On Making the Visitation: St. Teresa’s Counsels for Visitators The custom of visitations was in place for most religious communities until recent times. Carmelite nuns had an annual visitation usually with a Carmelite friar appointed by the Apostolic See, which is why the practice was called “an apostolic visitation.” This was necessary, because authority was needed to make whatever changes were necessary.
You may think that Carmelite nuns, and in particular the prioresses, would never need a correction, but this is not so. Even St. Teresa, in her counsels written in 1576 for Fr. Gracián who was serving at the time as the visitator, wrote, “It seems to me that by dealing with these matters I’m being offensive to these monasteries of the Virgin, our Lady, since through the Lord’s goodness they are far removed from any need for this severity. But it is my fear that makes me say this, a fear stemming from the fact that with time, through a lack of carefulness in the beginning, laxity usually creeps into monasteries (On Making the Visitation, 6).”
Most of the counsels are addressed to the need for the correction of the prioresses, and possibly even their removal, if necessary. This may come as a shock at first, but as the Saint herself said, “It’s impossible that all those elected prioresses will have the talent for the office. When it is realized that they do not, the first year should by no means pass without them being removed from office. In one year not much harm can be done, but in three she could destroy the monastery by allowing imperfections to become the custom. And removing her from office is so extremely important that even if it kills him, because he thinks she is holy and her intentions good, he should force himself to do so. This is the only thing I ask, for the love of God (On Making the Visitation, 9).”
The opening words of the counsels are all about the necessity that the nuns know that there is someone in command who is just and firm in his judgments and actions, and “not tenderhearted (On Making the Visitation, 4).” By this, one can assume that she is addressing Fr. Gracián, who had a tendency to be softhearted, with the need for firmness in governing the women’s communities, so beset with human weaknesses. She wanted the visitation to take place once each year. However, at the same time she warned against the excessive meddling of some visitators, imposing more rules and decrees than already existed, when just keeping the Rule and Constitutions are enough: “In a monastery where there is so much rigor, life would become unbearable if each visitator, in each visitation, were to make new decrees. This is very important (On Making the Visitation, 20).”
In a general reading of St. Teresa’s counsels for visitators, it is easy to see what her priorities were. On Making the Visitation is one of the few writings of the Saint of which we have the autograph (preserved in the Escorial, the library of King Phillip II). They were written, it is thought, for Fr. Jerónimo Gracián, a Discalced friar for whom she had a great spiritual love. She met him while she was making the foundation in Beas. He had recently completed his novitiate at Pastrana, the first foundation for friars. Not long after their meeting, he was appointed Apostolic Visitator for both the calced and discalced communities. St. Teresa often praised him in her writings as the one whom God had sent to bring stability to the new foundations and to confirm her work of reform.
The Need to Observe the Rule and Constitutions
Certain themes emerge from the counsels as dominant in St. Teresa’s conversational and sometimes repetitive style of writing, such as the need for the prioresses to keep the Rule and Constitutions: “What the visitator should insist upon is that the nuns observe the Constitutions. A prioress who takes great liberty in breaking the laws of the Constitutions and does so for little reason or habitually, thinking that this or that matters little, will do great harm to the house. Let this be understood, and if it doesn’t appear so at once, time will prove it (On Making the Visitation, 21).”
In fact, most of the counsels are simply reiterations of the matter contained in the Rule and Constitutions. Perhaps this is why she devotes several paragraphs to the importance of keeping them. The prioresses in particular were held responsible for them: “Let her understand … that the main reason she was elected to office was to foster observance of the Rule and Constitutions and not remove or add anything according to her own whim and that there will be someone who will watch this and inform the visitator (On Making the Visitation, 22).”
St. Teresa felt so strongly about the need to foster observance of the Rule and Constitutions that she wanted the prioresses to be changed if they failed to do so: “I conclude this matter by saying that if the Constitutions are observed, everything will run smoothly. If there is no great care for their observance or that of the Rule, visitations will be of little avail – this is the reason for them -- unless the prioresses are changed (On Making the Visitation, 23).”
The founding Saint warns of the danger of prioresses who introduce novelties or exceptions to the Constitutions: “… there may be prioresses who will ask for some freedom with regard to certain things against the Constitutions (On Making the Visitation, 24).” How extreme the exceptions of our day would appear to St. Teresa! Exceptions have become the rule for many.
She also warns of the danger of the prioresses adding vocal prayers or penances: “It’s necessary for the visitator to inquire about whether the prioresses have added more vocal prayers and penances than is obligatory. It could happen that each one, according to her own taste, may 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 to speak .... (On Making the Visitation, 29).”
Some of St. Teresa’s counsels apply very directly to our times, such as her warning against the temptation of purchasing large and ornate buildings. The temptation of ostentatious wealth is not new. Also, her insistence that the visitator carefully check the financial records of the community to be sure the prioress is not spending too much on gifts or on unnecessary building projects. After all, many communities live at least in part on alms. The poor come to the door or mail in small amounts of money which for them is much. To squander the money of the poor is sinful, especially when this is done without gratitude for their gifts. The greatest scandal, however, lies in the fact that they can usually see how their sacrifice is being spent, and this harms the unity of the Church. When they themselves eat poorly, rarely engage in luxurious travel, and live in modest homes, why should they support a higher lifestyle? On the other hand, the temptation of appealing mainly to the rich for support is not in keeping with the spirit of Saint Teresa, who wanted her monasteries to depend mainly upon alms.
Even worse would be the danger of the prioress possessing money or things not in keeping with the Constitutions: “It is very important that he inquire whether any money gets into the hands of the prioresses without the knowledge of the key-bearers … or even whether she possesses anything except in conformity with the Constitutions (On Making the Visitation, 35).” “They are no more than stewards and must not spend as if the money were their own but according to reason and with great care so that their expenditures are not excessive .… and not keep especially for herself anything that the others do not have (On Making the Visitation, 40).”
Even the acceptance of novices for profession could be tainted by partiality: “Possibly the novice is a friend and protégé of the prioress, and the subjects do not dare speak their mind; but they will to the visitator (On Making the Visitation, 26).” Once again, St. Teresa points to the Constitutions as the norm for established guidelines on the acceptance of postulants and novices: “No one should be admitted out of self-interest, but in accord with the Constitutions …. (On Making the Visitation, 44).”
St. Teresa explains that often prioresses need the help of some of the nuns “who have greater intelligence and discretion (On Making the Visitation, 19),” so the visitator should not take any report of favoritism too seriously. However, she states, “it is always good to insist there be no great familiarity with anyone. Soon the true colors will be seen (On Making the Visitation, 19).” The practice of favoritism in religious communities does not foster true spiritual growth. When a novice sees “how it is,” she is tempted to servility or to curry favor with the prioress. It is another form of injustice that can render a community fruitless or deformed.
Even worse is abusive behavior. The prioress has absolute authority. The nuns can become spiritually stunted by fear and servility when there is a lack of visitations.