The relationship friars-nuns in the Teresian Carmel

The Vultum Dei Quaerere Apostolic Constitution and Instruction Cor Orans make an affirmation of principle regarding the relationship between the male and female branches of the same Order: «The legal association of the monasteries of nuns with the corresponding masculine Order should be encouraged whenever possible, in order to protect the identity of the charismatic family ».

Such an affirmation and wish do not follow operative indications, but it is certainly very significant that the importance of the charismatic and juridical bond between friars and nuns of the same religious family is recognized.

We know how much this relationship is important in a particular way for the Teresian Carmel. It is not only a functional relationship, in the sense of fulfilling a reciprocal utility or service between friars and nuns, but an element that belongs to the fundamental intuition of Mother Teresa, formulated in the direction of the return to the original evangelical fraternity of the “college of Christ” (CV 27.6, CE 20,1). This is the profile of fraternity and radical simplicity that should characterize the Teresian communities, as places inhabited by the living presence of the Lord Jesus. This supposes, of course, totally rethinking the religious community, from its numerical consistency to its structure of government and its daily lifestyle.

This rethinking also touches the way that the brothers and sisters of the same religious family relate to one another. Indeed, if the common experience of discipleship and friendship with the Lord Jesus is placed at the center of their relations, and the radical baring of souls that this entails, it should lead to a substantial relationship of parity between brothers and sisters. It is certainly no easy bet, that is: to propose to men and women the same spiritual experience, the same path of holiness, the same simplicity of life, in which male and female are distinguished only in order to complete and help each other. Today also, such a proposal runs the risk of appearing as provocative and capable of instilling instinctive resistance. So we can imagine its impact in the sixteenth century! In fact, to associate with the family religious who share the same spirit was surely the most arduous challenge that Teresa had to face, a long battle of which she never managed to leave completely victorious. Regarding this undertaking, there were three moments of light, hree meetings with other Carmelite friars who had a decisive influence on Teresa and on her mission as Foundress that stand out. They were providential meetings, touched by the Spirit, from which one can try to design a more defined image of the masculine – feminine relationship in the Teresian Carmel.

First meeting: the superior and father

According to Teresa’s narrative in the book of the Foundations (2.5), the idea of ​​founding, together with the monasteries of the nuns, communities of friars who shared their same life program, was born during the visit to Spain of the Fr. General, Juan Bautista Rossi (or Rubeo), who met Teresa in April 1567. Indeed, that visit represented a turning point in Teresa’s founding activity, moving her from the narrow circle of the community of San José, to the prospect of founding as many monasteries as she wanted in the two Castles. We can say that Teresa’s initiative, by chance a diocesan one placed under the control of the bishop of Avila, thus became relevant for the entire Order of Carmel, thanks to the highly positive assessment that Father Rubeo gave of what had been done by the Saint, recognizing in it “a portrait, although imperfect, of the principle of our Order” (F 2.3).

The General had hardly left Avila when Teresa was already thinking, “how necessary it is, if monasteries of nuns are founded, that there would be friars of the same Rule” (F 2, 5). So she writes a letter to Father Rubeo, begging him to also give her permission for these other foundations. Unfortunately, this letter has not come down to us. Actually it would be very interesting to know the reasons that Teresa herself presented to the General to support her request. Nevertheless, we can imagine that Teresa, through the mandate entrusted to her by the General, was aware of the mission to which the Lord was calling her. At the moment when she was sent to build a new reality in the Order of Carmel, it quickly came to her mind that this could not be done without also involving the friars in the same undertaking.

How and why does she come to this conclusion? I think that the experience lived in the encounter with the General played a decisive role. It was not simply an institutional meeting, but a spiritual relationship was born. Fr Rubeo, as soon as he has a free moment, goes to San José “to treat spiritual things” (F 2, 4) with that community. Teresa feels understood and fully supported by the Fr. General, who grants her ample powers to continue her work as Foundress, putting her under his direct jurisdiction, and exempting her from that of the Provincials. Of her, Father Rubeo says, writing to the nuns of Medina in January of 1569, “she should do more to benefit the Order than all the Carmelite friars of Spain” and that she is “a stone that is very precious, because she is precious and God’s friend.”.

It seems natural to me that such a relationship with the Prior General reinforces the feeling of belonging to the Order in Teresa and gives rise to the desire that, along with the nuns, there may be Carmelite friars capable of understanding and embracing the same ideal of life. What does Teresa expect from this broadening of her initiative to the friars? Certainly, she expects support and guidance for the monasteries she has founded, but not only this. In the letter to the nuns of Medina that I have just quoted, Fr. Rubeo writes that he hopes that the contemplative Carmelite monasteries will be founded so that the friars will be able to serve in the people’s homes and provide spiritual assistance to the nuns. Probably, by his saying this, it echoes a desire expressed by the Holy Mother. In the license with which he permits the foundation of the two monasteries, in addition to making a list of the prayer commitments of the communities of such contemplative Carmelites friars, the General adds that “They must to help others when there is an opportunity”. If we think of Teresa’s concerns for the salvation of souls, and her joy at seeing that the friars of Duruelo would provide for the spiritual needs of the people of the neighboring villages (see F 14.8); we can suspect that behind this simple but significant guideline of Fr. General – “to help others when there is an opportunity” – we once again glimpse the will of the Foundress.

Second meeting: the brother participates in the same spirit

It was not easy for Teresa to find suitable people for the proposed undertaking (cf. F 2,6). She was asking the Lord to raise up at least one! And so it was. The Lord sent her a young friar of only 25 years, barely ordained priest, John of Saint Matias, who was thinking of entering a Carthusian monastery (see F 3,17). Another friar also offered himself spontaneously. At that time he was the prior of the convent of Medina and he also intended to enter a Carthusian monastery, because he felt that the Lord was calling him “to a more austere lifestyle” (F 3,16). Teresa accepted him for lack of someone better, although she held certain reservations about him (see F 3,17). She is thus with two friars: one very young, the other of a more mature age (57 years), both of them in a vocational crisis and with the desire to become Carthusians. With this human stock, the first community of contemplative Carmelites had to begin. Evidentially her first concern was that they would be familiar with the new spirit of the communities founded by her.

We know of how committed and concerned Teresa was in order to inform John of the Cross- “of  our way of proceeding” (F 13.5), so that he could well understand his total lifestyle, “the mortification, as well as the style of brotherhood and recreation”. Teresa admits that the young man was so good that he could have taught her a lot, nevertheless what she wanted to teach him was precisely and only this: «Of all the way we proceed». What the reactions were of Fray John to the direct experience of the life of the Discalced Carmelites that he had with the community of Valladolid, we cannot know. Unfortunately we also lack direct testimonies of his relations with the Holy Mother, since the correspondence between the two was lost.

Nevertheless, it seems to be out of the question that the lesson would not have been received, meditated on, and assimilated by him. John will live his vocation as a contemplative Carmelite in a relationship of close proximity and deep harmony with his sisters, and he will also be, as we know, for a long time, at the side of the Holy Mother as confessor and father “of her soul”. To point out a small but significant detail: John is the only Carmelite friar who appears in the typically Teresian community dynamics of the “Vejamen” (Speech or poetic composition of a burlesque nature delivered in universities and academies)and, it would seem that way also in the “Respuesta a un desafio” (Response to a challenge). He is also the addressee of a “little Christmas song” of Teresa written on a card to his brother Lorenzo in January 1577. In short, John of the Cross is a brother with whom Teresa and her daughters are able to freely share all that constitutes the tenor of their lives: from the deepest spiritual experiences to moments of community animation, from the exchange of poetic creations to the help given in manual labor.

Another witness of the formation that Teresa gave to the two pioneers of Duruelo, is Ana de Jesús, who in the process of Salamanca declares to have found them in Mancera (where the community had moved in June of 1570). Ana would have heard them say that, “all the order and way of proceeding we received was from our holy Mother”, which leads her to conclude that Mother Teresa “wasthe foundress of them as well as of us”.

As regards the Constitutions followed by the first friars of Duruelo, according to the license granted by Father Rubeo, they should have lived “according to the ancient Constitutions”, that is, the Constitutions approved by Soreth and then Audet. On the other hand, Teresa had already prepared a constitutional text for the nuns in 1567. This text was used by Fr. Antonio for the draft of new Constitutions for the friars, which was sent to the General Curia for approval.

However, according to a testimony of Fr. Antonio himself, the life of the first friars was not regulated by the Constitutions written by Teresa: “I did not govern myself by the mother, but by the Constitutions of the Order and by the reformation that was made in a general chapter of the whole Order of 24 in Venice, from which I took the mode of our habit and cape,  the wearing of sandals and everything else, and with this I later rectified those who accused me that I had introduced novelties ». Without wanting to exaggerate the value of this testimony, it emerges from the words of Fr. Antonio the displeasure at the time of recognizing a dependence on Teresa, or a debt to her, that probably would not have been judged positively by the brothers (ie., introducing new things, and in addition to that, because of a woman).

Third meeting: the road companion

A year after the foundation of Duruelo, three other men enter to form part of the small company of the “contemplative Carmelites”. They are two mature Italian hermits, Ambrosio Mariano Azzaro (afterwards ‘of Saint Benedict’) and Juan Narduch (afterwards ‘of mercy’), constrained to abandon the eremitical life by the decisions of Pope Pius V who had suppressed this form of religious life. The third is a Carmelite father, Baltasar Nieto, with a history that can be described as anything but exemplary. The welcome among the ranks of the Teresian Carmel of people whose motivations were not entirely clear, or in line with the intentions of the Foundress, brings with it consequences that are soon to make themselves felt. Between 1571 and 1574 the foundations of friars with rather eremitic-penitential characteristics were multiplied (under the influence, among other things, of the famous penitent Catherine de Cardona). In light of all this, it is possible to understand all that Teresa writes in the Book of Foundations (see F 23,12), by recalling her state of mind at the beginning of 1575. The confusion that reigns in the communities of the friars, each one governing itself; the diversity of the existing opinions among them, the lack of an autonomous jurisdiction … All this provokes in Teresa such anguish that she almost regrets having undertaken the renewal of the masculine branch.

Once again, to save the situation and remove Teresa from the anguish. A friar appears, in which the mother recognizes the providential intervention of the Lord: «Our Lord remedied it by means of the father-teacher Fray Geronimo (Brother Jerome) of the Mother of God, because they nominated him the Apostolic Commissioner and gave him authority and the direction overall the Discalced Friars and Discalced nuns. […] The first time he visited them, he put everything in such order and harmony, that it felt good to be helped by the divine Majesty and the one that our Lady had chosen as a remedy for her Order “(F 23,13).

Teresa, at the first opportunity, presents Fr. Gratian as a legitimate superior, accredited by the supreme authority of the Holy See. It is true that Gratian, despite his young age, and above all his inexperience as a Carmelite religious (he had made his profession in April 1573), had been acting with the powers of apostolic visitor in Andalusia. So when Teresa meets Father Gratian in April-May 1575 in Beas, he already had almost two years of experience as a superior.

Teresa recognizes in Gratian the superior that the new foundation needed and therefore, a representative of the future of the work that she had begun, just as Fr Rubeo had represented itat the beginning. In my opinion, it is precisely this conviction that is at the base of the particular relationship that is established between Teresa and Gratian. Much has been written about the psychological and affective aspects of such a relationship (the reciprocal charm and fascination), but in reality it seems to me that it must be understood in a much less psychic and more pneumatic key. The relationship between Teresa and Gratian, such as the relationship with Rubeo and John of the Cross, is part of the charismatic history of the new religious family. Each of these meetings served to define an aspect of the masculine-feminine relationship in the Carmelite-Teresian vocation, and therefore has value as a model, which is necessary to keep in mind in the future evolution of the charism. It is therefore a matter of reading about, and interpreting this relationship of which, moreover, we have a much more abundant documentation with respect to the two preceding ones. My hypothesis is that in this experience (these meetings with Gratian), there is something that is hidden but essential in the style that characterizes the new Teresian family.

Gratian arrives at the new monastery of Beas, where Teresa is from February 1575, around April 20 of that year, staying there for three weeks, until May 12. Gratian is 30 years old, Teresa 60. Together “we talked about everything to do with the Order, both past and present, and what was necessary to anticipate the future”. In addition, they treated “the whole way of proceeding in the spirit, and how it was to be sustained, both in friars and in nuns.” At the same time Teresa examines Gratian on ” spiritual doctrine, whether being found in readings or in experiences; and she taught me everything she knew, giving me so many doctrines, rules, and advice, that I could write a very large book of what she taught me here […] She told me of her whole life, spirit and intentions ». The exchange was more than intense: “It was for many days, and, the whole day, outside of the time of the Mass and meals, was spent on this ». It cannot fail to impress, ie., the exceptional breadth and depth of this exchange, which seems above all to have been loved by Teresa: “She told me of her spirit without concealing anything from me, and in the same way I told her about all that was within me”. It was in my opinion, a kind of reciprocal devotion, made in the spirit of faith, and with the intention of promoting the cause of the renewal of Carmel, which was so threatened. “We made a pact there, to always be in agreement regarding all matters ». This agreement to proceed together was not only the consequence of mutual esteem and sympathy, which had been born naturally between the two, it was above all, the strategy they decided upon by common agreement in order to remedy the one thing that appeared as the most serious risk for the new Carmel, namely: the fragmentation, the discord and the confusion regarding its identity.

Gratian, for example, had no difficulty, as Fr. Antonio did, in letting himself be taught by a woman. Teresa enthusiastically welcomes his willingness to learn and uses it to pour over him all the heritage of spiritual wisdom she has accumulated. Does she do it because she esteems and loves him? Yes certainly, but even more so because he is the superior chosen by the Lord to guide the fragile boat of the contemplative Carmel, and consequently, he must clearly know the route. In fact, Gratian affirms that, beginning from their first encounter, he never did “anything with the Discalced nuns without her orders”. He was not ashamed to admit: “although I signed the licenses and presided over and confirmed the elections as prelate of the nuns, she ordered these things first.” This naturally drew to him not a few criticisms from his brothers, who “murmured about me saying that I was subject to a woman, and others said ugly things that I grieved too much over.” On the other hand, his dependence on the Holy Mother for everything related to the issues of the nuns did not exclude him from taking very definite stands, such as for example the mandate he decided on to establish a foundation in Seville rather than in Madrid, to which Teresa submitted to immediately out of obedience, notwithstanding her interior lights that were orienting her towards a different path. One can perceive, in other words, a kind of reciprocity, as Gratian himself observes: “Since M. Teresa was determined to obey Father Gratian in everything […] she decides also not to do anything without his opinion, and to try with all her strength to give him as much pleasure as she could in everything ».

The words just quoted from Father Gratian refer to Teresa’s famous vow of obedience, which was a direct consequence of their meeting in Beas. The vow was preceded and inspired by a mystical experience, which happened very quickly (“like a lightning bolt”):

“It seemed to me that our Lord Jesus Christ was next to me in the way that His Majesty is usually represented to me, and to the right side was Fr. Gratian in person, and I on the left. The Lord took our right hands and put them together, and told me that he wanted to take him (Gratian) to his place while he was alive, and that we should both be content about everything, because it was so suitable.”

The similarity is evident, also verbally, between what Fr. Gratian says about the decision made by common agreement (“always be in harmony”), and Teresa’s vision (“we should agree with one another”). It is a pact of a covenant that the Lord himself seals by joining the right hand of Teresa and Gratian. Despite appearances, it is not in fact a nuptial agreement. In the previous spiritual relationship (number 38), the Lord declares Teresa as his wife and as a sign of such a link gives her a magnificent ring with a stone similar to an amethyst. Here it is a pact between allies in the same mission. The pact that Paul established with Peter, James, and John in Jerusalem comes to mind: “they extended their hand in a sign of communion to me and to Barnabas: we would go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Gal 2: 9). Similarly, Jesus shakes the hands of Teresa and Gratian “in a sign of koinonia,” entrusting to this koinonia the destiny of the renewed Carmel. Male and female are therefore on the same plane, sharing the same ecclesial mission, even if the areas of action are obviously different. At this point Teresa has the assurance that the right path, according to the will of God, passes through this mutual agreement between the masculine will of Father Gratian and her feminine will. Up to now, she had turned to many counselors and confessors, usually not Carmelites, and she knows that she owed a lot to them. However, now she realizes that this continuous wandering between different opinions has no reason to be, because she has found a stable reference point. A great peace invades her and she gives glory to God with the words of Psalm 147: «He has granted peace in your borders».

In the light of this background koinonia, Teresa’s vow of obedience, which I would define as a masterpiece of spiritual strategy, can be correctly understood. Teresa transforms into a vow the covenant of mutual agreement that she had already established with Father Gratian (“the promise that she had already proposed to Father Fray Geronimo”). On the one hand, it seems to her that she is not doing anything special, having already made this decision. On the other hand  however, what results is very hard because, in this way, she sees herself obligated to manifest everything, not so much to Father Gratian, but to the superior, whoever he would be. At the moment in which Teresa is about to transform the promise made to Father Gratian into a vow made to the Lord, she understands that she has to look to him, not with the affection and human sympathy he has aroused in her, but “as a stranger.” What leads her to overcome any inner resistance is to consider that she is making that vow “by the Holy Spirit, who was obliged to give him light so that he could give it to me”. And it is perhaps the greatest sacrifice Teresa makes for Carmel (surpassed – as she herself says –only by the one she made the day when she left her father’s house to enter the monastery): she renounces her freedom so that the Holy Spirit would guide him to whom she has submitted her will to. In Teresa’s simple and immediate language: “I thought it was a great thing done by the Holy Spirit, at least everything that I was aware of.” And she adds: “I am very confident that our Lord will have to grant us new graces for this service that I have done for him, in a way that what would come to me in part would be everything that gives me light”.

In light of all this, I believe the hypothesis, that in the relationship between Teresa and Gratian emerges a new style of relationship between brother and sister in religious life, a style of evangelical simplicity and absolute reciprocity. Such a relationship does not exclude the hierarchical dimension; indeed, precisely the existence of an effective hierarchical relationship confers all its strength and meaning to the fraternal relationship. It is precisely when Teresa discovers that Father Gratian is in fact her superior, that the relationship, from a private occurrence, transforms itself into a strong moment in the construction of Carmel. What characterizes the relationship, is to be united not only in hearts, but also – as Teresa writes to Fr. Gratian – “in the commissions”, that is, in the ecclesial mandate.

It could be said that a new style of government based on the reciprocal listening of the Spirit, which speaks through the brother / sister, based on the common submission to a superior will, is born here. As “Lumen Gentium” will teach four centuries later, there is no contradiction between communion and hierarchy, because the hierarchical dimension is at the service and function of ecclesial communion, and is constantly sustained and maintained in its true sense.

Beyond any historical judgment on the action of Father Gratian, I think it can be affirmed that he was able to understand this novelty and accept it. Therefore, “he deserved to be among you” (Relations 44). These are the words that Teresa feels pronounced in reference to Father Gratian in a vision held on August 9, 1575, that is, three months after her encounter with him. The vision contains an explicit reference to the Song of Songs: “Veniat dilectus meus in hortum suum” (Ct 4,16). The beloved girl invites the beloved boy to enter her garden and to eat her exquisite fruits. Teresa is seen in a splendid garden and in it appears her Elisha, that is, Gratian, with luminous countenance, preceded by a procession of maidens with bouquets in their hands, who sing songs of praise to God. Here the allusions to the Song of Songs merge with a reference to Revelation 7: 9-10: “Afterwards I looked and there was an immense crowd, which no one could count, of every nation, races, peoples and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb, dressed in white garments and with palms in their hands. ” Also the voice that speaks and says: “This one deserved to be among you” recalls vaguely the voice that presents the blessed in the Apocalypse: “Hi sunt …” (cf. Ap 7,14; 14,4).

The most embarrassing aspect of the vision is the voice that says to Teresa: “hurry if you want to catch up with him”. For this Gratian deemed it(the vision) an illusion of the devil. In fact, more than being a praise of Gratian, or even a comparison between his holiness and hers, it seems to me that here too is found a recall to the common mission entrusted to the two of them. Remember the context: Teresa is experiencing great distractions in prayer and: “I began to envy those who are in deserts, appearing as if they would not hear or see anything, that they would be free of this pleasure.” This is a recurring temptation in Teresa’s life. Many times, she wanted to flee from the battle of this life to enjoy a relationship with God in a place hidden from the world. The Lord however, always called her back to her mission, which was right in the midst of the struggle. In this instance, he shows her the clear example of Father Gratian, to whom was entrusted the arduous mission of visiting the convents of the Carmelite observant friars in Andalusia, and in which he would find enormous opposition. In some cases it even came to the point of risking his life, as it did in Seville in particular on November 21, 1575. The reaction of the friars was so violent that, as he, himself writes: “It looks to means if my life is in danger”. Teresa, having come to know of this, promised that, if the Virgin was to obtain from her Son the liberation of Fr. Gratian, she would have the Feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple celebrated solemnly in all the monasteries of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns. Father Gratian also ordered that this celebration be instituted in all the convents of the Discalced Carmelites Friars, to which the relation of August of the same year refers. Without twisting a lot the meaning of the text, we can recognize behind the reference to the Feast, a prophecy of the sufferings that Father Gratian will have to face, and the invitation that Teresa receives to hurry also herself to this hard historical endeavor, without dreaming of eremitic evasions.


Going through Teresa’s existential adventure is an exercise that never disappoints. Every time we do it we discover something new accomplished by the Spirit in her and through her, something that is still before us today as a task that we have to carry out. How much road do we still have to travel, in order to reach the simplicity and depths of the relationships Teresa lived out with the three brothers that we have talked about! In particular, the relationship with Father Gratian presents aspects of absolute originality that baffled his contemporaries. Even today, although the period of submission of the nuns to the friars would have been by now surpassed, we cannot affirm that we have achieved a satisfactory association of the feminine with the masculine component. Dialectically, after a secular period of submission, followed a period of heightened autonomy, which is something not only comprehensible, but in some aspects providential. Nevertheless, the synthesis is still to arrive, and it will not, in my opinion, be achieved without a serious reflection on our charismatic identity.

The new Instruction invites us to undertake this journey of fraternity and reciprocal support in the experience and understanding of the charism. We will need to invent new instruments and forms of communication between us so that we can be trained together. Among other things, Instruction CO proposes the constitution of an international Commission “a centralized organ of service and study for the benefit of the nuns of the same Institute, erected or recognized by the Holy See that would approve its Statutes, for the study of subjects relevant to the contemplative life in relation to the same charism » (CO 11). In my opinion, a Commission of this kind would favor, whether collaboration between nuns around the world, or dialogue with the male branch of the Order, and in addition would have an interlocutor with whom they would be able to confront themselves, someone chosen by the nuns themselves.

I do not know how much time will be necessary for us to assimilate the novelties proposed by CO and to put into practice a different way of managing relations between monasteries, federations, and between the male and female branches of the Order. In any case, I retain as an unquestionable truth what Teresa perceived in her experience: that we will not find adequate answers to our questions if we do not seek them together, men and women, united by the same vocation and directed towards the same ideal.

Fr Saverio Cannistrà, General Superior ocd

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