And the Recollection was born near a fire

On the 5th of December 1588, 427 years ago, a Provincial Chapter for the Province of Castilla for the Order of Saint Augustine marked the start of the Augustinian Recollection. The Recollect spirituality has been a fertile branch within the Augustinian way of life up to the present day.
News | 2015 Dec 05
Since the year 1556 the reign of Philip II meant a global exploration and a territorial expansion by means of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, bringing the Spanish monarchy to be the most powerful in Europe given that for the first time in history an empire integrated territories from all the inhabited continents of the planet. The Augustinian Recollection lived the last ten years of this period highly supported by this system, which came to an end with the death of the monarch in 1598.

A few kilometres from Madrid, travelling 58 kilometres towards the North, you can visit today the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, whose construction had finished in 1584 and is one of the scenes for the birth of the Recollection. Today, curiously, it is lived in by the Augustinians, and the Augustinian Recollects have a presence in this great building for it is one of the bases for the Centro Teológico San Agustín, where religious from various Recollect provinces study Theology.

In terms of the Church, in 1585 Pope Sixtus V follows on from the death of Gregory XIII. This last Pope had a papacy for thirteen years centred on moral renewal. Already in his first consistory he communicated to his Cardinals his intention to observe strictly the Council of Trent. Afterwards he stimulated the growth of colleges and seminaries for priests and in 1584 had formed the Pontifical Gregorian University, a place where also many Recollects have studied throughout history. To him is also owed the so-called Gregorian Calendar, which is today followed by the Western world.

His successor, Sixtus V, in whose papacy the Recollection is properly born was a Franciscan and Italian whose family originated from Serbia, and who was only at the head of the Church for five years until 1590. It gave him time to finish St. Peter´s copula in the Vatican. In the same year as the birth of the Recollection in 1588 he blessed the departure of Phillip II´s Invincible Fleet against England.

Also in 1588, the same year as the Recollection, were born the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the French mathematician Étienne Pascal and the Mexican State of Zacatecas.

When the Recollection became a “Trending Topic”

These were times when the Catholic Reformation was at its height, and the Franciscans and the Carmelites had started their reforms a few years before. In San Millán de la Cogolla, today also a house of the Augustinian Recollects, two Benedictines withdrew into solitude in 1585 in order to “fulfil the Rule of St. Benedict in its entirety” and they are called “Recollects”.

They became a “trending topic” at this end of the XVI Century and the beginning of the XVII in which also took part Mercedarians, Trinitarians, Dominicans, Carmelites, Bernardinos, Conceptionists, Jerominans, Clarists, female Dominicans, Discalced Carmelites, female Bernardinos, female Conceptionists, female Dominicans, female Discalced Carmelites, and followers of St. Bridget…

This theme “struck a chord” in the Augustinian Family from 1540, when some Mexican Augustinian missionaries saw how their customs imbued with the Recollect spirit are approved in their Provincial Chapter of Castilla. In 1581 the General Chapter authorizes the Provinces to promulgate more rigorous statutes for those Religious who “could and wanted to”.

What is certain is that the Province of Castilla was at this moment caught between restlessness and division. On one side, were those who had a “relaxed” life at this time full of exemptions to the rules as well as habitually entering into the business of censuses and rents; and on the other, those who asked for a reform in order to uphold a more spiritual and austere life.

Sixus V had named as General of the Augustinian Order Gregorio Petrocchini,to whom he also conceded the duty of visiting inspector and Apostolic commissary for the Order. Before presiding over the Chapter he visited the monarch in the El Escorial and received instructions to favour the presence of Recollect houses, both those of friars and nuns. Because on this matter your Majesty has for many days adverted that many religious desire it, and it would please the reverend General to treat this with men of religion, counsel and prudence, and if they think it wise, to put it into action”.

Luis de León and Pedro de Rojas had asked Phillip II to intervene. These were times in which religion and government were one and the monarch was attentive to the reform movements, and conscious also of the important role that religious congregations had in the society at that time.

Petrocchini called ten Religious of particular importance within the Province and decided to bring forward the Chapter for the Castilla Province from spring 1589 to the 30th of November 1588. They chose on the famous city of Toledo for being the “most accessible” place for the majority of the participants, situated in the geographical centre of the Iberian Peninsula. After visiting the most important communities in the Province Petrocchini arrived in Toledo on the 28th of November 1588, where there were already waiting the recently arrived participants of the Chapter.

The Chapter of Toledo

The meeting of the sixty-eight participants for the celebration of the Province of Castilla´s chapter began in a tense and contentious atmosphere. On the 2nd of December two messages arrive from Phillip II by means of the Chief Magistrate of the city and that of Andrés Fernández. They remind the members of the Chapter of the need to establish Recollect houses.

On the 3rd of December they are given over to the task of choosing a new provincial. The votes patently display the division: 31 votes for Pedro de Rojas, prior of the monastery in Madrid and in favour of the reform; the rest of the votes are dispersed amongst Gaspar de Saona (26), Gabriel de Goldáraz (6), Gaspar de Melo (3), Luis de León (1) and Martín de Perea (1). Rojas doesn´t manage a majority in the second vote either (33), so the Prior General has to use his authority to name him as the elected prior provincial “so that the disturbance would cease and the discussion would not go on interminably”.

At last, on the 5th of December, the full council body made up of nine religious put forward the eighteen acts or decisions which came out of the Chapter. The fifth will be the foundation act of the Augustinian Recollection:

“For there are those amongst us, or at least there could be some, so desiring for monastic perfection they they wish to follow a more austere way of life, and whose legitimate desire we should favour in order not to impede the Holy Spirit. Therefore, having previously consulted our most reverend Father General and implored his permission, we determine that in our province there should be designated or newly established three or more monasteries for men and something of a similar number for women, in which they would practice a more austere way of life which, after due consideration, the Father Provincial prescribes with his council.

Some other decisions from the Chapter appear to be almost contrary to the fifth act. The seventh legitimises the private use of money for Religious; the eighth approves card games and shows, the thirteenth defends honorary titles

This all seems to indicate that the fifth act was the fruit of a limited group of religious that took advantage of the King´s favour; who, in truth, on the same fifth day was informed of the approbation of Recollect houses and of the naming of a new Provincial in favour of reform.

The meeting in a cold convent cell

Nevertheless it is also true that we can put a name to the main driving forces of the reform in the province of Castilla. Shortly before the Chapter started they met, the three of them, to prepare the defence of their arguments against those of others gathered there. We are dealing with Jerónimo de Guevara (1554-1589), Luis de León (1528-1591) and Pedro de Rojas (†1602).

We can also rely on a document of great worth for today´s Recollection; that is the memoirs of Juan Quijano who in 1588 was sixteen years old recently professed (two days before that meeting) and who was in that room where the meeting took place. He tells it like this:

May it be permitted for to me to say what happened to me when being for a night in the cell of the Father Fray Pedro de Rojas, at that time the Prior of San Felipe, and the Master Fray Luis de León and our Father Jerónimo de Guevara by the fire. I was recently professed, only two days before. […] Taking me with great honour the three of them, though I was indeed very much a child, in many things […] they allowed me to sit at the feet of one of them so that I might warm myself.

They started to deal with how and in what way they had to establish the monastery, how poor it should be, how quite apart from the hustle and bustle, what Constitutions and how to have the habit and everything. At the end, one of them gave an idea for the first monastery, certainly well laid out and observant, for in the end, all three of them were extremely good thinkers.

Although I was but a boy, I was looking at them or listening with great attention, and I remembered how I had read and spent time on the life of the holy mother Theresa of Jesus, and that she had written: that what had happened when she was also a child made hermitages for she and her brother wanted to be hermits.

Then using my hand to get up, with Master fray Luis de León helping me up by the head, he made as if to look at me and said:
- “Fray Juan and do you wish to go with us to this monastery?
- I said to him: “yes, of course, but you esteemed Sir need not go there”.
- “Well, how do you see it?” he said to me.
 - “Why shouldn´t I go; but it doesn´t seem to me that you esteemed Sir has to go, nor is such an austere way of life for you. Leave that for fray Father Jerónimo”.

The young boy was right. Luis de León favoured, helped and gave much provision to the Recollection in its first rules of life. In 1589 they entrusted to him the foundation of a Recollect house in Salamanca; in 1590 he helped to put in place a new Recollect convent in Portillo (Valladolid). He also presented many requests of absence to the University of Salamanca where he lectured, supported by Phillip II, in order to be able to dedicate himself to the birth of the Augustinian Recollection.

But death took him by surprise on the 23rd of August 1591 in Madrigal de las Altas Torres (Ávila) when he was preparing a biography on Saint Theresa of Jesus, whose writings he had revised for publication. After his death his remains were taken to Salamanca, in whose university they were laid to rest.
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