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Teresian Charism

from:  A History of Teresian Carmel by Fr. Otilio Rodriguez

What we mean by "charism"? The word is not new: it comes from Greek word "charis" meaning a gift, grace given gratuitously, not deserved, due earned. implies goal or purpose or mission to fulfill in the Church.

There are 2 kinds of charism:


Personal graces: every gift of sanctifying grace a charism the person receiving All graces given the Holy Spirit individual perfection and increase of holiness are charisms. So are mystical graces and the ordinary graces which enable to control our evil tendencies, to resist temptations, to respond the promptings the Spirit, etc. Every Christian receives innumerable graces charisms through the sacramental life the personal practice of virtue. These are personal graces, gifts of Holy Spirit for our personal sanctification, though others too benefit from them through our membership of  one another in the Mystical Body of Christ.

Graces for the benefit of the Church or as St. Paul says: "for the building up of the Mystical Body of Christ". The charism given to Our Holy Mother for the reform and renewal of the Order belongs to this category. What we call the "Teresian charism' was a particular gift of the Holy Spirit given to Our Holy Mother for the service of the Church. The charism of every founder or foundress of a religious family, graces for the priestly apostolate or the monastic or solitary life are of this type. St. Paul gives the fullest teaching on the theology of charism when he compares the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, with the human body which has its different needs supplied by its various members. A wide variety of corporal and spiritual works of mercy are carried out within the Mystical Body by individuals or religious families, each having a grace or charism for the particular work it has to do in the service of the Church. Every religious family has received the approval of the Church for the service for which it was instituted and it is this ecclesial sanction which gives authentication to every charism.




Coming now to the spirit animating Our Holy Mother in her reform, it is clearly not important whether we use the word "grace" or "mission" or "way" or "charism" to refer to it. With the emergence of the many religious Orders in the Church, the Holy See has evolved a juridical procedure which requires that each religious family shall state clearly at the beginning of its Constitutions, the precise purpose for which this family exists. Since its particular charism has been given by the Holy Spirit for the benefit of the whole Church, the mission entrusted to it must be both clearly defined and given canonical approval - the charism is then enshrined within the institutional form. This juridical approach developed more fully after Our Holy Mother's life-time and, as we have seen, her Constitutions were approved even before they were written, so there was no question of an explicit function being stated first and then given approval, Fortunately, Our Holy Mother had her Constitutions printed at an early date after they had been approved by her Superiors so we have a guarantee that they represent her own mind. Furthermore, she herself, in the first chapter of the Way of Perfection, described very clearly what her intention was in establishing these new convents of the Reform.


One does not find in Our Holy Mother's Constitutions any clear statement of aim or purpose. They begin with the simple details of the horarium: the time for Matins, arrangements for recreation etc. The fullest and clearest explanation of the Teresian charism is to be found, in fact, in the rich legacy of Our Holy Mother's writings. Very few other founders have left their religious families such precise guide-lines for their life and spirit. St. Francis and St. Dominic depended on others to draw up a rule of life which would embody their spirit. St. Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises and the Constitutions only came later. We are exceptionally fortunate in having Our Holy Mother herself as the first historian of the Order, and in her account of her life we also have a description of the origin and development of the inspiration she received from the Holy Spirit and can trace its development step by step through her own words, even with the details of time and place. Neither Our Holy Mother nor indeed any other founder began with a fully developed idea of what they intended to achieve. This is in each case a work of grace, the work of the Holy Spirit to Whom they lend themselves as instruments. Through Providential circumstances and their faithful correspondence with the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, new elements are added until finally the charism is complete. So it was with the Teresian charism. What may be called the psychological origin of the Teresian Carmel can be found in the dramatic vision of hell which Our Holy Mother received in 1560.


"This vision was the cause of the very deep distress which I experience because of the great numbers of souls who are bringing damnation upon themselves... It also inspired me with fervent impulses for the good of souls: for I really believe that, to deliver a single one of them from such dreadful tortures, I would willingly die many deaths... I would wonder what I could do for God, and it occurred to me that the first thing was to follow the vocation for a religious life which His Majesty had given me by keeping my Rule with the greatest possible perfection". (Life, 32)


This was the first clear inspiration as to where perfection was to be found and fidelity to this light led Our Holy Mother forward. She realized that she would be unable to carry out this ideal at the Incarnation:


... as it was very needy, we nuns would often leave it (the convent) for other places where we could live honourably and keep our vows. Furthermore, the Rule was not observed in its primitive vigour, but, as throughout the Order, according to the Bull of Mitigation. There were also other dis advantages, such as the excessive amount of comfort which I thought we had... But this habit of frequently going away (and I was one who did it a great deal) was a serious drawback to me..." (Life, 32).


In fact, in her twenty-seven years at the Incarnation, Our Holy Mother was absent sometimes for two, three or four years, living at the house of her friend Doña Guiomar de Ulloa, One of the first things she realized now, was that it would be necessary for her to leave the Convent of the Incarnation. Al most as soon as she was aware of this, she was sent under obedience, to stay with Doña Luisa de la Cerda at Toledo, to console her over the death of her husband. Nothing could have seemed less likely to further her hope of following a more solitary and penitential way of life yet this event was in fact destined to play its part in crystallizing her thoughts and developing her project. The Spanish Court was then at Toledo, making the city the political and cultural center of Spain and of the Spanish Empire. Our Holy Mother refers to this stay at Toledo as being an important influence in the shaping of her thoughts:


"This news (of the Church in France being in turmoil) troubled me very much, and as though I could do anything, or be of any help in the matter, I wept before the Lord and entreated Him to remedy this great evil... I determined to do the little that was in me-namely, to follow the evangelical counsels as perfectly as I could, and to see that these few nuns who are here should do the same... and all of us, by busying ourselves in prayer for those who are defenders of the Church and for the preachers and learned men who defend her, should do everything we could to aid this Lord of mine... Oh! My sisters in Christ! This is your vocation; this must be your business; these must be your desires; these your tears, these your petitions". (w.P. 1).


By the end of 1561, Our Holy Mother had already formulated the two essential elements of the Teresian charism - a life of personal prayer and intimacy with Christ and the ecclesial and apostolic aim of serving the needs of the Church more effectively.


The visit of Fr. Maldonado O.F.M. led to a further. development - the idea of friars following the same Carmelite life but who, being priests, could actually engage in the apostolate while the Sisters gave spiritual support through their lives of prayer and sacrifice. Our Holy Mother herself refers to this visit and the news it gave her of the needs of souls in the recently discovered continent of America, as being directly connected with her request to Fr. General ("in another six months") for permission to establish two houses of friars of the Reform. (F. 1) The friars were to follow the same way of life as the nuns but they would be able to add the priestly ministry and an active apostolate as front-line troops in the battle against heresy and unbelief.


At first Our Holy Mother had in mind only thirteen nuns in each of her foundations, after the pattern of the apostles constituting the intimate family of Our Lord. She uses the term "este colesio de Cristo", "this little college of Christ", in which fraternal love and intimate friendship with Christ could flourish. "There will not be more than thirteen of them, for, after asking the opinions of many people, I have decided that that number is best, and I have seen by experience that, if we are to preserve the spirituality which we now possess... it is impossible for us to admit more" (Life, 36). Our Holy Mother's experience of the Incarnation with its 180 nuns would have been enough to convince her of this. In the early years at St. Joseph's, this number of thirteen was maintained: "Our numbers rose to thirteen, which is the figure I had resolved we would not exceed" (F1) but she later realized that thirteen would only be enough as long as the nuns were young and healthy. The General gave permission for twenty-five but the Constitutions of Alcala finally brought it down to twenty-one. Throughout more than four hundred years, the Teresian Carmels have always kept within this limited number which has shown itself to make its own contribution to the safeguarding of the Teresian family spirit.


We discover much about the Teresian charism, its origin and development, in Our Holy Mother's own account of her Life as we have seen, but most of all in the text-book she provided for her nuns in the Way of Perfection. If she did not define her aim in the Constitutions, she did so fully in this little book which is like a catechism of our life. 6 It deserves the title of "gospel" because just as you cannot consider yourself to be a Christian if you do not put the teaching of the Gospel into practice, so you cannot consider yourself a Teresian Carmelite if you do not put into practice the teaching of the Way of Perfection, whole and entire. It is a fundamental book of formation both for novices and for those who have left the novitiate - no other book of instruction for novices was ever needed. Our Holy Mother knew that nothing more was necessary-everything was already contained in the Way of Perfection. It should be read, studied, meditated and re-read carefully by every Carmelite. Even Our Holy Father St. John of the Cross considered it so important that he made reference to it saying that at the beginning of the life of every religious family, the Holy Spirit assists the founder or foundress more abundantly with spiritual wealth and strength, together with the first-fruits of the Spirit, according to the greater or lesser number of the descendants who are to inherit their doctrine and spirituality, and in another place he added: "... the blessed Teresa of Jesus, our Mother, left writings about these spiritual matters which are admirably done and which I hope will soon be printed and brought to light". These statements of St. John of the Cross give us double confirmation of the divine source of Our Holy Mother's inspiration.


Our Holy Mother sets out clearly the purpose of the Teresian Carmelite life in chapters 1 and 3 of the Way of Perfection. These should be the touch-stone by which we judge the suitability of applicants to our way of life. It should be sufficient to give these two chapters to prospective postulants and ask: "Is this what you are looking for? If so you can consider you have a vocation to our life". Nothing essential to our vocation will be lacking. These two chapters contain the fullness of Our Holy Mother's idea of the Carmelite life with its ecclesial and apostolic ideal, keeping in mind the fact that the subsequent foundations from St. Joseph's and the later reform of the friars were the outcome of a mission revealed to her only gradually, and were not part of a preconceived idea of her own. She herself comments that when she was reflecting on the virtues of these first Sisters of the Teresian reform, "I would often think that it must be with some great aim in view that the Lord was giving them these riches, though what has since happened never entered my mind, for at that time, such a thing seemed impossible because there was no basis for imagining it". (F1) Similarly with regard to the friars, after visiting the first poor little house of the reform at Duruelo, Our Holy Mother refers to this beginning as the work of God Who could be trusted to carry it further, "for I saw quite well that this was a much greater grace than He had given me in enabling me to found houses for nuns" (F.14) From Our Holy Mother's own words too, we know that she considered that the work of the apostolate and of the missions belonged to the form of life proper to the friars and fully compatible with the spirit of the Teresian ideal. The very source of her inspiration for the reform of the First Order was her awareness of the need of missionaries for the Indies and she praised the apostolate which was carried out from the first days at Duruelo: "They used to go out and preach in many places in the district which were without instruction. And for that reason too, I was glad that the house had been founded there, for they told me that there was no monastery near, nor any means of getting one, which was a great pity".



Our Holy Mother made some outstanding innovations in the form of life she drew up for her nuns, showing her remarkable gifts of realism and discernment.


1) EACH SISTER WAS TO HAVE HER OWN CELL Today, this is quite normal for us but in Our Holy Mother's time, privacy was a luxury only enjoyed by the rich. In the Incarnation, only the Sisters of noble or wealthy families enjoyed the comparative solitude given by private apartments. At first, even Our Holy Mother's confessors did not favor such an innovation but she rightly maintained that this degree of solitude was essential if the nuns were to live a life of prayer and intimacy with Our Lord. She had experience of the Incarnation where the nuns were obliged to spend their time at large in the cloisters for lack of cells to which they could withdraw and be in solitude,




Our Holy Mother insisted that titles and honors and rank should have no place in her communities. There is no poison in the world which is so fatal to perfection as concern about precedence, she said (w.P. 12). For the first foundation of St. Joseph's, no lay Sisters were received, each choir Sister taking her turn at the domestic duties, with the Prioress heading the list of those who were to sweep the house. Later, Our Holy Mother modified this point and received a limited number of lay Sisters for each community, realizing that many who wished to give themselves to God in prayer and solitude, were being debarred through their inability to say the Divine Office. Nowadays, when a basic education is almost universal, there is no longer the same justification for keeping these distinctions between choir and lay Sisters and the Vatican Council has laid down that they should be abolished.




After establishing the essentials of the life, Our Holy Mother then outlined the way these essentials should be lived. The Constitutions prescribe two hours of mental prayer daily but we realize from every chapter of the Way of Perfection, that the life of the Teresian Carmelite is to be seen as a whole life of prayer. The two hours simply express the legal aspect or the canonical requirement. The Way of Perfection was written at the request of the Sisters of St. Joseph's who asked Our Holy Mother to teach them about prayer and the method or plan followed by Our Holy Mother in answering this request is very revealing. We discover from it something of Our Holy Mother's mind regarding the nature of prayer and the Teresian life of prayer. Our Holy Mother does not actually begin to treat of the subject of mental prayer until chapter 19. What was the purpose of such a long preamble? Just as the Rule ordains our life to be one of "meditating day and night on the law of the Lord and watching in prayer", so Our Holy Mother places mental prayer in the context of a whole life of prayer. She begins by considering the conditions necessary for such a life, in other words, the prerequisites which will enable us to turn to prayer with a pure heart and a good conscience and meet God in love and friendship. Our Holy Mother considers these essential conditions under four main headings:


a) freedom from mortal sin and even from deliberate venial sins so that we may have a good conscience b) fraternal love: "... a very great virtue since Our Lord has so strongly commended it to us and so straightly enjoined it upon His apostles" (W.P. 4), 10


c) detachment, both interior and exterior, from all created things: "... if this is carried out perfectly, it includes everything else" (w.P. 8). 11


d) humility: ". because humility and detachment from self, I think, always go together".


Taking the actual situation of a Carmelite, alone in her cell, with a natural instinct to find a companion, she asks who could be a better companion than Our Lord Who is at our side, responding to our love, helping us in our difficulties, having shared in our sorrows and joys already through His Own. Our Holy Mother has been criticized for what seems to be a lack of order and method in her writings. It is true that she did not write as one with technical proficiency nor was she able to develop her ideas easily with the help of consecutive periods of time for writing. Nevertheless, there is a great logic and order in her treatment of this fundamental subject of prayer, more so than is true in the case of many other theological writers. She proceeds to teach prayer by means of a simple commentary on the Our Father, 12-not with the touch of a professional theologian or Scripture exegete but with the simple and clear insight of one who loved and lived what she was teaching. Using the petitions of the Our Father, Our Holy Mother outlines the degrees of intimacy to be attained with Christ, from the first encounter with Him to the highest summits of the spiritual life. Every Carmelite should make the Way of Perfection her "vade mecum" in the most literal sense, carrying it in her pocket, reading it frequently and meditating on a teaching that is fundamental for our Carmelite life. Without assimilating this basic, formative text, no other instruction course, however good from the technical point of view, will form us as Teresian Carmelites.

All our charism is in the Way of Perfection.

Lives that inspire
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