when she is joyful, he will be present in his risen life. "He is the one who submits," writes Teresa, "and He wants you to be the lady with authority to rule; He submits to your will" (26.4-5).

Not only did a husband expect his wife to submit to his will; her honor or dishonor is tied to his without choice on her part. "What honorable woman is there," exclaims Teresa, "who does not share in the dishonors done to her spouse even though she does not will them? In fact both spouses share in the honor and the dishonor." Teresa wills to share both in Christ's honor and his dishonor because, "Either we are brides of so great a King or we are not"(13.2).

With Christ the situation is never one-sided, so Teresa becomes increasingly comfortable relating to her divine King. The game of chess helps her describe her experience. Humility checkmates the King. But as she surrenders to Christ, Christ surrenders to Teresa. Her King gives himself entirely to those who give themselves entirely to him (16.4). In the Way of Perfection, Teresa shows how humility, detachment, and love create an inner climate of freedom, receptivity and self-giving intrinsic to this astounding mutual, human-divine relationship.

Teresa lived in very troubled times. Rumors of religious wars in France circulated everywhere, and Philip II's counter-reformation efforts at home were both lauded and feared. Ever alive to the spirit of her times, Teresa adapts the language of warfare to describe her own spiritual counter-reformation. Philip II uses his army and, comments Teresa, "even though the soldiers may have served a great deal, they must always be ready for any duty the captain commands them to undertake, since it is he who gives them their salary. And," she adds triumphantly, "how much better the pay our King gives than the pay of earthly kings."

Teresa fights with the weapon of prayer. She exhorts her nuns never to abandon their hours of prayer. This is the time the King invites them to serve either through vocal prayer or contemplation. Contemplatives bear the brunt of the battle because they are like the standard-bearers who carry the flag. Other soldiers can retreat in the face of danger, but the contemplative standard-bearer must be willing to suffer all the blows she receives without returning any. Her duty is to suffer as Christ did (18-5). Contemplative presence to the suffering Christ fosters non-violence and a disarmed heart.(10)

In sixteenth-century Spain, honor demanded that one be aware of others' social position and of one's own in relation to them. To be respectful when speaking with the king and high-ranking noblemen, one had to conform to the elaborate ceremonies and proper address. But Teresa discovers in prayer that the divine King because he is humble, listens to her and lets her approach him even though, as an uneducated person, she doesn't know how to speak to him.

With charming simplicity, Teresa identifies with the unpolished manners and rugged life of a shepherd. "At least, in order to thank Him for the bad odor He must endure in consenting to allow one like myself to come near Him, we should strive to be aware of His purity and of who He is" (22.4). This entire chapter on mental prayer is in fact a polemic against those who would deny women the right to reflect on the divine King who relates so intimately to them.

Kingship, so integral to Teresa's life-experience, finds new and fuller meaning in prayer. Her divine King is without the pomp and distance of earthly kings. The incomprehensible God, through the humanity of Christ, shares with her a relationship of mutual exchange and self-giving. A new freedom stirs in Teresa. Societal expectations no longer intimidate her. She can relate to Philip II as easily as with a friend. With clear sightedness and humor Teresa begins to critique the hauteur of the times:

For when they tell us who their father was, and about the millions they get in rent and of their title of dignity, there's no more to know. In fact, here below, people in paying honor don't take into account the persons themselves, however much these persons may deserve the honor, but their wealth. ...[A]nd if men lack subordinates, then no honor is paid them (22.4-5).
While Teresa's names for Christ reflect the imperial Christology of her day, her experience of Christ in prayer is one of Christ's complete acceptance of herself both as a woman and as one without noble birth.

Alive with the rigors of the Inquisition, Teresa's ambience made it imperative for her to seek spiritual advisors. She consulted many confessors and learned men. A few understood and encouraged her in her spiritual quest. Many others grieved her, troubled her, and filled her with self-doubt. They concluded that Teresa was deceived because they themselves had no experience or knowledge of mystical prayer or even of sound doctrine. For instance, many held that Christ was present in the soul only during the time of communion. Teresa's habitual experience of Christ's indwelling presence thus gave them cause for alarm.

Unarmed and always in danger of being branded a heretic, Teresa turned to Christ as her teacher and guide. And Jesus became the Master who taught her how to pray (21.3):

He speaks well to the heart when we beseech Him from the heart.... The teacher is never so far from his pupil that he has to shout, but He is very close. A want you to understand that it is good for you, if you are to recite the Our Father well, to remain at the side of the Master who taught this prayer to you (24.5).
Elsewhere she writes,
Represent the Lord Himself so close to you and behold how lovingly and humbly He is teaching you (26.1). Draw near to this good Master with strong determination to learn what He teaches. He will not abandon you if you do not abandon Him (26.10). The Lord places the soul near to Himself through the living water given in prayer, and shows it in an instant more truths, and gives it clearer understanding of what everything is, than we can have here below in many years (19.7).

Teresa struggled for the rights of women to prayer, recollection and the experience of God. She learned true discipleship not from her advisors, but by keeping her eyes fixed on the humanity of Christ (27.10). From the confidence Christ showed towards her, she gained confidence to teach others how to pray. And in time, the confessors and theologians who initially doubted her, become Teresa's disciples. With her guidance, they themselves came to experience the deeper regions of the mystical life.

Christ was not only Teresa's teacher. He also became a fountain of living water for her, providing all that she needed to come to the fullness of life in God. Christ was her King, her Teacher, and her Provider. Along with the daily bread of the eucharist, he filled Teresa with the sense of his indwelling presence:

For since we women have no learning, all this imagining is necessary that we may truly understand that within us lies something incomparably more precious than what we see outside ourselves. And let us not imagine that we are hollow inside. And please God it may be only women what go about forgetful of this inner richness and beauty. ...The Lord enlarges the soul little by little until it has the capacity to receive what He will place within it. The whole point is that we should empty the soul in such a way that He can store things there or take them away as though it were His own property. His majesty has the rights of ownership (28.12).

Christ provides for us because our being belongs to God. Yet it is a matter of joint ownership. "In coming as our daily bread," says Teresa, "He is in our house, and His majesty is not accustomed to paying poorly for His lodging if the hospitality is good" (34.8). Christ provides the daily bread of the eucharist because he knows our weakness; doing the Father's will is difficult (33.1). Teresa observes, "we are inclined to base things and with so little love and courage that it was necessary for us to see His love and courage in order to be awakened -- and not just once but every day" (33.2).

Christ strengthens our weakness. More than this, in the eucharist, the Father actually leaves Christ in our power. "It is as though Jesus tells the Father that He is now ours," she muses, "since the Father has given Him to us to die for us; and he asks that (the Father)... allow Him to serve each day" (33.4). "Let your body work," she counsels her nuns, "for it is good that you work to sustain yourselves; let your souls be at rest. Leave this care, as has been amply pointed out, to your Spouse; He will care for you always" (34.4).

Teresa's experience of eucharist actually provided her with the rationale of her Christology:

In beholding such great Majesty, how would a little sinner like myself who has so much offended Him remain so close to Him? Beneath the bread He is easy to deal with. If a king were disguised it wouldn't matter to us at all if we conversed with him without so many gestures of awe and respect. It seems he would be obliged to put up with this lack since he is the one who disguised himself. Who would otherwise dare approach so unworthily, with so much lukewarmness, and with so many imperfections! (34.9)
Christ provided a welcoming climate which allowed Teresa to draw near. He is Beloved and intimate Friend as well as King, Teacher, and Provider.

Again, to grasp the radical significance of Teresa's insights, we need to recall the historical context in which she lived. Other than the recitation of a few common vocal prayers, spirituality and the desire for intimacy with God was suspect. Conservative theologians feared that in the practice of mental prayer lay the seed of Protestantism. The thoughts of Teresa and Luther were in fact not foreign to each other.(11) More than this, she founded communities of prayers and developed a spirituality based on divine intimacy and the apostolic nature of prayer.

As Carolyn Osiek relates of women today, Teresa had her experiences of moral, intellectual, and spiritual conversion. She overcame her fear of failure and in the face of adverse criticism took responsibility for her own life. She also created a life-style for herself and her nuns which challenged oppressive attitudes toward women. She helped other women find confidence in themselves and their prayer experience. Her writings and the inner conversion/transformation they describe reveal Teresa's efforts to do everything in her power (1.2). Hers was a relational power issuing from intimate friendship with Christ.

United with Christ, Teresa embraced his gospel of forgiveness, openness to pain, and acknowledgment of weakness. She modeled a new style of relatedness both for women and men learned from Christ her King, Teacher, Provider, Beloved and Friend. Present to the "sacred humanity of Christ," who never took his eyes off her enabled Teresa to love those who oppressed and opposed her. From her pointed comments regarding men's attitudes toward women, we see that Teresa did not gloss over this painful reality, but was able to relate to men from a secure center of regard and mutuality as did her Lord towards her. Strengthened by Christ, she courageously fashioned a way of life counter to the hierarchical, honor-bound system of her own culture.

In the process, Teresa forged a spirituality for women committed to the Church. She also offers to men attitudes different from those which shape contemporary manhood. The models examined by Gerzon reflect Teresa's titles for Christ, King, Teacher, and Provider are hero images. But out of the intimacy of her prayer, Teresa added a fourth: Beloved Friend. The quality of Christ's relationship with Teresa became a corrective to the deforming elements inherent in other titles. Friendship transformed them as love created equality. Mutuality in strength and weakness can now be acknowledged by both women and men.

If Teresa's Christ-centered spirituality invites women to conversion, it also challenges men to look more deeply into their own images of themselves. As the myth of masculine superiority gives way, and as women resist the temptation to succumb to it, we can walk in our uniqueness together.

Teresa's spiritual counter-reformation was fought in a climate of ignorance and suspicion. With a common focus on the humanity of Christ and God's indwelling presence, what might have happened had Teresa and Luther sat down for face to face conversation! What then may have been the face of history? If indeed today is a new reformation, face to face conversation is needed more than ever. In a world of broken symbols where what it means to be a man or a woman has undergone radical change, women and men need both the support and also the challenge of one another.

Christ also awakened in Teresa a deep concern for peoples beyond nationalistic confines -- a breakthrough for her times. Today our care must stretch to global dimensions. The need for a new sense of the earth and its ecology, for new attitudes towards the human person, family life, and human endeavor evoke contemporary names for Christ such as Healer, Companion, Nurturer, Mediator, and Colleague. Based on human values, such qualities transcend sexual identity. Like Teresa with respect to the humanity of Christ, we have before us new paradigms of human relatedness based not on oppression and sexual stereotypes, but on mutuality, trust, and support. Societal and ecclesial structures tend to change slowly, but if we are good friends of Christ, as Teresa exhorts us, and good friends of one another, the combined energy of our lives will make a difference.


1. For example, the maleness of Christ is an argument for excluding women from priestly ordination. Rosemary Radford Ruether poses the question, "Can a male savior save women? See Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983).

2. Ibid.

3. See Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983).

4. Carolyn Osiek, Beyond Anger: On Being a Feminist in the Church (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), p. 9.

5. Ibid., pp. 46-52.

6. Mark Gerzon, A Choice of Heroes: The Changing Faces of American Manhood (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982), pp. 4-6.

7. Ruether, op. cit., p. 125. See also Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Vol. II, The Way of Perfection, trans. by Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., and Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: I.C.S. Publications, 1980), pp. 22-24. Here we find examples of the shocking extent to which anti-feminism could reach. Kavanaugh quotes from Francisco de Osuna: "Since you see your wife going about visiting many churches, practicing many devotions, and pretending to be a saint, lock the door; and if that isn't sufficient, break her leg if she is young, for she can go to heaven lame from her own house without going around in search of these suspect forms of holiness. It is enough for a woman to hear a sermon and then put it into practice. If she desires more, let a book be read to her while she spins, seated at her husband's side." (Further references to this collection will be placed in parentheses within the text.)

8. Teofanes Egido, O.C.D., "The Historical Setting of St. Teresa's Life," Carmelite Studies 1 (1980):130.

9. Frans Jozef van Beeck, S.J., Christ Proclaimed: Christology as Rhetoric, (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), p. 154.

10. Vilma Seelaus, O.C.D., Teresa's Way of Peace-Making in a Nuclear Age (Canfield, Ohio: Alba House Communications). These cassette tapes show how contemporary are the problems and frustrations Teresa faced. Her way of peace-making is especially significant for our own troubled lives.

11. Among areas of convergence between Teresa's and Luther's spiritualities, Luther professed adherence to a mystical theology that reckoned with the experience of God's indwelling presence. He was also pervasively aware of the inner, mystical side of justification by faith. Like Teresa, Luther taught that Christians are people who trustingly lean on Christ, and by His power become vicarious helpers to the whole World. His thoughts echo Teresa's purpose in founding her reformed monasteries. The Church and the world might have gained had Teresa and Luther been able to communicate with one another. See The Theologia Germanica of Martin Luther, trans. by Bengt Hoffman (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), pp. 37-38, also p. 54, footnote B.