Mystical and Motherly

Hoppe art 5-11-16

Left to right: Self-portrait (detail), Hildegard von Bingen, illuminated manuscript (12th century); St. Catherine of Siena, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1746); St. Teresa of Avila, Peter Paul Rubens (1615); (detail) St. Therese de Lisieux, Celine Martin (1894).

Mystical wisdom played a key role in the contributions of the four women honored as Doctors of the Church. They demonstrate on a limited scale the primacy of contemplative prayer in the work of evangelization.

None of the women who bear the title “Doctor of the Church”—Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, or Therese of Lisieux—received advanced education in any area of theology. In fact, the two earliest of these four saints engaged a secretary to record their words due to limited education. Nevertheless, their outstanding contributions to the understanding and interpretation of Sacred Scripture, and the development of Catholic doctrine, remain invaluable to Christians through the ages, and especially today. The body of knowledge these women contributed to the deposit of faith was made possible through their openness to God’s grace, and their steadfast practice of prayer. Their dedication to contemplation was enhanced by the grace they found in their darkness of faith, uncertainty, and many trials. Yet their mystical wisdom renewed the people of their day, and continues to inspire future generations.

Today, we live in an age crying out for refuge from current moral travails, injustices, and lack of respect for human dignity. A vibrant Church requires generous souls willing to live in divine intimacy, thereby lifting the world out of its self-indulgence. Let us look closer at the divine workings in the lives of these four exemplary women, and examine how they instigated reform.

Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179), despite rudimentary education, followed the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, and spoke and taught at a time when women had no voice. She was content to live an exteriorly uneventful life until the age of 32, having entered religious life at the age of 15. She feared deception in her prayer, until she opened her heart to her confessor, and responded to his request to write of her experiences in prayer. The following words in her principal writing, Scivias, verify the source of her knowledge:

… a shaft of light of dazzling brilliancy came from the opened heavens and pierced my mind and my heart like a flame without burning… And suddenly I knew the explanation of the psalms, the Gospels, and the other Catholic books of the Old and New Testaments…

This wisdom came to Hildegard in the manner described by St. John of the Cross:

Such is the operation of the Holy Spirit in the soul that is transformed in love, that the interior acts that he produces in it are like the enkindling of fire; they are inflammations of love whereby the soul’s will is united and loves most deeply, transformed into love by that flame.1

Hildegard had both a filial and a spousal relationship with God. Through this divine friendship, she learned of the inseparable connections between faith and reason, as well as the need to live in harmony with nature, now topics of current Church teaching. The mystical wisdom imparted to her promoted renewal that extends over nine centuries.

Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) had the good fortune to be born into a devout Catholic household where her early faith life was nurtured. Her initial inclination toward seclusion allowed her contemplative life to mature. In her most notable work, The Dialogue, she describes long periods of desolation, and a succession of fierce trials: “Oh Lord, where wert thou when my heart was so sorely vexed with foul and hateful temptations?” John of the Cross explains this suffering well: “At other times the devil prevails, and disturbance and horror seize upon it. This terror is a greater suffering than any other torment in life.”2

Shortly thereafter, she experienced mystical betrothal with Christ, when he placed a ring upon her finger, and espoused Catherine to himself. Here, John of the Cross provides a strong example of the relational aspect of mystical wisdom:

Just as one who is espoused does not love, care, or work for any other than her bridegroom, so the soul in this state has no affections of the will, or knowledge in the intellect, or care, or work, or appetite that is not entirely inclined toward the will of God.3

Fortified by her prayer life, Catherine entered public life, intervened in politics, advised popes, and established peace between feuding Italian Republics. Most significantly, she assisted in returning the papacy from Avignon to Rome after nearly a 70 year absence.

On the landscape of the 16th century, let us now examine the life of Teresa of Avila (d. 1582). Despite a rocky start, Teresa began to persevere in mental prayer. She battled ill health, discouragement, confusion, and desolation of soul. Following this period of purgation, Teresa emerged fortified and fruitful in her mission to write. under obedience. about the sublime things of God, and to renew the Carmelite Order. She was steadfast in facing hardships and persecution. God filled her with his mystical wisdom to proclaim to the world the practice and fruits of a serious prayer life, now contained in her classic works, Interior Castle, and Way of Perfection. The last five centuries of Catholic theology have benefited from her analogies and symbols to explain growth in prayer.

Therese of Lisieux (d. 1897) three centuries later, becomes the patroness of the missions despite never leaving the Carmelite cloister. Her intense interior life began within her devout Catholic family, and was tested by the fire of interior sufferings, poor health, scrupulosity, and oversensitivity. Within her prayer, the Holy Spirit opened her heart to embracing her littleness with humility, and confidence in the immense love of God. It is almost as if we can hear her recite the words of John of the Cross:

Now I occupy my soul
And all my energy in his service;
I no longer tend the herd,
Nor have I any other work
Now that my every act is love. 4

Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, is a testament for each reader to pursue a hidden life of doing small things with great love. It places holiness within the reach of all souls.

To conclude, all four of these Doctors of the Church radically changed the culture of their times, and can change our times, too, if we immerse ourselves in their mystical wisdom. They received this wisdom through being receptive to the gift of contemplative prayer, being faithful to their specific mission, and keeping their gaze on Jesus through desolation, aridity, and misunderstanding. The source of the major renewals these women accomplished was not primarily through academic study, as these holy women received little formal education. Their ministry and evangelical efforts were the fruit of love, and faithfulness to our Church, and intense union with God. So when we complain about the lack of faith in our times, and look for souls to raise up our culture, we should ask ourselves as John of the Cross does:

O souls, created for these grandeurs and called to them! What are you doing? How are you spending your time?5

  1. The Living Flame of Love, stanza 1, no.3.
  2. The Dark Night, ch. 23, no.9.
  3. The Spiritual Canticle, stanza 27, no.7.
  4. The Spiritual Canticle, stanza 28.
  5. The Spiritual Canticle, stanza 39, no.7.
Debi Hoppe About Debi Hoppe

Debi Hoppe is a wife, mother of four, and grandmother of nine, and resides in Irvine, California. She assists with marriage prep and natural family planning instruction for the Diocese of Orange. She also serves as a patient care advocate for Obria Medical Clinics. For more than 20 years, her prayer and study have been rooted in the traditions and teachings of the Discalced Carmelite Order.