T E R E S I A N
Pages of history
Pages from its history translated by
THE RADIATION OF A CHARISM
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.|
THE RADIATION OF A CHARISM
The little house at St. Joseph's was full, but many more came knocking on the door. The only solution was to create more communities like this one, to respond to this keenly felt need. By placing an upper limit on the numbers she would admit to her community, Teresa had protected it from the disadvantages she had experienced at the Incarnation. But in so doing she had also established a principle of multiplication, the historical importance of which was very soon to become evident.
However, before launching out on a foundational undertaking, she had
to consult her Superiors and seek their blessing. To have to go through
the whole adventure of the Avila foundation each time did not bear
thinking about. Besides, things had changed a lot in the meantime. She
was no longer looking for permission to embark on something the success
of which was uncertain; she had a well-defined style of community,
tested by five years experience. The blessing she required came when Fr.
Rubeo(Rossi), the Prior General, providentially passed through Avila in
February 1567. His visitation of the Spanish provinces brought him there
and he availed of the opportunity to visit the nuns at St. Joseph's and
converse at great length with St. Teresa herself. It was a time of
spiritual joy for both and no little comfort for the General in the
midst of so many problems. "He was glad to see our way of life and
a picture, however imperfect, of the beginnings of our Order" (F.
2,3). Rubeo approved Teresa's community enthusiastically and encouraged
her to found as many as she could, offered the necessary authorization
and took the new foundations under his personal jurisdiction. He even
expressed regret at the Provincial's refusal to sanction St . Joseph's .
Leaving aside the details, what we would like to do here is to concentrate on a question which spontaneously springs to mind in the presence of a historical phenomenon such as this; namely, what was the secret of success? What is the explanation of such rapid growth, bearing in mind that the new Carmel founded more convents in Spain in the space of ten years than the traditional Carmel had done in a century? What makes St. Teresa's message so attractive?
To answer these questions with the brevity imposed by the size of this book, I would point to two principal causes of this phenomenon: first, the very ideal which Teresa stood for; and secondly, her marvellous gift for importing that ideal to others and guiding them in the ways of the spirit. She knew just how to fire people with her ideal of intimacy with God, and was then able to guide them to it with a keenness of perception that enabled her to adapt her message to the requirements of each individual.
The message of St. Teresa of Jesus.
"As soon as they give themselves to prayer they seem to want nothing else but these houses of ours, so to speak." (3)
History tells us that the founders of Religious Orders usually respond to keenly felt needs in the Church of their day. It may be preaching to God's people at times of pastoral neglect or helping the sick, or educating the poor; any one of a number of things. But whatever the need is, it is widespread, vaguely (2) felt by many, yet no one knows quite what they should do about it. In these circumstances someone steps forth, a person with the necessary qualities and endowed with the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit. He sets to work and hits on (rather than deliberately finds) the formula that solves the problem. He gathers a small group of co-workers about him and their example soon begins to affect others who were experiencing the same difficulties. The programme of life proposed by the Founder finds an acho, a witness, in the hearts of those people, and that explains, at least in part, the rapidity with which his work spreads.
If we now turn to the specific case of St. Teresa and all those people who were taking up prayer seriously and apparently only waiting to enter her convents, we might well ask ourselves why they did not enter existing convents. There are many testimonies still extant of people who wanted to enter religious life, but not religious life as they saw it lived about them; they were looking for something different. Different in what way? What many felt keenly, and it was this need that Teresa responded to, was a need for a spiritual life with more emphasis on inwardness, a way of life that was simpler, and more in keeping with the Gospel and the Fathers of the Church. This was a reaction to the great emphasis placed at that time on observance. Such an emphasis had its origins chiefly in the 15th~ century reformed congregations; in their zeal or anxiety to put an end to laxity they had eone to the opposite extreme and overloaded religious life with ceremonies and external practices which smothered people's true spirituality and put people off joining religious orders, even when they wished to commit their lives to God(2).
Nor was it any coincidence that most of these people who had a different taste where religious life was concerned, had come under the influence of the Jesuits. We know that when St. Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus twenty years earlier he specifically intended to create a new type of cleric - his followers would live the religious ideal fully, but free from unnecessary structures and ceremonies so that they could serve the Church more effectively. This new style of Ignatius in spiritual matters was also assimilated by others who came in contact with his Society. On 28 June 1568, St. Teresa wrote: "Not every spiritual person is suitable for our monasteries, only those who have Jesuit confessors. Nearly all those who are in them are such, and I don't remember ever receiving one who wasn't, for they are the kind that suit us best. Since it was they who reared my soul, the Lord has done me the favour that their spirit should be planted in these monasteries."
Just as Teresa did not find every spiritual person to her taste,
neither did these particular spiritual people find every form of
religious life to their taste. So, when Teresa's model appeared on the
Church's horizon they welcomed it with the enthusiasm which history has
put on record.
Teresa's talent for teaching
As we have said, the second factor tnat contributed to the rapid growth of the Teresian Carmel was the Foundress's talent for communicating her message and experience to others. In one of her writings María de San José recalled: "The Lord called me to religious life through contact with Mother Teresa and her companions. Their admirable life and conversation would move stones, and what drew me to join them was the gentleness and tact of our good Mother. I really believe that if those who are charged with bringing souls to God used the skillful ways and means of that saint, they would bring many more to Him than they do."(3)
Mother Maria could not be more explicit: she speaks of skill and methods to facilitate those first steps on the road to a destination that is difficult of access, but where one finally experiences ~how sweet it is to suffer for Christ."
As we survey the most outstanding features of Teresa's approach as a teacher, it is worth bearing in mind what we remarked when speaking of the Way of Perfection: that those who came in contact with Mother Teresa or her communities could see a lived synthesis, a characteristic style, and environment in which all felt at home and where they felt both invited and drawn by example to participate. The bare listing out of these elements can give us only a pale reflection of the reality, but they are still worth calling to mind.
Without claiming that these are the only features, and being well
aware that further study might reveal others that were more important in
certain circumstances, I would nevertheless note that these features
were not chosen at random. Research into their role during the first
century of the Order~s history has shown how important these were in the
first steps of the Teresian Carmel and in its subsequent development.
The first of these features that typify Teresa's teacning is inwardness.
"Pay more attention to inner realities than to externals," was
her instruction to novicemistresses in her Constitutions (n.40). She had
greater faith in the efficacy of individual direction than in the
structures or regular observance. Novices very quickly accustomed
themselves to the latter, so she emphasised respect for the individual
("you must not apply the same rule to everybody") and the
importance of treating them "with kindness and love", without
being shocked at their failings. "They can only advance a little at
a time and must be subjected only to that degree of mortification which
each of them can tolerate." The object of their formation is to
"train souls to be such that the Lord will dwell in them"...
To this end should all of the novicemistress's energies be directed, as
she helps the novice to enter the secrete of prayer and guides her on
the path of love. "Let us understand, daughters, that true
perfection consists in the love of God and of our neighbour. The more
perfectly we keep those two commandments the more perfect we shall be.
Our entire Rule and Constitutions are but means which enable us to do so
more perfectly" (I.C., I,2,17).
Moderation in bodily penance
Closely related to the previous feature is that of moderation in bodily penance. "Pay more attention to failures to practice virtue than to severity in the matter of penance"~ she tells the novicemistress (n.40). Teresa looked on good health as a gift from God, to be cherished for the service of one's neighbour. She felt that the poor and austere lifestyle she had established was something that was within the reach of everyone and yet offered them the opportunity for achieving a heroic degree of ascetism without injury to their health. It was quite common in Teresa's time for people to equate perfection with extraordinary penances; something which often discourage , or even excluded, delicate people from the way to holiness. In the eyes of such penitential athletes Teresa was distinctly out of step, belonged, in fact, to a lesser order of mortals. There were many, too, who desired perfection but could see no point in such severity, and to these Teresa opened the Gates of Heaven. "Please understand, Father, that I like to be quite demanding about the practice of virtues, but not where penitential severity is concerned, as you will see in our houses. It must be because I am not very penitential myself."(4)
Periods of recreation
María de San José tells us that St. Teresa attached so much
importance to the periods of recreation she introduced as she did to
penance(5). In a Teresian monastery there
is an atmosphere of continued silence and recollection. "The
lifestyle we are aiming at is not just that of nuns, but of hermiit
(WP,13,6). In other words, not only had they cut themselves off from the
world and become nuns, but they had cut themselves off from the
monastery and become hermits. Thus, unlike other convents of the time,
where nuns cane together to work, the Carmelites prayed and worked in
the solitude of their cells or hermitages. In order to be able to
sustain this atmospnere of silence and recollection fully, Teresa laid
down that twice a day, after the midday and evening meals, her daughters
were to come together for recreation. During these moments of relaxation
- in which they nevertheless availed of to go on working - they could
"talk about whatever they liked~.
The Teresian recreation has two sides to it: an element of communication, which had become very restricted, if not wholly abolished, in heremitical tradition, and an element of diversion, something that many looked on as incompatible with real penance.
St. Teresa used this expression in the Way of Perfection, and
the context in which she did so is very significant. She was speaking of
the deceipts perpetrated by the devil in his guise of an angel of
light, and recalled how impoverished many nuns became when they confused
perfection with being shy and inhibited. They ended up, she said, seeing
dangers in everything, being over scrupulous, shut up within themselves
and useless for any kind of apostolate, because people
instinctively shy away from them. Her daughters, on the other hand,
firmly imbued with the fear and love of God, could "behave with a
holy freedon and deal with anyone they had to, even worldly or frivolous
people", because the Lord would give them the grace not only to
escape the contagion of these shortcomings but to help people by their
very presence to be delivered of these things"
The Teresian style of religious life attributes great importance, for the spiritual development of the nuns as well as for the effectiveness of their apostolic witness, to what we today call simplicityJ naturalness, human virtues: "Try then, sisters, as much as you can without offending God, to be affable and understanding, so that everyone you come in contact with will love your conversation and desire your manner of living and dealing with people, and not be frightened or intimidated by virtue" (41,7).
New method of governing
The person chiefly responsible for the discreet and harmonious coalescing of all these elements in real life is the mother priores, to whom St. Teresa assigns a very decisive roie in her communities. As we've seen in the Constitution, she is very much the mother and teacher of the community. St. Teresa had seen and, indeed, continued to see, many communities which did not seem to reap any benefit from tne countless reforming decrees which had been issued since the Council of Trent. She sums up her experience in one sentence that is worth a whole book: "I am convinced that there is no remedy for communities of nuns, unless there is someone watching over them from the inside."(6) Hence the importance she attached to the election of the prioress and to the qualitiee desirable for that office. That, too, is why she allowed her daughters to retain a prioress for as long as her government was beneficial to everybody, without having to worry about external juridical norms which could enforce change to the detriment of the conmunity.
The confessor was confined strictly to what concerned the sacrament; he could cooperate with the prioress in giving spiritual direction, but could not interefere in the running of the community. And, lest the confessor's incompetence should lead to wrong guidance, Teresa introduced a further element of "holy freedom" in which she was centuries ahead of the common law of the Church: the prioress could call in confessors other than the ordinary one if the spiritual needs of the community indicated that this was desirable.
Finally, in her Method of visiting the convents, she gave instructions aimed at ensuring that the annual canonical visitation would not be a useless ceremony. This was all too frequently the case in her day, but Teresa was determined that it should be a time of grace and blessing. Through the visitation the community would receive the blessing of the hierarchy if all was well, or timely correction if things were not as they should be.
From these brief indications it is obvious that the Mother Foundress possessed a very rich formula for the religious life. She successfully combined the spiritual content of union with God and a prayer life which was sensitive to the Church's needs with a profound humanity which effectively led souls to that maturity which always accompanies true sanctity. That is the explanation of the wide and rapid spread of her charism.
1. Efrén de la Madre de Dios - O. Steggink,
Tiempo y vida de St. Teresa de Jesús ( Madrid 1977), P.II, C.3.
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