Patrick Burke, O.Carm.
I often say that however small the point of honor may be, the concern for it is like that of sound coming from an organ when the timing or measure is off; all the music becomes dissonant. This concern is something that does damage to the soul in all areas, but in this path of prayer it is a pestilence.
(Life 31, 21)
It is clear from the many studies of St Teresa that, she was unique in the development of the spirituality of the religious of her day, she was also a product, though not typical, of the social and political world that was characteristic of the turbulent 16th century, in particular in Spain. Attitudes that are perfectly normal and so accepted in our modern world were then the cause of longstanding and narrow prejudices that pervaded a slowly changing society.
In medieval Europe, Spain existed as a vast structure of small kingdoms, Christian or Muslim, independent though generally living in uneasy peace. Over the centuries there was a gradual annexation or ‘reconquista’ of the areas controlled by Muslim rulers, reaching a climax in 1492 with the capture of the Moorish City of Granada in the south. In the former Muslim areas where scholarship and architecture flourished, there was a Jewish population, cultural and prosperous. Fierce anti-Semitism existed from the end of the 14th century pressurizing the Jewish families to convert or be expelled. Over the years the conversos, the families who had converted, improved their social position by marrying some of the old aristocracy. Growing in wealth and political influence, they became in time objects of hatred and suspicion. Decrees were passed against them, barring certain posts in civic life and in the universities and even in Religious Orders. More than at other times, what was termed ‘purity of blood’ or limpieza de sangre, referring to intermarriage, was demanded for a family’s reputation.
While Teresa was aware of her Jewish blood, she doesn’t appear to know much about her ancestry. Her family was among the minor nobility and her father was one of the wealthiest in Avila. While their members appear in her writings as normal, serious and religious people, they must have been affected occasionally by social and racial tensions that sometimes erupted. Her father, Don Alonso Sanchez (which seems to have been a recognisable converso name in some places) at his first marriage added to it his wife’s family name “de Cepeda”. When widowed after a brief first marriage, he followed the same custom in marrying into a distinguished Castilian family Dona Beatriz de Ahumada. Teresa was to call herself ‘Dona Teresa de Ahumada’ until she was forty-seven.
The important thing for the Church is that her Jewishness colored her spirituality and challenged her instinctively of relationship with Christ, her Lord. It is the key to certain themes in her writings, such as honor. Modern culture treats honor in the context of self-respect, honesty, uprightness and fidelity. At Teresa’s time, the honor of the family was preserved by observing standards and public image, so that it was necessary to withstand all that would denigrate or seek to degrade its members, even to the point of vendettas and killings. When one reads the numerous references of Teresa to “honor” in her writings, (considered by some of her critics as “a disproportionate concern”), it is clear that her observations have to be understood not objectively but rather in the context of lineage and of her mentality towards “limpieza”, the good or bad blood. In her society failure to refute accusations or defend oneself, automatically indicated a loss of honor.
In the practical situations and sometimes in the legislation of religious communities, there was discrimination against conversos or against reformed penitents, but also when superiors or officials vacated their offices in accordance with the Church Law. Writing in a passage on the petition “Forgive us, Lord, our debts as we forgive our debtors” Teresa observes: “It seems that like children we are making houses out of straw with these ceremonious little rules of etiquette. Oh, God help me, Sisters, if we know what honor is and what losing honor consists in. Now I am not speaking of ourselves . . .but of myself at the time when I prized honor without understanding what it was. I was following the crowd” (W. 36, 3). Further in n.4 of this Chapter, she alludes to practical situations that she was to abhor. “(The devil) also invents his own honors in monasteries and establishes his own laws. There people ascend and descend in rank just as in the world. Those with degrees must follow in order, according to their academic titles. Why? I don’t know.” Openly she declared “Well now among ourselves; the one who has been prioress must remain ineligible for any lower office; a preoccupation about who the senior is - for we never forget this - and we think at times we gain merit by such concern because the Order commands it” (W. 36, 4).
The humanity of St Teresa comes through the irritation she must have felt at the attitudes and practices of some Sisters who were affected by the concern of rank, prestige, education, family etc. “All of our perfection”, she reminds them, “doesn’t consist in the observance of what has to do with our honor. The fact is that since we are inclined to ascend - even though we will not ascend to heaven by such an inclination - there must be no descending. O Lord, Lord! Are You our Model and Master? Yes, indeed. Well then, what did Your honor consist of, You who honored us? Didn’t You indeed lose it in being humiliated unto death? No, Lord, but You won it for all” (W. 36, 5).
For Teresa, love of God “doesn’t consist in great delight but in desiring with strong determination to please God in everything, in striving, insofar as possible, not to offend Him, and in asking Him for the advance of the honor and glory of His Son” (Int. Castle IV, 1, 7). “We are striving to be joined with God through union, and we seek to follow His counsels coming from Christ, who was weighed down by injuries and testimonies against Him and we desire our honor and credit to remain intact? It’s not possible to reach this union, for we aren’t taking the same road. The Lord comes to the soul if we make the effort and strive to give up our rights in many mailers. Some will say: “I have no occasion to practice this detachment from my rights, nor does any come along.” I believe that the Lord will not want anyone with the determination to practice this detachment to lose so much good. His Majesty will ordain so many things by which the soul can gain this virtue that it will not want so many. All hands to the task!” (Life 31, 21).