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

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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.

 

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SPIRITUAL CANTICLE: KEY THEMES–SHARING IN GOD’S BEAUTY

 

Every page of the Spiritual Canticle celebrates beauty. The bride rejoices in all aspects of creation, the mountains, lonely wooded valleys, strange islands, and so on. John shares with the bride the prayer of St. Francis, “My God and all things,” for she feels that all things are God (C. 14-15.5). John also sees God’s beauty in people, “Oh, then, soul, most beautiful of all creatures” (C. 1.7). For John, sin is the absence of beauty, and he looks at it with sadness rather than being judgmental. The spiritual journey is God’s progressive revelation of divine life to the bride, and she immerses herself more and more in the knowledge of her Lover. John shares his knowledge of this journey with his readers, fully aware that “not even they who receive these communications” are able to “describe. . . the understanding [God] gives to loving souls in whom he dwells” (C. Prologue.1). He agrees with theologians and philosophers that we know God primarily through the divine attributes, and he lists them in both the Ascent and the Living Flame (A. 2. 26.3, F. 3.2). “God in his unique and simple being is all the powers and grandeurs of his attributes. He is almighty, wise, and good; and he is merciful, just, powerful and loving, etc.; and he is the other infinite attributes and powers of which we have no knowledge” (F. 3.2). In the journey the bride not only knows these qualities of God but experiences them vitally, penetrating their meaning for her life. Mystics rarely add to the traditional list of divine attributes, but John singles out one attribute that was very special to him—divine beauty. He uses this word to describe God, always using the noun form hermosura (beauty) rather than the adjective hermoso (beautiful). This unusual description is not used analogically from the beauty of nature, but rather is clearly intended to refer to the inner being of God. Thus, the bride asks God “to show her his beauty, his divine essence” (C. 11.2). So, for John beauty is a divine attribute equivalent to the divine essence.

John's monastery in Segovia

John’s monastery in Segovia

In two passages John seems swept off his feet when he thinks of God’s beauty. In one of them he uses the word “beauty” twenty-four times in a single paragraph (C. 36.5) and in the other six times in four lines (C. 11.10). Mother Francisca de la Madre de Dios testified that on one of his visits to Beas, sometime in 1582-1584, John was carried away by the thought of the beauty of God and wrote five additional stanzas of the Spiritual Canticle on the beauty of God (36-40). People who study the mystics refer to the constant repetition of a concept as “mystical obsession.” In this case, John seems so overwhelmed by the thought of God’s beauty that it could be part of his own original experience of God.

Even in the early illuminative phase of contemplation the bride seeks the presence of God and identifies it as beauty, longing “to see him in his divine being and beauty.” In response to her longings, “God communicates to her some semi-clear glimpses of his divine beauty” (C. 11.4). This intensifies her longing for more intimate presence, but with this comes the awareness that such a vision is not possible, for human nature cannot endure such a revelation in this life. Thus, the bride cries “may the vision of your beauty be my death” (C. 11.16); she is willing to die to have the vision of God’s beauty. In the meantime she affirms her faith “which contains and hides the image and the beauty of her Beloved” (C. 12.1), just a sketch of the reality. She experiences God’s beauty all around her (C. 24.6) and longs to see herself in the beauty of God (C. 37.1). Her lovesickness climaxes in the ecstatic cry for union in eternity: “Let us rejoice, Beloved, and let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty” (C. v.36).

Icon of the Spiritual Canticle

Icon of the Spiritual Canticle

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 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).

 

A YEAR WITH JOHN OF THE CROSS: 365 daily readings and reflections

A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY TO SPEND A YEAR WITH SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS.


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This book, A Year with St. John of the Cross, offers 365 daily readings and reflection. In this year with St. John of the Cross we will read and reflect on his life, ministry, spiritual direction, spirituality, as well as selections from all his works, short and long. The readings and reflections in this book will introduce readers to all these, as well as comments from many leading writers and commentators on John. This year will be an opportunity for readers to immerse themselves in the spirituality of John of the Cross. Each day offers a focused reading, four key reflections, and three specific challenges for the day.

For those who are enthusiastic supporters of St. John of the Cross, and for others who wish to discover new and substantial paths in their spiritual journey, this book is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to encounter John and his challenges like never before.

Let your reading of this new book be your personal journey with John of the Cross, or you may decide to share your reflections with close friends who, like you, see John of the Cross as their spiritual guide. You could decide to form a group to help each other, even sharing of Facebook or Twitter to urge each other on.

One of the main uses of the book is to help readers who do not have ready access to a spiritual director. These readings and reflections my help fill that gap. For many, spiritual direction is a luxury and finding a competent spiritual director as difficult as John of the Cross suggested it would be. Many need to find alternative solutions and substitutions. Maybe these readings and reflections will help.

I hope you will find this special book helpful in your spiritual journey.

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This new book id available from amazon.com

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE –KEY THEMES: 1–Love-filled desire

 

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

The poem of the Spiritual Canticle begins with a cry of intense unfulfilled longing and desire (C. v.1) and ends with the bride proclaiming that she has found what she has been seeking and desiring (C. v.38). The commentary begins with the bride who “with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded with love for God” (C. 1.1) calls out to her unseen Beloved. It ends beyond spiritual marriage when the bride pleads “with the desire that he transfer her from spiritual marriage . . . to the glorious marriage of the Triumphant” (C. 40.7). The Spiritual Canticle is a poem of lovesick desire, wounded desire, and love-filled desire. Both poem and commentary pulsate with intense desire, draw us into this profound yearning for fulfillment, and leave us, too, inflamed with desire for God. In the first twelve verses the bridegroom never speaks, we hear only the bride’s cries of anxious search; nothing really exists of importance except her desire to find her Lover.

The initial advice for the bride is quite simple: “your desired Beloved lives hidden in your heart . . . strive to be really hidden with him, and you will embrace him within you and experience him with loving affection” (C. 1.10). She soon finds it is not that simple, for the Beloved comes and goes with the swiftness of a stag, showing himself and then hiding (C. 1.15). His visits are moments of loving encounter, wounds of love, that increase the bride’s desire to be with her Beloved, but he departs and she suffers pain and sorrow in his absence (C. 1.16). He leaves her suffering with love, incomplete and dying with desire for a more perfect loving union. “So extreme is this torment that love seems to be unbearably rigorous with the soul” (C. 1.18). She cries “but you were gone” and feels abandoned, suspended with no supports, and in need of the healing presence of her Lover. She appreciates the tastes of love he gives her, but rather than satisfy her desire they intensify her suffering and increase her longing (C. 1.22). “The loving soul lives in constant suffering at the absence of her Beloved, for she is already surrendered to him and hopes for the reward of that surrender: the surrender of the Beloved to her. Yet he does not do so” (C. 1.21).

The bride turns to creation and there finds traces of the beauty of her Beloved (C. 6.1), but seeing her Beloved in the beauty of the world only leads to greater desire to be in his presence; it is a sickness only union can heal. She has this same response to revelations of her Beloved through other rational beings. Eventually her desire leads her to insist: “You have communicated by means of others, as if joking with me; now may you do so truly, communicating yourself by yourself” (C 6.6). Her desire remains unsatisfied, in fact intensifies; “she is dying of love” “wounded with vehement love,” and feels so restrained in this bodily life (C. 8.2). This is because she realizes that “the soul lives where she loves more than in the body she animates,” and as a result she “never stops seeking remedies for her sorrow,” claiming “why since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it?” (C. 9.1).

Transformation in love

I would like to add a few thought to the last posting that dealt with transformation. John says that transformation in love takes place in the inner wine cellar, “the last and most intimate degree of love in which the soul can be placed in this life” (C. 26.3). It corresponds to the last stage in the development of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, this transformation in love is also the transformation of one’s spiritual faculties, all now focused on the love of God. As God communicates the divine life a person becomes one, so immersed in the values of God that nothing else matters, no worldly values, not even oneself (C. 26.14). In simple contemplative union a person is completely purified and transformed in love (C. 26.17).

Night over Toledo where John discovered God's love.

Night over Toledo where John discovered God’s love.

 

As God communicates self with genuine love, the soul and God are bound to each other in mutual surrender. “And since he transforms her in himself, he makes her entirely his own and empties her of all she possesses other than him” (C. 27.6). As spiritual betrothal was a preparation for spiritual marriage, the latter becomes a preparation for one’s total transformation into the beauty of divine wisdom when one becomes like the Beloved. This takes place in the next life when she can enter with Christ into the deepest caverns of the mysteries of God. “The soul, then, earnestly longs to enter these caverns of Christ in order to be absorbed, transformed, and wholly inebriated in the love of the wisdom of these mysteries” (C. 37.5). This she knows is not possible in this life. She wants the perfection of God’s love for her and her love for God; a total communion in eternity. So, now “she desires the clear transformation of glory in which she will reach this equality” (C. 38.3). Transformation ends in consummated, perfect, and strong love. “This is transformation in the three Persons in power and wisdom and love, and thus the soul is like God through this transformation” (C. 39.4).

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

 

This transformation includes experiencing the wonders of God’s life and designs, what the bride calls the indescribable “what” of joy in eternity. It will include knowing and experiencing the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit, joy in the fullness of life in God, appreciation of the harmony of creation, contemplation of the divine essence, and total transformation in love (C. 38-39). The poem ends with the bride longing for this eternal union in love; she is detached and withdrawn, evil put to flight, passions subjected, sensory part reformed, and her entire being participating in the goods of the Bridegroom to the soul. Her transformation in this life is complete and she is ready for the union of eternity.