“Without a spine she [Teresa of Jesus] couldn’t be a woman and if she wasn’t a woman, she couldn’t be a saint.”
-Dr. Peter Kreeft
I studied abroad in Spain in the fall of 2008. At some point in one of my literature classes, my professor (a middle-aged man who was quite proud of being Spanish) began waxing poetical about how Teresa of Avila was the first female Doctor of the Church. I’m pretty sure that he also called her the only female doctor of the Church. My Good Catholic Girl hand shot up. I told him that he was wrong. She wasn’t the first. She isn’t the only. But she is super important. He asked me who the others were. I told him about my darling Catherine of Siena and the excellent Therese of Lisieux.
Over the past fifty years, the Catholic Church has elevated four women to the rank of Doctor of the Church-the three I told my professor about and Hildegard von Bingen a few years after that conversation. They’re an oddly diverse grouping, and I think that each of them is a good role model for women in her own way.
St. Therese of Lisieux is the only of the four to have lived in the age of photography. We have paintings and such of the other three, but we have photos of Therese. Intellectually, I know that she died young. But it’s one thing to know a fact, and another to look at the face of a young woman who died at the age of 24 and realize that she is a Doctor of the Church. She is someone whose wisdom I respect. And she became that person in a relatively short amount of time.
That sort of thing doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of two things: the action and guidance of God and an openness on the part of the individual to God’s action. Therese of Lisieux could have died at the age of 24 and done nothing to matter to anyone outside of her family. She could have lived a mundane life. She could have lived her life guided by her own desires and choices. But she didn’t.
Instead, she said yes to God in big ways and small. She chose to allow God to overcome her natural selfishness and her other human failings. She chose to allow him to make something truly great out of her life. She became a Doctor not on her own power but because of what she allowed God to do with her.
“When we are expecting nothing but suffering we are surprised at the least joy, but then the suffering itself because the greatest of joys when we seek it as a precious treasure.”
-St. Therese of Lisieux
That can be said of each of the four female Doctors. They didn’t become Saints or Doctors on their own merits. They became what they were because they allowed God to use them. When I ramble about St. Catherine of Siena, I often refer to her as the person who brought the Papacy back to Rome. But she didn’t act on her own power. And she didn’t force the Pope to do anything. Under divine inspiration, she wrote to him, and he returned-acting under divine inspiration.
God used each of these four women in unique ways. He gave each of them different gifts, and he gave them different circumstances. He worked through them in different ways. But he was only able to do that because they allowed him to. He gave them gifts, but he never forced them to use those gifts. He worked with them as they were open to him.
NB: This post was supposed to have published on March 30 for the end of March as both Reading Month and Women’s History Month. However, I didn’t get it published before going to Church, so instead I’m publishing it for April 12 because it seems as good a day as any.