by Father Gabriel Barry, OCD
I. SAINT TERESA
St. Teresa of Avila: reformer of the Carmelite Order, Doctor of the Church, “Mother of Spirituality” (the title on her statue in St. Peter’s at Rome), great writer, poet, woman of prayer. But St. Teresa was also a woman of great beauty, gaiety, wit, humor, charm, and rare common sense. She despised pretension and was greatly concerned in her own prayer-life that it be authentic and valid, and not delusionary, or perhaps even hallucinatory. And to this end, she consulted the most intelligent guides she could find. She had great respect for learning and insisted on learned confessors for her nuns. She prayed to be delivered from foolish devotions, and chided superiors who were too rigorous with their charges. She was a perfect blend between mysticism and humanism: a thoroughly saintly person and yet a thoroughly human person.
Teresa entered the Convent of the Incarnation at the age of 18. She was 38 when she experienced her “second conversion” while reading the Confessions of St. Augustine. For the next seven years while deepening her interior life – her life of prayer, she became more and more preoccupied with pressing religious problems of the time: the Protestant Reformation; the breakdown in religious and monastic discipline, and the failure of Carmel to maintain its original ideals.
Teresa had been thinking for some time about the possibility of establishing a reformed convent of nuns who would follow the original rule without mitigation or deviation, but she first openly discussed it with friends at the Incarnation one day in 1558. Maria de Ocampo, an 18 year old boarder at the convent offered to donate 1000 ducats toward establishing a convent of Discalced nuns; and a wealthy widow friend of St. Teresa’s offered to help substantially from her fortune. St. Teresa “agreed to commend the matter very earnestly to God.” An answer came quickly. “One day after communion, the Lord gave me the most explicit commands to work for this aim with all my might . . .” The Lord also commanded her to discuss the matter with her confessor. With approval, Teresa was making plans for the reformed convent, and the provincial was drawing up the necessary papers to send to Rome, when a storm of opposition broke out. Like all great projects, the convent of St. Joseph was built on opposition and suffering. The complete story of this “beginning” can be read in her Foundations or in Journey to Carith, a history of the Order, or in any book on the works of St. Teresa.
St. Teresa remained at St. Joseph’s for over four years – “the most restful years of my life,” she later wrote. It was her original intention to remain there all her life. She had no intention of founding a series of convents, much less of reforming the Carmelite Order. She began writing the Way of Perfection while at St. Joseph’s and completed her Life. But the story of her writing is another long and interesting study.
II. THE REFORM
In 1564, John Rossi was elected Prior General of the Order and set himself strenuously to the task of reform. In April of 1566, he embarked on an extensive visitation of Spain and Portugal. After his visitation of St. Joseph’s Rossi gave St. Teresa permission to make as many foundations as she wished; though shortly afterward he wrote and restricted her foundations to Castile. With this permission, St. Teresa began to plan other foundations. But also: “After some days, I began to think how necessary it was, if convents for women were to be founded, that there should be friars following the same rule, and seeing how few there were in this province – it even seemed to me that they were dying out – I commended the matter earnestly to our Lord, and wrote a letter to our Father General, begging him as well as I could to grant this permission.”
Rossi replied immediately, granting her the permission. Teresa, however, was preoccupied with making the second convent of reformed nuns at Medina del Campo, 50 miles north of Avila, and put the question of the friars aside for the moment.
It was at Medina however that she met Anthony de Heredia, prior of the Carmelite monastery there, and later, a newly ordained priest, twenty-five years old, John de Yepes, both of whom were considering leaving the Carmelite Order to join the Carthusians, in order to live a more dedicated form of life. They became Anthony of Jesus and John of the Cross, the first two Friars of the Discalced Carmelite Order; their first monastery, an abandoned farm house at Duruelo, was given to St. Teresa by a relative of hers. On the first Sunday of Advent, 1568, the provincial offered Mass, and then Anthony, John, and Joseph, a young Carmelite deacon from Medina del Campo, approached the altar, where they formally renounced the mitigation of Eugene IV and promised to live according to the rule of 1247. They followed Teresa’s practice of omitting their family names and adopting a religious title instead, and it is the first time that John used the title “of the Cross.” Anthony of Jesus was then appointed prior of the monastery by the provincial, and John of the Cross, novice master. The reform of the friars had begun.
St. Teresa felt Duruelo was a greater grace than the Lord had given her to found houses for nuns. Duruelo represented, as she wrote, “the beginnings of a restoration of the rule of the Virgin, His Mother, and Our Lady and Patroness. By 1570, there were two monasteries of friars and six convents of nuns.
The general in Rome, John Rossi, was pleased with the movement, but he was watching it carefully because he did not want it to get out of hand. However, he regarded it as a Spanish phenomenon, and not a real solution to his problem: the reform of the entire Order.
Rossi had two principal fears about the reform. He was afraid that the Discalced friars would become so strong and popular that they would completely overshadow the Calced friars in Spain and thoroughly debilitate the already tottering Spanish provinces. Those fears were realized. He wanted the Reform; but he wanted it from inside the Order and under his direction. He was afraid that his inability to do this, plus the growing popularity of the Discalced, would result in a movement which would end in two Carmelite Orders, one following the mitigated, 15th century tradition, and the other following the primitive, 13th century tradition. Those fears were also realized.
III. DUAL JURISDICTION
After Rossi left Spain in 1567, after his general visitation of the houses there, many of the Monasteries complained to King Phillip. Phillip obtained bulls from the Holy See which placed the religious orders of Spain under the jurisdiction of the local bishops rather than their generals in Rome. This was largely ineffective, so in 1569 Phillip obtained another bull from Pius V in Rome which nominated two Spanish priests as general visitors for a number of orders, the Carmelites among them. These two priests, both members of the Dominican Order, were Peter Fernandez and Francis Vargas. Their authority was over both Calced and Discalced in matters of reform, and they could appoint and dismiss superiors, found and suppress monasteries, contravene instructions of any Carmelite superior, even the general in Rome. Such a situation, only possible under a ruler like Phillip, created a dual jurisdiction: the general in Rome and the two visitators in Spain. And the two Dominicans possessed the greater authority, since they were the official representatives of the pope. This created confusion, but provided the Discalced with the opportunity to extend the reform against the wishes of John Rossi.
IV. THE INCARNATION
Teresa first met Fernandez in the spring of 1571 at Avila when she had retired to St. Joseph after founding her eighth convent at Alba de Tormes. She thought he was “very wise, of saintly life and great learning.” Fernandez shrewdly evaluated the nun about whom he had heard so much, and decided that he approved of her.
At this time, the convent of the Incarnation was overcrowded, impoverished, and undisciplined, presenting a pressing problem to the Visitator. He decided upon a very unconventional solution; he appointed Teresa as Prioress. Of course she protested they would never accept her, but Fernandez felt it was the right solution and insisted.
The scene when she arrived at the Incarnation was a wild one and the local police had to be called to force the way into the choir. The provincial installed Teresa, and she addressed her belligerent community. She told them she had been given the assignment under obedience and was distressed by it. “I come here solely to serve and please you in every possible way that I can,” she said, “and I hope the Lord will greatly assist me to do this.” She said she had no intention of forcing the primitive rule upon them, but only of helping them to live their own rule and constitutions. “My only desire is that we should all serve the Lord in quietness.” Then she placed a large statue of the Blessed Virgin in the prioress’ place in the choir, and sat at its feet. “Here is our Lady of Mercy,” she said. “She is your prioress.”
The nuns soon became enthusiastic supporters of their new prioress, and after a month Teresa could write: “Glory be to God, there is peace here now – that is something! We are gradually cutting down the nuns’ amusements and giving them less freedom, and they are so good about it.” And after five months: “Those who were the most obstinate before are now the most contented.” In short time she had the convent in a healthy financial position, had tightened up the discipline of the community, limited the number of visitors, and established an atmosphere of religious life. And into all this she injected her infectious gaiety, making the Incarnation a happy and contented institution.
Teresa realized that she needed an exceptional spiritual director for the nuns, and asked Fernandez to appoint John of the Cross. He remained as confessor there for five years, at the end of which came his arrest and imprisonment.
Teresa left the Incarnation forever in 1574. She founded a convent at Beas (and in May, another one at Seville).
V. JEROME GRATIAN
It was during the foundation of the convent at Beas that Teresa first met Jerome Gratian, a young Discalced Carmelite priest who was to have such a profound and disastrous effect on the lives of Teresa and John and everyone in the Reform. He was a man of exceptional promise, deeply spiritual and dedicated to prayer; he was also cultured and polished and well educated, a man of charm. He was a zealous priest, eloquent orator, and prolific writer. His personality was amazingly like that of St. Teresa’s but with one great flaw – an alarming lack of good judgment. Teresa responded to him immediately and for the remainder of her life, she had an overwhelming affection for this gifted Carmelite. She called the three weeks she spent in Gratian’s company at Beas “the best days of my life.”
Gratian was made visitator to the Calced and Discalced by Vargas who was anxious to rid himself of the office, and who was much impressed by Gratian. Gratian made many mistakes – it would have been hard not to – and was received by the Calced with murmurings and threats of physical violence. At length he began to fear for his life.
Perhaps the gravest mistake Gratian made was his failure to contact Rossi in Rome and inform him of his delegated faculties from Vargas or of his operations in Andalusia – even at the pleadings of St. Teresa.
On the one side, Gratian had the backing, or approval, of King Phillip II and Nicholas Ormaneto, both of whom were deeply impressed with him. On the other, the rejection by both the monasteries and by the general in Rome. He was accused of disobedience to his general, incompetence in administration, immorality in his private life.
St. Teresa also came under fire since she allied herself so closely to Gratian and was also beginning again after the three years at the Incarnation to establish convents. Libelous reports were sent to Rome accusing her of immorality and she was reported to the Inquisition.
At this point Rossi was thoroughly enraged at the Discalced and determined to do everything to check the reform. The chapter quickly approved a series of painfully severe edicts against the Discalced Friars.
a. They were restricted to monasteries in Castile.
b. They were to be called Contemplative or Primitive Carmelites, not Discalced.
c. They were forbidden to wear sandals.
d. They were forbidden to carry staffs.
e. They were required to sing Mass and the Office in choir as did the rest of the friars and nuns
of the Order.
Perhaps these do not seem “severe,” but as Teresa immediately stated, they were a calculated effort to destroy her work, not just because the Discalced were restricted to Castile, but because they attempted to eradicate the image of a restoration movement – the name, the sandals, the simple recitation of the office.
Teresa herself wrote to Rossi – to no avail. He had become disenchanted with her and issued: a further edict
that she was to cease her travels and be confined to some convent of her choice in Castile.
Teresa retired to Toledo for a year – until Gratian freed her. But she had been glad as she said for the “Possibility of getting some quietness,” and had enjoyed being out of the struggle for a time. She was better than she had been for years. The time there she devoted to writing the Foundations.
The fight between the Discalced and the general in Rome was due largely to the stubbornness of Gratian in failing to maintain contact with Rossi. Rossi was also to blame for listening to only one side before issuing the edicts.
St. Teresa realized that it was a hopeless situation between the two segments of the Order – that they could not live together in peace and that an independent status had to be obtained for the Discalced. In July 1575, she wrote to Phillip II, whom she called “my friend the King.” Phillip, however, though he had been protecting the Discalced, decided now to let it stand as it was for the time being. It was not until four years later that he intervened directly by petitioning and obtaining from the Holy See independence for the reform. But these four years caused St. Teresa what she called her “great storm of trials.”
Gratian tried to resume his visitation but was rejected by the Calced who protested to Rossi. Rossi, seeing that he would get no help from Rome appointed his own representative, a Portuguese Carmelite, Jerome Tostado, whom Teresa depicts as the villain of the piece.
Gratian called a meeting of the Discalced and declared his intention of creating a separate province of Discalced Carmelites with its own provincial and its own administration. The assembled friars, including John of the Cross and Anthony of Jesus, approved the proposal. This, with the support of Ormaneto might have solved the situation; but the nuncio fell ill and died the following summer. His successor was Philip Sega, an Italian bishop, who was described by St. Teresa as “one whom God seemed to have sent to try us by suffering.” He also had little use for St. Teresa, whom he called, “a restless gadabout, a disobedient and contumacious woman.”
Gratian reduced his activities radically and Teresa advised great caution and prudence. This was 1577 and St. John of the Cross was still at the Incarnation as confessor for the nuns. Tostado made a visitation to the Incarnation and finding St. John of the Cross and his companion Germain of St. Mathias in residence, commanded them to leave. John responded that he had been appointed to the position by the Dominican Fernandez, visitator, and only Fernandez could rescind the order. Tostado left, but had St. John arrested secretly and brought to Toledo where he conducted an outrageous inquisition, commanding, threatening, and finally attempting to bribe St. John of the Cross into submission. All failing, he had him put in a cell, originally intended as a closet, 10′ x 6′, with only a slit high in the wall to serve as a window. Clothed only in a tattered tunic, John lived for eight months in that dark cell which was freezing in the winter and suffocating in the summer. He was fed only bread and sardines with water. Three nights a week he ate this meager supper kneeling on the floor in the refectory and afterwards, was scourged by the friars for the length of the psalm Miserere. He bore these scars for the rest of his life. During these sessions, he was denounced bitterly before the community; but he bore it all silently and was led bleeding and stumbling back to his cell. When Teresa later learned the details of John’s torture, she exclaimed: “I do not understand how God can allow such things!”
As soon as Teresa had heard of John’s abduction she wrote a distraught letter to the King – and many other letters to many other people – pleading for help for him. But the King was silent and no one else could or was willing to help. For one thing – no one knew where he was imprisoned.
During the spring and early summer of 1578 John languished in prison, emaciated and exhausted, suffering the inner agonies of abandonment. Six months after his capture, another priest, more compassionate, was appointed as his jailer. He gave St. John an oil lamp and writing materials – and needle and thread to mend his ragged tunic. But more important, he was not so strict about the lock on St. John’s door, which gave him an opportunity to walk in the corridor and study the floor plan of the monastery.
In August, St. John decided to escape. He knew he would die if he remained in prison much longer. Every day as he walked in the corridor, he worked a few minutes at the screws that held the lock on his door until they were loose enough to fall out at a hard blow from behind the door. On the night of August 16, he put his plan into action. He slammed his fist against the door; the padlock fell to the floor; he stole into the corridor with a rope made by tearing his blanket into long strips. He climbed out of a window onto a small balcony; slowly let himself down over the side of the wall until he reached the end of the rope – still some ten feet from the ground. He dropped – but still behind the cloister wall. Painfully he pulled himself up over the wall and then jumped down to the street. He had escaped.
St. John slept that night in a hallway in the city and next morning went to the convent of Discalced nuns. Anne of the Angels was prioress and managed to have him hid and then rescued by a canon of the Cathedral and administrator of the hospital of Holy Cross, to which he took St. John and secretly cared for him until he was strong enough to travel.
As St. Teresa said: “God forgive them! . . It is a piteous story.” But what Tostado and Sega had unwittingly done was to provide the reform with a martyr-symbol. It was the turning point.
The king’s council had served notice in July that the King was still very much interested in St. Teresa’s reform. Tostado was ordered by the King to return to Rome. Rossi died in September. The new general, more favorably disposed to ending the struggle, wrote a friendly letter to the Discalced friars. St. Teresa urged Gratian to legalize the formation of the separate province for the Discalced which he had declared two years earlier.
The struggle was rapidly moving to a close. A friend of Teresa’s encouraged the King to seek a formal brief of separation from the Holy See. On April 1, 1579, the nuncio Sega declared that the Discalced were not subject to the Calced, and revoked all the briefs which had been issued during the long struggle.
The Discalced sent another delegation, John of Jesus and Diego of the Trinity, to Rome in May of that same year to participate in the discussion about the details of the separate province for the Discalced. At the last moment, the general of the order, Caffardo, seemed to hesitate. But at the persistence of the John of Jesus, the Holy See ultimately accepted the view of the Discalced.
Pope Gregory XIII issued the decree of separation on June 22, 1580 and the document represented complete victory for the Discalced. The long struggle was over.
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of Life, Foreword. (no longer in effect; replaced by current Constitutions and Statutes)
2. Carmelite Studies 3, Centenary of St. Teresa, ICS Publications.
3. Carmelite Studies 6, John of the Cross, ICS Publications.
4. Also, if available, see Disputed Questions, by Thomas Merton, especially the chapter entitled
“The Primitive Carmelite Ideal.”