The Beauty of Austerity

Carmelite tradition records the final words of St. Teresa of Avila: “My daughters and my ladies, for the love of God, I beg that you will take great care with the keeping of the Rule and Constitutions, for if you keep them as faithfully as you ought to, no other miracle will be needed for your canonization.”

The Beauty of Austerity
St. Maravillas

Carmelite tradition records the final words of St. Teresa of Avila: “My daughters and my ladies, for the love of God, I beg that you will take great care with the keeping of the Rule and Constitutions, for if you keep them as faithfully as you ought to, no other miracle will be needed for your canonization.” Faithfulness to the austere beauty of Teresa’s rule was indeed a cause for canonization for a little-known modern saint, Mother Maravillas de Jesus (1891-1974). At Maravillas’ canonization in 2003, Pope John Paul II declared that she was “motivated by a heroic faith that shaped her response to an austere vocation, in which she made God the center of her life.” 

St. Maravillas’ vocation helped her face down the guns of Spanish Communists, found almost twenty Carmels, and stand against the winds of religious change and innovation that blew hard in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Maravillas—whose name means “wonders”—is a perfect saint for our own trying times due to her intense faithfulness and trust in God, even when all seemed hopeless.

Born November 4, 1891, as Maria de las Maravillas, to deeply religious upper-class Spanish parents, the future Mother Maravillas de Jesus made a personal vow of perpetual chastity at age five, inspired by her widowed grandmother who had adopted a semi-monastic lifestyle. Maravillas wanted to join the Carmelites from an early age, but her mother opposed her vocation until 1919, when, after much prayer and patience, Maravillas was permitted to enter the El Escorial Carmel.

Entering as a simple nun, Maravillas learned how to weave for the monastery. However, in 1923, she began to receive an intense calling to found a Carmel at Cerro de los Angeles, which is the geographical center of Spain. The site had formerly contained a shrine to the Sacred Heart but was now an abandoned hill occasionally visited by goatherds. Even though Maravillas had not yet made her final vows, her spiritual director, mother superior, and the local bishop all responded enthusiastically. In 1924, Maravillas and three other sisters founded the new Carmel at Cerro. After her final profession in 1926, she became its first prioress.  

Maravillas would go on to found almost twenty Carmels, including three in India. Most of her Carmels were founded upon the ruins of Spanish monasteries that held deep significance to the Discalced Carmelite order, including monasteries that had once housed Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross themselves. All of these foundations were spurred by a veritable flood of vocations which overflowed her existing monasteries—Maravillas followed Teresa’s 1571 rule with loving exactness and limited the number of sisters to a convent to 21. Each monastic foundation was marked by simplicity and poverty, as Maravillas believed that attending to Teresian austerity was the key ingredient not only to the success of a monastery but to the salvation of each nun’s soul and the sanctification of both her beloved Spain and the Church.

Although Maravillas had deep love of Spain, Spain did not treat her or her Carmelites well after she founded the Cerro Carmel. The anti-Catholic Spanish Communists controlled Madrid in the 30s, and the sisters would have to take turns staying up all night to watch for attacks or fires against their convent. Mother Maravillas and her nuns resolved to remain in their beloved Carmel and die as martyrs rather than flee. 

In 1936, a crowd of Communists unsuccessfully attacked the Cerro Carmel. Then, a few months later, Communist militia broke down the doors and loaded the nuns onto a bus. As they drove into the night, the nuns listened to the Communists debate their fate: should they take the sisters into a secluded spot and shoot them all, as Communists had done to the nuns’ chaplain, or should they place them under house arrest in a nearby town? Fortunately, the bus took them into town, where they were first housed by the Ursuline Sisters and then placed under quasi house arrest in a flat in the red-light district. Communist militiamen often stopped by to interrogate them at gunpoint or search them for religious items, which were confiscated.

Finally, Maravillas and her sisters were able to flee to Salamanca, where she had managed to purchase the ruins of an ancient Carmelite monastery in the Holy Desert of San Jose del Monte de las Batuecas. Since they were unable to return to their Cerro Carmel due to the Spanish Civil War, they founded a new Carmel here in the quiet desert. 

However, almost as soon as the Batuecas Carmel was complete, the bishop of Madrid wrote to Mother Maravillas, asking her to return to the Cerro since the Nationalists under General Franco had taken Madrid. Taking three sisters with her, Maravillas returned to the Cerro to find that it had been completely razed to the ground. 

With very few resources, the nuns rebuilt the monastery almost entirely by themselves. As one of her biographers, José María Iraburu noted, the nuns lacked everything except vocations. Soon, not only had Maravillas rebuilt the Cerro but she had founded another convent, which filled up almost before it was completed. And she was asked to found another convent the same day that she officially inaugurated this new convent.

In 1961, Mother Maravillas became the prioress of her final Carmel at La Aldehuela. She would spend the last thirteen years of her life in extremely poor health at this Carmel. Despite terrible heart problems, Mother Maravillas did not let up. She maintained her strict adherence to the Teresian Rule, while continuing her own lifelong personal penance of sleeping sitting up for a mere three hours a night. And here, almost at the end of her life, Mother Maravillas fought yet another good fight: no longer facing the Spanish Communists, she stood up to the modernizers.

Since the 1950s, there had been increasing pressure to update the Carmelite traditions and Rule for “modern life.” In response, Mother Maravillas created a union of Carmels called the Association of St. Teresa—not a Federation, but composed of fully autonomous Carmelite monasteries, each committed to following Teresa of Avila’s Rule and traditions as Teresa had handed them down.  

In the aftermath of Vatican II, the pressure to modernize became even more intense. Monasteries were expected to join Federations, which ran contrary to Teresa’s express command that Carmels maintain autonomy from each other. Additionally, monasteries were expected to receive frequent Visitations as well as adopt co-novitiates between Federated monasteries. 

In other words, Mother Maravillas and like-minded Carmelites were facing the same restrictive requirements that have now been repackaged under Archbishop Carballo’s 2018 Cor Orans document, and which are currently being forced upon female monastics against their will. Added to these threats to Teresa’s Discalced Carmelite tradition, the global order began to draft new, updated versions of the Carmelite Rule.

Mother Maravillas was deeply respectful both of the popes who oversaw Vatican II and the Council itself, but she was saddened by the chaotic spirit of innovation that swirled around the Church and threatened her beloved Carmelite Traditions. When the Father General of the Carmelite Order wrote to inform her that the Union Monasteries would be federated against their will, she responded, “We are undone, as you can imagine, because this will no longer be the Carmel that our Holy Mother [St. Teresa], with the inspiration of heaven, founded that helped souls so much to sanctify themselves, but it will be a modern congregation.” In response to the proposed changes to the Rule, she wrote, “We, our father, can only say no. We want to change nothing of what our Holy Mother has left.”

To her nuns and those other monasteries united to them via the Association of St. Teresa, she wrote words of encouragement: “We have nothing left but prayer, but it really is the most powerful weapon.” She asked her nuns to pray for deliverance from the modernizations using the same weapons they had used against the guns of the Spanish Communists. She wrote them to remind them of their days in the Spanish Civil War and commanded them to pray in the same way: an entire rosary every single day, combined with candle-lit shifts before the Blessed Sacrament.

In 1972, Pope Paul VI approved the statutes of Maravillas’ Association of St. Teresa, allowing them to continue to live under the original 1571 Constitutions without alteration and without enforced enrollment into a Federation. Two years later, Mother Maravillas died on December 11, 1974, surrounded by her entire community, joyfully proclaiming that it was such a delight to die a Carmelite. In 1990, Pope John Paul II formalized Mother Maravillas’ Association of St. Teresa into a full-blown Discalced Carmelite Constitution. Now, Carmelites who maintain strict adherence to the original Rule of 1571 are called “1990s Carmelites,” distinguishing them from those that follow a modified rule that was approved in 1991.

St. Maravillas’ life is one of wonders, of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat simply by prayer, faithfulness, and total trust in God. She was a simple nun—quiet, shy even, who wanted nothing more than to be an anonymous sister behind the grille of a secluded cloister. But she followed God’s call to become a second Teresa and renew her beloved Carmelite order in a way that should shock the world. She reminds faithful Catholics today not to give in to despair, nor settle back in despondency, nor accept the chaos of our day.

[Image: Painting of St. Maravillas by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro]

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