Life of St. Teresa - F. A. Forbes

Prioress of the Incarnation

"The love and fear of God are like two strong castles, from which war is made against the world and the devil."

Foundations followed each other rapidly at Toledo, Salamanca, Alba, and Pastrana, in which latter place Teresa, to her great joy, was also able to establish a second monastery of friars. She was looking forward to a time of well-earned repose with her daughters at Salamanca when the Provincial of the Mitigated Rule began to interfere with her convent at Medina. It was not the first time that this had happened, and Teresa wrote him a firm but respectful letter reminding him that all the foundations of the Reform were under the jurisdiction of the General of the Order alone. The reply of the Provincial was to cancel the election of the Prioress who had just been appointed at Medina, and to put a nun of the Mitigated Rule from the Convent of the Incarnation in her place. Teresa, who had hastened to the assistance of her daughters, was ordered, together with the deposed Prioress, to return at once to Avila under pain of severe censure. Although the convents of the Reform were not under the Provincial's jurisdiction, Teresa considered that she herself was, for she had entered and made her profession in a house of the Mitigated Rule. She therefore obeyed, although her heart was heavy at the thought of leaving her daughters at Medina in the hands of an entirely incapable Superior.

It was at this very moment that, a second visitation of the Order having been arranged by Pope Pius V. and Philip II., two holy and learned Dominicans were despatched to Spain on this mission. The first halt of Father Hernandez, who had been appointed Visitor of Castile, was at the Monastery of the Bare-footed Friars at Pastrana. Delighted with the fervour and austerity which he found there, he next visited the convent of nuns, the holiness of whose lives gave him an ardent desire to know the Saint who had planned and executed the Reform. Teresa was at Avila, they told him, and thither he went to see her. While there, having heard of the doings at Medina, and that the intruded Prioress was heartily sick of her position, Father Hernandez determined to remedy the evil. Going straight to Medina, he presided, by virtue of the authority given him by the Holy See, at a new election, where, at his suggestion, Teresa herself was chosen Prioress.

It took the Saint two months to repair the mischief that had been done, but peace and order were soon restored, and sorrow gave way to joy. For Teresa herself, another and a heavier cross was in store, an unexpected and overwhelming sorrow. She received a letter from Father Hernandez bidding her return at once to Avila. In virtue of the authority given him over the whole Order, he had appointed her Prioress of the Convent of the Incarnation.

The task of the Visitor was certainly not an easy one. His mission was to introduce certain reforms amongst the Carmelites of the Mitigated Rule; to make them practise at least what their Rule enjoined. The effect produced on Father Hernandez, fresh from the convents of the Primitive Rule, by the sight of the disorder and relaxation which reigned at the Convent of the Incarnation can well be imagined. Things had not improved since Teresa's departure, and there was much need of reform in every way. How could such a state of things be remedied? Who could be found strong enough, patient and gentle enough, to introduce the necessary reforms and make these poor souls practise even the Mitigated Rule with fidelity? One person and one only seemed to him to fulfil the required conditions, and that one was Teresa.

If the appointment was a blow to Teresa, it was no less of a shock to the nuns of the Incarnation, and they resolved to resist it with all their power. Teresa would try to enforce upon them the austerities of the Primitive Rule, they protested angrily to one another. They did not want to be reformed; they were quite contented as they were. They would die, they declared, before they accepted her as Prioress.

To Teresa the burden seemed almost greater than she could bear. How could she leave her newly founded convents? Would not such a charge absorb all her time and all her strength? How could she make these nuns, already strongly prejudiced against her, practise their Rule and give up the customs to which they held so strongly? At our Lord's feet she poured out all her misgivings and all her sorrow, and there, as always, she found the help she needed. "Take courage," said her Divine Master, "and know that it is my wish. It will not be so difficult as you think, and your foundations will not suffer. Cease to resist, for my power is great."

Early in October Teresa set out for the Convent of the Incarnation, accompanied by the Provincial, Father Angel de Salasar, and another ecclesiastic. Standing in the presence of the community and the Provincial, she could not but remember another occasion when she had stood, not as now in the place of honour, but as a culprit before her judges. And yet she had suffered less then than she was suffering now.

When the act of election which made Teresa Prioress was read, the storm broke loose. Shouts and cries of indignation drowned the voice of the Provincial. A few of the nuns who were in Teresa's favour tried to intone the Te Deum and to force their way through the crowd to conduct her to the choir, but the attempt was hopeless. The Provincial threatened the rebellious party with the censures of the Church; nobody listened, and the uproar continued. Through the raging crowd Teresa at last succeeded in escaping to the chapel, where she prayed earnestly for help from Heaven. Then, returning to the Chapter-room, where Father Angel was still struggling to enforce silence and submission, she went about to each nun in turn, speaking to them gently and saying aloud before them all that it was not astonishing that they should accept ungraciously a Prioress who was so unworthy of the office.

Though Teresa was at last installed, the nuns were not vanquished. When the first Chapter was held, they agreed that they would declare openly that they would never recognize her as Prioress. But while they were planning, Teresa was planning too. When the nuns entered the Chapter-room, the Prioress's stall was occupied by a large statue of Our Lady, the keys of office were in her hand, and Teresa sat on a low stool at her feet. The application was easy to see: Our Lady was Prioress of the Incarnation, the Saint was to be her humble servant; the hearts of the nuns were a little softened, and still more so when Teresa spoke.

"If the sacrifice of my life or of my blood would help you," said their new Prioress, "I would make it. Why should you look upon me as a stranger? I am a daughter of this house, and your Reverences' sister. You need not fear my rule. Though I have lived amongst the Carmelites of the Primitive Rule, I know, by the grace of God, how to govern those who are not of the Reform. My wish is that we should serve God in meekness, doing the small amount our Rule demands out of love for Him who loves us so much. Our Lord is merciful, and though our weakness is great He will help us."

The nuns' hearts were touched, and they promised obedience to Teresa, begging her to reform whatever was opposed to the practice of their Rule. The first thing to be done was to make them happy in their religious life, and to this Teresa brought all her genius, her tact, and her knowledge of human nature. She succeeded beyond all expectation. Gradually the visits in the parlour were diminished; Divine Office was regularly sung; cheerful recreations, spiritual reading, prayer, and work took the place of the old idleness and distractions; discontent and weariness gave way to joy and fervour. This was not all done in a day, but by degrees, the nuns learning ever more and more to appreciate and love the Mother that God had sent them. She could read every heart, and had help and sympathy for every difficulty. Full of courage herself, she had the gift of giving courage to others. When, through her influence, Father John of the Cross had been appointed confessor to the convent, Teresa could truly say that her daughters of the Incarnation bade fair to rival their sisters of the Reform in their zeal and fervour in God's service. The work that had been done, and the earnest efforts that had been made, were shortly to receive the seal of God's approval.

The nuns were all assembled on the feast-day of St. Sebastian in the oratory where the first Chapter had been held. They had just begun to sing the Salve Regina when Teresa, looking upwards, saw suddenly that the statue of the Mother of God which had remained in the Prioress's stall had vanished. In place of it there stood our Blessed Lady herself, surrounded by adoring angels who hovered in a circle above the stalls of the community. The vision lasted until the antiphon was ended, when the nuns, struck by the sight of Teresa's radiant face, asked her eagerly what had happened, and heard from her own lips the account of what she had seen.

To this day the Prioress's stall in the Convent of the Incarnation remains vacant in Our Lady's honour. The nuns sit on the footstools below their stalls, which remain also empty, and are decorated with flowers in remembrance of the vision.