Lessons from the Foundations

During her lifetime, Saint Teresa of Avila established seventeen foundations of reformed Carmelite monasteries for women and men. The Book of Her Foundations chronicles in vivid detail the trials and consolations of this labor of love for herself and those who worked with her.  It is a wealth of spiritual wisdom written in a simple and ingenuous style, characteristic of this woman who by the time she finished the account, which she was ordered to write, was habitually living in the presence of the Blessed Trinity.

“Daughter, obedience gives strength.”

If there is one virtue that St. Teresa revered over all the others, it is the virtue of obedience.  She wrote that humility and charity are the virtues of the perfect, and there is no doubt that these virtues adorned her own soul.  But the virtue of obedience is the path by which we arrive at humility and charity.  Not surprisingly, she begins her account of the foundations singing the praises of obedience, a virtue which she practiced zealously.  Having received the order from Fr. Garcia of Toledo, a Dominican, to write about the foundation of the first reformed monastery, St. Joseph’s in Avila, in 1562, the year it was founded, she did so.  Most of that account is found in her autobiography.  Eleven years and eight foundations later, Fr. Jeronimo Ripalda, a Jesuit, ordered her to write an account of the following foundations, including the first foundation for friars at Duruelo.  St. Teresa felt unable to accomplish the task until our Lord spoke to her soul:  “Daughter, obedience gives strength (Foundations, Prologue: 2).”

St. Teresa was forty-seven years old when she accomplished the first foundation in the midst of great opposition.  She had been a nun for over twenty years, and was at that time receiving mystical graces of betrothal with both imaginative and intellectual visions of Christ’s humanity.  In her desire to “do something for God,” she “had the thought that the first thing to do was to follow the call to the religious life, which His Majesty had given me, by keeping my rule as perfectly as I could (Life 32:9).”  She wrote that even though there were some very great servants of God in the convent where she was living [the Incarnation in Avila, Spain], “the nuns because of great necessity often went out to places where they could stay (Life 32:9” often as a means of acquiring alms, and “the Rule was not kept in its prime rigor, but was observed the way it was in the whole order, that is, according to the bull of mitigation (Life 32:9) .”  The mitigation of Pope Eugene IV, in 1432, allowed the Carmelites to eat meat. What this meant for Saint Teresa was that the nuns did not live as poorly as the average peasant, for whom meat was still a luxury.  The “going out” that she speaks of was the result of an earlier mitigation of the Rule by Pope Innocent IV in 1246 allowing the friars to go out of their hermitages to preach.

St. Teresa goes on:  “It seemed to me the monastery [the Incarnation in Avila] had a lot of comfort since it was a large and pleasant one (Life 32:9).”  St. Teresa was one of the nuns often sent out to console benefactors, but she found this increasingly difficult since she had been receiving deeper contemplative prayer, one characteristic of which is the desire to be alone with God.

“Since they couldn’t go to the desert, they should found a little monastery with few nuns … to join together and do penance.”

Some of the nuns and friends were meeting with Teresa in her rooms at the Incarnation.  Teresa was teaching them what she had been learning about prayer. One day, Maria of Ocampo (a daughter of Teresa’s cousin, who later joined the nuns at St. Joseph’s) suggested that it might be possible to found a monastery “like the discalced [without shoes, an allusion to their practice of enclosure] (Life 32:10).”  She was referring to a monastery of Franciscan nuns who were practicing greater poverty and enclosure under the initiative of St. Peter of Alcantara.  Maria of Saint Joseph, one of the founding nuns, later wrote:  “One day the Saint together with Maria de Ocampo and other nuns from the Incarnation began to discuss the saints of the desert.  At this time some of them said that since they couldn’t go to the desert, they should found a little monastery with few nuns and that there they could join together to do penance (Life 32: Endnote 5).”

Teresa reacted to this suggestion with enthusiasm since, as she writes, she was having the same desires.  Madame Guiomar of Ulloa, a young widow and one of Teresa’s friends, began to draw up a plan.  Although Teresa had reservations because she liked her living arrangements at the Incarnation, they agreed to pray fervently for the new monastery.

“Often the Lord returned to speak to me about this new monastery ….”

As usual with St. Teresa, it was our Lord Himself who commanded her to “strive for this new monastery with all my powers (Life 32:11).”  At the time, Teresa was receiving spiritual direction from a young Jesuit named Fr. Balthasar Alvarez.  Our Lord instructed her to tell her confessor what He had commanded.  This was the beginning of a very difficult period of opposition which resulted in the abandonment of the project.  This must have been a great disappointment for St. Teresa.  After all, she had the direct request of Jesus, received in locutions:  “Often the Lord returned to speak to me about this new monastery, presenting me with so many clear reasons and arguments that I saw it was His will, and I could no longer help but tell my confessor (Life 32:12).”  She had the permission of her provincial superior, and the support of the holy friar St. Peter of Alcantara.  So what was it that stopped the project?

“A great persecution that cannot be briefly described …”

It was the city of Avila and St. Teresa’s own community that resisted the new monastery with “a great persecution that cannot be briefly described … gossip, derision … (Life 32:14):”

“Among people of prayer and, in fact, throughout the whole city there was hardly a person who was not then against us.  There was so much talk and such an outcry in my own monastery that the provincial thought it would be imprudent to go against all; so he changed his mind and did not want to accept the foundation under his jurisdiction … As for my companion [Madame Guiomar of Ulloa helped win the permissions and gave St. Teresa some financial support], they didn’t want to give her absolution unless she gave up the idea (Life 32:15).”

No-one would even give them an opinion about the project, calling it a foolish whim, until Guiomar  of Ulloa approached the Dominican friar, Fr. Pedro Ibanez, “the most learned man in the city (Life 32:16),” who, after a period of reflection, encouraged them, and soon others felt drawn to help.

Perhaps this was a testing of St. Teresa’s obedience, since she was willing to give up the idea despite the desires of our Lord.  However, she writes that, in spite of all, she never doubted that the foundation would somehow be made.  But as the criticism of her increased, she was ordered by both her confessor and her provincial to abandon the project.

St. Teresa’s monastery of the Incarnation as it looks today

Monastery of the Incarnation

St. Teresa wrote in her autobiography, “I was very much disliked throughout my monastery because I had wanted to found a more enclosed monastery . . . Several of them said I should be thrown into the prison cell (Life 33:2).”  Yet she writes that none of this disturbed her.  “I gave up the plan with as much ease and contentment as I would have if it hadn’t cost me anything (Life 33:2).”

“The Lord, Who never failed me … told me not to be anxious.”

God’s purifying activity was never lacking.  St. Teresa writes that, in the midst of so many persecutions, she expected understanding from her confessor, but got only more thorns in her crown as he admonished her for causing himself and others so much trouble.  This painful rejection and lack of assistance on the part of those who should have helped her was a recurrent theme in her life, which serves to illustrate how much the saints must suffer in their service of Christ.  The main cause of her anguish was the fear that she had been deceived by the locutions she thought she had received, until Christ consoled her again: “But the Lord, Who never failed me, Who in all these trials I enumerated often consoled and fortified me … then told me not to be anxious; that I had served God a great deal and had not offended Him in that project; that I should do what my confessor ordered me by being silent for the present, until it would come time to return to the task.  I was left so consoled and happy that the persecution hanging over me seemed to be all nothing.”

“In this way the Lord taught me what a tremendous good it is to suffer trials and persecutions for Him.  For the increase of the love of God I saw in my soul and many other things reached such a point that I was amazed; and this makes me unable to stop desiring trials (Life 33:3).”

The help of the newly formed Society of Jesus (the Jesuits)

Teresa remained silent for “five or six months (Life 33:7).”  During this time, her prayer deepened and she felt   at peace, with “great impulses of love (Life 33:7),” although she was still troubled at times that her confessor did not believe her.  It was not until the Jesuits placed a new rector,  Fr. Gaspar of Salazar, over her confessor that he began to allow her to carry out her mission.

In great secrecy even from her confessors, for fear of losing everything again, Teresa got her younger sister Juana to purchase and repair a house in the city of Avila, as if for herself.  She writes:  “In procuring the money, acquiring the house, signing the contract for it, and fixing it up, I went through so many trials of so many kinds that now I’m amazed I was able to suffer them.  In some of them I was completely alone (Life 33:11).” Her friend Guiomar of Ulloa assisted her by having everything done in her name.  During this time, St. Joseph appeared to her, telling her to go ahead and hire workmen to repair the house, although she had no money, “ … and so I did, without so much as a penny, and the Lord in ways that amazed those who heard about it provided for me (Life 33:12).”

The practice of poverty was always a priority for our Lord.  St. Teresa thought the house was too small, but our Lord instructed her to take it. “But I arranged to have it fixed up so it could be lived in – with everything left rough and unpolished – and likewise so that it would not be harmful to health.  And this is the way these things should be done always (Life 33:12).”

The help of the reform-minded Franciscans 

Two Franciscan saints assisted St. Teresa:  St. Clare appeared to her promising to help (a nearby monastery of Franciscan nuns always assisted the reformed Carmelites) and St. Peter of Alcantara, already venerated by the people as a holy friar.  Unlike most of the people whom Teresa had consulted, he encouraged her in the practice of poverty.  Even after his death, this holy man appeared to St. Teresa and told her not to accept an income.

Mary and Saint Joseph appear to Saint Teresa

It was during this period of time that St. Teresa received a very consoling vision of Saint Joseph and Mary. They vested her in a white robe and told her that she had been cleansed of sin.  Mary told her not to be distressed about the fact that she did not have the permission of the Order to make the foundation, but only of her Jesuit and Dominican confessors.  Jesus Himself, speaking on this issue, “told me it wasn’t suitable to give it to my superiors (Live 33:16).”  He told her, nevertheless, that she should petition Rome, and that He would see to it that she got her request.

A providential friendship, Sr. Mary of Jesus

In a curious twist of providence, St. Teresa’s provincial superior, who apparently knew nothing of the purchase of the house, ordered her to go to the distant city of Toledo to comfort a noblewoman there named Madame Luisa de la Cerda who had been recently widowed.  It was during this visit to Toledo that St. Teresa met Sr. Mary of Jesus, a woman who, after some time in a Carmelite monastery had left before making her vows and, with the permission of the Pope, had established a reformed Carmelite monastery in Alcala, not far from Avila, Spain.  She learned from Mary of Jesus that according to the primitive Rule of St. Albert, all things are held in common and the monasteries must live on alms.  St. Teresa had known nothing of what she called the primitive Rule but was familiar only with the mitigated Rule as observed in her monastery, so this meeting did much to confirm her in the practice of poverty as she desired.  St. Teresa remained good friends with Sr. Mary of Jesus throughout her life.  in 1568, after the second foundation in Medina, St. Teresa traveled to Alcala to visit Sr. Mary of Jesus in her monastery, and may have left there a copy of her Constitutions, preserved there to this day.

The monastery of St. Joseph’s in Avila as it looks today.

Monastery of St. Joseph

Permission from Rome and from her Bishop

The permission from Rome arrived on the day of Teresa’s return to Avila. She was delighted to find her Bishop and St. Peter of Alcantara both staying at the home of a friend whom Teresa describes as “a person in whom the servants of God found protection as well as welcome (Life 36:1).”  These two persuaded the bishop to accept the new monastery under his jurisdiction, although he did so reluctantly because of the lack of an income (the practice of poverty).  He remained one of the foundation’s greatest supporters and a personal friend of the Saint; after his death he was buried at St. Joseph’s in Avila, the new monastery he had helped to establish.

First clothing day, the feast of Saint Bartholomew

In great secrecy and haste, St. Teresa undertook the final preparations on the house, in which her brother-in-law was living.  On August 24th, 1562, the feast of St. Bartholomew, the Blessed Sacrament was reserved there, and four women were clothed in the habit.

When news of the new monastery reached the ears of the people, there was an outcry throughout the entire city.  Four days after its founding, the city of Avila launched a lawsuit against the monastery that lasted for two years. St. Teresa was ordered to return to her former monastery.  Her own prioress at the Incarnation ordered her to have nothing to do with the new monastery.

The city of Avila finally agreed that the monastery could stay if there were an income.  St. Peter of Alcantara, who had died, appeared to her, “looked severe, and told me only that I should by no means accept an income (Life 36:21).”  Finally, after four months, St. Teresa and four nuns from the Incarnation joined the nuns of St. Joseph’s, with the permission of their provincial superior.

“Before entering the new monastery, while in prayer outside in the church, being almost in rapture, I saw Christ who seemed to be receiving me with great love and placing a crown on my head and thanking me for what I had done for His Mother  (Life 36:24).”

“Once the liturgical Offices were initiated the people began to grow very devoted to this house.  More nuns were accepted, and the Lord started to inspire our most vigorous persecutors to show us much favor; and they gave us alms . . . . Little by little, they abandoned the lawsuit (Life 36:25).”

In the next letter, I will tell you more about life in the new monastery and the Constitutions written there by the founding Saint Teresa of Avila.  Thank you.


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