III. ST. TERESA AND MONASTIC REFORM

A moral regeneration was simultaneously taking place in the monastic orders. We may imagine their reputation from a remark of the pious and orthodox Michelangelo, who, when he heard that Sebastian del Piombo was to paint the figure of a monk in the chapel of San Pietro in Montorio, advised against it, saying that as the monks had spoiled the world, which is so large, it would not be surprising if one should spoil the chapel, which was so small.16 Gregorio Cortese set himself patiently to reform the Benedictines at Padua; Girolamo Seripando the Austin Canons; Egidio Canisio the Augustinian Eremites; Paolo Giustiniani the Camaldolites.

New monastic orders stressed reform. Antonio Maria Laccaria founded at Milan (1533) the Clerks Regular of St. Paul, a community of priests pledged to monastic poverty; they met originally in the church of St. Barnabas, whence they came to be called Barnabites. In 1535 St. Angela organized the Ursuline nuns for the education of girls and the care of the sick or the poor; and in 1540 St. John of God established in Granada the Brothers of Mercy for hospital ministrations. In 1523 Matteo de’ Bassi, in fervent emulation of St. Francis of Assisi, determined to observe to the letter the final rule that their founder had left to the Franciscans. Other friars joined him, and by 1525 their number encouraged Matteo to ask papal sanction of a new branch of the Franciscans dedicated to the strictest rule. The provincial of his order had him imprisoned for disobedience, but Matteo was soon freed, and in 1528 Clement VII confirmed the new order of Capuchins—so named because the friars wore the same kind of cappuccio or cowl that Francis had worn. They dressed in the coarsest cloth, lived on bread, vegetables, fruit, and water, kept rigorous fasts, dwelt in narrow cells in poor cottages, never journeyed except on foot, and went barefoot throughout the year. They distinguished themselves by their selfless care of the infected in the plague of 1528-29. Their devotion was a factor in keeping Vittoria Colonna and other incipient Protestants loyal to a Church that could still produce such ardent Christians.

The most interesting figure in this epoch of monastic reform was a frail and masterful abbess of Spain. Teresa de Cepeda was the daughter of a Castilian knight of Ávila, a man proud of his puritan rectitude and his loyalty to the Church; each night he read to his family from the lives of the saints.17 The mother, a chronic invalid, brightened her weary days with chivalric romances, and shared, from her sickbed, the adventures of Amadis of Gaul. Teresa’s childhood imagination vacillated between romantic love and saintly martyrdom. At ten she vowed to become a nun. But, four years later, she blossomed suddenly into a beautiful young woman, bounding with the joy of life, and forgetting the garb of the cloister in the colorful dresses that doubled her charms. Admirers came; she fell tremulously in love with one of them, and was invited to a tryst. At the crucial moment she took fright, and confessed the dire plot to her father. As the mother was now dead, Don Alonzo de Cepeda placed the impressionable girl with the Augustinian nuns at Ávila.

Teresa resented the solemn life and discipline of the convent. She refused to take the vows of a nun, but looked forward impatiently to her sixteenth birthday, when she would be permitted to leave. But as this goal approached she fell dangerously ill, and almost died. She recovered, but her youthful joyousness was gone. Apparently she had developed a form of hystero-epilepsy, perhaps from suppressed rebellion against constraints alien to her instincts. Attacks recurred, leaving her exhausted. Her father removed her from the convent, and sent her to live with her half-sister in the country.

On the way an uncle gave her a volume of St. Jerome. Those vivid letters described the terrors of hell, and the flirtations of the sexes as the crowded avenue to eternal damnation. Teresa read anxiously. After another severe attack she abandoned all thought of worldly happiness, and resolved to fulfill her childhood vow. She returned to Ávila, and entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation (1534).

For a while she was happy in the soothing routine of Masses, prayers, and cleansing confessions; and when she took the sacrament she felt the bread as veritably Christ on her tongue and in her blood. But she was disturbed by the lax discipline of the convent. The nuns had not cells but comfortable rooms; they ate well despite weekly fasts; they adorned their persons with necklaces, bracelets, and rings; they received visitors in the parlor, and enjoyed extended vacations outside the convent walls. Teresa felt that these conditions did not protect her sufficiently from the temptations and imaginations of the flesh. Perhaps because of these, and her growing discontent, her attacks became more frequent and painful. Again her father sent her to her sister, and again, en route, her uncle gave her a religious book, The Third Abecedarium of Francisco de Osuña. It was an A B C of mystical prayer, prayer without words; for, said the author, “only those who approach God in silence can be heard and will be given an answer.” 18 In her rural retreat Teresa practiced this silent, meditative prayer, which suited so well the trancelike state induced by her attacks.

An herb doctor tried to cure her, but his concoctions almost killed her. When she returned to the cloister at Ávila (1537) she was near death, and longed for it. The most violent of her seizures came now; she fell into a coma that was mistaken for death; for two days she lay cold and motionless, apparently without breath; the nuns dug a grave for her. She recovered, but remained so weak that she could digest no solid food, and could bear no touch. For eight months she lay in the convent infirmary in almost total paralysis. Her condition slowly improved to partial paralysis, but “the times when I was not harassed by severe pains were rare indeed.”19 She renounced medical treatments, and resolved to rely entirely on prayer. For three years she suffered and prayed. Then suddenly, one morning in 1540, the bedridden, seemingly incurable invalid awoke to find her limbs no longer paralyzed. She rose and walked. Day by day she joined more actively in the conventual regimen. Her recovery was acclaimed as a miracle, and she believed it so. Perhaps prayer had soothed a nervous system overwrought with conflicting desires, a sense of sin, and a fear of hell; and the quieted nerves, and the absence of doctors, gave her body unwonted peace.

The Incarnation Convent became famous as the scene of a miraculous cure. People came from surrounding towns to see the nun whom God had healed; they left money and gifts for the holy house; the mother superior encouraged these visits, and bade Teresa show herself when visitors came. Teresa was troubled to find that she took pleasure in these visits, this fame, and the presence of handsome men. A sense of sin returned to her. One day (1542), as she conversed in the parlor with a man who especially attracted her, she thought she saw Christ standing beside the visitor. She fell into a trance, and had to be carried to her cell in a cot.

Through the next sixteen years she continued to have such visions. They became to her more real than life. In 1558, while absorbed in prayer, she felt her soul moving out of her body and mounting to heaven, and there seeing and hearing Christ. These visions no longer exhausted, they refreshed her. She wrote:

Often, infirm and wrought upon with dreadful pains before the ecstasy, the soul emerges from it full of health and admirably disposed for action... as if God had willed that the body itself, already obedient to the soul’s desires, should share in the soul’s happiness.... The soul after such a favor is animated with a degree of courage so great that if at that moment its body should be torn to pieces for the cause of God, it would feel nothing but the liveliest comfort.20

On another occasion she thought an “exceedingly beautiful angel” thrust “a long dart of gold,” tipped with fire, “through my heart several times, so that it reached my very entrails.”

So real was the pain that I was forced to moan aloud, yet it was so surpassingly sweet that I would not wish to be delivered from it. No delight of life can give more content. As the angel withdrew the dart, he left me all burning with a great love of God.* 21

This and other passages in the writings of St. Teresa lend themselves readily to psychoanalytic interpretations, but no one can doubt the high sincerity of the saint. Like Ignatius, she was convinced that she saw God, and that the most recondite problems were made clear to her in these visions.

One day, being in orison, it was granted me to perceive in one instant how all things are seen and contained in God.... It is one of the most signal of all graces that the Lord has granted me.... . Our Lord has made me comprehend in what way it is that one God can be in three persons. He made me see it so clearly that I remained as extremely surprised as I was comforted.... And now, when I think of the Holy Trinity... I experience an unspeakable happiness.22

Teresa’s sister nuns interpreted her visions as delusions and morbid fits.23 Her confessors inclined to the same view, and told her sternly, “The Devil has deceived your senses.” The townspeople thought her possessed by demons, called upon the Inquisition to examine her, and proposed that a priest should drive out her devils by exorcism. A friend advised her to send the Inquisition an account of her life and visions; now she wrote her classic Vida. The inquisitors scrutinized it, and pronounced it a holy document which would strengthen the faith of all who should read it.

Her position fortified by this verdict, Teresa, now fifty-seven, determined to reform the order of the Carmelite nuns. Instead of attempting to restore the old ascetic discipline in the cloister of the Incarnation, she decided to open a separate convent, to which she invited such nuns and novices as would accept a regimen of absolute poverty. The original Carmelites had worn coarse sackcloth, had gone always barefoot, had eaten frugally and fasted frequently. Teresa required of her Discalced (shoeless) Carmelites approximately the same austere rule, not as an end in itself, but as a symbol of humility and rejection of this tempting world. A thousand obstacles were raised; the townsmen of Ávila denounced the plan as threatening to end all communication between nuns and relatives. The provincial of the order refused permission for a new convent. Teresa appealed to Pope Pius V, and won his consent. She found four nuns to join her, and the new convent of St. Joseph was consecrated in 1562 on a narrow street in Ávila. The sisters wore sandals of rope, slept on straw, ate no meat, and remained strictly within their house.

The 180 nuns of the older establishment were not pleased by this simple exposure of their easy ways. The prioress, holding that Teresa was bound to her by the vow of obedience, commanded her to resume her former white robe, put on shoes, and return to the convent of the Incarnation. Teresa obeyed. She was adjudged guilty of arrogance, and was confined to her cell. The town council voted to close St. Joseph’s Convent, and sent four strong men to evict its now leaderless nuns. But the sandaled maidens said, “God wants us to stay, and so we shall stay”; and the hardened officers of the law dared not force them. Teresa frightened the Carmelite provincial by suggesting that in frustrating her plans he was offending the Holy Ghost; he ordered her freed. Four nuns left with her, and the five women walked through the snow to their new home. The four original members greeted Teresa happily as Madre. To nearly all Spain she now became Teresa de Jesú, the intimate of God.

Her rule was loving, cheerful, and firm. The house was closed to the world; no visitors were allowed; the windows were covered with cloth; the tiled floor served as beds, tables, and chairs. A revolving disk was built into the wall; whatever food was placed by the people on its outer half was gratefully accepted, but the nuns were not permitted to beg. They eked out their sustenance by spinning and needlework; the products were placed outside the convent gate; any buyer might take what he liked and leave whatever he liked in return. Despite these austerities new members came, and one of them was the most beautiful and courted woman in Ávila. The general of the Carmelites, visiting the little cloister, was so deeply impressed that he asked Teresa to found similar houses elsewhere in Spain. In 1567, taking a few nuns with her, she traveled in a rude cart over seventy miles of rough roads to establish a Discalced Carmelite nunnery at Medina del Campo. The only house offered her was an abandoned and dilapidated building with crumbling walls and leaking roof; but when the townspeople saw the nuns trying to live in it, carpenters and roofers came, unasked and unpaid, to make repairs and simple furniture.

The prior of the Carmelite monastery at Medina, wishing to reform his relaxed monks, came to Teresa and asked for her rules of discipline. The prior was tall, but was accompanied by a youth so short and frail that Teresa, with the humor that brightened her austerities, exclaimed, as they left: “Blessed be the Lord, for I have a friar and a half for the foundation of my new monastery.” 24 The diminutive friar, Juan de Yepis y Alvarez, was destined to be San Juan de la Cruz, St. John of the Cross, the soul and glory of the Discalced Carmelite monks.

Teresa’s difficulties were not ended. The provincial of the Carmelites, perhaps to test her rule and courage, appointed her prioress of the Incarnation Convent. The nuns there hated her, and feared that now, in revenge, she would subject them to every humiliation. But she behaved with such modesty and kindness that one by one they were won over, and gradually the new and stricter regimen replaced the old laxity. From this victory Teresa advanced to found a new cloister in Seville.

The friars of the mitigated rule resolved to stop the extension of the reform. Some of them smuggled an agent, as a discalced nun, into the Seville convent. Soon this woman proclaimed to Spain that Teresa flogged her nuns and heard confessions as if she were a priest. The Inquisition was again called upon to investigate her. She was summoned before the fearful tribunal; it heard her testimony, and gave its verdict: “You are acquitted of all charges.... . Go and continue your work.”25 But a papal nuncio was won over to her enemies. He denounced Teresa as “a disobedient, contumacious woman who promulgates pernicious doctrines under the pretense of devotion, who left her cloister against the orders of her superiors, who is ambitious, and teaches theology as though she were a doctor of the Church, in contempt of St. Paul, who forbade women to teach.” He commanded her to retire to confinement in a nunnery at Toledo (1575).

Hardly knowing where to turn in this new vicissitude, Teresa wrote to the King. Philip II had read and loved her Life. He sent a special courier to invite her to an audience; he heard her, and was convinced of her saintliness. The nuncio, royally reproved, withdrew his order of restraint on Teresa, and announced that he had been misinformed.

Amid her travels and tribulations she wrote famous manuals of mystical devotion: El camino de la perfección (The Way of Perfection, 1567), and El Castillo interior (The Interior Castle, 1577). In the latter she revealed the return of her physical ailments. “It seems as though many swollen rivers were rushing, within my brain, over a precipice; and then again, drowned by the noise of the water, are voices of birds singing and whistling. I weary my brain and increase my headaches.” 26 Heart attacks recurred, and her stomach found it hard to retain food. Even so she passed painfully from one to another of the many nunneries she had founded, examining, improving, inspiring. At Malaga she was seized with a paralytic fit; she recovered, went on to Toledo, and had another seizure; she recovered, went on to Segovia, Valladolid, Palencia, Burgos, Alva. There a hemorrhage of the lungs forced her to stop. She accepted death cheerfully, confident that she was leaving a world of pain and evil for the everlasting companionship of Christ.

After a shameful competition, and successive kidnapings of her corpse by Alva and Ávila, she was buried in the town of her birth. Pious worshipers claimed that her body never decayed, and many miracles were reported at her tomb. In 1593 the order of Discalced Carmelites received papal sanction. Famous Spaniards like Cervantes and Lope de Vega joined in an appeal to the Pope to at least beatify her. It was done (1614), and eight years later Teresa was pronounced, along with the Apostle James, one of the two patron saints of Spain.

Meanwhile a greater than Teresa had come out of Spain to reform the Church and move the world.

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