San José, in Ávila, Spain. Founded by St. Teresa in 1562

Sometimes I wonder about the Providence that willed that the first foundation of St. Teresa of Jesus would be inaugurated on this feast of St. Bartholomew, a great missionary apostle. One might ask: what business does a contemplative order such as the Discalced Carmel have in having this feast as its inauguration? The answer, of course, is that our business—like that of our Holy Mother St. Teresa and like that of the apostles—is zeal for souls. This is the same great zeal that led a cloistered nun from Nowhere, France, to become co-patroness of the missions (St. Thérèse of Lisieux)! What better day than today, the feast of the apostle and this anniversary of the founding of San Jose in Ávila, the first foundation of St. Teresa, to remind ourselves of this important dimension.

In preparation for this feast, I asked one of my Spanish brothers for a word of inspiration concerning the foundation of San Jose. Very matter-of-factly, he replied, “You know her brother Lorenzo paid for it with riches from America!” While I don’t know how inspiring that fact is—I personally didn’t find it all that groundbreaking—it did remind me of the beautiful letters that our Holy Mother wrote to her brother Lorenzo around the time of San Jose’s foundation.

In dire financial need to make repairs to the buildings she’d purchased for this foundation, she writes to Lorenzo about 8 months before this date in 1562:

“I believe that it was God who stirred you to send me so much…. I have already written you a long letter about a matter that for many reasons I could not escape doing, since God’s inspirations are the source…. A monastery of nuns. There will be no more than fifteen nuns in it, who will practice a very strict enclosure, never going out or allowing themselves to be seen without veils covering their faces. Their life will be one of prayer and mortification.”1

We can only imagine what St. Teresa wrote to her brother in this other letter that she mentions, but I would venture to guess that it presented the sequence of inspirations and graces that she had to write and relate over and over again to various ecclesiastical inquiries concerning this project of reform. But it’s more than just a series of inspirations and graces. Ultimately what she receives in these years leading up to 1562 is a charism. She is given the special grace given to founders of religious orders of a charism–a mission.

As with most great conversions, the grace of our Holy Mother’s charism begins with a purification. As a bibliophile, it is perhaps the most difficult purification that I can think of: many of the spiritual books that brought Teresa so much consolation are taken away by the 1559 decree of the Inquisition. But with this purification comes the most consoling voice—Jesus speaks to her:

“Don’t be sad, for I shall give you a living book.”2

Herein lies one pillar of the foundation of Teresa’s charism. In being purified of the consolations of good books and spiritual reading, she is able to encounter Our Lord as her intimate friend. This was one of the major pillars upon which San Jose was founded—a place for friends of Jesus.

The second major grace that lays at the foundation of Teresa’s charism is the vision she experiences of hell. Already entertaining the thought of this new foundation, and procrastinating to begin the work, this experience set Holy Mother aflame with zeal to save souls. She writes in her Life:

“Everything seems to me easy when compared to undergoing for a moment what I suffered there in hell…. It seems certain to me that in order to free one alone from such appalling torments I would suffer many deaths very willingly.”3

And so here we have the roots of that other dimension of Carmel. There’s the contemplative dimension of friendship of Jesus, and then this apostolic dimension, to save souls. Of course, the contemplative dimension is the very avenue by which the Carmelite goes about saving souls. If we are friends of Jesus, then we should bring others to this friendship. This is the zeal of our Holy Mother. To bring others to friendship with Jesus. To pray for this transformation in friendship in the world. To witness to the ideals of charity and friendship within the confines of a religious community. The world desperately needs this witness. I write this in jest, but the Carmelite witness to the ideals of charity goes beyond the mere fact that our priors and prioresses don’t have to call the sheriff every other day to break up fights. Of course, it’s much deeper and more supernatural than that. What happens in religious communities is the work of the spirit in building the Kingdom of God. I don’t know what besides building the Kingdom of God is the purpose of the apostolate.

“In this house … all must be friends, all must be loved, all must be held dear, all must be helped.”4

These are the words our Holy Mother enjoins on us to know and to live our apostolic charism.

Of course, Carmelite’s role in building the Kingdom of God extends beyond the walls of his or her monastery. By praying for the world, and in particular for priests and bishops, Discalced Carmelite friars and nuns are the standard bearers for our great King. Our Holy Mother writes:

“Even though the standard-bearer doesn’t fight in the battle, he doesn’t for that reason fail to walk in great danger; and interiorly he must do more work than anyone. Since he carries the flag, he cannot defend himself; and even though they cut him to pieces he must not let it out of his hands. So it is with contemplatives: they must keep the flag of humility raised and suffer all the blows they receive without returning any. Their duty is to suffer as Christ did, to hold high the cross, not to let it out of their hand whatever the dangers they see themselves in, nor let any weakness in suffering be seen in them; for this reason they are given so honorable an office. The contemplative must be careful about what he is doing, for if he lets go of the flag the battle will be lost.”5

And so, we attain to hold high the flag for our great King and for His kingdom. On this feast of a great apostle, and on this anniversary of the foundation of a great contemplative tradition, we must not forget that Carmel exists for an apostolic purpose. By our prayers and sacrifices, we must endeavor to win many souls over to Christ. We must, by our prayers and sacrifices obtain graces for those priests, religious, and lay persons who fight on the front lines of this battle for souls, remembering particularly these words of our Holy Mother:

“Let those who are to come [speaking of those who become Carmelites] realize that if this bishop is holy the subjects will be so too; and as something very important always ask this of the Lord in your prayers. And when your prayers, desires, disciplines, and fasts are not directed toward obtaining these things I mentioned, reflect on how you are not accomplishing or fulfilling the purpose for which the Lord brought you here together. And may the Lord because of who His Majesty is never allow you to forget this.”6

——–

[1] Letter 2 to Don Lorenzo de Cepeda, 23 December 1561. In St. Teresa of Avila, The Collected Letters of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 1, 1546–1577, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2001.)
[2] Life 26.5. In Teresa of Ávila, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 1, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2019.)
[3] Life 32.5–6. In Teresa of Ávila, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 1, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2019.)
[4] The Way of Perfection 4.7. In Teresa of Ávila, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 2, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2017.)
[5] The Way of Perfection 18.5. In Teresa of Ávila, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 2, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2017.)
[6] The Way of Perfection 3.10. In Teresa of Ávila, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 2, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2017.)