Today marks the 500th birthday of St. Teresa of Avila, the saint whose name I took at my confirmation. Teresa is a looming figure in Catholic history. A reformer, writer, and mystic, she was one of the first women to be named a Doctor of the Church, an honor which acknowledges the saint’s important theological contribution to the Church. Her writings, which discuss busy-ness, distraction, and dryness in prayer, seem written to a modern audience stuck on their i-Phones and tied to their G-Cals.
Teresa has not only impacted me through her spiritual writing, but through the women who carry her Carmelite charism. I’d like to share a bit about two groups of women—one in Indiana and one in Jordan—who have supported my spiritual life at crucial points in my journey.
The Carmelites of Indianapolis at the Monastery of the Resurrection
As a child, I often attended Mass with my family at the Carmelite monastery in Indianapolis. Each week, a local Jesuit priest would say Mass for the dozen or so sisters and a diverse group of Catholic lay people, including those in openly gay partnerships. The service was different than any other Mass I’d been to before, or have attended since. We sung the Gloria with non-gendered language; we passed the Eucharist throughout the rows and consumed it together; and we sat quietly after Communion, meditating as a song played from the CD player in the corner. The radical equality and solidarity preached by Jesus was mirrored in the Mass. I will never forget the soft, high voices of the sisters singing, or the passion with which Sr. Terese proclaimed the readings.
Carmelites are traditionally a cloistered order and, in the past, the sisters never left the monastery. In the early 2000s, these sisters still maintained a simple life of prayer, silence, and community within the monastery, but they often ventured out into the community to see the Harry Potter movies and go to Target. They were funny, relatable, and smart, reading dozens of newspapers and magazines each week to keep abreast of current affairs. This self-education on current events was another way they stayed connected to the world outside their walls. After reading about the Iraq War, the clergy sex abuse scandal, or the Second Intifada, they came together and prayed, lifting up the world’s suffering to God. Eventually, their prayer and reflection moved beyond the monastery in a more concrete way—through PraytheNews.com, a website developed by my dad’s advertising agency. The site featured the sisters’ prayerful commentary on world events, in addition to resources about Carmelite prayer and the history of the order.
These sisters taught me what it means to be socially conscious, and convinced me of the efficacy of prayer even when prayer seems hopeless. Through their encouraging words every week, they helped to nourish my vocation—something I can only recognize now with hindsight. They are still some of my biggest cheerleaders and I continue to correspond with Srs. Terese and Jean Alice now and then.
Because of the sisters’ old age and small numbers, they had to discontinue the PraytheNews website and move from their beautiful stone monastery to another religious community in eastern Indiana. But their impact is still felt through their prayers, as Sr. Terese’s reflection illustrates in her poem Hidden Friends:
I like to pray in the morning
When all is quiet.
In the summer,
I frequently go outside
And walk the monastery grounds
Or sit in the courtyard.
In the winter, when the mornings are dark,
I prefer to sit in my very small room.
The windows are high,
so that only sky and the tops of trees can be seen.
Periodically, the twinkling red and white
Lights of a plane far up In the Heavens
Punctuate the blackness.
I try to picture the passengers traveling
To their destinations, and I wrap them in prayer.
“Where did they begin their journeys?
What loved ones wished them well?
Whom will they meet when they land?
What calls them to be traveling at this hour?”
I hope them all
In my heart and pray
For their safety and their happiness,
Though they do not know
This unknown friend
Sitting in a monastic cell.
Sometimes, I wonder if one of them is looking
Down on the miniature trees and houses, seeing
The lights of the city,
Sending down silent blessings
Upon me—an unknown friend
Cradling me in prayer.
We could be sending arcs of blessing
Like rainbows through the skies.
Elisa and Amabel: Teresians in Amman
I met Elisa Estrada and Amabel Sibug in 2012, when I first lived in the Middle Eastern country of Jordan during college. They helped out with the Mass I attended—Elisa orchestrated the readers and Eucharistic ministers, while Amabel played guitar for the music ministry. During that time, they were friendly, kind faces, but I didn’t get to know them well until I returned to Jordan in the fall of 2013.
I was quite emotional on my first Sunday back in Amman, unsure if I could manage the nine months away from family and friends. When I walked into Mass, Elisa immediately recognized me, gave me a hug, and asked me, “Would you like to read?” She, like the Carmelites, also knew how to tend my vocation—I enjoy participating in the Mass by reading the Scripture passages. I sat in the pew, trying to pray before Mass began, but was still overwhelmed by the transition to my new home. Elisa noticed I was upset, and scooted next to me on the pew. “It is so nice to have you back,” she said. “We’re glad you’re here.” Her hospitality and welcome caused me to cry a new wave of tears, one of gratitude and relief. This interaction was a sign of the friendship that would emerge over the next year.
Elisa and Amabel both work at the Pontifical Mission Library, an institution of the Catholic Church which serves the whole community, both Christians and Muslims. Children and adults alike come to check out books in Arabic and English, and to participate in religious events or skills workshops. I made use of the library as well, coming on free mornings to work on my research.
Originally from the Philippines, Elisa and Amabel have spent decades in Jordan. Elisa has been with the library since she helped open it in Amman’s Jabal Hussein neighborhood 40 years ago. They are members of the Teresians, a community of lay men and women who live out the spirituality of St. Teresa and the Carmelites. Their members are spread around the world, and most work in educational ministries. As single women, Elisa and Amabel live together in an apartment with a chapel, and every Friday, they welcome foreign workers—many of them Filipino—into their home for a meal. Elisa and Amabel serve and live among struggling but ordinary communities: Palestinian refugees, domestic workers, the elderly and the sick. They live out the Gospel injunction to “love thy neighbor” with sincerity and humility, attempting to walk with Jesus throughout their day. During my visits to the library, Elisa and I would often talk about her prayer life, how she was relating to Jesus and what He was teaching her. Usually, the message was trust—a message I constantly needed to hear. I now wish I had written down those conversations.
One afternoon in October 2014, Elisa and Amabel took me with them on a mini-pilgrimage to two holy sites in northern Jordan. One of them was Tell Mar Eliyas, or the Mount of St. Elijah. Legend holds that Elijah was born in a town in northern Jordan, and that as a child he would climb a nearby mountain to pray. The Byzantines built a large church on this mountain, and its intricate mosaic floor is partially intact today. At one end of the ruins is an old tree, with many ribbons and pieces of cloth tied to it. Muslim pilgrims also come to the site with particular petitions and pray to Elijah to intercede for them.
Elisa, Amabel, their friend, Petra, and I explored the site and sat in silent prayer alone. The Carmelites’ style of prayer is characterized by silence, and they trace this emphasis back to Elijah, who was unable to find God in the storm, the wind, or the fire, but only in calm silence. I was grateful to pray at the place where Elijah prayed as a child, and where Carmelite spirituality got its start.
I am so grateful to these women of St. Teresa, who have supported me in times of growth and struggle, and who model her challenging “way of perfection,” an avenue to God defined not by the avoidance of sin, but a path defined by self-giving love. Through their humble service, they live out this saying of St. Teresa, which might as well have been uttered by Jesus Himself:
The important thing is not to think much, but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love.
Jordan Denari is a Research Fellow at the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. She graduated from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in 2013, afterwhich she lived in Amman, Jordan on a Fulbright research scholarship.