"Vocation in Teresa of Avila's 'Reformed' Convent through the Lens of Martin Luther and John Calvin"
Alisa Tigchelaar, Professor of Spanish at Calvin College
Given on February 6, 2014
In her Meeter Center presentation on February 6, 2014, Dr. Alisa J. Tigchelaar of the Calvin College Spanish department spoke on the topic of “Vocation in Teresa of Ávila’s ‘Reformed’ Convent Through the Lens of Martin Luther and John Calvin.” Dr. Tigchelaar’s talk brought together two sides of the Reformation which tend not to be compared. Teresa of Ávila, known in Spanish as Teresa de Jesús, was a Spanish nun in the order known as the Discalced Carmelites, which she co-founded together with John of the Cross. A mystic, pilgrim, writer, abbess, and teacher, she is not often spoken of in the same breath as John Calvin or Martin Luther, but Dr. Tigchelaar demonstrates that there may be more overlap and compatibility in their respective articulation of “vocation” than has historically been credited.
Beginning with a brief history and introduction to the life of Teresa of Ávila, Dr. Tigchelaar quickly moved into the Reformers’ critique of monasticism, which is tied directly to their teachings on vocation. For both Martin Luther and John Calvin, vocation was necessarily rooted in central theological principles and doctrinal understanding, contribute to the common good, emphasized situationally-relevant obedience, and could not be understood apart from the God-human relationship. The Reformers’ critique of late medieval monasticism was precisely that it did not accomplish these four things, having become in many places a corrupt and worldly institution where elite intellectuals contemplated their own salvation, rather than working out their salvation through love for one’s neighbor. It is important to recognize that this assessment is not a rejection of monasticism, but rather a critique of it.
Dr. Tigchelaar’s thesis was that these four things were also recognized by monastic reformers, notably Teresa of Ávila. Teresa of Ávila worked throughout her life to bring about monastic reform. She recognized the corruption and worldliness that had leaked its way into the convent: women from wealthy families were promoted to leadership positions more quickly, families used convents as convenient places to discard their unwanted daughters without paying a full dowry, influence and prestige were measured in very worldly ways, and vows and prayer were not always undertaken with sincerity or calling. Teresa of Ávila recognized the need for a calling from God as a vital prerequisite to monastic life, and thus instituted major reforms of convent life, most notably absolute enclosure of the cloister, which was universally adopted years later at the Council of Trent.
The subsequent picture of monastic life under Teresa of Ávila’s reforms looks remarkably like the “proper and good monasticism” described by Luther and Calvin. Indeed, despite her strong opposition to the Luteranismos, Teresa of Ávila was brought before the Spanish Inquisition several times for what were viewed as “Protestant tendencies,” including the promotion and encouragement of personal devotional life, silent prayer, Bible reading, spiritual contemplation, communal chores, and others. Teresa of Ávila’s understanding of the monastic life matches Calvin’s understanding of vocation in spirit: communally oriented, properly theological, prioritizing the relationship with God, and emphasizing the necessary interrelatedness of all human activity in bringing one’s life in line with one’s faith.
Calvin Theological Seminary Th.M Student