On January 8, 2022, Crisis Magazine published an article by Mary Cuff, “The Beauty of Austerity.” In her article, Ms. Cuff presents St. Maravillas de Jesús, the Spanish Discalced Carmelite and Foundress, as the model and patron saint of resistance to the “increasing pressure to update the Carmelite traditions and Rule for ‘modern life.’”[1] Ms. Cuff claims that like various cloistered contemplative communities around the world at this time, “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.”[2]

But the image of St. Maravillas that emerges from Mary Cuff’s article is difficult to accord with either the Teresian charism that the Saint dearly loved or with the demands of sanctity. A saint is one who has been shown to practice the virtues to a heroic degree, and one of the chief virtues, after faith, hope, and charity, is supernatural prudence. Rigidity and prudence rarely go together. There exists another portrayal of St. Maravillas that corresponds far more to the qualities we associate with holiness, one that is is based on the intimate knowledge of a friend and close associate of the saint.

In July 2019, I wrote an article on St. Maravillas that was published in the St. Joseph’s Association newsletter, Amigas. With the permission of the President of the St. Joseph’s Association and the Editor of Amigas, I am reproducing that article here with a few slight edits. Recently, As Pope Francis said to the Orthodox Bishops, “Let us not permit the ‘traditions,’ in the plural and with a small ‘t,’ to prevail over ‘Tradition,’ in the singular and with a capital ‘T.’” St. Maravillas knew very well how to make this distinction and live it out in her own life and in that of her daughters. It is this deep understanding of what is essential and her heroic determination to follow it that made her the saint that she is.

A Prophetic Witness for Vatican II

St. Maravillas of Jesus, Spanish Carmelite of the last century, is not well known in America, but she was a shining light in Spain during her lifetime and she continues to be greatly venerated. She was born in 1891 and died in 1974, having lived through the momentous changes that her country experienced, including the Spanish Civil War with its aftermath, and the Second Vatican Council. She entered the Escorial Carmel in 1919, and later spent most of her religious life as Prioress and Foundress of the various Carmels that she established.

By the time the Second Vatican Council began in 1962, she was over 70 and in poor health, yet in their biography of her, “Let Him Do it,” her daughters state that “From the start of Vatican Council II. Mother Maravillas has followed this step by step with great interest, acquainting herself with all the documents and having special prayers with the whole Community for this intention.”[3]

This is most edifying, and it is certainly what we would expect from a Discalced Carmelite, whose foundress, St. Teresa of Jesus, rejoiced to be a daughter of the Church. And yet Sr. Magdalena of Jesus, who knew St. Maravillas personally for over 40 years, suggests that St. Maravillas has something more to teach us about the Council.

In a short memoir, M. Maravillas de Jesús: Admiración, Amor Y Dolor,[4] Sr. Magdalena shares some insights into and incidents from the life of Mother Maravillas. She says that she is not writing another biography of Mother Maravillas, though she does give a quick presentation of the saint’s life to help readers better understand what she wants to convey. Sr. Magdalena is writing—she insists—first, to give testimony to Mother Maravillas’s holiness by recounting various incidents that she witnessed. Secondly, she writes to clarify and correct the way Mother Maravillas has been presented in various pamphlets and biographies. Mother Maravillas is called a “Saint of Vatican II” in these texts, and it is claimed that she “knew, interpreted and put into practice” the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.[5]

In her memoir, Sr. Magdalena writes that she first met Mother Maravillas in 1926. From the time she entered the Monastery of El Cerro in 1933 until 1969, she was frequently with St. Maravillas or involved in one or another of her foundations. She gives a short description of the foundation of various Monasteries from 1926 with El Cerro until 1960 with Aldehuela. These 34 years were passed in loving toil and struggles against the background of the Spanish Civil War and the years following it. By the time the Council opened, Mother Maravillas was 70 years old and had already suffered her first heart attack. During the 1960s, other heart attacks would follow.[6] Her health would decline until she finally died in 1974.

Sr. Magdalena agrees that St. Maravillas practiced several essential teachings of the Council, but she insists that this was the work of grace and not the result of study. She shows that Mother Maravillas was already living essential points of Vatican II years before the Council was ever convened, before it would have been possible to study any of its documents. What she understood and lived was the fruit of grace and of prayer. [7]

Also, there is little indication that St. Maravillas learned her spirituality from the study of theological books. Maravillas was born in 1891, the same year as Edith Stein, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Yet the education of the two girls was totally different. Maravillas was a member of the upper aristocracy, and young ladies of her class did not go to school. They were educated at home by tutors or a governess, and their education focused on religion, reading, writing, music, art, and good manners.[8]

Moreover, women, at that time in Spain, were considered incapable of grasping abstract subjects, such as theology, philosophy, or the sciences. Even contemplative nuns were considered incapable of such subjects except when, in a conference or homily, they were explained by a priest.[9]

Maravillas was highly intelligent but hers was not the intelligence of an intellectual. Another, even deeper, reason why St. Maravillas would not have given herself to study comes from the formational power of custom, which is deeply rooted in Europe.

We Americans have no idea how deep in Europeans are the roots of custom in regulating everyday life! Custom is the bedrock of society, the unchanging way that life unrolls throughout the years. This is not a resistance to change. It is rather a reassuring reliance on what is handed down.

This is the result of centuries of the chaotic history of Europe. Culture and custom provided the stability that politics did not. The best example of this is Poland: the culture and its customs sustained the people through the 150 years when the country wasn’t on the map, and then, after that, also through German and Russian occupations.

This can be helpful for religion, but it also can be an obstacle. People of every culture can incarnate the Kingdom of God, but no culture adequately expresses it. If it is not continually enlarged by faith, custom can easily become a prison. This is illustrated in the life of St. Turibius of Mongrovejo, who “would remind his critics of Tertullian’s remark that Christ said. ‘I am truth,’ not ‘I am custom.’”[10]

We Americans can find the importance given to custom difficult to understand, for we have no deep-seated dependence on customs. We are more influenced by a nostalgia for “the perfect society.” We long for a culture that seems congenial, and we adopt the customs of a culture that attracts us. That is how we have Medieval Societies, where people dress up and act like people in the Middle Ages, and Hobbit Clubs, where people try to live like the Hobbits in the Shire. We are also drawn to historical re-enactment societies. On a deeper level, there is the Benedict Option, a desire to establish a safe and stable society where people can live according to Catholic teaching. Even in the case of Lefebvrites,[11] those in America differ essentially from those in Europe. Someone has said that Lefebvrites in America are different from those in Europe because the American Lefebvrites are drawn by the traditional liturgy. This can well be true. In Europe, the roots of Lefebvrism go much deeper. In his book, Challenge to the Church: The Case of Archbishop Lefebvre,[12] Yves Congar studies the background of the beliefs and positions of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his adherents. In it, he explains their philosophical, theological, and political roots, none of which have much influence in America.

This can help us to understand how much custom was—and in some places, still is— the bedrock of European society. This was the formation given to Maravillas first, as a child and young woman, and then in the Carmel of the Escorial, though it was not confined to that Monastery. Sr. Magdalena recounts that, at the same period and in another Carmelite monastery, one that was founded by Our Holy Mother St. Teresa, a postulant entered who had been receiving Holy Communion daily, as encouraged by Pope St. Pius X. However, she was told that this “was not the custom in Carmel,” and “Our Holy Mother would not have allowed it.” A similar viewpoint governed the practice of prayer at the Escorial. Though Pius X had instituted the reform of the breviary, this was not put into practice at the Escorial. In both cases, these two practices were adapted to the reforms mandated by the Pope once the matter was explained to the nuns by a priest, who then helped them to make the necessary adjustment.[13]

This shows another aspect of the religious mentality of the time: the importance of literal obedience to a person directly in authority. Most pious young women had a spiritual director and the direction given tended to be demanding. Obedience, especially in convents and monasteries, was expected to be that “of a corpse or a stick.”[14] Maravillas certainly practiced such a literal obedience to her spiritual directors.[15]

Yet as a novice in the Escorial Carmel, Sr. Maravillas was troubled by this insistence on the observance as an end in itself. When she heard repeatedly that “the most important thing is to follow the observance exactly as we learned it,” she thought rather that, “what is most important is the yearning to be holy in order to please the Lord,” and “to unite oneself to Jesus Christ and to do, like Him and with Him, the will of the Father.”[16] For Maravilla, religious practices were a means to this end. They were a way in which we are called to “overcome oneself” in order to be transformed by grace. This insistence on the need to “overcome oneself” was one of Maravillas’s lifelong ideals.[17] She began practicing it already as a child, for she had a strong personality, and, when infuriated, would hurl an object to the ground in anger.[18] In Carmel, the traditional practices in use” in the spirituality of her time, both outside of Carmel and within, often demanded that Mother Maravillas had to “overcome herself” in order to put these methods into practice. For example, she had to adapt her temperament at any cost to what was ordered in obedience, and she needed to subject her refined education to the out-of-date customs that she met in Carmel.[19]

In 1950, Mother Maravillas told Sr. Magdalena that one of the many reasons for making her first foundation was this tension between two different priorities: the observance as an end in itself, and the observance as a means to holiness.[20] Sr. Magdalena recounted, “She told me that she believed that what was important in our life was not the customs, but to unite ourselves to Jesus Christ and, in Him and with Him, to do the will of the Father. She thought that, depending on circumstances, Our Lord could make different demands.”[21]

This may seem like a small, unimportant distinction, this shift of focus from observance to holiness. After all, exteriorly, nothing changed. Everything was done exactly as it had been done for centuries. But appearance here is very deceiving. St. Maravillas’s change in focus was revolutionary. She took practices that were held to be essential and made them into expressions of something immeasurably greater.

We recently celebrated the Baptism of Jesus. In a sermon on this mystery, St. Augustine writes, “John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning…Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice?”[22] The voice is a means of expression, but it needs something to express. A practice of devotion is an expression of a desire for holiness. If our focus is on the practice, the desire dries up. St. Maravillas took practices that risked becoming desiccated and reinvigorated them by focusing them on the sublime goal of “love of God, of union with his will and his love.”[23]

As prioress and foundress, Mother Maravillas taught her nuns to keep the thousand and one details; but “freely,” only out of the desire to please God and not to pay attention to involuntary failures. She emphasized that in Carmel (differently from other Orders and Congregations at that time) there was no “supervision” of prayer and reading. To keep watch on one’s conscience was sufficient.[24]

In this way, we see this “freedom” as well as the scarcity of additional prayers, as a foreshadowing of the Council.[25] When the prioresses of her foundations asked her for advice, she would often reply in such terms as “I say this because you asked me, but it is Your Reverences to whom Our Lord will give light about it; ask him and do not hesitate to act differently from what I say if it seem more suitable.” She always addressed them in a gentle style, to give “freedom,” to respect the options and duties of others.[26]

God’s call to her to establish new foundations—first one and then several—became more and more insistent. Exterior events would combine to make these foundations an extended reality.[27] She would be totally involved in this work for the next 40 years.

Sr. Magdalena believes that Mother Maravillas left a legacy: first to her daughters in the Carmelites, and ultimately to the Church. She sums up this legacy in five attitudes that the Council emphasized in a special way. Mother Maravillas, even before the Council and—at times—long before it, embraced these attitudes in a way that set her apart from others in a climate that was often far from her ideas.[28]

These attitudes are:

1) Evangelical poverty lived in a radical manner.

2) Overflowing charity embracing everyone with whom she came into contact.

3) Constant prayer, for she had a great enthusiasm for Carmel’s contemplative charism.

4) Putting details in perspective. Customs were kept, but as a means to the end, which was holiness. When there was a question of making a foundation in the United States, the person translating the customs book was told, “Leave out what you want and only put that which seems suitable to you.”[29]

Finally, and most importantly—

5) A radical surrender to Jesus Christ in total self-forgetfulness.[30]

It is not difficult to hear in this legacy of St. Maravillas of Jesus the voice of the Second Vatican Council. Sr. Magdalena writes that “For the greater number of her daughters and for many people of a ‘traditional piety’, to profit from her legacy means to copy ‘as a whole’ the attitudes and actions of her life.”[31] Yet even here, as we have seen, one of St. Maravillas’s greatest strengths was her ability to distinguish between the essential and the expression, between the determined desire to do God’s will, and the practices that incarnated that desire. She knew that in different circumstances the desire could be called to take on different expressions. She knew, as Sr. Magdalen writes, that “depending on circumstances, Our Lord could make different demands.”[32]

This detachment, which could hold fast to a heartfelt desire for God while flexibly adjusting to God’s will in expressing that desire, is one of the most treasured parts of St. Maravillas’s legacy, a gift available to all: Carmelite nuns, priests, laypersons, men, women, and children. In Carmel, such a detachment would form the basis of the 1991 Constitutions, followed by most Discalced Carmelite nuns. Outside the Carmelite enclosure it can be a springboard for the unlimited expressions of holiness molded by God’s creating hand.


[1] https://www.crisismagazine.com/2022/the-beauty-of-austerity

[2] Ibid.

[3] Let Him Do It – Life of Maravillas de Jesús, O.C.D. by Cerro de los Angeles and La Aldehuela Carmels, Spain, p. 477)

[4] The book, in Spanish, is out-of-print, but we are fortunate to possess one of the few remaining copies.

[5] M. Maravillas de Jesús: Admiración, Amor Y Dolor, p. 151

[6] Ibid. p. 108

[7] Ibid. p. 10 & p. 148

[8] Ibid. pp. 12-13

[9] Ibid. p. 27

[10] “Lives of the Saints”, Augustine Kalberer, O.S.B., Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago 1983, p. 104

[11] Followers of Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991), a French archbishop who was suspended from ministry in the 1970s for his rejection of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The founder of the schismatic traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), he was excommunicated in 1988 by Pope St. John Paul II for the illicit consecration of four bishops without papal approval and died in 1991 without having reconciled with the Church. Attempts by the Vatican to reach an agreement with the society have been unsuccessful, and to this day, the group does not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.

[12] Published by Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington, IN, 1976

[13]  M. Maravillas de Jesús, p. 27

[14] Ibid. p. 147

[15] Ibid. p. 22 et al.

[16] Ibid. pp. 7-8, 83

[17] Ibid. p. 19

[18] Ibid. p. 34

[19] Ibid. p. 146

[20] Ibid. pp. 7-8

[21] Ibid. p. 83

[22] Sermon 293, 3

[23] M. Maravillas de Jesús, p.146

[24] Ibid. p. 43

[25] Ibid. p. 43

[26] Ibid. p. 67

[27] Ibid. pp. 30 ff

[28] Ibid. p. 148

[29] Ibid. p. 149

[30] Ibid. pp. 149-150

[31] Ibid. p 145

[32] Ibid. p. 83

Image: By © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24946326

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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