In recent months, there have been a number of articles on Catholic websites about the situation of cloistered contemplatives following the promulgation of Cor Orans, the Instruction from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL). There have been intense discussions about the demands put on the nuns, most notably in the Catholic World Report and the National Catholic Register. There were several norms in the Instruction that caused concern.

One of the major objections to the Instruction is the increased length of the time of formation. The minimum time for formation for religious is four and a half years: six months postulancy, one year novitiate, and three years temporary profession. It has not been uncommon for contemplative communities to establish a four- or five-year period of formation, with the possibility of extending it to nine years.

However, to mandate a minimum of nine years has raised serious questions since only those who have made solemn profession are able to be members of the chapter,[1] and to be elected to various leadership positions. A lengthy period of formation can cause leadership problems in small communities.

Besides, as some communities ask, why should there be such a long period of formation? How long does it take to introduce a woman to the religious life? To acquaint her with the schedule and the practices of the community? To form in her the deportment suitable for a religious? To teach her the spirituality of the institute? Of course, formation for religious is a life-long practice and we should never cease to grow in our spiritual and community life, but surely a minimum of nine years before solemn vows is excessive.

The length of the time of formation depends the goal of the formation. For training an applicant in the externals of religious life and of the institute and community, several years is certainly more than enough. But these external concerns are merely the framework for the spiritual formation, and the novitiate is the time when the spiritual foundation is laid on which it is hoped that the religious will grow for the rest of her life.

This essential reason for the novitiate is well expressed by one of our recently-beatified Carmelite Friars, Bl. Marie-Eugène of the Child Jesus. In his two-volume book on Carmelite spirituality, he writes: “The act of complete detachment that constitutes entrance into religious life makes one normally pass beyond the regions of the third Dwelling Places. The novitiate, which puts into practice this detachment, ought to fix the soul in higher Dwelling Places. The Carmelite Masters (St. John of the Cross, the Ven. John of Jesus-Mary) stress in fact that religious souls pass rather rapidly through the stages preliminary to the fourth Dwelling Places and receive the graces special to these.”[2]

Bl. Marie-Eugène structures his book on Interior Castle, the masterpiece of St. Teresa of Jesus. Teresa describes the spiritual life as a journey through a magnificent castle—from the entrance, which is prayer, to the spiritual marriage of union with God, the antechamber to the Beatific Vision in this life. This journey passes through seven dwelling places, the first three concerning growth in prayer and in the virtues, and the remaining four leading the pray-er into the mystical life by an ever-growing conformity to Jesus Christ.

Bl. Marie-Eugène situates the time of novitiate after the Third Dwelling Places. Of those in the Third Dwelling Places, Teresa writes: “I believe that through the goodness of God there are many of these souls in the world. They long not to offend His Majesty, even guarding themselves against venial sins; they are fond of doing penance and setting aside periods for recollection; they spend their time well, practicing works of charity toward their neighbors; and are very balanced in their use of speech and dress and in the governing of their households—those who have them. Certainly, this is a state to be desired. And, in my opinion, there is no reason why entrance even into the final dwelling place should be denied these souls, nor will the Lord deny them this entrance if they desire it; for such a desire is an excellent way to prepare oneself; so that every favor may be granted.”[3] She is speaking in general of serious, practicing Catholics living in the world, for she adds, “What it seems to me would be highly beneficial for those who through the goodness of the Lord are in this state (for, as I have said, He grants them no small mercy because they are very close to ascending higher) is that they study diligently how to be prompt in obedience. And even if they are not members of a religious order, it would be a great thing for them to have—as do many persons—someone whom they could consult so as not to do their own will in anything.”[4]

If then the Fourth Dwelling Places are the time of novitiate, and, according to Bl. Marie-Eugène, “ought to fix the soul in higher Dwelling Places,” what do these higher Dwelling Places involve? Understanding this would give us some idea of when the novitiate should end.

When Teresa moves beyond the Fourth Dwelling Places to speak of the Fifth, she immediately exclaims:

O Sisters, how can I explain the riches and treasures and delights found in the fifth dwelling places? I believe it would be better not to say anything about these remaining rooms, for there is no way of knowing how to speak of them; neither is the intellect capable of understanding them nor can comparisons help in explaining them; earthly things are too coarse for such a purpose

Send light from heaven, my Lord, that I might be able to enlighten these Your servants—for You have been pleased that some of them ordinarily enjoy these delights—so that they may not be deceived by the devil transforming himself into an angel of light. For all their desires are directed toward pleasing You.

And although I have said ‘some,’ there are indeed only a few who fail to enter this dwelling place of which I shall now speak.[5]

We need to be careful here, for the English translation can mislead us into thinking that most Catholics reach this stage which she entitles, “Begins to deal with how the soul is united to God in prayer. Tells how one discerns whether there is any illusion.” In the Spanish original, it is clear that she is speaking of the nuns in her monasteries, because the pronouns and adjectives are in the feminine plural: “Y aunque dije ‘algunas’, bien pocas hay que no entren en esta morada.”[6] In other words, most of St. Teresa’s nuns had reached at least initial union of will with God. This corresponds to what she writes in another book, the Foundations, where she says, “Well to return to what I was saying, for I have digressed a great deal, the favors the Lord grants in these houses are so many that if there are one or two in each that God leads now by meditation all the rest reach perfect contemplation.”[7]

Since those in the Third Dwelling Places live good upright lives, though following their own will, and those in the Fifth Dwelling Places have reached union of will with God, what happens in the Fourth Dwelling Places? Teresa introduces chapter 1 of the Fourth Dwelling Places with, “Discusses the difference between consolations (or feelings of tenderness) in prayer and spiritual delights.”[8] In the three chapters of this Dwelling Place, Teresa distinguishes between various experiences and shows how to know which ones are from God, and which are simply natural. In other words, she is teaching us discernment.

In describing the spiritual delights that come from God, she writes, “however much effort we may make we cannot acquire it of ourselves and it is obvious that in itself it is not of our metal but of the purest gold of divine wisdom.”[9] This sentence caught my attention, for I was born in the Mother Lode Country of California. This is the area east of San Francisco among the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Nearly a hundred and seventy years ago, it was the center of the 1849 Gold Rush, for there are some fifteen different veins of gold found in the one area. This makes it an immensely rich, gold-bearing country, hence its name of the Mother Lode.

As a small child, I remember hearing that there was still much gold remaining in that area. In fact, one could easily see traces of it in the bare rock along the roadside – if one knew how to look. For I also remember hearing about those unfortunate ‘49ers who, thinking that they had struck it rich, had rushed off with their ore to the assay office, only to be greeted with guffaws of laughter: here was another tenderfoot who had fallen for the glittering illusion of “fool’s gold”! “Fool’s gold” is the nickname given to pyrite, a common sulfide mineral whose metallic yellow color frequently leads the unwary to mistake it for true gold.

This lesson certainly applies also to the spiritual life. To look more deeply into Teresa’s explanation of the differences that exist between what she calls “consolations” (“contentos”) and “spiritual delights” (“gustos”)[10], we see that “consolations” refers to the natural pleasure and joys we experience in prayer and in doing good works. “Spiritual delight” is the name Teresa gives to a joy and spiritual expansion that can only be given by God. This is not to say that consolations are bad or worthless. After all, even “fool’s gold” has its uses: pyrite is an important source of sulfur dioxide used in making sulfuric acid, the most important of all industrial chemicals. Being so common, though, pyrite is seldom mined for its own sake but instead is gathered in during the mining of more valuable elements. As for its value, no matter how useful pyrite may be, or how beautiful its crystals, it simply cannot be compared with gold.[11]

In the same way, the experience of consolations may encourage us to pray and may strengthen us in our good resolutions, but consolations are never in themselves a goal to be sought. As for their value in the spiritual life, when compared to the spiritual delights, they are no more than “fool’s gold.”

So spiritually, we are like my California homeland: we can find within ourselves glittering experiences that are “fool’s gold,” and also “the purest gold of divine wisdom” beyond all price. Like the ‘49ers,’ we need to learn to distinguish one from the other. As we shall see, this metaphor of comparing our experiences to various metals is a very ancient one.


[1] In cloistered Carmelite communities, the chapter is the governing body of the monastery. It elects the prioress and councilors, and it makes decisions about the community according to the Constitutions. One of the main differences between the 1990 Carmelite Constitutions and the 1991 Constitutions is that the latter give far more authority to the chapter.

[2] Bl. Marie-Eugène, I Want to See God, Fides Publishers Association, Chicago, Ill., 1953, p. 324

[3] Interior Castle, III, 1, 5

[4] Ibid, III, 2, 12

[5] Ibid. V, 1, 1-2

[6]¡Oh hermanas!, ¿cómo os podría yo decir la riqueza y tesoros y deleites que hay en las quintas moradas? Creo fuera mejor no decir nada de las que faltan, pues no se ha de saber decir ni el entendimiento lo sabe entender ni las comparaciones pueden servir de declararlo, porque son muy bajas las cosas de la tierra para este fin.

Enviad, Señor mío, del cielo luz para que yo pueda dar alguna a estas vuestras siervas, pues sois servido de que gocen algunas de ellas tan ordinariamente de estos gozos, porque no sean engañadas, transfigurándose el demonio en ángel de luz, pues todos sus deseos se emplean en desear contentaros.

Y aunque dije “algunas,” bien pocas hay que no entren en esta morada que ahora diré. Hay más y menos, y a esta causa digo que son las más las que entran en ellas.

[7] Foundations 4, 8. Again, the adjectives are in the feminine plural: “si hay una o dos en cada una que la lleve Dios ahora por meditación, todas las demás llegan a contemplación perfecta.

[8] Interior Castle, IV, 1, chapter heading

[9] Ibid, IV, 2,

[10] Interior Castle, IV, 1, 4ff. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from the writings of St. Teresa are translated by the present writer from the Obras Completas, compiled by Fr. Isidoro de San José, O.C.D., Editorial de Espiritualidad, Madrid, 1063

[11] The information on pyrite is taken from the Encyclopedia Americana, Americana Corporation, Danbury, Conn. 1978, vol. 23, pp. 45-46 and vol. 25, pp. 866ff.

Image: A nugget of pyrite, Adobe Stock. By vvoe.

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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