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Posts Tagged ‘Carmelite reform’

What do I know about gang culture or St Teresa’s reform of the Carmelite order in 16th century Spain? Very little. But that didn’t stop me making a throwaway remark trying to connect the two in a talk I gave in Avila on the way to World Youth Day. See what you think.

St Teresa joined the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Avila when she was a young woman, lived there for over twenty years, and then famously moved out to set up her own monastery half a mile away, under the patronage of St Joseph. It’s too easy just to say that monastic life at the Incarnation was ‘lax’, and she wanted to found a ‘strict’ Carmelite convent – as if they simply weren’t following the rules with enough rigour at the Incarnation. She had three quite specific criticisms about the form of religious life that had become established there.

Convent and Church of San José (St Joseph) - St Teresa of Avila's first foundation

First, it was too big to allow true community life to develop, and by that she meant a family-type community where people knew each other well and shared the lives of each other intimately, where they rubbed shoulders rather than simply crossing paths in their day-to-day life of prayer and work. The Incarnation held over 100 people; the ideal size of a reformed Teresian Carmel would be 12 or 13.

Second, there was no real tradition of enclosure at the Incarnation. Nuns could, more or less, come and go as they wished, entertain whichever visitors they liked, and even bring their servants into the convent with them to care for their needs. It’s easy to laugh at the idea of this, but it was a particular form of religious life that seemed to suit a certain kind of woman; it allowed for a more devout life, and a celibate life, but still with one foot in the world. Teresa never ceased to praise the holiness of many of the women who lived there. It worked for some.

But true enclosure became more and more important for Teresa. It was obviously a way of focusing the life of the community and the heart of each individual nun on prayer, on the Lord. It was also a way of getting some critical distance on the habits and expectations of the surrounding culture, and thereby allowing a new culture to emerge, a new vision of life. So enclosure is not just about escape or rejection; it’s about holding a space in which something new can be created.

Third, there was little commitment to poverty at the Incarnation. St Joseph’s would be truly poor. The nuns gave up everything. They lived a simple life, even a harsh one. They relied on Providence. They ate what they received. One of Teresa’s early rules was that at a certain time each evening the sisters were to eat…if they had any food! This kind of radical poverty can sound dualistic (a hatred for the body), or even masochistic (some kind of perverse pleasure in self-denial and suffering). But poverty and penance, for Teresa, when lived authentically and in the context of a balanced faith, helped the nuns to keep their hearts fixed on ‘the one thing necessary’ – on Christ, on his love for them and for the whole world, and on his Providence. Poverty was a way of questioning the values of the world, and re-evaluating the priorities of life within the convent.

What’s all this got to do with gang culture? Well, it struck me in Avila, after the UK riots and all the ensuing discussion about gang membership, that perhaps some young people join gangs for reasons that are not unconnected with those that led Teresa to leave the Incarnation and move to St Joseph’s. They live, perhaps, in a neighbourhood that has little sense of community or natural bonds; their senior school – if they still go to school – may not be an environment where they can connect and be valued; and there may be an lack of stability or even kinship at home. So they seek a smaller community where they are known, where they have a place, where they belong.

Like Teresa, they yearn for enclosure. Not to be confined to a monastery, but in some sense to withdraw from the surrounding culture, to create a protected space, to get some distance. And, at some level, they are exploring the meaning of poverty. I’m stretching the meaning of the word here. I don’t mean, of course, that there is any renunciation of material goods; but, like Teresa, there is a definite desire to distance oneself from the values embraced by the surrounding culture – by ‘the world’ – and create some alternative value structure within the group, one that gives a new meaning and a new perspective.

Don’t worry. I’m not naive; I’m not romanticising gang life – the pressures, the violence, the distorted loyalties, the lack of freedom. And I know that ‘joining’ a gang for many young people is not a choice or an answer to an existential search but a harsh reality they can’t escape from. I’m just finding a small connection between what motivated St Teresa to establish a new kind of community at St Joseph’s, and what might be motivating an alienated teenager who does end up choosing to join a gang. The consequences are hugely different, but some of the underlying motivations may be shared: a hunger for genuine community, for a protected space that is ‘enclosed’ from the world, and for a re-evaluation of the priorities of the prevailing culture.

It was a throwaway remark (now extended to 900 words). What do you think?

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