Carmelite Chronicles
The Incarnation at Avila

January 29, 2013 |

Rossi arrived in Avila on February 16 or 17. The Carmelite friary lay along the north wall of the city. Almost opposite it was the monastery of the Incarnation. According to his custom, facilitated by the proximity of the two houses, Rossi alternated interviews with the friars and nuns; only the visitation of the nuns remains, and this includes the interviews of only about half of the 180 members of the monastery. Yet these amply suffice to provide an insight into life in the monastery in which St. Teresa passed twenty-seven years of her life. In assessing the results of Rossi’s visitation, one must bear in mind that the Incarnation was a beaterio, not a cloistered monastery.

The prioress was Doña Frances de Briceño. From the visitation account it is immediately apparent that the monastery was in serious economic straits. The income was inadequate to meet the needs of the community, property had to be sold and debts incurred. Very little could be provided in the common refectory, and the sick lacked adequate care. To make matters worse, the monastery had to provide for a certain number of hangers-on — relatives and friends of the nuns, as well as a few children. About twenty nuns asked the prior general for permission to have rents and to retain alms and money, as in fact they had been doing hitherto. Cells were bought and sold, goods left to relatives by testament. On the other hand, a certain amount of luxury and frivolity of dress were not wanting.

The Monastery of the Incarnation today.

The Monastery of the Incarnation today.

The Incarnation had also become a haven for the daughters of nobility, the señores doñas, whose dowries permitted them more spacious quarters with a small hallway, kitchen and sitting-room with alcove, in which to entertain relatives and friends. There was a noticeable tension between the “ladies” and the sisters who slept in the common dormitory. Even in the choir, the ladies insisted on the first places instead of observing the order of profession. A number of ladies asked permission to retain their maids. Doña Aldonza de Valderrabano requested “to be allowed to keep her black slave girl.” The comings and goings of the maid servants caused no little distraction in the monastery.

The nuns took advantage of the presence of the apostolic visitator to obtain permission to visit relatives; the motive of such visits was mostly economic: to obtain financial help from their families.

The many confessors who served the monastery added to the busy scene. Besides the two Carmelites from the nearby friary, about ten priests, secular and religious of other orders, appear in the partial account of the visitation. They include clerics of the highest caliber such as Julian of Avila.

It is not surprising that in this complex society the common life would be affected. Rossi was asked for dispensations from the common refectory, from the fasts, or simply from all common acts. Of the ninety nuns interviewed, forty asked to be dispensed from office in choir.

The populous Incarnation, the largest Carmelite nunnery in Spain, its innocent and bustling existence, dedicated to the grim business of survival, seems ill suited to a life of prayer and reflection. Yet the monastery numbered many dedicated religious, some of whom were to form the nucleus of the reform of St. Teresa. From numerous testimonies, it is evident that peace, harmony, good morals, fervent devotion reigned in the Incarnation. The sisters themselves were aware of and deplored their shortcomings, many of them beyond their control.

Rossi’s provisions for the reform of the Incarnation have not survived. It is known that he tried to alleviate the problem of poverty by forbidding the acceptance of more nuns. In time, this remedy, plus the exodus to the reform of St. Teresa, had its effect. In the next twenty-five years, the number of nuns of the black veil was reduced to half.

From The Mirror of Carmel by Joachim Smet, O. Carm.

Fr. Joachim Smet O. Carm.
Fr. Joachim Smet, O.Carm. (1915-2011) was one of the leading historians of the Carmelite Order. In addition to being a founding member and President of the Institutum Carmelitanum in Rome and editor of Carmelus, a journal of Carmelite Studies, Fr. Joachim was a gifted writer. he is well-known for his four-volume work The Carmelites and his Life of Saint Peter Thomas. Among his other works: Familiar Matter of Today-Poems (2007), The Mirror of Carmel: A Brief History of the Carmelite Order, (2011), various publications on Carmelite Nuns, Carmelite Liturgy, Carmelite Libraries of Spain and Portugal and the Carmelites of Medieval England.
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