Saturday, October 9, 2010

"Get thee to a nunnery!"

[NOTE: This is a follow up to my previous post: "The hidden Catholic meaning of Hamlet".]

St. Teresa of Ávila
HAMLET: Get thee to a nunnery, go: farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too.
- Shakespeare's Hamlet Act 3 Scene 1
These words "Get thee to a nunnery!" from Shakespeare's Hamlet have been the subject of much debate and confusion. This is partly due to the way that nuns have been defamed in Protestant culture right up to the present day.

I happened to come across the words of a real nun whose life overlapped that of Shakespeare's. They may shed some light on Hamlet's intent when he repeatedly proclaims to Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery!"

I have no idea whether the writings of St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) would have been available to Shakespeare (1564-1616). I don't know if the Spanish originals would have been published during Shakespeare's lifetime, or if English translations would have been available. Regardless the words of St. Teresa have relevance to Shakespeare's writings since they describe the religious climate of the times in Europe that was being swept with the hysteria set in motion by the teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1546).

The Lutheran revolutionary movement was every bit as violent and caused as much upheaval as the later Marxist revolutionary movement. In both cases one of the main targets was the established Church. Luther's intentions may have been good and pious, but the resulting damage to Christian institutions is still reverberating in today's world. "A house divided..."

There's no doubt in my mind that others with less pious intentions joined in the Lutheran revolution against the Church with the motive of gaining power at the Church's expense - or simply because of their hatred of Christianity. Today's overtly anti-Christian revolutionaries avoid physical violence, preferring more subtle social and psychological forms of warfare. It is through the "magic" of movies, music and TV that they spread their malicious message. It's through the courts and the legislative bodies that they erode the power of the Church.

Without further ado, I present to you the first chapter of St. Teresa's "The Way of Perfection" which is addressed to the nuns under her authority. As you read it I think you'll find that there are glaringly obvious parallels to our present times. And it also seems to me that there is much relevance to Shakespeare's tragic characters of Hamlet and his dear Ophelia.

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CHAPTER 1

Of the reason which moved me to found this convent in such strict observance.

When this convent was originally founded, for the reasons set down in the book which, as I say, I have already written, and also because of certain wonderful revelations by which the Lord showed me how well He would be served in this house, it was not my intention that there should be so much austerity in external matters, nor that it should have no regular income: on the contrary, I should have liked there to be no possibility of want. I acted, in short, like the weak and wretched woman that I am, although I did so with good intentions and not out of consideration for my own comfort.

At about this time there came to my notice the harm and havoc that were being wrought in France by these Lutherans and the way in which their unhappy sect was increasing.[11] This troubled me very much, and, as though I could do anything, or be of any help in the matter, I wept before the Lord and entreated Him to remedy this great evil. I felt that I would have laid down a thousand lives to save a single one of all the souls that were being lost there. And, seeing that I was a woman, and a sinner,[12] and incapable of doing all I should like in the Lord's service, and as my whole yearning was, and still is, that, as He has so many enemies and so few friends, these last should be trusty ones, I determined to do the little that was in me -- namely, to follow the evangelical counsels as perfectly as I could, and to see that these few nuns who are here should do the same, confiding in the great goodness of God, Who never fails to help those who resolve to forsake everything for His sake. As they are all that I have ever painted them as being in my desires, I hoped that their virtues would more than counteract my defects, and I should thus be able to give the Lord some pleasure, and all of us, by busying ourselves in prayer for those who are defenders of the Church, and for the preachers and learned men who defend her, should do everything we could to aid this Lord of mine Who is so much oppressed by those to whom He has shown so much good that it seems as though these traitors would send Him to the Cross again and that He would have nowhere to lay His head.

Oh, my Redeemer, my heart cannot conceive this without being sorely distressed! What has become of Christians now? Must those who owe Thee most always be those who distress Thee? Those to whom Thou doest the greatest kindnesses, whom Thou dost choose for Thy friends, among whom Thou dost move, communicating Thyself to them through the Sacraments? Do they not think, Lord of my soul, that they have made Thee endure more than sufficient torments?

It is certain, my Lord, that in these days withdrawal from the world means no sacrifice at all. Since worldly people have so little respect for Thee, what can we expect them to have for us? Can it be that we deserve that they should treat us any better than they have treated Thee? Have we done more for them than Thou hast done that they should be friendly to us? What then? What can we expect -- we who, through the goodness of the Lord, are free from that pestilential infection, and do not, like those others, belong to the devil? They have won severe punishment at his hands and their pleasures have richly earned them eternal fire. So to eternal fire they will have to go,[13] though none the less it breaks my heart to see so many souls traveling to perdition. I would the evil were not so great and I did not see more being lost every day.

Oh, my sisters in Christ! Help me to entreat this of the Lord, Who has brought you together here for that very purpose. This is your vocation; this must be your business; these must be your desires; these your tears; these your petitions. Let us not pray for worldly things, my sisters. It makes me laugh, and yet it makes me sad, when I hear of the things which people come here to beg us to pray to God for; we are to ask His Majesty to give them money and to provide them with incomes -- I wish that some of these people would entreat God to enable them to trample all such things beneath their feet. Their intentions are quite good, and I do as they ask because I see that they are really devout people, though I do not myself believe that God ever hears me when I pray for such things. The world is on fire. Men try to condemn Christ once again, as it were, for they bring a thousand false witnesses against Him. They would raze His Church to the ground -- and are we to waste our time upon things which, if God were to grant them, would perhaps bring one soul less to Heaven? No, my sisters, this is no time to treat with God for things of little importance.

Were it not necessary to consider human frailty, which finds satisfaction in every kind of help -- and it is always a good thing if we can be of any help to people -- I should like it to be understood that it is not for things like these that God should be importuned with such anxiety.

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