The Teresian Carmel
A brief history
In August 1562 Saint Teresa founded a new style of Carmelite community in Ávila, Spain. It was to become the first of a new Order: the Discalced Carmelites. [The term 'discalced' means 'barefoot' and comes from the practice of wearing sandals.]
Teresa tells us she founded her community so that women could contribute to the life of the Church which, at the time, was being torn apart by the Reformation. The nuns were to dedicate their contemplative lives of prayer and friendship with Christ for the unity and holiness of the Church.
Teresa was critical of the society of her day which was obsessed with honour and rivalry. She wanted a world where people were humbly and authentically themselves, where all were equal. When Teresa began her career as founder she gave up her aristocratic name and became simply Teresa of Jesus. For her to know who she was it was enough to look to her relationship with Jesus. Teresa was also critical that in the Church of her day there was suspicion of women and a refusal to accept their gifts in public roles.
So she founded a small, close community of equals whose liturgies were simple so that there was time for intimate, contemplative prayer. The community was enclosed so that the sisters would not be distracted by trivialities and would be free from interference in their spiritual lives. The sisters were called to be friends with one another and with Christ. For Teresa the holier the nuns were the more joyful and sociable they would be. The community style was simple and austere but truly joyous and humane.
Teresa was a delightful, charming and witty woman as any who has read her writings will tell you. Her personality comes alive as if she were speaking to you today. She became a writer so as to give an account of herself when her spirit was called into question. The result is The Book of her Life. She then continued writing to provide guidance for her Carmelite sisters and many others as many spiritual books in the vernacular (the native language) had been banned by the Inquisition. Her masterpiece is the Interior Castle. This classic of Christian spirituality tells of the beauty which dwells at the centre of each person where Christ is. The spiritual journey is to union with Christ in one’s centre.
When Teresa heard of the millions in Latin America who had not heard the Gospel her heart went out to the entire world. She wanted to make a contribution to the spread of the Christian faith by founding more communities. In 1567 she received permission to make more foundations of nuns and to begin communities of friars. She wanted the friars to live the same contemplative life as the nuns so they could support and guide them while also being available for apostolic and missionary work.
While making her second foundation in 1567 she met a young, newly ordained friar John of the Cross. He was disillusioned and wanted to leave the Carmelites. Teresa recruited him for her project. By November 1568 she had a property but had only recruited two friars for the first foundation. She took John of the Cross with her for the foundation of the convent in Valladolid so that he could learn from the nuns the balance of the Discalced Carmelite way of life, with its prayer, penance and recreation. The friars began their life together at Duruelo. They lived an intense life of prayer and while joyfully sharing the poverty and isolation of this area they took responsibility for the pastoral care of the people who had been neglected.
A spirituality for all
Teresian spirituality was not meant only for enclosed nuns or friars. Through her conversations she guided many priests and religious to God. Teresa also directed lay people. Her own brother Lorenzo, after his return from Latin America, lived a Carmelite life in his own home under her direction. John of the Cross was a noted spiritual director and had a wide experience of leading many different men and women in the spiritual life.