Originally posted October 9, 2005, edited November 7, 2007:
St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross founded and spread the Discalced Carmelite Order, intending to return to the Rule of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, dating back to 1248. The “Primitive Rule” originated in a monastic community living on Mount Carmel, in the Holy Land, dating back to the twelfth century. She talked about it in Chapter 32 of The Life as she told that the Rule of the Carmelite Order was observed then only in the relaxed form permitted by the Bull of Mitigation. In contrast, her Discalced Carmelites observed The Rule of Our Lady of Carmel without any relaxation, which she explained in Chapter 36 of The Life was “in the form drawn up by Friar Hugo, Cardinal of Santa Sabina, and published in 1248, the fifth year of the reign of Pope Innocent IV.” She referred to that Primitive Rule in connection with prayer in The Way of Perfection, Chapter 4:
“Our Primitive Rules tells us to pray without ceasing. Provided we do this with all possible care (and it is the most important thing of all) we shall not fail to observe the fasts, disciplines and periods of silence which the Order commands; for, as you know, if prayer is to be genuine it must be reinforced with these things—prayer cannot be accompanied by self-indulgence.” ( The Way of Perfection on Christian Classics Ethereal Library)
The asceticism of the Rule is similar to the asceticism of some Eastern monasteries, drawn from the desert fathers and mothers whose lives were imitated by the early Latin Carmelite monks who, during the Crusades, sought to live like St. Elijah and St. John the Baptist. However, Teresa of Avila probably knew such forms of monasticism more from the letters of St. Jerome than from any twelfth century source, whether Latin or Greek.
Writings like those of St. John Climacus (seventh century Sinai), St.
John of Damascus (eighth century) and St. Symeon the New Theologian
(late tenth and early eleventh century Constantinople) were very
influential in the Eastern Church, all writing before the split between
the Orthodox Church and Rome. All three of them advocated an
ascetic form of monasticism and a life of prayer. However, their
writings would have been unknown, or little known, in sixteenth century
Spain. Indeed, the language barrier between East and West
prevented much Eastern writing from reaching the West. The early hermits on Mt. Carmel from the era of the Rule of St. Albert of Jerusalem are thought to have been Latin hermits who likewise would have been unable to read such Greek sources of Eastern monasticism. Moreover, they left no writings that would enable us to even know who their founder may have been.
However, St. Teresa knew a great deal about St. Jerome, who is mentioned several times in The Life of St. Teresa of Avila. St. John Cassian, another source of her knowledge of eastern monasticism, was a monk in a fourth century Bethlehem monastery like St. Jerome. As her concept of monks living an ascetic life in the Holy Land may have come more from the those sources than from what she learned about the early Carmelites, it is interesting to look at St. Jerome's letters that might have particularly influenced her.
In Chapter 3 of The Life, Teresa wrote about visiting her uncle in Hortegosa for a few days when she was about sixteen years old. Her uncle, a very devout man, made her read good books to him in Spanish. At one point, in a later visit, the same uncle introduced her to The Spiritual Alphabet by Francisco de Osuna, which taught the prayer of recollection. He may have introduced her to The Letters of St. Jerome. From whatever source, during the three months after that visit with her uncle, at the age of 16, Teresa began to read The Letters of St. Jerome. She wrote, at the end of Chapter 3:
“I had now become subject to severe fainting fits attended by fever, for I had always had very poor health. But I got fresh life from my continued fondness for good books. I would read the Epistles of Saint Jerome, which gave me such courage that I resolved to speak to my father of my resolve [to become a nun], which was almost like taking the habit.”
Her uncle may have been very wise in his choice of books for her.
The Spiritual Alphabet introduced her to the contemplative prayer that
was much of her vocation. The Letters of St. Jerome would have
given strong female monastic role models to her when she was struggling
over whether to become a nun.
There would not have been very many good books available in the sixteenth century for a literate, educated, highly intelligent teen-age girl who read Spanish but not Latin. Certainly, there were not a lot of good books with female characters with whom she might identify.
However, Jerome’s letters are replete with such women, educated women from elite families in the golden era of Rome, not unlike Teresa, who was an educated young woman from a noble family in the Golden Age of Spain. In particular, Paula, who went with Jerome from Rome to Bethlehem and founded a monastery there, would have caught her attention. There was Marcella, who knew the Bible so well, who would have caught the attention of a young woman in an era when few women knew the Bible.
St. Teresa leaves little but speculation and similarity to tell us how much she may have been motivated by Paula and Marcella, but she mentioned St. Jerome and the Desert Fathers several more times in The Life, making their influence on her thinking clear.
In Chapter 7, she mentioned the Desert Fathers and Mothers, saying:
“[I]f anyone begins to devote himself to God there are so many that speak ill of him that he must find companions for his protection, until such time as they are all strong enough not to be depressed by suffering. If he does not, he will find himself in great difficulties.
“I think that this must have been the reason why some of the saints departed into the desert. It is a kind of humility for a man not to trust himself, but to believe that God will help him in his dealings with those precautions against sinning – and I mention this because what I am writing must tell the whole truth.”
In Chapter 11, she mentioned St. Jerome’s Letter No. XXII, in which he mentioned being tempted in the desert by visions of luxury, saying:
“Well, what, I repeat, shall the gardener [pray-er] do now? He shall be glad and take comfort, and consider it the greatest favour that he is working in the garden of so mighty an Emperor. . . . Let him not be afraid that his labour is in vain. He is serving a good Master, who is watching him. Let him pay no attention to evil thoughts, but remember that the devil put them into the mind of Saint Jerome also, in the desert.”
She identified with St. Jerome in Chapter 38, describing one of her visions:
“. . . I seemed to be raised to Heaven, and the first persons I saw there were my father and my mother. . . . I was quite lifted out of myself, finding it altogether too great a favour. . . . I was afraid that this might be an illusion, though it did not seem like one. I could not think what to do, since I felt ashamed to go to my confessor about it – not, I think, out of humility, but because I was afraid hemight laugh at me and say, ‘What a St. Paul she is with her heavenly visions, or another St. Jerome!’ The fact that these glorious saints had similarvisions made me the more afraid, and all I could do was to weep copious tears, for I did not think I could possibly have seen what they saw.”
Then what other parts of the Letters of Saint Jerome suggest themselves as possible influences on St. Teresa of Avila? It requires some speculation, but here are a few possibilities:
Letter XXII. To Eustochium.
This is the only one of St. Jerome’s letters that has a specific, clear reference in The Life of St. Teresa of Avila. It is the most famous of St. Jerome’s letters. Here are some short excerpts:
1. “Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people and thy father’s house, and the king shall desire thy beauty.” . . . Your bridegroom is not haughty or disdainful; He has “married an Ethiopian woman.” When once you desire the wisdom of the true Solomon and come to Him, He will avow all His knowledge to you; He will lead you into His chamber with His royal hand; He will miraculously change your complexion so that it shall be said of you, “Who is this that goeth up and hath been made white?”
3. . . . When the hosts of the enemy distress you, when your frame is fevered and your passions roused, when you say in your heart, “What shall I do?” Elisha’s words shall give you your answer, “Fear not, for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” He shall pray, “Lord, open the eyes of thine handmaid that she may see.” And then when your eyes have been opened you shall see a fiery chariot like Elijah’s waiting to carry you to heaven, and shall joyfully sing: “Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken and we are escaped.” . . .
7. How often, when I was living in the desert, in the vast solitude which gives to hermits a savage dwelling-place, parched by a burning sun, how often did I fancy myself among the pleasures of Rome! I used to sit alone because I was filled with bitterness. Sackcloth disfigured my unshapely limbs and my skin from long neglect had become as black as an Ethiopian’s. Tears and groans were every day my portion; and if drowsiness chanced to overcome my struggles against it, my bare bones, which hardly held together, clashed against the ground. Of my food and drink I say nothing: for, even in sickness, the solitaries have nothing but cold water, and to eat one’s food cooked is looked upon as self-indulgence. Now, although in my fear of hell I had consigned myself to this prison, where I had no companions but scorpions and wild beasts, I often found myself amid bevies of girls. My face was pale and my frame chilled with fasting; yet my mind was burning with desire, and the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me when my flesh was as good as dead. Helpless, I cast myself at the feet of Jesus, I watered them with my tears, I wiped them with my hair: and then I subdued my rebellious body with weeks of abstinence. I do not blush to avow my abject misery; rather I lament that I am not now what once I was. I remember how I often cried aloud all night till the break of day and ceased not from beating my breast till tranquillity returned at the chiding of the Lord. I used to dread my very cell as though it knew my thoughts; and, stern and angry with myself, I used to make my way alone into the desert. Wherever I saw hollow valleys, craggy mountains, steep cliffs, there I made my oratory, there the house of correction for my unhappy flesh. There, also—the Lord Himself is my witness—when I had shed copious tears and had strained my eyes towards heaven, I sometimes felt myself among angelic hosts, and for joy and gladness sang: “because of the savour of thy good ointments we will run after thee.”The Letters of Saint Jerome on Christian Classics Ethereal Library
Letter LVIII to Paulinus:
And last of all let us monks take as the patterns which we are to follow the lives of Paul, of Antony, of Julian, of Hilarion, of the Macarii. And to go back to the authority of scripture, we have our masters in Elijah and Elisha, and our leaders in the sons of the prophets; who lived in fields and solitary places and made themselves tents by the waters of Jordan. The Letters of Saint Jerome on Christian Classics Ethereal Library
Letter CXXIII. To Ageruchia.
15. . . . Jacob in his flight from his brother left behind in his father’s house great riches and made his way with nothing into Mesopotamia. Moreover, to prove to us his powers of endurance, he took a stone for his pillow. Yet as he lay there he beheld a ladder set up on the earth reaching to heaven and behold the Lord stood above it, and the angels ascended and descended on it; the lesson being thus taught that the sinner must not despairof salvation nor the righteous man rest secure in his virtue. To pass over much of the story (for there is no time to explain all the points in the narrative) after twenty years he who before had passed over Jordan with his staff returned into his native land with three droves of cattle, rich in flocks and herds and richer still in children. The apostles likewise travelled throughout the world without either money in their purses, or staves in their hands, or shoes on their feet; and yet they could speak of themselves as “having nothing and yet possessing all things.” “Silver and gold,” say they, “have we none, but such as we have give we thee: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.” For they were not weighed down with the burthen of riches. Therefore they could stand, as Elijah, in the crevice of the rock, they could pass through the needle’s eye, and behold the back parts of the Lord.The Letters of Saint Jerome on Christian Classics Ethereal Library
Letter CXXX. To Demetrias.
4. But what am I doing? Forgetful of my purpose and filled with admiration for this young man, I have spoken in terms of praise of mere worldly advantages; whereas I should rather have commended our virgin [a high born Roman lady wishing to take on the vocation of a virgin] for having rejected all these, and for having determined to regard herself not as a wealthy or a high born lady, but simply as a woman like other women. Her strength of mind almost passes belief. Though she had silks and jewels freely at her disposal, and though she was surrounded by crowds of eunuchs and serving-women, a bustling household of flattering and attentive domestics, and though the daintiest feasts that the abundance of a large house could supply were daily set before her; she preferred to all these severe fasting, rough clothing, and frugal living. For she had read the words of the Lord: “they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” She was filled with admiration for the manner of life followed by Elijah and by John the Baptist; both of whom confined and mortified their loins with girdles of skin, while the second of them is said to have come in the spirit and power of Elijah as the forerunner of the Lord. As such he prophesied while still in his mother’s womb, and before the day of judgment won the commendation of the Judge. The Letters of Saint Jerome on Christian Classics Ethereal Library
Letter CXXV. To Rusticus.
John the Baptist had a religious mother and his father was a priest. Yet neither his mother’s affection nor his father’s wealth could induce him to live in his parents’ house at the risk of his chastity. He lived in the desert, and seeking Christ with his eyes refused to look at anything else. His rough garb, his girdle made of skins, his diet of locusts and wild honey were all alike designed to encourage virtue and continence. The sons of the prophets, who were the monks of the Old Testament, built for themselves huts by the waters of Jordan and forsaking the crowded cities lived in these on pottage and wild herbs. As long as you are at home make your cell your paradise, gather there the varied fruits of scripture, let this be your favourite companion, and take its precepts to your heart. . . .
10. Quite recently we have seen to our sorrow a fortune worthy of Crœsus brought to light by a monk’s death, and a city’s alms, collected for the poor, left by will to his sons and successors. After sinking to the bottom the iron has once more floated upon the surface, and men have again seen among the palm-trees the bitter waters of Marah. In this there is, however, nothing strange, for the man had for his companion and teacher one who turned the hunger of the needy into a source of wealth for himself and kept back sums left to the miserable to his own subsequent misery. Yet their cry came up to heaven and entering God’s ears overcame His patience. Wherefore, He sent an angel of woe to say to this new Carmelite, this second Nabal, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?” The Letters of Saint Jerome on Christian Classics Ethereal Library
Letter XLV. To Asella.
3. . . . Of all the ladies in Rome but one had power to subdue me, and that one was Paula. She mourned and fasted, she was squalid with dirt, her eyes were dim from weeping. For whole nights she would pray to the Lord for mercy, and often the rising sun found her still at her prayers. The psalms were her only songs, the Gospel her whole speech, continence her one indulgence, fasting the staple of her life. The Letters of Saint Jerome on Christian Classics Ethereal Library
-- All quotations in this post from the Letters of St. Jerome are from Schaff, Philip
(1819-1893) (Editor), Freemantle, M.A., The Hon. W.H. (Translator),
published by Christian Classics Ethereal Library from the original
print published by Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892, web pages
as indicated above.
All quotations from The Life of St. Teresa of Avila are from the translation by J.M. Cohen, Penguin Books, 1957.