We associate our beginnings with Mount Carmel in Palestine. This place, marked by the life and activity of the prophet Elijah (9th century B.C.), who was burning with the zeal for the glory of the Lord, God of Hosts (see 1Kg 17-22), became the cradle of eremitic life. The first monks settled there in the 12th century. Obtaining the Rule of life from St. Albert of Jerusalem (the then Patriarch of Jerusalem), they were received by the Church as the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. We are descended from this family, from those holy Fathers who – day and night, in deep solitude and utter detachment from worldly affairs – meditated on the Word of the Lord.
However, it is Saint Teresa of Jesus and Saint John of the Cross who we consider our real founders. Teresa, inspired by the life of the first hermits, wanted communities devoted to prayer, imbued with brotherly love, whose hearts would be filled with an apostolic intention. This is how she wanted to combine contemplation with action and what she wished for her Sons and Daughters – Brothers and Sisters of the reformed Carmel – since then called Discalced.
St. Teresa of Jesus was born on 18th March 1515 in Avila or in her parents’ nearby estate – Gottarendura – as the third child of Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda and his second wife Beatriz de Ahumada. Her paternal grandfather, Juan Sanchez de Toledo, a Jew by origin, converted to Catholicism in 1485.
In 1530 she lost her mother, which prompted her father to send her for her education to the Augustinian nuns in Avila. At that time she started thinking about devoting herself to God in religious life. Having spent with the Augustinian nuns a year and a half, she had to go back home because of a serious illness. In November 1536, despite her father’s and her relatives’ opposition, she entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in her home town, where she took her vows on 3rd November the following year.
Not long after the profession Teresa became seriously ill. It was, among other things, the result of her austere life in novitiate. For that reason she spent several months outside the convent. After coming back to the convent (healed, as she claimed, through the intercession of St. Joseph), she zealously devoted herself to mental prayer. She started to have mystical experiences. At Easter 1557 she experienced her mystical marriage to Christ in a vision. Some time later she received the grace of having her heart pierced and of many ecstasies.
In 1560, after a vision of hell, she made a vow of always doing that which was more perfect. In order to save souls from eternal damnation she resolved that she would respond to her vocation in the most perfect way, observing completely the original rule of the order. Since in the Convent of the Incarnation they were to obey a mitigated rule, Teresa with a group of friends and with the support of St. Peter of Alcantara decided to found a convent of a small number of nuns living according to the primitive rule. On 7th February 1562 the Holy See gave permission to found such a convent under the jurisdiction of the local bishop. On 24th August the same year four female companions of the Saint started their religious life in the Convent of St. Joseph. Teresa joined them as their superior to stay permanently only in December. In April 1567 the convent was visited by father Rubeo, the general of the convent, who authorized Teresa to establish further nunneries and two male monasteries.
In June 1582 Teresa began a journey from Burgos to Alba de Tormes, where she died on 4th October. She was buried on the following day, which – due to the calendar reform that had just been implemented – was the 15th October. St. Teresa belongs to the classics of Spanish Literature. Her most important works are ‘The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself,’ ‘The Way of Perfection,’ ’Interior Castle’ and ‘The Book of the Foundations.’ Apart from them she left a number of minor writings and plenty of letters. Teresa of Jesus was beatified by Paul V in 1614, canonized by Gregory XV in 1622 and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Paul VI on 27th September 1970.
St. John of the Cross – Juan de Yepes – was born in 1542 in Fontiveros in Castile. When he was two years old he lost his father. A few years later his mother moved with the children to Medina del Campo, where John tried various professions that were available at his young age, at the same time attending a Jesuit college. In 1563 he received a religious habit in the local Carmelite monastery, at profession committing himself to obeying the primitive rule of the order. He studied philosophy and theology in Salamanca at the order’s college and at the university there. After being ordained (1567) he met St. Teresa of Jesus in Medina del Campo, where he had come to celebrate his first Mass. Teresa persuaded him to undertake the work of reforming the male branch of the Carmelite Order.
At the end of 1568 together with father Antonio de Heredia and brother Joseph of Christ he settled in Duruelo and became the master of novices. Then for some time he worked in Mancera, where the congregation from Duruelo had been moved, in Pastrana and Alcalá de Henares as a tutor and priest.
In May 1572 he came to Avila at Teresa’s request to take office as the confessor of the Convent of the Incarnation, in which Saint Teresa had become the prioress. A few years later there was a sharp conflict between the old branch of the order and the reformed one with the effect that St. John, considered a rebel, was abducted from Avila in the first days of December and locked in solitary confinement in the monastery in Toledo. In that isolation the most beautiful verses of his mystical poems were created, especially of the ‘Spiritual Canticle” and ‘Dark Night of the Soul.’ At the end of August the following year he escaped from his solitary confinement and some time later was appointed superior of the monastery in El Calvario in Andalusia, whence he supervised founding a monastery in Baeza.
In 1581 at the first Provincial Chapter of the reformed monasteries John was elected a provincial definitor and the superior of the house in Granada, where he wrote most of his mystical works. In 1588 he took part in the General Chapter of the reformed Carmelites, where he was elected a definitor, a member of the consulta and the prior in Segovia. In 1591 he settled in the monastery in La Penuela, whence he was moved to Ubeda in September because of an illness. He died on the night of 13th to 14th December that year. St. John left behind great mystical works, such as the ‘Ascent of Mt Carmel,’ ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ ‘Spiritual Canticle,’ ‘Living Flame of Love’ and a number of poems, minor writings and letters. He is a classic of Spanish literature. Canonized in 1726, two hundred years later he was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pious XI.
Teresa of Jesus chose religious life convinced that it was the best and the safest state (‘The Life,’* 3,5) in order to reach salvation, because ‘my only aim was the salvation of my soul, I did not care really about my own peace and pleasure’ (‘The Life,’* 4,1). Some time after her profession, absorbed by the environment of the Convent of the Incarnation, Teresa slackened in her zeal. However, when she finally broke with earthly attachments, devoting a lot of time to prayer, she began to regain peace. God rewarded her faithfulness with numerous graces. Due to the indiscretion of the residents of the convent and her friends soon the whole of Avila was interested in Teresa. Some considered her a saint, others – Satan’s victim.
Teresa came to the conclusion that in a convent with strict cloister and limited contacts with the outside world such indiscretions would not be possible. The vision of hell mentioned before stimulated her to give thanks for the graces received and to save – at any price – human souls which were at risk of eternal damnation. ‘How can we live a peaceful life when we see such a lot of souls which fall into devils’ hands every day and go to perdition?’ she wrote in ‘The Life’* (32,6). Teresa could not live in peace. She wanted to get away from people and achieve complete detachment from the world (‘The Life,’* 32,8). It was to be a strange escape. She wanted to escape in order to be closer so that she could give more to those, who she was escaping from.
Years ago Teresa ran away from home to the convent because she thought that religious life was a surer way to her salvation. Her experience led her to a painful statement that not all monasteries provided their residents with a safe way to God. In confrontation with reality, Teresa came up with a new ideal of religious life. Its shape was influenced by the example of Discalced Franciscan nuns, very popular in Avila at that time, as well as nostalgia for the eremitic life of Mount Carmel, born from reading the guide to Carmelite spirituality the ‘Book of the First Monks.’
In September 1560 a few laypeople and nuns remaining under Teresa’s spiritual influence met in her flat. During an animated discussion an image of a convent was forming – a hermitage with a small number of nuns, observing the primitive rule, shaping their lives following the example of the early desert fathers. The idea was ready to be implemented. Teresa’s friend Guiomar de Ulloa promised financial help. St. Peter of Alcantara gave his support, too. The Castilian provincial Ángel de Salazar first promised to take the convent under his jurisdiction; however, under the influence of public opinion disapproving of the foundation he withdrew his consent. Her confessor forbade Teresa to be involved in the matters of the foundation. On 24th August 1562, having received the Holy See’s permission, the Saint’s four companions started religious life in St. Joseph’s Convent.
Only in December did the provincial agree to Teresa’s living in the convent. The nuns’ piety soon won them sympathy – even of those who had so far opposed them. The legal foundation of the new form of life introduced by St. Teresa was the primitive – innocentian – rule. For Teresa the words ‘primitive rule’ had a broader meaning than that resulting from only the letter of the rule of Innocent IV. Though she kept in mind the rule of the West, her thought and heart reached to the East, to the hermitage on Mount Carmel. She encouraged her nuns to follow the example of holy fathers and hermits. As far as possible she tried to realize eremitic life in her convents.
In Constitutions she will order to be hermit’s houses in convents where nuns could go to pray (Const.6,17). Also, she will often call Discalced Carmelites eremites. Accepting the innocentian rule as the foundation of the reform Teresa interpreted it in Constitutions in accordance with her conception of the reformed Carmelite life. At the time when they started to make efforts to obtain a permission to found a new convent they already realized that new law would have to be prepared for it. The Holy See’s brief of 7th February 1562 gave Teresa very wide powers. She was given the right to prepare new Constitutions, amend them and establish other rules. All that was approved by the Holy See in advance.
* ‘The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself’
In a document of 27th April 1567 the general allowed Teresa to found Discalced Carmelites convents in the whole of Castile. New convents were to remain under the general’s jurisdiction. This patent became the legal basis for Teresa’s foundation activity which lasted for more than ten years. As long as there was only one convent it was easy to find spiritual directors. As new foundations appeared, in order to secure unity, spiritual directors formed on the same basis as Discalced Carmelite Sisters had to be thought of.
Teresa came up with a plan to found a monastery of contemplative Carmelites who would be her nuns’ advisors and confessors, helping also in organizational matters connected with the movement. The general, opposed at first, was finally persuaded by Teresa’s arguments and gave permission in a letter of 10th August 1567. Father Rubeo agreed to the foundation of two contemplative (as he called them in the letter) Carmelites monasteries remaining under the Castilian provincial’s jurisdiction.
The general’s motivation was to enable devout monks a more perfect way to pursue their vocation. The contemplative Carmelites were, first of all, to devote themselves to prayer, not neglecting, however, their pastoral work. Their daily life was to be regulated by John Soreth’s constitutions, corrected in 1524 by Nicolas Audet. In reality, however, in the first period of their existence the monasteries accepted – with small changes – St. Teresa’s constitutions written for the nuns of St. Joseph’s Convent. There is therefore no doubt that according to Teresa’s intentions Discalced Carmelite monks, likewise the nuns, were to lead a life devoted to penance, prayer and contemplation.
At the same time, however, the same monks had to be good theologians, preachers, missionaries and do all that was necessary for the good of souls. Such a synthesis was difficult to achieve and thus disputes among the first Discalced Carmelite monks over the right face of the reform. It should be added that neither Teresa nor Father Rubeo, when founding convents and monasteries of sisters and friars living according to the primitive rule, wanted to reform the whole order as such. In the initial phase they were about a movement embedded in the order. Reformed convents and monasteries were to act as houses of prayer, similar to the ones that Franciscans and Dominicans had in Castile. It was the later course of events, unfavorable for the reform, that made Teresa support the efforts to become independent of the old order, which eventually led to the complete independence of the Discalced Carmelites.