T E R E S I A N
Pages of history
Pages from its history translated by
TERESA DE AHUMADA, CARMELITE NUN
C O N T E N T S
|I The Carmelite Order||XI The legacy of Father Doria.|
|II Teresa de Ahumada, Carmelite Nun||XII Break rather than Bend: the Discalced Split.|
|III St. Joseph's, Avila||XIII The Spanish Congregation.|
|IV The Teresian Constitutions||XIV A History that was difficult to write.|
|V The Radiation of a Charism||XV Leading figures in the Italian Congregation.|
|VI Teresa of Jesus, Foundress of Friars||XVI Reinforcements: Domingo Ruzola and Thomas of Jesus.|
|VII "Calced" and "Discalced" Carmelites||XVII The Spread of the Italian Congregation.|
|VIII The New Province under Father Gracián.||XVIII World-wide Expansion of the Daughters of St Teresa.|
|IX John of the Cross -The "Inner Man".||XIX Restoration (19th Century) and Renewed Expansion (20th Century) of the Order.|
Change of Superior, change of Direction:
Father Nicholas of Jesus and Mary, Doria.
|XX The Teresian Carmel and Vatican II Renewal.|
TERESA DE AHUMADA, CARMELITE NUN
Thanks to St Scholastica and St Clare, the Benedictine nuns and the Poor Clares came into being as the parallel female branches of two male Orders. The Carmelite Order's female branch had less clearcut beginnings and took two and a half centuries to evolve to the full legal status of an Order.
There is no evidence of the existence of Carmelite nuns during the eremitical phase of the Order's development, but from the time the Carmelites moved to Europe they began to take devout women under their guidance and to share their spiritual riches and their privileges with them. This was a common practice which had evolved in the course of the Middle A~es and took various forms.
The decisive point in the evolution of this type of association with the Order came in 1452, when, at the request of a community of devout women following the Carmelite Rule in Florence, Pope Nicholas V issued the Bull Cum nulla. This document is so important that it is generally accepted as the starting-point of the Second Order of Carmelites, as the nuns are officially referred to. Since this Bull was issued while Bl. John Soreth was general and since he took a keen interest in the nuns, even to the extent of personally founding several communities, he is generally regarded as their founder. But in reality the Bull of Nicholas V was the culmination of a long period of evolution, which we could call their pre-history perhaps, and marks the beginning of a new phase, in which they have an identifiable history. Since 1452 more than 180 monasteries have been founded, 49 of which are still in existence.
The history of the Carmelite nuns received very little attention until quite recently, 80 that very little was known about it. Nor was the task of tracing that history made any easier by the great diversity of customs and laws between one monastery and another. Recently, considerable progress has been made in this field: the review Carmelus devoted the first of its 1963 numbers to the study of Carmelite nuns before St. Teresa, and shortly afterwards Fr. Catena published a book on their history and spirituality.(1)
The studies bring out the vitality of the female branch, as well as the great variety of lifestyles, customs and legislation among them. Bl. John Soreth's influence insured a certain homogeneity among those of France and the Netherlands, but he had little or no influence on developments in Spain and Italy. Frequently one finds that the formation of a community of Carmelite nuns, complete with Rule and Constitutions, has been the fruit of a gradual movement in that direction by a group of devout women consecrated informally to God. Each monastery came about in a different way, so each community's path to that point must be studied carefully if the pitfall of assuming certain patterns of development or ways of looking at things is to be avoided.
It is well to bear all this in mind when you come to study that Carmelite nun called St. Teresa.
Young Teresa de Ahumada became a Carmelite in the monastery of the Incarnation in Avila. The heritage of the first hermits of Mount Carmel was passed on to her, enriched with three centuries of tradition but conditioned by the history of the particular community in which she was to learn to live it.
Fr. Otger Steggink's studies have thrown a whole new light on the state of Carmelites in Spain at the time of Teresa's entry and on that of the monastery of the Incarnation in particular(2)
Let us briefly recall the principal points he has made:
At that time there were eleven monasteries of Carmelite nuns in Spain: 7 in Andalusia, 3 in Castille, and 1 in Valencia. Each had had quite different origins; completely unconnected groups of women had evolved, each at their own pace, to become communities of nuns. Some of them had even become what Canon Law calls sanctimoniales, that is with full papal enclosure and solemn vows. Some were not yet fully enclosed. Each community naturally had its own characteristics - though all followed the same Rule, their constitutions and customs differed.
It is only natural too that since each of these developed from a group of lay people who had come together to support one another in living their ideal of Christian life, some of their customs might strike one who looked on them from his experience of formal convent life as imperfections. Contact with relatives and friends, just chatting to pass the time, a certain clinging to social distinctions, are quite understandable in the various phases of their evolution. The best way to look at them, therefore, is not through the eyes of subsequent legislation (which would give the impression that they were a bit decadent), but as people moving gradually closer to the ideal of a religious community. That historical perspective will give a much truer evaluation of the female Carmel prior to the advent of St. Teresa
The monastery of the Incarnation at Avila, where Teresa de Ahumada took the habit of Our Lady on 2 November 1536 after a year's postulancy, had started out in 1478 as a community of devout lay women and had only gradually achieved the status of Carmelite monastery. They took possession of their new and spacious monastery on 4 April 1515, the day Teresa was baptised. Here the cream of Avila's nobility and gentry came together almost two hundred of them.
When she left home Teresa found the Incarnation a haven. Here she made friends with Juana Suárez and found support in an experienced novice mistress, who introduced her to the secrets of religious life and spoke to her in glowing terms of her spiritual ancestors in Carmel. In the midst of the inevitable confusion caused by so great a number of nuns, not all of whom had a vocation to this kind of life, she found a healthy core of people who took religious life seriously. After all, thirty of them were prepared to follow her when she founded stricter monasteries, twenty-two of whom persevered. It is also significant that other nuns asked Fr. Rubeo for precisely the same kind of improvements at the Incarnation as Teresa had introduced at St. Joseph's.
Teresa de Ahumada, then, learned to be a Carmelite nun in a particular historical context. It had many positive elements, but there were also things which, as she matured spiritually and in her experience of God, Teresa decided were unhelpful and even harmful for some people. With twenty-seven years experience of this milieu behind her and led by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, she decided to create a smaller, simpler kind of convent
where it would be possible to live the Carmelite ideal without those drawbacks which the Incarnation environment undoubtedly had.
Yet life at the Incarnation had its own influence on what Teresa founded - it was her experience of it that led her to exclude certain things. To be specific, she rejected the idea of a large community. There had been no tradition in Carmel regarding numbers; how each community grew was determined by applications and the size of the house. The average for a Carmelite community in the 16th century was about 45. St. Teresa's experience was different; what she saw was 180 nuns living together, and to ensure that there would be no repeat of that situation she took 15, and later 20, as her optimum. Her house would be a small apostolic college.
Another thing she broke with from the beginning was the custom of requiring a dowry from postulants. In less spiritually aware communities many entered who had no further ambition than finding a lifetime refuge. They paid their money on joining and expected bed and board for the rest of their lives as their due. Teresa emphasised the personal qualities and true religious vocation of the postulant. Once sure of these things, no one was to be refused admission just because they could not pay.
Another noteworthy innovation of hers was the absolute equality of the sisters and her emphasis on a sisterly spirit among them. We have already alluded to the fact that social distinctions had penetrated monasteries; at the time of Fr. Rubeo's visitation many nuns complained of the difficulties this caused.
Teresa was quite adamant about enclosure: "So strictly enclosed as never to go out, and never to be seen unless they have their veil down over their faces." This was the best way
to get rid once and for all of the effects of too much contact with outsiders, effects that were only too obvious at the Incarnation. Notice that St. Teresa expressly states that there is no need to lower the veil when speaking to parents, brothers and sisters, or «any case as worthy as these» in the judgement of the prioress. She didn't give this ruling an absolute value in itself; it was a means of warding off undesirable visitors. «It is very important that any one visiting us should benefit, as we should ourselves, and that the visit is not just a waste of time».
Teresa was also resolutely opposed to the traditional status of the confessor, who doubled as a kind of superior and could intervene in internal matters of the community, give permissions, dispensations, etc. In her monasteries the prioress would be the only one responsible, and outside interference was strongly discouraged. Hence her order: «Let everything be done through the prioress».
And to end this list of elements which were, at least partly, a reaction to what Teresa had experienced at the Incarnation, we make Fr. Steggink's concluding reflection our own: «For all this her work must not be looked upon as simple reform - the rooting out of certain abuses and the re-organisation of the regular life. To see her work as no more than a rebellion against abuses and organizational shortcomings would be a very inadequate view of St. Teresa's work indeed. The new form of Carmelite life, drew its inspiration from a deep evangelical spirit and from the heremitical and contemplative ideal of Carmel, and so deserves to be classed as a founding and creative work rather than one of reform. As such it places St. Teresa in the forefront of those great figures of the Counter Reformation Church. Her reforming activity would appear to be only a secondary aspect of her work»(3).
1. C. Catena, Le Carmelitane Storia e
spiritualità. Rome 1969. (Textus et studia historica carmelitana
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