St Teresa of Avila as Religious Reformer

I wonder how many of St Teresa of Avila’s admirers realise what a radical person she was or how much hostility she endured from others because she did not conform to their ideas of what a contemplative nun should be? We have a tendency to sanitize the history of the saints. Whatever hardship or opposition they endured in life becomes after death a demonstration of their triumph over adversity, an expected hagiographic trope. The opposers are either written out of the narrative or relegated to a footnote. Thus, the opposition to her reforms that Teresa encountered from within the Carmelite Order tends to be glossed over today because we see the fruits of those reforms in the abundant holiness they have produced. In 1576 the outcome was far less certain. People genuinely questioned whether St Teresa’s contemplative insights were from God or the devil and worried that her reforms would destroy, rather than purify, the Order.

Religious reformers in every age come in for their share of misunderstanding and opposition. What I think is striking about St Teresa is the way in which, after she had identified her goal, she secured the support and interest of others and waited patiently, though never passively, for any opposition to disappear. She never wavered, either in her determination or in her obedience. The explanation, I suspect, is to be found in that intense life of prayer that characterised her. Perhaps those who feel called to be religious reformers in our own day would do well to reflect on that. Prayer, discipline and sheer hard work, allied to fidelity to the Church’s teaching and tradition, can indeed achieve wonders; but only prayer can keep all the others in harmony, for it is not only the expression of love but its origin and source. Without prayer to keep us ‘in touch’ with God, every activity tends to go astray. May St Teresa teach us how to keep our focus.

Earlier posts on St Teresa may be read here and here. Others may be found by using the search bar on the right.


St Scholastica and Single-heartedness

Today is the feast of St Scholastica, sister of St Benedict. All we know about her comes from the second book of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. We are told that once a year she and her brother used to meet to discuss spiritual matters. On one occasion she wished her brother to stay longer, but he, anxious not to spend the night away from his monastery, refused. Scholastica prayed, and the result of her prayers was a storm so fierce and long that he was compelled to stay and passed the night discussing holy matters with her. He humbly acknowledged that she had prevailed with God because she loved much. The second reference to her occurs when Benedict sees a dove flying skywards and realises that it is an image of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven.

Pretty stories, or something more? It rather depends whom and what you want to believe. For some, Scholastica is no more ‘real’ than St Benedict, simply an image of prayer, the ‘feminine’ aspect of monasticism. For others, Scholastica is indeed an historical person, but merely an adjunct to the story of St Benedict. If she is remembered at all it is because she was, as the preface of the day says, ‘schooled in holiness by St Benedict’ and his bones were allegedly placed in the same grave as hers. I myself think the truth is more complex.

The Dialogues are not history as we understand it today. Scholastica’s appearance in the narrative has a didactic purpose. She is presented in the first incident as the  teacher of St Benedict. He had to learn, first, that his purely human legislation (not spending a night away from the monastery) might, on occasion, and for good reason, be abrogated. More importantly, he had to learn that the  power of prayer proceeds from the love and fervour with which it is practised. At many points in the Rule Benedict insists that prayer be short and pure, that we shall not be heard for our many words but for our purity of heart and devotion; the motive he gives for almost every act is love of Christ. This is particularly noticeable in those passages adapted from the Rule of the Master and gives a completely different character to RB. Benedict learned his lesson well.

With the second incident, the vision of Scholastica’s soul ascending to heaven, we come to a favourite topos or theme in hagiography. It confirms the holiness of both the visionary and the subject of his vision. Like the burial of brother and sister in a single grave (or side by side, as now) Benedict and Scholastica are both examples of Benedictine holiness, neither complete without the other. We cannot always be doing; we cannot always be praying in the formal sense; we can, and should, always be monastic, single-hearted in the service of our Lord.

May St Scholastica pray for us all.