Self-isolation – lessons from Teresa de Cartagena

Self-isolation – lessons from Teresa de Cartagena

Hilary Pearson writes:

Teresa de Cartagena lived in Burgos in Northern Spain.  She was born in about 1425; we don’t know when she died.  Her grandfather had been a leading Jewish rabbi and Spanish diplomat, who converted to Christianity in 1390.  He was baptised in Burgos cathedral in July of that year, along with his young children, and took the name Pablo de Santa Maria.  He later became Bishop of Burgos and is well known in Spanish history.  His second son, Alonso de Cartagena, succeeded his father as bishop of Burgos.  His third son, Pedro de Cartagena, was a soldier and a member of the ruling council of Burgos.  Pedro had several children, including a daughter called Teresa.

Teresa became a nun in the Burgos convent of the Franciscan Poor Clares, but in 1449 got papal permission to move.  She almost certainly joined the aristocratic Cistercian convent just outside Burgos, Las Huelgas, which was the leading convent in Spain.  It was said that the abbess of Las Huelgas was the most powerful woman in Spain after the queen.  Sometime after moving there, Teresa became completely deaf as the result of illness.  About twenty years later, she wrote in Spanish an account of the spiritual lessons she had learned from her affliction, entitled ‘Grove of the Infirm’ (Arboleda de los enfermos).

Although she was not physically isolated, because she lived in a convent with many nuns, she wrote of the psychological isolation caused by her deafness.  She compares the experience to being carried off to a deserted island, finding it an ‘exile and shadowy banishment’, and suffering ‘unsparing and lasting loneliness’.  She also says that she was ‘more alone when in the company of many than when I retreat to my cell all by myself.’

Her reflection on her deafness brought her to the conclusion that she had been too fond of worldly conversation, and as a result had not been listening to God’s voice.  So God had closed her ears to protect her from the harmful noise and chatter, to allow her to listen to him.  She meditates on what can be learned from illness and suffering, comparing this to the parable of the talents.  If we properly use the suffering, we can grow this into humility, gratitude and love.  Above all, Teresa says, we can gain the most important of the virtues, patience and perseverance.  She uses the story of Job to illustrate true patience.

Medieval thought identified four main (‘cardinal’) virtues: prudence, fortitude, justice and temperance, and three ‘theological’ virtues (those whose source is God): faith, hope and love.  Teresa shows how all seven of these virtues require and support patience, which she calls ‘holy and perfect patience’.  This patience leads straight to ‘the Lord of virtues, who is the Lover of patience’ the source of health and repose.

Three months into self-isolation, with only slight easing of restrictions, have we learned patience?  Have we used this time to come closer to God?  Will our impatient and instant gratification society have learned any lessons?  Only time will tell.

The End

This will be the last of the ‘Self-isolation – lessons from’ series.  The lock-down has been eased, our church is open for private prayer (although not for services for some time yet).  It seemed appropriate to end with a person who, although largely unknown outside the ranks of late medieval Hispanic scholars, is the reason I am here.  When in 2004 I got a distinction in my MA in Christian spirituality from Heythrop College, I decided to continue my studies to get a PhD.  My plan had been to remain as a part time student at Heythrop, continuing to work on Franciscan spirituality of matter, the topic of my MA dissertation.

That summer, I found in a book sale an English translation of the writings of Teresa de Cartagena.  I was interested because, although in my MA studies I had come across many medieval women writers, I had not heard of this one.  The real hook was reading on the back cover that she had written because she became deaf: both my children have congenital severe hearing impairment and my daughter was at that time a teacher of the deaf.  I became more interested in her when I read the book.  Women writing in the Middle Ages were up against the church which, quoting from St Paul, said that women were not allowed to teach.  Women who did manage to have their writings published did so by saying that God had spoken to them directly, usually in a vision, and that their confessor (by definition a male priest) had approved their message.  Teresa de Cartagena makes no mention of visions, nor of approval by a confessor.  Instead, she argues from the Scriptures and the Patristic Fathers, just like a man would do.

Intrigued, I did a bit of research and found that very little was written about her (always a good start for doctoral research!), so put together a research proposal and went back to my MA supervisor.  He told me they would love to keep me at Heythrop, but there was no-one there who could supervise that research topic.  Shortly after that I was at an alumni event at my Oxford college, Somerville, and met Benjamin Thomson who studies the English medieval church.  He said he was sure there was someone in Oxford who could supervise me, and a few days later sent a list of names.  One of these, John Edwards, was perfect as he is a historian of late medieval Spain and at that time was studying Alonso de Cartagena, Teresa’s uncle.  And so I came back to Oxford, bought a flat at the bottom of Abingdon Road and, on my first Sunday, decided to try the lovely medieval church I had once visited in Iffley.  I was so warmly welcomed I immediately made St Mary’s my parish church.  The rest, as they say, is history…