Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Oct. 15, 2014 Wednesday: St. Teresa of Avila

At the time that Teresa entered the Incarnation in 1535, the community consisted of approximately one hundred nuns. By 1552, the number had swelled to 180, and by 1565, it had increased to nearly 200 nuns. (Teresa left the Incarnation in 1562.)

The women who entered the Incarnation came from every strata of society, from the very poor to the very rich. Those from poor backgrounds slept in common dormitories. Those from aristocratic families were provided with a suite of rooms, including a kitchen and often a private oratory. They also brought with them maids and cooks. One of these more privileged nuns was Doña Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada—St. Teresa.

The cloister of the monastery, though prescribed, was rarely observed. Frequently, the nuns visited family and friends, sometimes for lengthy periods. Also, relatives and friends could enter the cloister, some of whom even took up residence in the monastery. For example, after their father died, Teresa’s sister, Doña Juana de Ahumada, lived in Teresa’s cell for nine years. Visiting in the monastery’s front parlor was a daily occurrence, a pastime to which Teresa became very attached. The keeping of silence, though valued by the nuns, was difficult to maintain because of the size of the community and the constant traffic of laypeople.

The prayer life of the community consisted of reciting the Divine Office and daily Eucharist. However, there was no designated time set aside for mental prayer in the monastery’s daily schedule. There are also indications that novices were not given any instruction in mental prayer. Teresa attests to this fact. She says that until she had read Osuna’s The Third Spiritual Alphabet, she “did now know how to proceed in prayer or how to be recollected” (L. 4. 7.).

The impact of Osuna’s book on Teresa was immeasurable. It was as if she had found the spiritual master whom she needed. “I began to take time out for solitude, to confess frequently, and to follow that path, taking the book for my master” (L. 4. 7.).

Teresa lived in the Incarnation for twenty-seven years, which constituted sixty percent of her religious life. During this time, she grew in virtue, and God awakened within her a deep desire to live a life marked by silence, solitude, and contemplative prayer. However, Teresa’s gregarious temperament was also drawn to wasting time in the front parlor, visiting friends and relatives. “I began to go from pastime to pastime . . . and I began to lose joy in virtuous things and my taste for them” (L. 7. 1.). Teresa was torn. “On the one hand God was calling me; on the other hand I was following the world . . . It seems I desired to harmonize these two contraries” (L. 7. 17.). This struggle lasted for years. “Thus I passed many years, for now I am surprised how I could have put up with both and not abandon either the one or the other” (L. 7. 17.).

Finally, Teresa accepted the fact that she could not live the life that God was calling her to in the Incarnation. She needed a different environment, a different structure of life in which she would not be sorely tempted. “I was a nun, there was no vow of enclosure” (L. 4. 5.). “That’s why it seems to me it did me great harm not to be in an enclosed monastery. For the freedom that those who were good were able to enjoy in good conscience . . . would have certainly brought me to hell, if the Lord . . . had not drawn me out of this danger” (L. 7. 3.). It is important to note that Teresa was not disparaging the nuns of the Incarnation. She was simply accepting the fact that she could not live the life that God was calling her to if she remained in the Incarnation. “What was a danger for me was not so much for others” (L. 7. 6.).

Consequently, in 1562, Teresa left the Incarnation where she had lived for twenty-seven years. She founded St. Joseph’s convent in Avila so that she could live the life that God had called her to. It was neither Teresa’s intention nor desire to found a new religious order. However, God had different plans for her. The Book of Her Life ends with the founding of St. Joseph’s. The Foundations takes up the narrative of Teresa’s life five years later.
-Fr. Marc Foley OCD, St. Teresa of Avila: Her Book of Foundations