The Fortnight for Freedom is wrapping up. One of our readers urged me not to forget the doctor and mystic, Teresa of Avila.
Like Hildegard, there is a wealth of information out there about her. You can start with her books on the spiritual life. Or get it about herself from her own pen. She was born about a decade before Elizabeth I of England, and a few years after Luther took a nail to a church door in Germany.
I’ll confine my comments today on her program to reform the Carmelite observance, and return herself and her followers, men and women both, to a more strict earlier way of life, emphasizing material poverty and a life of subsistence.
With the approval of Rubeo de Ravenna, the General of the Carmelite Order, she founded about a dozen communities across Spain in the 1560’s and 70’s. These new communities were intent on “back to basics,” recovering something of the rigor of Carmelite spirituality and practice as it was practiced at the beginnings, about three centuries prior. It must have caused alarm in other quarters, as the word came down from the top that Teresa was to cease her traveling and founding. Choose a place to retire, she was told, and get back into the cloister. She complied with this demand, but maintained an active correspondence intending to overturn efforts to clamp down on her movement.
In King Philip II, she found an eventual ally. Responding to her letter-writing, he called off the Inquisition–many of Teresa’s associates were subjected to greater persecutions. Pope Gregory XIII authorized a provincial to oversee the reform branch of the Carmelites, and the king created a committee to assess Teresa and her work, essentially a protection board to ward off further interference.
More convents were founded in the early 1580’s, just a few years before her death. Her reforms had more staying power than other attempts to get the Carmelites back to basics. Some clergy and bishops in her day were concerned about the proliferation of religious communities–would the Church and people support a convent in “every” town? Teresa made it a point that her communities would remain small, manageable, and self-sustaining.
As an aside, I found it interesting that she died on the night bridging the 4th and 15th of October in 1582, as Pope Gregory’s calendar reforms realigned the accustomed western dates to the solstices and equinoxes.
There is much in Teresa I admired from my reading long ago of The Interior Castle. Her spunk and determination is something I would like to see in my daughter as she approaches her life’s challenges. Her contrition and awareness of sin is something I have yet to approach, and certainly her approval of self-inflicted pain is difficult. Yet there are many aspects to her life to which I find myself drawn. Certainly, any believer can and should look for ways of rigor and challenge and place oneself at the total surrender and service to God. She declined open disobedience, yet she never drew back from pushing, persuading, or politicking. Very definitely a worthy woman to consider.