Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Teresian Reform

"As we come to treat of the monastery of St. Joseph, founded by Teresa of Jesus on 24 August 1562, it is as well to note that we shall be focussing primarily on Teresa herself, soon to become known as the Mother Foundress. She has reached the mature age of 47, with 27 years experience of religious life at the Incarnation behind her. Moreover her heart has been enriched with a deep and abiding experience of God, and is filled with a plan of living which she is convinced will make it easier for many consecrated souls to achieve that degree of union with God which she has reached herself after many years of searching and suffering. Note, too, that when her followers start to call he Foundress, they do so because they know that it was her creative spirit that gave birth to the communities into which they have entered, though she did so without breaking the continuity and connection with the whole previous tradition of the Church and of Carmel, as the last chapter makes clear.

Without further preamble, then, let us take a brief look at the most significant aspects of this new community which Mother Teresa has gathered round her.

The first important point is that she began this community with four postulants who entered directly from home. They were young, generous, ready for anything and Teresa was ready and willing to guide them in their undertaking and create with them a new community by organising their life in the way most suited to the achievement of their aims.

One aspect of Teresa's charismatic originality was this openness and availability to others; it enabled her to share her own experience with them simply and honestly, attract them by her example and inspire in them the desire to follow her on the path to the heights. Her mission among her own daughters was to help each of them to live in their own inimitable way what she had experienced herself. No amount of historical or theological analysis can give us a clear perception of this basic element. We can bring together all the words of wisdom which she has left us; we can collect quite a number of contemporary testimonies, but we will never succeed in knowing her ag well as any of those young nuns who had the good fortune to spend years in her company. Life is transmitted by living, and living together increases that knowledge which is later so difficult to pass on to others or translate into a set of principles. Nevertheless, in spite of that historical limitation of our knowledge, any effort to get as close as possible to the reality of life at St. Joseph's is justified.

Although Teresa always kept the end in view, and this was the same for everybody, she tried to teach it to her daughters according to the individual capacity of each one of them. Every soul has to live out its adventure alone with God, opposed by the devil and self-love. The search for God begins with baptism and goes on till death. And, since each person has their own particular dose of self-love, and is interfered with differently by the devil, the task of the guide is to show each individual what the right path is for him or her. Saint Teresa tried with all the means at her disposal to help her new companions understand that God is the prime mover, and, that while his ways are too mysterious for us to grasp, he does nevertheless need our cooperation, our effort. We may not be able to help him much, but we can certainly get in his way most effectively.

Those young nuns were quick to realise that Teresa's experience and wisdom were something out of the ordinary. To make sure that neither time nor her absence could remove such a treasure from their midst, they asked her to put her counsels to them in writing. Thus was born "The Way of Perfection" (1565): "This book treats of the advice and counsel that Teresa of Jesus gives to the nuns, her daughters." As if to say: this is what I tell them in our community meetings, in my conversations with them, and indeed whenever a favourable opportunity presents itself. The book was very quickly to become the extension of her personal presence. It was not just another book of theories, but a lived experience shared very effectively with anyone who approached it with an open mind and a desire to learn. While she was alive Teresa continued to teach them; when she died, the book continued to remind them of her teachings.

And so it was that in every new community, even in those founded after her death, Teresa was the real novice mistress. Each novice received her writings, and the appointed novice mistress felt she was there to help St. Teresa out by explaining any point the novice couldn't understand for herself. This aspect, fundamental to the understanding of the importance of the Way of Perfection in the history of Carmel, has caused some to call this book "The Teresian Gospel", and draw the parallel between the way in which the Gospels bring us to know Jesus and the way in which this book leads us to know Mother Teresa.

Bearing in mind then, that this book derives its effectiveness from the personality of its author st least as much as from the ideas it contains, let us recall the dominant themes that run through it, the basic ideas on which Teresa built her teaching in those first years at St. Joseph's - what, in other words, she wanted them to remember always.

They had come together in a humble abode, stripped of superfluous luxuries, few in members, like the apostolic college, to respond to the love of the Lord, to grow in friendship with Him, the better to deal with Him on behalf of their brethren. The whole Church, especially its priests, would be the subject of their conversations with their God-friend; their vigils and care would be for the needs of all souls.

The royal road by which one grew in God's friendship was life of prayer, a life which required three indispensable conditions: love of one's neighbour, detachment from the things of the world - especially from oneself - and humility, defined as walking in the truth.

The principles are only too clear and no one would quarrel with them. But when it comes to applying them in the circumstances of everyday life things are a little more difficult. It is then that the devil and self love let one down. Does the love of our neighbour mean saying yes or no to them? If we are detached from ourselves, do we defend ourselves or remain silent? Does humility mean that we must let our talents fade into oblivion, or, since humility is truth, ought we not make the most of them. The answer to those questions is not always easy; hence the digressions in the book. Every time Teresa remembers a useful experience-- be it her own or someone else's - she writes it down without bothering very much about where it might fit logically. All she is worried about is that when one of the sisters finds herself in a similar situation she will remember the incident and benefit accordingly. The basic ideas will never change, but their applications are limitless. People differ from one another; days vary. But if this treasure is properly assimilated it will always serve a useful purpose.

Teresa's daughters took the orientations she had given them seriously, and soon they found themselves free from care about material things and free of self-love. Recognising their spiritual poverty and helping one another with the sensitivity and sincerity born of true love, they revelled in the peace which Mother Teresa radiated and felt part of the marvellous environment she was creating around her. In other words, St. Teresa was able to create an environment in which people could see a whole new world open up before them, distant horizons to reach out to. (The Teresian novitiate does not so much teach a few things to be practised as set people on a journey, and show them the road they are to travel for the rest of their lives.) The horizon, and indeed the way there, is friendship with God, the Father in Heaven; whose name is to be sanctified, especially when the soul has experienced his Kingdom come within it; whose will is to be done, not from force of habit but deliberately, as long as the short "today" of this life lasts, with the help of Christ's presence in the Eucharist, though he be "so heavily disguised that it is no small torment to someone who has no other love or comfort"; whose forgiveness is obtained by really forgiving one's brethren, and not by penances or good intentions concerning reconciliation; and whose help is the only sure guarantee against the wiles of the devil dressed up as a angel of light, the only freedom from all evil.

The second part of the book is simply a commentary on the Our Father. Anyone who wants to lead a life of prayer cannot do better than follow the way Jesus himself taught.

Obviously, therefore, the Way of Perfection contains some basic ideas, clearly set forth. Teresa wants every novice who comes to her houses to assimilate these, to gradually make them her own in the measure of which she is capable, and to be committed to following this road, with God's help, forever; the novitiate, in fact, never ends."

-- Teresian Carmel: Pages of History by Fr Idelfonso Moriones, ocd

** The Discalced / Teresian Carmel began today, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, 448 years ago. Thank you, holy mother St Teresa! And HAPPY BIRTHDAY to all members of the discalced carmelite family!

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