Life of St. Teresa - F. A. Forbes

St. Joseph's

"A cowardly soul, afraid of anything but sin against God, is a very unseemly thing, when we have on our side the King omnipotent."

The news that the Convent of St. Joseph had been actually founded spread through Avila like wildfire. The poorer people in their simple faith hailed it with joy, but those who from the first had been against it gave full vent to their indignation, and did all in their power to influence the public against it. This unendowed convent, they cried, would take the bread out of the mouths of the poor; it was a novelty, moreover, and the interests of the town demanded that it should be suppressed at once. "If the Moors had invaded Avila," said Father Julian, "and set the whole town on fire, the disturbance could scarcely have been greater."

When the news reached the Convent of the Incarnation, Teresa was severely blamed. She was insulting the whole Order, cried the nuns, by attempting to lead a more perfect life than its other members, and the Prioress was induced to order her instant return to the Incarnation.

It was hard to leave the young novices alone, but Teresa's first thought was obedience. Having blessed and embraced her little family, she commended it to our Lord and St. Joseph, placed Ursula of the Saints in charge of the small household; and departed. No sooner had she arrived at the Incarnation than she was summoned before the Prioress and the elder members of the community to explain her conduct. She gently answered all the questions put to her, excused herself in no way for what she had done, and asked pardon, if she had been in any way to blame. It was then decided that she should be questioned by the Provincial, and Father Angel was hastily summoned. Before the assembled nuns he rebuked Teresa sharply for her action, but not a word in her own defence passed her lips. Standing before them all like a culprit, she humbly listened to what Father de Salasar had to say, begging only that she might be punished and then forgiven.

The Provincial, touched by Teresa's humility, counselled indulgence, but of this the nuns would not hear. Her doings were a source of scandal to the town, they declared; she was the most imperfect amongst them all, and had only founded the monastery that people might think well of her. To these accusations Teresa only replied that it was perfectly true, that she was the greatest sinner in the convent.

Father de Salasar was thoroughly perplexed; turning at last to Teresa, he bade her declare before the assembled company the reasons that had moved her to act as she had done. The simple eloquence of her reply impressed him so much that, dismissing the nuns, he ordered her to speak to him fully of all that had passed between her Divine Master and herself, the counsel she had taken, and the means she had employed.

Father Angel was an upright man and a good religious. As he listened to Teresa's humble recital and realized how careful she had been not to act in any way against obedience, he was as much prejudiced in her favour as he had been against her. Dismissing her at last with his blessing, he promised to allow her to return to St. Joseph's as soon as the turmoil had subsided.

There was no sign, however, of this. A meeting was held in the town hall by the people of Avila, at which it was decided that the new convent should be suppressed and the novices sent back to their homes. When told of this decision the little community flatly refused to obey; they appealed to their God and to the King. They were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop alone, they said, and he alone could dismiss them,

The Governor, nothing daunted, held another meeting, at which it was declared that the convent had been founded without the consent of the town, and was on this account illegal. The Blessed Sacrament must therefore be removed, the nuns expelled, and the house pulled down. The order was about to be given when a learned Dominican, Father Banez, rose to his feet and addressed the people. Teresa de Ahumada, he explained, was unknown to him except by name; he had never even seen her; he was therefore wholly unbiased in the matter. "But it is a marvel to me," he continued, "that the townspeople of Avila can believe that a few poor women hidden in their cells should constitute a danger to the public or be a burden on the town. What is the reason of this meeting? Is there an enemy at our. gates? Is the town on fire? Are plague and famine amongst us? No. Four humble Carmelites are praying in an obscure quarter of the city. Moreover, the Bishop alone has power to deal with the question, for the Holy See has placed the convent under his jurisdiction. Let those who think the foundation illegal make their complaints to him."

Father Banez was a man of weight in Avila; his opinion was respected, and for the moment the danger was averted. The Governor was obliged to give way, and the meeting was dispersed; but the Saint's enemies were determined not to be beaten. They did all in their power to induce the Provincial and the Prioress of the Incarnation to compel Teresa to submit to their will, and the storm raged on without abating.

The Saint's friends were not idle either. Father Julian of Avila, who had constituted himself Teresa's devoted squire and chaplain, went backwards and forwards between St. Joseph's and the Convent of the Incarnation, bringing Teresa news of her daughters and returning with words of comfort and consolation to the orphaned community. Father Gaspar Daza was also watching over the new foundation, zealously training the novices in the ways of the spiritual life, while Don Francisco de Salcedo provided for their temporal necessities.

The authorities of Avila finally decided to lay the case before the King's Council. Many of Teresa's friends interested themselves in her cause, and the lawsuit ended in a complete triumph for the Reform, the Council blaming the Governor severely for his action in the matter. It only remained for Teresa to obtain permission to return to St. Joseph's, but this the Provincial hesitated to grant. Father Pedro Ibanez, who had befriended the Saint at the beginning of her enterprise, and who was back for a short time in Avila, did all in his power on her behalf. Even the Bishop, Don Alvaro de Mendoza, wrote to Father de Salasar, but with no effect. Teresa at last took the matter into her own hands. "Beware, my Father, of resisting the Holy Ghost," she said one day solemnly to the Provincial. At her words his hesitation vanished. He not only gave her permission to return herself to St. Joseph's, but even allowed her to take with her some nuns from the Incarnation who wished to join the Reform.

Who shall describe the joy at the little convent as Teresa crossed the threshold Her first visit was to the chapel to thank God for all His mercies and to offer herself and her little flock to Him for ever. There at the foot of the Tabernacle she saw in a vision her Lord, who, stooping lovingly towards her, placed a crown on her head and blessed her for what she had done in His service. Then the Saint, together with her companions from the Incarnation, put on the coarse habit and the rough sandals of the Reform. Dona Teresa do Ahumada was now Teresa of Jesus.

And what of the little convent that she had founded? Father Julian of Avila, who wrote the history of the foundation forty-two years later, says:

"God willed to have a house in which He could recreate Himself: a house in which He could take up His abode; a garden in which flowers should grow not of the kind which blow on earth, but those which bloom only in Heaven."

It was truly the little sanctuary of which Teresa had dreamed; a place of prayer and penance for the salvation of souls, where God was served in perfect fidelity.

The thought of the end for which the convent had been founded was ever present with the Saint. "Let us help by our prayers," she would say to her novices, "the apostolic men who are working in the world to save sinners, for they are the servants of our King. If we contribute to their success by our prayers we shall also have fought, we in our solitude, for God's cause."

Mortification, obedience and humility were the virtues Teresa required of her daughters, together with a holy joy and freedom of heart in God's service. The different duties of the little household were divided amongst its inmates, Teresa taking her turn in the kitchen with the others, and working harder than them all. It was remarked that when it was her turn to cook, everything that she needed seemed to come as if by magic. It was as if our Lord, knowing how she delighted in making a little feast for her daughters, took care to provide the means. On other days when the fare was scanty, she would so speak to them of the love of God that their hearts were all on fire and every privation was forgotten. When the nuns were not at prayer or chanting the Divine Office, they spent their time in spinning or mending; every moment was turned to account, for idleness, as Teresa well knew, opens a door to many evils. The recreations, presided over by the Saint, were full of gaiety and holy joy. Teresa could not bear melancholy. "A sad min is a bad nun," she would often say, and a depressing or depressed postulant had small chance of admittance at St. Joseph's.

No one knew better than she the weakness of human nature, and the dangers of giving way to fussiness about health. She had learnt by her own experience that God blesses courage in this respect, and advised her daughters to practise it. When they were really ill, she bade them say so simply, but as for trifling ailments, it was best to think as little about them as possible. "I beg of you, my children, to bear your little ills in silence," she would say to her novices; "they are sometimes only the effect of the imagination. The more we give in the worse we get." In the time of real suffering they were to lift up their thoughts to Heaven, "How sweet it will be for us at the hour of death," she cries, "to go to be judged by Him whom we have loved above all things! . . . What happiness to think we are not going to a strange country, but to our own, since it is the home of that beloved Spouse whom we love so much, and by whom we are so much loved!"

The Bishop of Avila, Don Alvaro de Mendoza, visited the convent frequently, and was delighted with the fervour of its inmates. One day he brought with him a beautiful crucifix, which Teresa begged leave to show to the community. She had returned to the parlour and was talking to the Bishop, when the sound of voices singing led her to open the door leading into the cloister. A little procession had been formed by the novices, at the head of which marched the youngest postulant holding the crucifix aloft, and singing the litany of the Holy Name. Instead, however, of "Have mercy on us," they were chanting fervently, "Stay with us." The application was obvious, and Teresa was a little ashamed of her daughters, but the Bishop only laughed. Needless to say, the crucifix remained at St. Joseph's.

In the autumn of 1566 a holy missionary, Father Maldonado, came to see Teresa. He had just returned from the West Indies, and had sad tales to tell of the ignorance and vice of the natives. For some days after his departure the Saint could do nothing but pray to God to help these poor souls, that they might not be lost eternally. As she knelt weeping before the Tabernacle our Lord appeared and said to her, "Wait a little while, my daughter, and great things shall be revealed to you."

Six months later the Saint heard that Father John Baptist Rubeo, General of the Order of Mount Carmel, was on his way to Spain to visit the houses of his Order. She was not without fear that the General might disapprove of her reform and use his authority to order her to return to the Incarnation; so bidding her daughters pray, she sent him a humble invitation to visit St. Joseph's.

Now the General, who was a wise and holy man, had come to Spain at the request of the King, with the intention of introducing certain reforms among the Spanish Carmelites. At St. Joseph's he found all he had dreamed of and more—the very spirit of Carmel in all its ancient integrity. It was the desire of his heart., he said to Teresa, that such a seed should take root and spread; it was the very realization of all his hopes. Amongst the houses of the Mitigated Rule he found little zeal for reform, and returned frequently during the time of his stay in Spain to talk over difficulties and discuss plans with the Saint. His wish was that she should found other convents of the Primitive Rule, holding their authority straight from the Generals of the Order, and this he gave her leave to do in any places in the province of Castile where the Ordinary of the diocese would give permission.

Don Alvaro de Mendoza, the Bishop, was very anxious to found houses of the Primitive Rule for men also, but here the General hesitated. The time, he said, was not quite ripe for such an undertaking; it would come later. Ile had already set out on his return journey to Rome when he received a message from Teresa earnestly begging that he would grant the Bishop's request. To her he could refuse nothing. Permission was therefore given to found two monasteries of the Primitive Rule for men on the condition that the Provincial gave his consent.