What does St. Teresa of Avila have to say about conversion of hearts? Find out in today’s excerpt and reflection from 30 Days with Teresa of Avila.
From the Appendix of Volume I of The Letters of Saint Teresa*
St. Teresa’s address to the nuns of the Incarnation
on entering the office of Prioress there in October 1571.
When the community went into the Chapter room in the morning, they found the Saint sitting at the feet of the statue of our Lady which she had placed in the stall of the Prioress with the keys of the convent in its hands. She then spoke to them as follows:
Señoras, my Mothers and my Sisters, Our Lord has sent me to this house to undertake my office by order of obedience: an office which I never expected to fill and am very far from deserving. The choice has pained me, for not only does it require of me more than I know how to carry out, but it has also deprived you of your right of free election, giving you a Prioress against your will and choice—and such a Prioress that it will be much if she succeeds in learning the many virtues of the least among you. I came solely to serve and comfort you in every way I could, in which I hope the Master will help me greatly, for in all else every one of you could teach and reform me. Therefore, my Señoras, consider what I can do for each of you, for I would most willingly do it, were it to give my very blood and my life for you. I am a daughter of this house and your sister, and I know the state and the needs of all, or of the greater number of you, so there is no reason why you should hold aloof from one who is so wholly yours. You need not fear my rule, for although hitherto I have lived among and governed Discalced nuns, by the mercy of God, I know how others should be ruled. My desire is that we should all serve God peacefully and that we should do the little enjoined by our Rule and Constitutions for the love of that Master to whom we owe so much. I am well aware of our weakness which is great; yet though our deeds should not attain so far, let our desires do so, for the Lord is compassionate and will by degrees cause our deeds to keep pace with our intentions and longings. (Fuente, Vol. III, p. 152.)
Leadership: The monastery of her profession in 1537 had fallen into disarray by 1571. It had already been in spiritual decline when St. Teresa left in 1562, and now the poverty at the Incarnation was so severe that it exceeded any of St. Teresa’s monasteries. To make matters worse, Teresa was forced on her sisters by the visitor, Dominican Fray Pedro Fernandez. Their response was in keeping with their spiritual state:
There arose at once a cry of distress from the nuns, who regarded themselves as given over to an enemy; some said they would never obey her, and others reviled her.**
During this initial outcry, St. Teresa was on her knees before the Blessed Sacrament. She then rose from prayer and engaged the rebellion with grace and peace.
The trouble and disturbance were so great that some of the nuns fainted through the violence of their distress. The Saint went among them and gently touched them: all in a moment recovered their senses and their reason, and offered no further resistance to her.***
Even so, matters worsened before they improved.
Others, however, still remained obstinate in their rebellion, and bent on disobedience to the last; but the Saint was patient and gentle, and exercised her authority as if she had none; nevertheless she intended to be obeyed, and accordingly on the first chapter day the nuns on entering the choir saw the image of our Lady in the seat of the prioress, and St. Teresa sitting at her feet. The rebellious nuns were struck by a heavenly terror, and changed their minds: all signs and all desires of disobedience vanished, and the Saint was obeyed as prioress with as much readiness and affection as if she had been chosen by them of their own free will.^
There are many leadership principals that could be gleaned from St. Teresa’s life and this case of dramatic success in the face of aggressively irrational opposition. This event is worthy of much reflection by any in a position of authority.
For our purposes, we will focus on two simple elements: prayer and humility. As Teresa was announced to the monastery, she was in prayer. She knew what she was up against, as after her first departure, there was a great cry of outrage against her. She had rejected their diseased and lukewarm expression of Carmelite spirituality and they were wounded. Beyond this troublesome history, she caught wind of the resistance before she arrived. But, rather than standing tall and firm before all and taking control of the situation as any strong leader might, she humbly dropped to her knees before the Lord.
When she arose, she did so by the gentle strength and grace of God. The fruits of this reality can be clearly seen by the dramatic changes in those around her. She so powerfully demonstrated the love and gentleness of God that the hardest of hearts were softened and:
From that day forth the nuns of the Incarnation gave no trouble to the prioress, and the abuses of the house were all corrected; though under the mitigated observance, which was never changed, the nuns lived as if they were under the reform of St. Teresa; their temporal and spiritual necessities, hitherto so great and serious, were at once supplied; and the seed of good, sown in such good soil, grew and bore fruit so abundantly that the monastery of the Incarnation became from that day forth one of the pearls of the old observance.^^
The exercise of power and dominance is an easy path taken by most in authority. This approach rarely, if ever, wins the hearts and minds of its subordinates; and those that follow are often muted and less full of life; their minds and hearts unable to fully commit to the mission forced upon them.
In contrast, the slower more patient way of love, even a firm love that is clear and unwavering in its means and ends, allows God to bring about the conversion of hearts; truly converted hearts are a powerful force for good that can never be gained by force.
*Trans. Benedictines of Stanbrook (London: Thomas Baker, 1919).
**St. Teresa of Avila, The Book of the Foundations of St. Teresa of Jesus, trans. D. Lewis, ed. B. Zimmerman (London: Thomas Baker, 1913), xxii.