After the foundation of the first reformed monastery of Saint Joseph’s in Avila, Spain, Saint Teresa enjoyed a restful time that lasted for about five years. It was during these years that she wrote the Constitutions.
“We observe the Rule of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and keep it without mitigation (Life 36:26).” These words of the founding Saint reflect the effort on the part of the founding women to live more austerely, without eating meat, holding all possessions in common, and keeping strict enclosure, all of which were conditions laid down by Saint Albert of Jerusalem for the hermits living on Mount Carmel in the early 1200s. The hermits were known as the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin because of their devotion to Mary, in the tradition of Saint Elijah, who is believed by Carmelites to have seen the Blessed Virgin Mary in prophetic vision from Mount Carmel in the form of a little white cloud that rose over the Mediterranean Sea after he had prayed for rain. The rain came in torrents, ending a three-year drought. This event is seen by Carmelites as a foreshadowing of the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
For Teresa and the women who joined her, the practice of austerity was a gift of the Holy Spirit. It was penance that was desired, and needed to be moderated, but nevertheless it revealed the zealous love they had for their Spouse. As the founding Saint wrote, “prayer and comfortable living are incompatible (Way of Perfection, 4:2).” According to the “primitive” Rule of St. Albert (the first Rule), as St. Teresa said, “meat is never eaten without necessity and there is an eight-month fast (Life 36:27)” known as the Great Fast from the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14th until Easter Sunday. St. Teresa did not give us particular details about how the Great Fast was observed at St. Joseph’s, but she did make it clear in her Constitutions that the food should be well prepared (Constitutions 22).
The mortification of the will is always of higher priority than any form of corporal penance, which is why obedience to superiors (and even to other Sisters, when this is not a sin) was taught and practiced by St. Teresa. Penance that is rooted in willfulness can be displeasing to Jesus. Saint Teresa wrote,
“Once while thinking about all the severe penance Dona Catalina de Cardona performed [Catalina de Cardona was a hermit known for her penitential life], and about how because of the desires for penance the Lord sometimes gives me I could have done more were it not for obedience to my confessors, I thought it might be better not to obey them any longer in this matter. The Lord told me, “That’s not so; you are walking on a good and safe path. Do you see all the penance she does? I value your obedience more (Spiritual Testimonies 19).”
Describing the peace and calm that characterized the first Carmelite monastery, St. Teresa wrote: “The main disposition required for always living in this calm is the desire to rejoice solely in Christ, one’s Spouse. This is what they must always have as their aim: to be alone with Him alone (Life 36:29).”
Origins of the Holy Constitutions: Zealous Love On February 7, 1562, Saint Teresa of Jesus (Teresa of Avila) received from Rome, along with permission to found a monastery, permission “to make licit and respectable statutes and ordinances in conformity to canon law (The Constitutions – Introduction by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, from The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, DC : all references to the Constitutions of Saint Teresa of Avila and her other works are taken from this source).”
In her autobiography, St. Teresa wrote, “Now although there is some austerity because meat is never eaten without necessity and there is an eight-month fast and other things, as are seen in the first Rule, this is still in many respects considered small by the Sisters; and they have other observances which seemed to us necessary to observe the Rule with greater perfection (Life 36:27).” As Father Kavanaugh suggests, these “other observances” probably formed the nucleus of the Constitutions, written during the first five years of her life in the new monastery.
The Constitutions of Saint Teresa of Jesus [Teresa of Avila] that I will be exploring here are from one of the earliest copies still in existence, as preserved in Portugal, a copy of the earliest version. Strikingly characteristic of these original decrees of the founding Saint is the priority of private prayer and spiritual reading in the daily life of the Sisters, a deep respect for the Sisters that allowed them the flexibility of choosing the time for their spiritual reading (the Sisters were allowed to pray during the hour for spiritual reading); that allowed the Sisters to break the silence if necessary to fulfill their duties, or to speak with another Sister (with the permission of the Prioress) “to quicken the love each has for their Spouse or to be consoled in a time of some need or temptation (Constitutions 7);” and that allowed the Sisters to rest for an hour after recreation during the summer months.
The Priority of Silence and Solitary Prayer “In solitude she built her nest, and in solitude He guides her…” Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross It is clear from The Way of Perfection and her other writings that St. Teresa of Avila wanted what she called “mental prayer” or “quiet prayer” to be given priority in her monasteries. During her times, Gregorian chant served for most of the Divine Office, which had much devotional chanting and singing as well. The Office consumed most of the daylight hours of the Sisters, with seven “hours” in Latin, including nine readings each day at the Hour of Matins, not to mention numerous Offices for the Dead and special devotions. In other words, the Sisters had little or no time left over for private prayer or for work. The lay Sisters (those not obligated to participate in the Divine Office in the choir) did most of the manual labor. So the “choir nuns,” as they were called, had more time for this laborious Office. Whether or not all of the nuns participated in all of the Office is not certain, but considering the autobiographical account of St. Teresa, who was a choir nun, and the fact that enclosure was not maintained at that time, it is doubtful.
St. Teresa placed solitary prayer at the center of the daily observance. The Sisters were obligated to devote at least an hour to solitary prayer each morning and evening, and at least an hour to spiritual reading each day, which could be spent in prayer if desired. If any of these hours were missed, they were to be made up at another time (Constitutions 42).
The liturgical Hours according to St. Teresa’s Constitutions seem awkward to us now, because after an hour of prayer in the early morning, the Sisters would recite the Office up to None (midafternoon prayer). Vespers (evening prayer) was recited early in the day. However, despite this bunching up of the Hours, which was the norm until recently for all religious communities, she managed to maintain these three priorities: prayer in the morning, in the evening, and spiritual reading. She wanted the Sisters to work with their hands on simple work that does not require much thinking, leaving the mind free for prayer: “Their earnings must not come from work requiring careful attention to fine details but from spinning and sewing or other unrefined labor that does not so occupy the mind as to keep it from the Lord (Constitutions 9).” The Office, she said, should be recited so the Sisters would have some time to work, as required by the Rule of St. Albert (Constitutions 3).
St. Teresa wanted the Sisters to keep silence throughout the day, but not so strict as not to allow a simple question or answer: “This rule of silence should not be understood to refer to a question and answer or to a few words, for such things can be spoken without permission (Constitutions 7).” The Great Silence began at 8:00 PM until after Prime (midmorning prayer) the next day. This night-time silence was to be kept with greater strictness.
The silence was to be broken each day by two recreation periods, one after dinner and another after collation (or supper). During these times, the nuns were to gather together with their prioress, “each one having her work (Constitutions 28),” to socialize in charity led by the prioress. No games or private recreations were allowed. There was of course no television or other form of passive entertainment because, as St. Teresa said, the Sisters would be given the grace to entertain one another (Constitutions 26-28).
The Mother Prioress was expected to be the first on the list for cleaning, and was to see to it that the needs of the Sisters, including food and clothing, were charitably provided for. The older nuns and those in authority were not to receive more or better provisions than the others, but all were to be provided for according to their needs, “for sometimes those who are older have fewer needs (Constitutions 22).” Titles of honor were never to be used (Constitutions 30).
Other cautions St. Teresa took to maintain the solitude, equality and freedom of the Sisters was to forbid the use of a workroom or any form of exploitation such as hourly quotas: “Let there never be a common workroom (Constitutions 8).” “Work with a time limit must never be given to the Sisters (Constitutions 24).” Saint Teresa accepted poor women without dowries and taught them to read.
These precautions may seem unnecessary during our times, but the use of workrooms, hourly quotas and dorms have been typical of many religious communities, where the Sisters have no recourse to any higher authority for fear of punishment, and high dowries, or payment for entering, is expected.
The Observance of the Primitive Rule While not engaged in community service, each Sister was to remain in the cell or hermitage assigned to her by the prioress while working with her hands: “All of that time not taken up with community life or duties should be spent by each Sister in the cell or hermitage designated by the prioress … occupied in doing some work (Constitutions 8).” This is an example of how the Primitive Rule of Saint Albert was put into practice. According to the Rule, the hermits were to remain in their cells “pondering the law of the Lord (Rule of Saint Albert, ” when not called out. “By withdrawing into solitude in this way, we fulfill what the Rule commands, that each one should remain alone (Constitutions 8).” The cells were to be private, only one Sister in each cell, and no Sister was allowed to enter the cell of another without the permission of the prioress (Constitutions 8). Neither were the Sisters allowed to embrace each other, or to touch one another on the face or hands (Constitutions 28).
According to the primitive Rule, the hermits were to be charitably corrected on Sundays and other days if necessary by the prior. Fraternal correction according to Saint Teresa was administered by the prioress after hearing the faults of the Sisters as observed by the monitors, the Sisters appointed for the task. Saint Teresa wrote that the Sisters should never correct other Sisters unless they were to see someone committing a grave fault, which they were to warn her about twice before reporting it to the prioress. The faults considered grave were listed in the penal code attached to the Constitutions (Constitutions 29).
Poverty was observed by holding all things in common, as required by the primitive Rule: “In no way should the Sisters have any particular possessions, nor should such permission be granted; nothing in the line of food or clothing; nor should they have any coffer or small chest, or box, or cupboard, unless someone have an office in the community. But everything must be held in common. This is very important because through small things the devil can bring about a relaxation of the perfection in which poverty is observed. For this reason the prioress should be very careful. If she sees that a Sister is attached to something, be it a book, or a cell, or anything else, she should take it from her (Constitutions 10).”
“No hangings should be used except, in cases of necessity, hemp mattings or, to cover a doorway, a blanket or some rough, woolen cloth or something similar that is poor … Let there be no carpeting or cushions, except in the church. These are all matters of proper religious observance. They are mentioned here because with relaxation there comes sometimes a forgetfulness of what pertains to religious life and its obligations (Constitutions 13).
The habit was to be of rough cloth, brown, with a black veil (white for novices), to the floor, with a brown scapular, and a white toque (the garment that goes over the head and under the veil), and a mantle, shorter than the habit. The nuns were to wear socks “for modesty” and simple sandals made of rope. “Colored clothing, or bedding, must never be used, not even something as small as a ribbon (Constitutions 10).” They were to keep their hair cut short “so as not to have to waste time combing it. Never should a mirror be used, or any adornment; there should be complete self-forgetfulness (Constitutions 10).”
Enclosure, though not yet canonical as it is today, was practiced by keeping the doors to the monastery locked, so that no-one could enter or leave without the permission of the prioress. Necessary persons entering the monastery were to be accompanied by two nuns. The confessors of sick nuns were to be accompanied by a nun who would remain at a distance so as to see the confessor (Constitutions 13).
The visits of the Sisters, even with family members, were to be kept short with conversation mainly on the things of God. “The Sisters should pay no attention to the affairs of the world, nor should they speak of them (Constitutions 18).” In a practice that may seem excessive to modern women, the nuns would lower their veils over their faces when engaged in parlor visits, although certain persons such as family members were exempted with the permission of the prioress: “No nun should be seen with her face unveiled, unless she is with her father, mother, brothers, or sisters, or has some reason as would make it seem appropriate (Constitutions 13).” This custom was kept also during Holy Communion. It is a way of maintaining the solitude of the Bride, whose beauty is reserved for her Spouse alone, especially during intimate moments such as Holy Communion.
The Office was to be recited (not sung with musical notation or chanted) in choir, “for the Lord will be served if some time remains for the Sisters to earn their livelihood (Constitutions 3).” The “sung” Office was a monotone chant, reserved for solemn feast days such as Easter, the Office for the Dead, and certain saint days, especially the feast of St. Joseph. Each Sister made an examen of conscience, followed by an Our Father, twice each day before meals, kneeling wherever they happened to be at the time of the bell, and again fifteen minutes before retiring for sleep at 11:00 PM, while still gathered in choir after the Office of Readings, or Matins, which began at 9:00 PM.
The Sisters were to rise at 5:00 AM during the summer, and 6:00 AM during the winter, remaining in prayer first thing in the morning for an hour, followed by the Office.
“In summer they should rise at 5:00 and remain in prayer until 6:00. In winter they should rise at 6:00 and remain in prayer until 7:00 (Constitutions 2).” The Sisters went to sleep at 11:00 PM after prayer and examen in choir. “The Sisters should try not to miss choir for any light reason (Constitutions 4). This may seem excessive and harsh to us now, but the six or seven hours of sleep were augmented during the summer by an hour of rest after recreation. It is noteworthy that there is no mention of “work recreations,” a practice that is common in many Carmelite monasteries, particularly for postulants and novices. So presumably the Sisters rested during their two recreations; during meals, taken according to the primitive Rule in silence while listening to Scripture or some other spiritual book read aloud; during their hours for prayer and spiritual reading; and during their hours for sleep. Even praying the Divine Office in choir, although requiring some physical exertion, can be restful, as one learns more and more to rest in the Word of God.
On Feasting and Fasting: “Let no Sister comment …” “Let no Sister comment on whether the food given to eat is much or little, well or poorly seasoned. Let the prioress and the provider take care so that what is given (depending on what the Lord has given) is well prepared and the nuns will be able to get along with it, for they have nothing else (Constitutions 22).” The Sisters did not eat or drink between meals without permission. The main meal was usually quite early in the day, at or before 11:30 AM. Collation during the winter consisted of one dish. However, feast days of the Church were different. The Saint did not tell us how feast days were celebrated, although she did mention that the Sisters were not obligated to remain in their cells on feast days, and that the Mass and Office should be “sung” (meaning monotone chant). Presumably, these days were more relaxed, with special food and recreation.
If the Sisters had special needs in food or clothing, they were expected to tell their prioress or novice mistress after commending the matter to our Lord first: “Our human nature often asks for more than what it needs, and sometimes the devil helps so as to cause fear about the practice of penance and fasting (Constitutions 22).”
“Should the Lord give a Sister the desire to perform a mortification, she should ask permission. This good, devotional practice should not be lost, for some benefits are drawn from it (Constitutions 26).” The practice of mortifications is a custom preserved by some Carmelite monasteries. They are done in the refectory usually before meals, but Saint Teresa asked that “it be done quickly so as not to interfere with the reading (Constitutions 26).” The more popular mortifications consist of imitating the Lord in some aspect of His Passion, for example wearing a crown of thorns or a scarlet robe and walking slowly around the refectory in sorrow for sin.
“Neither should there be any haggling:” the Saint’s Views on Money and Work “Let them live always on alms and without any income, but so far as possible let there be no begging. Great must be the need that makes them resort to begging. Rather, they should help themselves with the work of their hands, as St. Paul did. The Lord will provide what they need. Provided they want no more than this and are content to live simply, they will have what is necessary to sustain life. If they strive with all their might to please the Lord, His Majesty will keep them from want (Constitutions 9).”
Saint Teresa insisted that her monasteries depend on alms, and not on an income. Yet even during the early days of the reform, there was an exception to this rule: the foundation in Malagon, which was a very poor and small village. Neither was fish easily available there, so the community were allowed to eat meat. These exceptions serve to show Saint Teresa’s flexibility regarding the Constitutions: as Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The same mentality applies to the use of rules to govern religious life: the laws are in place to serve as a guide and to provide a structure that will help willing people to live religiously. In some ways they may seem radical, but they have been instituted, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to help those who are called to fight the radical problem of sin.
So, as the primitive Rule required of the hermits, the Sisters worked with their hands on simple work in solitude and silence. The Divine Office was deliberately kept simple, “… for the Lord will be served if some time remains for the Sisters to earn their livelihood (Constitutions 3).” Saint Teresa suggested spinning or sewing as the kind of work that does not engage the mind. “Nor should they do work in gold or silver (Constitutions 9).” Fine craftwork or professional work was forbidden. Neither did the Sisters engage in any form of apostolic work such as teaching, leading retreats, giving lectures, or writing books. The founding Saint, of course, is a notable exception to this rule: she wrote her classic treatise on prayer, The Way of Perfection, during these first five years of the reform, in obedience to her confessors. She continued her writing until the end of her life, always in obedience. Other Carmelite nuns have contributed to the treasury of the Church with spiritual writings, carried out in obedience: St. Therese of Lisieux is another example, but also Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, Saint Edith Stein, and Sr. Miriam of the Holy Spirit, to name a few.
Neither should there be any haggling over what is offered for their work. They should graciously accept what is given. If they see that the amount offered is insufficient, they should not take on the work (Constitutions 9).” St. Teresa’s admonitions against begging and “haggling” reveal the freedom of her soul from concern for money, trusting as she did in the providence of God. The inordinate need for security, one of the three main sicknesses of the soul (along with the inordinate need for affection and esteem, and for power and control, according to the teaching of St. John of the Cross), is directly healed by the practice of the evangelical counsel of poverty. St. Teresa’s radical application of the vow of poverty by dependence on alms heals the soul of insecurity. It is a gift of Christ to His Bride the Church, and the brides of Christ, in their joy and inner freedom, hidden from the eyes of the world, provide witness to the Church of its truth and efficacy.
In the section on the acceptance of novices, St. Teresa warns the nuns of the danger of greed. As mentioned earlier, St. Teresa did not demand a dowry from postulants: “An applicant with whom the nuns are pleased should not be turned away because she has no alms to give the house … Shouldshe desire to give an alms to the house, and holds it for that reason, she should not be refused profession if afterward she does not for some reason give it, nor should the nuns try to get the money through litigation. Let them be careful so as not to be motivated by self-interest. Little by little greed could so enter that they would look more to the alms than to the goodness and quality of the person. This should in no way be done, for doing so would be a great evil. They should ever keep in mind their profession of poverty that they might always in everything give off its fragrance. Let them reflect that it is not money that will sustain them but faith, perfection and trust in God alone. This law should be considered carefully and be observed; it is appropriate and should be read to the Sisters (Constitutions 21).”
Beginners and Proficients: Novices and Prioresses St. Teresa’s Constitutions contain advice for the elected prioress, her counselors, and those whom she appoints for various offices. This section reveals the soul of the Saint as one who was willing “to serve and not to be served,” as Christ said of Himself.
“It is the duty of the Mother prioress to take great care in everything about the observance of the Rule and Constitutions, to look after the integrity and enclosure of the house, to observe how the Office is carried out, and to see that both spiritual and temporal needs are provided for; and these things should be done with a mother’s love (Constitutions 34).” Each Sister met with the prioress at least once a month to talk about prayer and other things. St. Teresa wanted her prioresses to be motherly, not like dictators: “She should strive to be loved so that she may be obeyed (Constitutions 34).” As mentioned earlier, the prioress was expected to do humble work like the other Sisters.
In her counsels for visitators, St. Teresa warns about the faults of prioresses and the various abuses of authority that can take place in monasteries such as abusive behavior, the practice of favoritism; excessive gift-giving; carelessness in accounting for the money received in alms and dowries; neglect of the Rule and Constitutions, the enclosure, and the spiritual and temporal welfare of each Sister; factions within the community; etc. The founding Saint sternly warned about the possibility of factions, saying that if the unity of the community is lost, the Sisters should cry out to God, because the devil has gotten a foothold.
The prioress appointed Sisters to the various offices with the exception of the sub-prioress and two counselors. A chest of three keys was kept in each monastery, where community documents and the alms received each day were placed. The prioress and two key-bearers (or counselors) kept the keys. The counselors were to receive a monthly report from the treasurer (also called the elder-portress) in the presence of the prioress. The subprioress was to see that the Office and choir were well-kept, and to preside in the place of the prioress during her absence. The sacristan was to take care of all things pertaining to the church and to arrange for the confessions of the Sisters. The treasurer or elder-portress was to greet people at the turn, to see to it that all the needs of the Sisters were purchased, and to keep careful accounts of all expenses and alms.
The novice mistress “should take great care to read the Constitutions to the novices and teach them all that they have to do with regard to ceremonies and mortification. She should stress the interior life more than exterior things…. (Constitutions 40).” St. Teresa wanted the novice mistress, which could be the prioress, to keep in daily contact with the novices, to teach them how to meditate; how to endure dryness in prayer; and how to break their wills, even in little things. Above all, she wanted the novice mistresses to be compassionate and loving people, “not being surprised by their faults, for they must advance little by little … She should lay more stress on doing away with the lack of virtue than on rigorous penance (Constitutions 40).” St. Teresa of Avila is known to have admonished the friars at Duruelo, her first foundation for men, as well as the community founded by Sr. Mary of Jesus in Alcala, for their excessive penitential practices. It is clear from her writings and these facts that she was a gentle mother. In her counsels for visitators, she writes: "It is necessary for the visitator to inquire about whether the prioresses have added more vocal prayers and penances than are necessary. It could happen that each one, according to her own taste, might add particular things and so burden the nuns that they will lose their health and not be able to do what they are obliged to do. ... There are usually some prioresses so indiscreet that they do this almost habitually, and the nuns do not dare speak, thinking this would show a lack of devotion (On Making the Visitation, Ibid.).
Saint Teresa insisted that the novices should not be pressured to stay, that they should be allowed visitors, and that they should feel free to communicate their needs to the novice mistress. “Applicants should be healthy, intelligent, and able to recite the Divine Office and assist in choir (Constitutions 21).” But more importantly, “Let the nuns consider carefully whether those about to be received are persons of prayer desiring full perfection and contempt for the world (Constitutions 21).” Applicants were at least seventeen years old, with one year of novitiate before profession. By modern standards they were young, and the formation was brief, but it seems that the Holy Spirit provided for what human nature is lacking. St. Teresa demanded that applicants be prayerful people already detached from the world: “And if they are not detached from the world, they will find the way we live here hard to bear (Constitutions 21).” Great desires for holiness “will be the sign that God is calling her to this state (Constitutions 21).”
Is it true that God simply does not make novices the way He did in the recent past, when many young women were called to religious life, persevering until death? My personal opinion is that this is not true. As our recently deceased Franciscan reformer and founder of the Franciscans of the Renewal Father Benedict Groeschel said, “There are just as many vocations now but there is no place for them to go. The soil isn’t good enough to receive them (from a taped retreat given to the Carmelite community of Danvers, Massachusetts).”
The custom of visitations all but disappeared after the Second Vatican Council. Some monasteries claim to be only under the authority of their bishops (and not the friars), who have limited powers of surveillance only. Others have declared themselves to be under the authority of the Pope only, but this seems to be unofficial. Others claim to be governed by the friars of the Order, as was the tradition since the days of the foundations. Others are simply autonomous, governing themselves without any accountability to the Order or the hierarchy of the Church. The Order is very divided over the Constitutions, with two approved versions, one in 1990 and one in 1991. The Constitutions approved by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1990 most closely resemble those of the founding Saint and trace their origins back to her original decrees.
Association of Saint Teresa In 1972, Mother Maria Maravillas of Jesus received the permission of the Holy See to establish the Association of Saint Teresa as members of the Discalced Carmelite Order. Beginning in Spain, she began a reform of the Order by founding new monasteries that took care to keep the observance as established by St. Teresa of Avila in 1562 using the Constitutions approved during the pontificate of Saint Pope JPII in 1990. There are over ten monasteries of the Association in the United States and in Canada at this time. Mother Maravillas of Jesus died in 1974 and was canonized by Pope Saint John Paul II in 2003.