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Posted June 1, 2011

Book: St. Teresa of Avila: 100 Themes on Her Life and Work
Author: Tomas Alvarez, O.C.D. Translated by Kieran Kavanaught, O.C.D.
ICS Publications. Washington, D.C., 2011. Pp.452

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

As the first woman to be given the title of doctor of the church, St. Teresa of Avila continues to exercise her teaching authority in the world today both within and outside the boundaries of the church. In the present group of 100 themes, Tomas Alvarez wishes to create a favorable approach to Teresa’s person and a comprehensive reading of her writings.

Avila and Its Surrounds, The Social Classes of Her Time, Environment and Cultural Levels, Contemporary Women, Clergy, Religion, Her Family, Home, Father, Mother and Siblings is a sampling of some of the one hundred themes presented in this book.

An Excerpt from the Book:

The Ancestry from which we have come: What is Carmel?

The “ancestors from which we have come” are the ancient dwellers on Mount Carmel (in Israel). Teresa evokes their memory especially in the Interior Castle in the fifth dwelling places where she begins her exposition of the mystical life: “all of us who wear this holy habit of Carmel are called to prayer and contemplation. This call explains our origin; we are the descendants of men who felt this call, of those holy fathers on Mount Carmel who in such great solitude and contempt for the world sought this treasure, this precious pearl. . .”

The origins: Mount Carmel is a biblical place, a small mountain (1,742 ft high) that lies near the Mediterranean sea behind the city of Haifa and extends for some thirteen miles to the east in the direction of Nazareth. As a biblical site, it is especially tied to the prophet Elijah, a figure charged with symbolism and seen in Eastern monasticism as the archetype of the monastic life. Here is where the family (Order) of Carmel began. Its birth is attributed to an anonymous group of Western (Latin) pilgrims and ex-crusaders who at the end of the twelfth century gathered together in one of the valleys of the mountain range (el Wadi ‘ani es-Siah), near the fount of Elijah, where they founded a small community of hermits. There then followed two notable events. In the first decade of the next century (13 c): around 1208 the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Alberto Avogadro, wrote for the group a “rule of life,” which was the Carmelite rule that Teresa professed in the sixteenth century and that continues till today as the corner stone of all Carmelite life. And at the same time the hermits built in the middle of this place a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary in whose service they consecrated their lives. From this second event came the name that the group soon adopted.

The expansion: A military torrent of Saracens expelled the hermits from their solitude before the first half of the century, and before its end (1291) forced them to abandon definitely the Wadi and Carmel. They had to emigrate to countries in the West. The change in place imposed on them in turn a change of life, and the hermits settled in the European cities after the manner of mendicant friars. They spread through Cyprus, Italy, England, and France . . .a certain delay took place before they reached Spain. They founded monasteries at first in the Northeast of Spain: Huesca, Lerida, Sanguesa, Valencia . . .In Teresa’s time the Spanish Carmel was made up of four Religious provinces: Cataluna, Aragon, Castile, and Andalucia, with more than forty monasteries and about five hundred religious. Teresa belonged to the province of Castile. During her almost half a century of Carmelite life there were in Rome two General Superiors of great prestige: the Frenchman Nicolas Audet (1523-1562) and the Italian Giovanni Baptista Rossi, Teresa referred to the Italian as “Padre Rubeo” (1564-1578). Succeeding him was also an Italian Giovanni Baptista Caffardo. Teresa was affected especially by the General Chapter of Piacenza (1575), which dealt with her work and, with the Spanish, Carmelite provincial superiors of Castile, Angel de Salazar, and of Andalusia, Diego de Cardenas.

The feminine branch: the Carmelite nuns in Teresa’s time were considered “the second order of Carmel.” Founded in France the previous century by the superior general Blessed John Soreth, they spread though Spain throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In Teresa’s time there existed two monasteries founded in the fifteenth century (Ecija and Avila) and another nine founded in the sixteenth century. . . in Teresa’s time the biblical site of Mount Carmel continued to be abandoned, in the possession of the Muslims. Only in the following century (1631) was it recuperated heroically by one of the discalced friars, Padre Prospero.

Within the order there had arisen movements of reform. Another singular happening at the beginning of the sixteenth century was the edition of the Speculum Ordinis Fratrum Carmelitarum, which had gathered the best of the Carmelite spiritual patrimony, for example: the ten books of The Institution of the First Monks, The historical Speculum, The Treatise on the Rule. The chapter on the way to respond to anyone who asks how and when our Order began and why we are called the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. The Viridarium, by the General Giovanni Grossi. A whole arsenal of spiritual traditions and mottos that allowed one to become aware of Carmelite spirituality. The only trouble for Teresa: it was all written in Latin.

The Carmelite Ideal: Alluding to this Carmelite patrimony from the past, Teresa exclaimed toward the end of her life: “How many saints we have in heaven who have worn this habit!” That is to say, the point of reference was not the physical place of Mount Carmel, but the life and the spirit of those who lived there. The reference to this glorious gold mine of models formed the nucleus of the Carmelite ideal. With the passing of time, to the historical figures were added a whole list of legendary ones. In the breviary Teresa had for her personal use, as with the liturgy of the whole order of Carmel, the Eastern rite of the Holy Sepulchre was followed. The rite celebrated many biblical saints from the Old Testament, not only the prophets Elijah and Elisha, but others as well, such as David and Abraham. There were many in the Missal of that time. At the end of the Speculum Ordinis that was mentioned the readers were offered a list “De Sanctis Ordinis Carmelitani, in which after Elijah and Elisha were included other biblical prophets, such as Jonah and Abdias.

This hagiographical Carmelite panorama formed a part of Teresa’s mentality which she spread through her Carmels. A record of this remains in the Libro de Recreaciones by Maria de San Jose. The fourth recreation proposes to the Carmelites three squadrons of martyrs, virgins, and confessors, 66 in all (although there is no feminine figure). It added to the first squadron a number of biblical prophets. Theresa herself alludes in her correspondence to the saints of Carmelite legend. But for her the highest examples of Carmelite sanctity are the Blessed Virgin Mary, “whose habit we wear and whose rule we profess,” and the prophet Elijah whom she mentions as a type of the mystical life at the end of the seventh dwelling places: “also that hunger which our Father Elijah had for the honor of his God . . .”

Table of Contents:

1. Historical Context
2. Teresa in her family
3. Carmel Teresa’s new home
4. Teresa founder
5. Cultural and spiritual formation
6. Teresa the writer
7. Two narrative books; The Life and The Foundations
8. Doctrinal books: The Way of Perfection and the Interior Castle
9. Minor writings
10. Teresa’s spiritual teaching