The Contemporary Challenge of St. Teresa of Avila: A new book

P1110572 P1110573

This book is an introduction to the life and teachings of Saint Teresa of Avila. It is a collection of notes and reflections taken from material I have presented in courses and workshops on St. Teresa over many years and in many countries to people from all walks of life who see Teresa’s teachings on prayer as the vision and guidance they long for. This book on The Contemporary Challenge of Saint Teresa of Avila is an introduction to her life and writings and readers should use it as a companion to the careful and prayerful reading of Teresa’s own writings for it is in no way a substitute for reading her works. I hope these notes and reflections will introduce readers to this giant in the history of spirituality and one of the greatest teachers of prayer that the world has ever known.

This book is a companion to an earlier book, The Contemporary Challenge of St. John of the Cross which was used extensively by individuals and groups as an introduction to St. John of the Cross’ life and teachings. It was also used by many in formation programs. This current book on Teresa may well fulfill similar goals.

 

Called to love

In John of the Cross’ extraordinary book on the Living Flame of Love he reminds us that  God would want everyone to be at the level of life and union described in the Living Flame. He challenges us to appreciate that one’s total life is involved in a union of love. In fact, every act is now love (C. 28.8). Nothing really matters anymore except to be in the union with a person we love with all our hearts. That union will be on all levels of life, and everything that is done is done for love. However, he finds few who are ready to make the commitment, and others who do not want to be guided to this goal (F. 2.27). He seems saddened to acknowledge that some do not relish the communications of God (F. 1.6), others just do not understand these gifts and find them incredible (F. 1.15), and still others do not have the basic experience needed to appreciate these profound challenges (F. 3.1). However, John insists that God grants these favors and does so according to the divine will. Generally, these gifts are made to those who “have performed many services for Him, have had admirable patience and constancy for His sake, and in their life and works have been very acceptable to Him” (F. 2.28). God purifies such people in varying degrees according to God’s desire to raise them (F. 1.24), and leads them eventually to the remarkable delight of God’s awakening (F. 4.5).

So, John reminds us not to be amazed that God grants such gifts. He reminds us twice (F. Prologue.2; 1.15) that Jesus told us that the Trinity would abide within anyone who loved God. God is faithful to the divine nature and to these promises made. Put simply, God delights in giving and enriching those who seek divine union. God is seeking union in love with us more intensely than we seek it with God. We must look at the gifts we have received, marvel in God’s love, and be aware of God’s constant generosity towards us. We need to live with awareness that all life is a wonderful manifestation of God’s love (see C. 24; 40). We must awaken ourselves to an appreciation of the reality that we are immersed in God’s love. This changes the motivation for all our activities and gives us a new consciousness of the meaning of life. This is what the Living Flame calls us to appreciate and never to be amazed at this authentic vision of life. This is the new state of existence to which God calls all human beings.

Unfortunately, one of the great contemporary problems we face is indifference to the life of the spirit, as we immerse ourselves in the superficiality of religious devotions, thinking we can earn growth. In one of his sayings John urges us to keep things in perspective. “Who can free themselves from lowly manners and limitations if you do not lift them to yourself, my God, in purity and love? How will human beings begotten and nurtured in lowliness rise up to you, Lord, if you do not raise them with your hand that made them?” (S. 26). Aware of our own emptiness, the Living Flame reminds us that we grow primarily by receiving and cherishing the gifts of God. These gifts are not little supports here and there on our journey to God. They transform us into who we are intended to be. So, we need to think about life in light of the Living Flame; this is our goal, this is God’s hope for us.

 

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE–KEY THEMES 6: Romantic love

John proclaims divine love with great tenderness that uses human love as its point of departure. In the Spiritual Canticle John of the Cross describes the growing relationship of two lovers. The poem is full of intimacy, passion, intensity, sensualness, and a longing for union—all of which take hold of the reader. It is not only that in reading it we can think of our intimate relationship to God but we can also think of our passionate desire and intimate longing for our own lover. Arthur Symmons summarize what several have implied, “This monk can give lessons to lovers.” There is a profound affective sensuous dimension to John’s poetry. He could not write like he does without feeling as we do when we read it. Clearly, in spite of his emphasis on purification, John does not propose the destruction of sense but the total unification of affectivity towards God. He also indicates that we rediscover sense refined at the end of purification. Was John totally detached from the sensory pleasure of his work? When we witness such clumsy and selfish approaches to love today, it is refreshing to read the sensitive, delicate, considerate, and, yes, sensual and passionate approaches he describes and suggests.

223

There is no explicit religious language in the poem. It is a poem about lovers. In his commentary he gives profound religious explanations but intertwined are comments about the approaches of lovers to each other. Here is a short selection of his many comments.

“Lovers are said to have their hearts stolen or seized by the object of their love” (C. 9.5).

“[S]he affectionately calls him here the light of her eyes, just as a lover would call her loved one the light of her eyes in order to show her affection” (C. 10.8).

“Supper affords lovers refreshment, satisfaction, and love” (C. 14-15.28).

“[G]irls attract lovers to themselves by their affection and grace” (C. 18.4).

“Anyone truly in love will let all other things go in order to come closer to the loved one” (C. 29.10).

“New lovers are comparable to new wine. . . .These new lovers find their strength in the savor of love.” (C. 25.10).

“Now then, the old lovers . . . are like old wine . . . these lovers taste the sweetness of the wine of love” (C. 25.11).

“Strange it is, this property of lovers, that they like to enjoy each other’s companionship alone” (C.36.1)

“The reason they desire to commune with each other alone is that love is a union between two alone” (C. 36.1).

“For lovers cannot be satisfied without feeling that they love as much as they are loved” (C. 38.3).

The first thing that John teaches lovers is to value love alone above all else. This will imply risk, but God’s love of us is such that God is willing to take a risk with us. Once a commitment is made then one’s capacity for love depends on the exclusive and integrated focus of every aspect of one’s life. Love implies total self-surrender to one’s lover; it is never stationary but always in movement—a long journey in which love matures gradually. Together they find “mutual refreshment and renewal in love” (C. 13.2).

In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

John knows the importance between lovers of keeping a diligent watch over one’s heart. At the beginning of the poem the bride sees in herself a lot of conscious and unconscious resistance to God’s love and illumination and needs the purification of false loves and attachments (C. 1.1). In searching for her beloved she refuses to digress (C. 3.5), nor be tempted by enemies of her single-hearted pursuit (C. 3.6-7). As she gets closer to her Beloved she still keeps in check “many various kinds of images . . . brought to the memory and phantasy and many appetites and inclinations . . . stirred up in the sensory part” (C. 16.4). She longs for her heart to be carefully centered on her Beloved and to resist the negative drying up of interest that comes with “the foxes” (sensory movements) (C. v.16), the “deadening north wind” (dryness) (C. v.17), or the “girls of Judea” (lower affections) (C. v. 18). Once she enters spiritual marriage Aminadab (the devil) no longer appears, the siege is stopped (appetites and passions), and the cavalry descends (all bodily senses are controlled) (C. v. 40). A diligent watch over one’s heart helps the bride to maintain an exclusive focus on her Lover. “Deny your desires and you will find what your heart longs for” (S. 15).

Lovers always find it is difficult to be away from each other and also they often feel unworthy of each other when they are together. They savor the pain of both absence and presence. “Beholding that the bride is wounded with love for him, because of her moan he also is wounded with love for her. Among lovers, the wound of one is a wound for both” (C. 13.9). Prior to spiritual betrothal the “wounds” of love of the bride are mentioned twenty-five times. These experiences of pain at the Lover’s absence feel like a fire of love, enflamed within her (C. 1.17), and she tells him she is dying without him, wants nothing but him alone, feels unhealthy and incomplete without him, feels he has stolen her heart and nothing else matters anymore. Through these purifying wounds her love becomes impatient, burning, ardent, intense, and vehement. This purification becomes a progressive surrender to love. As the bride in the Song of Songs (8:6-7), the bride here indicates that nothing can quench love, neither floods drown it; she clearly wants her Lover as a seal upon her soul, for love is as strong as death.

Lovers want total self-gift from each other; partial gift is not what lovers want to give nor want to receive. They seek from each other what the psalms call “steadfast love,” that is “precious,” and “better than life” (Pss 36, 63, 89). In the Spiritual Canticle the bride tells her Lover do not hide, do not send me any more messengers, wholly surrender yourself, how can I endure not living where you live. She insists – carry me off, cure my love-sickness, extinguish my pain from your absence, reveal your presence. She sees her Lover’s gifts and signs of his presence everywhere—everything reminds her of him and speaks of his love.

Beautiful gardens in Segovia

Beautiful gardens in Segovia

She rests in his delight, finds her bed is in flower, enters the inner wine cellar of love, loses interest in all else, gives herself totally to him, and now she wounds him with her love. She has found her longed-for mate, finds love in solitude with him, and discovers her Lover in new ways never before imagined.

KEY THEMES IN THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE 5: LOVE AND SELF-SURRENDER

One of the key themes in the Spiritual Canticle is the dedicated vision of love and surrender. John of the Cross gives a wonderful portrait of this as he develops the stages of spiritual betrothal and spiritual marriage. Let us look at some of his ideas and for those who have the time I have given some of his wonderful sayings from The Spiritual Canticle for extra reading.

Spiritual betrothal is a time of deeper love and mutual surrender; the two lovers feel each other’s pain, share ever deeper communications, appreciate each other’s longings, show mutual gratitude for graces and gifts, and yearn for union. The bride develops “a singular and intense love for God,” and “his absence is a singular and intense torment for her” (C. 17.1). In this growth of love and self-surrender “a singular fortitude and a very sublime love are also needed for so strong and intimate an embrace from God” (C. 20-21.1). Even before spiritual marriage she gives her love and surrender to her Bridegroom (C. 22.5).

Spiritual marriage is the time of mutual strong love and surrender. God shows the soul genuine love, the tenderness and truth of love, supreme and generous love. The bride is “dissolved in love” and “she makes a complete surrender of herself.” “[T]his mutual surrender of God and the soul is made in this union” (C. 27.2). “In this stanza the bride tells of the mutual surrender made in this spirit of espousal between the soul and God . . . joined by the communication he made of himself to her, . . . and by the complete surrender she made of herself to him, keeping nothing back for herself” (C. 27.3). The bride’s total surrender is caused by God, it is a gift to the bride of the necessary purity, perfection, and self dedication needed for total surrender (C. 27.6). Her surrender in loving union includes the surrender of her soul and its faculties so that they focus only on love of God and what pleases God. She surrenders to a consuming love and her every expression becomes an act of love. The bride puts it this way: “This is like saying that now all this work is directed to the practice of love of God, that is: All the ability of my soul and body . . . move in love and because of love. Everything I do I do with love, and everything I suffer I suffer with the delight of love” (C. 28.8).

The Bridegroom and bride now enjoy mutuality in love and in self-surrender, enjoying each other’s love. “God not only values this love of hers because he sees that it is alone, but also cherishes it because he sees that it is strong. . . . [T]his is why he loved her so much; he saw that her love was strong . . . alone and without other loves” (C. 31.5). Transformed in love, her love is now God’s love in her. She is united to God’s strong love for her, and “her love for him is as strong and perfect as his love for her” (C. 38.3). This is what she was searching for and what God wanted of her too.

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE–KEY THEMES 4: GOD VALUES STRONG LOVE

 

From the beginning of both poem and commentary for the Spiritual Canticle, the bride’s love is very strong, she is determined in her approach to her Beloved, and she is clearly willing to do and endure whatever it takes to find union in his love. She knows her obligations, appreciates the dynamics of salvation history, is well aware of her indebtedness to God, and saddened by the evil and harm she sees in the world (C. 1.1). During the experiences of this journey her love will mature as she learns to let go of false loves and to discover new ways of loving (C. 1.2). However, from the first step she does everything under the powerful motivation of strong love (C. 1.2) and with readiness to persevere in her love and sacrifice everything else to gain or receive it (C. 1.13). To her initial determined self-gift and self-forgetfulness she adds acceptance of the burning pain that her Lover’s treatment causes. “She loves him more than all things when nothing intimidates her in doing and suffering for love of him whatever is for his service” (C 2.5).

Soon after her relationship begins and she thinks loving union is close at hand, she discovers that “love seems unbearably rigorous with the soul” (C 1.18) and that true love includes purification of all appetites, focus of intellect, will, and memory, mortification and penance, spiritual exercises, and the reception of God’s gifts in contemplation. Intense love such as this requires freedom and fortitude, “Since seeking God demands a heart naked, strong, and free from all evils and goods that are not purely God” (C. 3.5). The soul finds some solace is feeling filled with love on seeing traces of her Beloved in the beauty of the world and cries out “If up to this time I could be content with [indirect knowledge], because I did not have much knowledge or love of you, now the intensity of my love cannot be satisfied with these messages; therefore: ‘Now wholly surrender yourself!’” (C. 6.6).

The soul continues to surrender herself to her Beloved, to love him in every way she can, and to continue to prepare herself to love more purely and intensely. She pleads for healing which can only come from love, and she continues her fight against temptations and disturbances caused by the world, the devil, and the flesh. In this period the soul needs steadfastness and courage, bravery against all fears, and strength to persevere. When the soul is in the midst of the darkness and voids of her struggles, the Bridegroom sends her signs of his love, “divine rays with such strong love and glory” (C. 13.1). Thus, he repays her surrender and strong love with his strong love, and he continues to do this, adapting his visits of intense love to the intensity of her love (C. 13.2). At this time of intense burning love, the Holy Spirit comes to her in contemplation as a refreshing breeze that both cools and inflames her love. “As a breeze cools and refreshes a person worn out by the heat, so this breeze of love refreshes and renews the one burning with the fire of love” (C. 13.12).

KEY THEMES IN THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE: 3–NURTURING DESIRE

 

We should always identify the desires of our lives. Desire is the human response to what will make us complete. It shows us the direction of a pilgrimage we undertake to find fulfillment, to find ourselves, to find the love for which we were created. This yearning within us cries out, “show me what my soul has been seeking” (C. v.38). Once we identify the desire of life, it becomes the motivating force for all we do.

As we pursue desire with single-minded dedication, we must first of all purify our desires. Our desires define us. We seek something or someone so intensely it takes the place of God. When we abandon all false desires, false gods, we lose ourselves and find our true selves (C. v.29). We must undertake this journey with excitement and enthusiasm and let nothing digress or distract us. “A characteristic of the desires of love is that all deeds and words unconformed with what the will loves will weary, tire, annoy, and displease the soul as she beholds her desire goes unfulfilled” (C. 10.5). Some grow weary in this journey and many abandon the effort. We must follow our desire unceasingly, with deliberate and intense longing.

Let your heart be drawn by God. Desire is placed in our hearts by God who longs to satisfy our desire more than we do. God is the prime Lover who has placed this yearning within us. He calls us personally, fills the world with reminders of his love, illumines us, and transforms us in contemplation.

Appreciate the signposts that direct to desire. We are immersed in God’s love. All around us are signs that help us clarify and intensify our desire. We see traces of the love we seek in creation, in God’s works, wonders, and decrees, in other human beings and in the spiritual world—all reminding us of the intensity of desire for the source of all this love. These signs of our Lover’s desire nurture our hearts, constantly communicate to us, and let us know where true love lies. Even our own initial desires, and more so as they grow, act as messengers showing us both what our hearts desire and also what the Beloved longs for. This illumination from creatures produces immense appreciation and love of God and a resulting intense impatient love.

Only a life of love satisfies desire. John makes us aware of deep desires that we have, a hunger that cannot be satisfied except we make this journey of love. Following our desire means learning how to love until we find “the perfection of love . . . [and] complete refreshment therein” (C. 9.7). As we follow our desire God teaches us to love with the very strength with which God loves us (C. 38.4).

KEY THEMES IN SPIRITUAL CANTICLE: 2–THE NATURE OF DESIRE IN JOHN OF THE CROSS

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Desire is not easily satisfied. When John speaks of desire he is describing an attitude of the whole person, an existential yearning or longing to be who we are called to be, who we need to be in order to find peace and fulfillment in life. When John speaks of desire he is describing what is at the core of our humanity. The desire he describes is the cry of humanity for fulfillment in the union of love.

Desire’s original focus is on “your Beloved whom you desire and seek” (C. 1.8). Having fallen in love the desire is now for a deeper experience of something that has already happened. Since the soul has already been swept off her feet by her Lover her journey is always painful at her loss, but the pain is tolerable because of her confidence in her Lover’s fidelity. As the search develops, “It seems to the soul that its bodily and spiritual substance is drying up with thirst for this living spring of God.” She feels her desire can only end when “she could plunge into the unfathomable spring of love” (C. 12.9). Being with one’s Lover is the only thing that matters—to lose oneself for the Beloved and to lose interest in all creatures. “And this is to love herself purposely, which is to desire to be found” (C. 29.10).

We then respond to desire within our own hearts. The desire John presents is the human heart seeking meaning and fulfillment and finding them in love. It is no use seeking fulfillment in the accumulation of desires outside ourselves. “Do not go in pursuit of him outside yourself. You will only become distracted and wearied thereby, and you shall not find him, or enjoy him more securely, or sooner, or more intimately than by seeking him within you” (C. 1.8). So, desire is fulfilled in the interior recollection of our own hearts, for our Lover resides within. “Desire him there, adore him there” (C. 1.8) for he whom your soul loves is within you.

These visits of love intensify desire. While our desire seems at times to burn us up, we also quickly see it is God who desires the love relationship and he is the first Lover. So, God visits the soul frequently during her desire-filled search for her Lover. However, she experiences these visits of love with joy and excitement, but also with pain. In fact, her desire is not fulfilled nor even calmed by these visits. Rather, she experiences them as wounds in her heart—wounds of love that cause a longing for total love. So, these visits of love are not simply refreshing experiences offered by her Lover. “He bestows these to wound more than heal and afflict more than satisfy, since they serve to quicken knowledge and increase appetite (consequently the sorrow and longing) to see God” (C. 1.19)

In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

The soul tries every means to satisfy desire. Desire by itself is not enough, we must do something about it, we must do all we can to satisfy it. “Since the desire in which she seeks him is authentic and her love intense, she does not want to leave any possible means untried. The soul that truly loves God is not slothful in doing all she can to find the Son of God, her Beloved” (C. 3.1). Among the primary means are the uprooting of false loves, the practice of virtues, and the spiritual exercise of active and contemplative life. Everything that is not focused on desire for God is a distraction. We must be careful for we become our desires and for the most of us our desires are too small. Fortunately, the night is the death of all false desires, all false gods. The search is filled with “a thousand displeasures and annoyances” (C. 10.3) that can easily distract the search and this demands constant effort. Desiring to reach God in spiritual marriage, “it is necessary for her to attain an adequate degree of purity, fortitude, and love” (C. 20-21.2).

Desire is for greater love and union, from early stages of love and excitement in pursuing her Lover, through periods of pain and loss at his absence, and on to spiritual betrothal and marriage. “The loving soul, however great her conformity to the Beloved, cannot cease longing for the wages of her love . . . the wages of love are nothing else . . . than more love, until perfect love is reached” (C. 9.7). The soul is filled with impatient love that allows no rest, no delays in the ongoing pursuit of greater love. Desire for deeper love and union is what propels and motivates the soul in her ceaseless pursuit of her Lover. This intense desire focuses on seeking the beauty and essence of God. “Reveal your presence, and may the vision of your beauty be my death” (C. 11. 1-2).