The other day, I was thinking about St. Teresa of Avila and her accomplishments when a highly appropriate quote popped into my head. It comes from Queen Elizabeth I’s speech to the British troops at Tilbury shortly before the British navy routed the Spanish Armada. Queen Elizabeth I said: “Although I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, I have the heart and stomach of a king.”
St. Teresa of Avila exemplifies what Queen Elizabeth said so long ago. Teresa of Avila was a weak and sickly woman who suffered from numerous illnesses throughout her life. Paradoxically, she was also practical enough to see that certain situations could be avoided and that others could not. Not only this, but she was also a strong woman who was wiling to endure every kind of dry martyrdom imaginable to achieve her ends.
“The Foundations” is a book that St. Teresa wrote during the last years of her life and completed the last chapter in 1581. The book is a chronicle of how St. Teresa traveled throughout Spain to establish her Discalced Carmelite monasteries. As with so many other writings by St. Teresa, this is not merely a dry chronicle but also a treatise on the spiritual life and how God uses weak vessels to achieve His ends.
The stories of how the convents were established varies tremendously from one to another. With some, St. Teresa seemingly had to overcome insurmountable odds in order to build them. For example, she and her sisters were once given a house for a convent that was so infested with rats and other vermin that St. Teresa knew that she could not live there. In God’s providence, a new and much cleaner house was found several miles away that was much mroe conducive to her purposes.
In other locations, the problems that St. Teresa had to overcome included the poverty of the local populations. According to the Discalced Carmelite Rule, the Carmelite nuns and friars were to be supported by donations from the community. This was to be their sole source of income. In communities that were extremely poor, however, this was not always possible. These circumstances forced St. Teresa to amend the Rule by saying that convents and friaries founded in poor areas could support themselves by their own handiwork since the local population could not support them.
St. Teresa also describes the vocation stories of those who became sisters in her convents. Many of these young girls and women came from rich families. However, there were also others who came from the middle and working classes. Some ran away from home several times in order to join the Carmelites, while others gained their parents’ permission more easily. Their struggles and lives are also chronicled by St. Teresa as illustrations of how her convents should function.
One of the obstacles for me and other novice readers of St. Teresa of Avila’s works is that they are extremely discursive. St. Teresa told her sisters and wrote in the introductions of many of her works that she did not write according to an outline. Rather, she wrote as the Spirit moved her. This means that there are many tangents to her stories and many things that may not seem important to the theme at hand. Yet this discursiveness makes it seem that St. Teresa is having a conversation with the reader and talking to him or her about her life.
While there are many editions and translations of this book that are currently available, the one which I read was produced by ICS Publications as the third volume of the collected works of St. Teresa. Fr. Kieran Kavanaugh and his co-editor provide a comprehensive introduction which places the book squarely in the context of St. Teresa’s life and times as well as the history of the Carmelites themselves. The translation is exceleltn and easily readable although Kavanaugh acknowledges that it is extremely difficult to render St. Teresa’s Spanish into English.
Overall, a highly recommended book for those interested in how the Discalced Carmelites began and how St. Teresa despite her difficulties became one of the great reformers in Church history
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, pray for us!
St. Teresa of Avila, pray for us!