Saint Teresa did not intend to found a whole new Order, the Discalced Carmelites, which could be considered the offspring of the ancient Order of Carmelites, to which she belonged as a nun. This happened as a result of the refusal of the Carmelites, known as the calced (a word that means “with shoes,” whereas the word discalced means “without shoes,” an allusion to the practice of enclosure) to accept the reformed monasteries that had been established by the Saint.
It was our Lord Himself Who asked her to begin the reform: “One day, after Communion, His Majesty earnestly commanded me to strive for this new monastery with all my powers and He made great promises that it would be founded and that He would be highly served in it …. He asked what would become of the world if it were not for religious and said that I should tell my confessor what He commanded …. often the Lord returned to speak to me about this new monastery.” Life 12:11-12.
[All quotations from the works of St. Teresa are taken from The Collected Works of Saint Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, ICS Publications, Washington, DC]
The Influence of the Hermit Spirituality: Saint Teresa admired the hermits who had lived on Mount Carmel during the 1200s and earlier. The Rule of Saint Albert, written for the hermits and approved by Pope Innocent IV, was in use at her community in Avila as the main body of legislation for all Carmelites. She was familiar with a version that had been mitigated twice, first to allow the hermits to preach as mendicant friars in Europe, and again to allow the eating of meat, considered a luxury at that time. So when Saint Teresa began to speak of her desire to return to the “unmitigated Rule,” it most likely meant to her the practices of poverty and enclosure.
The times of our Saint were similar to our times. There was a restlessness in the Church brought on by the Protestant Movement initiated by Martin Luther and the consequent Council of Trent. The greatly feared Inquisition had been established to refute the errors of the Protestants, and had the power to condemn a heretic to death. There was exploration of the New World with its wars in South and Central America. The Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico, an apparition that became known as Our Lady of Guadalupe after a popular shrine in Spain.
The Hermit Movement: Then as now, the hermit movement was characterized by idealism, prayer, the renewed practice of asceticism, courage and persecution. Like the original hermits who migrated into the deserts of the East after the Roman persecutions had ceased, Christians were looking for “a martyrdom of conscience” (a term used by St. Athanasius in his biography of St. Anthony of the Desert), a way of living the Gospel message to the fullest.
Several persons who contributed substantially to Saint Teresa’s work were hermits:
As a young girl her Uncle Pedro, living as a hermit, gave her the Letters of Saint Jerome, who lived as a hermit in Palestine;
A man named Ambrosio Mariano, an Italian doctor who had been supervisor of the household of the Queen of Poland and was living as a hermit with some other men before Saint Teresa convinced him to join her reform movement, founded a monastery for friars at Pastrana and served the reform movement in many ways for, in St. Teresa’s words, “through his talent, intelligence and good life, he is influential with many persons who favor and defend us (Foundations, 17:10)."
Catherine of Cardona, a noblewoman who was living as a hermit in a cave near Villanueva de Jara, founded a monastery of friars there.
Saint John of the Cross, considered co-founder of the Order, had wanted to join the Carthusians, a hermit order, before Saint Teresa convinced him to help her reform the Carmelites.
Hermits and Canon Law: Then as now the hermit movement, a movement of the Spirit, tended to leap beyond the boundaries established by the Church for religious observance. There were few established Rules, no canonical privileges, no financial support or prestigious titles, just a few ardent souls seeking union with God in prayer.
At the present time, even with the benefit of the Hermit Canon 603, hermits, both with or without public vows, are not considered as belonging to the religious estate, defined as living in a community with a vow or promise of obedience to a superior, conditions which, ironically, few religious women and men can claim.
And then as now, there was persecution, a fact that Saint Teresa’s experience testifies. Although never a hermit herself, her attempt to imitate them initiated a reaction within her community and eventually within the entire order that was hostile and aggressive. She was marginalized, rejected, and slandered.
The Ultimate Victory: And yet the victory remained with the reform movement, a movement that was inspired and informed by the hermits. Why? Because God was on her side, the side of deeper prayer, integrity of one’s vowed word, respect for legitimate authority, and, above all, a persevering love and obedience to Jesus Christ alone.
Hermit Spirituality: In the first religious communities, during the fourth and fifth centuries, monastics and hermits lived side by side.
As stated in the Rule of Saint Benedict, considered the Father of Monasticism (who lived as a hermit for several years before establishing monasteries) hermits (or anchorites) are those who, “no longer in the first fervor of their reformation, but after long probation in a monastery, having learned by the help of many brethren how to fight against the devil, go out well armed from the ranks of the community to the solitary combat of the desert. They are able now, with no help save from God, to fight single-handed against the vices of the flesh and their own evil thoughts.” [from the Rule of St. Benedict, paragraph 2, on the four kinds of monks.]
The decline of eremitism in the west took place later, and has led to the excessive communitarianism of present day monastic life. No one can deny the obvious fact of the crisis of monasticism and other forms of religious life that have lost, in many cases, the charism of their founders, charisms deeply rooted in prayer and the experience of the love of God.
The hermit spirituality is no less than a return to prayer through the practice of silence and solitude. The solitude of the hermit embraces the entire world of human souls in charity. The solitude of the hermit goes beyond physical separation to the renunciation of the love of creatures, no matter how good, beautiful, and permissible, for the sake of adoring the Creator in prayer, as defined by Saint Teresa:
“This is the perpetual aim of those who are here: to be alone with Him alone.” It is the hermit spirituality that renews and restores the practice of monasticism by the balance, wisdom, purity and stability of the hermits.
A Need to Return: There is a need to return to this double observance. Already it is beginning in some of the traditional orders, for example, the Trappists and Franciscans. Characteristic of the New Springtime of the Church, the New Pentecost of graces of renewal, is the eremitic movement, then as now.