St. Teresa, Prayer and the Gift of Contemplation

St. Teresa of Avila was born in Spain in 1515. She is most known for her spiritual perfection and for the many mystical revelations that she received. After entering the Carmelite Order as a young woman, she soon began to have a desire to live her religious life more ardently. This caused her to attract many companions and eventually lead to the reform of the Carmelite Order. St. Teresa wrote several treatises on the topic of prayer. She is one of the few women that have been declared a Doctor of the Church. She died in 1582 in Alba de Tormes, Spain. Her feast day is today, October 15th.

Before she even begins to write about prayer in The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa says she will “mention some things that are necessary for those who seek to follow the way of prayer.” These things are so necessary that she says if one does not possess these, it is impossible to be a contemplative. So what are these things? 

“The first of these is love for one another; the second is detachment from created things; the third is true humility, which even though I speak of it last, is the main practice and embraces all the others.” (Way of Perfection 4: 4)

St. Teresa was keenly aware that the practice of the virtues is what supports prayer. Key to the spiritual life are these three: love, detachment, and humility. Love, of course, is first. It is love that moves us to pray, and it is love that is the greatest commandment: love God and love neighbor. It follows that some sort of detachment is also necessary because this virtue involves our choices. Our heart loves and is centered on what we love and desire and often these are not leading us to intimacy with God. Humility, which is next, but most importantly, is about the truth. The truth we are mainly concerned with is the truth about ourselves. An aid to the truth about ourselves is an honest examination of all areas of our lives and determining what is in need of repentance, where are our failures, and what are our sins, but also necessary is a look at our attitudes that may need to be pruned and gifts which may need to be cultivated.                       

Prayer is the activity especially intended for making fervent acts of charity. During prayer, the soul lovingly meets with God. A soul that loves God does so with a pure heart; a heart that loves Him so much that it seeks only after His glory and His will. The prayer of a soul that loves God forgets itself and is ready to sacrifice every wish for Him. Its love grows stronger and will continue to grow as it performs all its actions with a whole heart and with all of its capacity for goodwill.  However, St. Teresa says that it is also important for us to have a love for one another, but “because of either excess or defect we never reach the point of observing this commandment perfectly.” (The Way of Perfection, 4:5) When we live with others those annoying things and habits that we all have will be “suffered easily by those who love one another”.  Sometimes we gravitate towards loving one person more than another. St. Teresa also points out that when we love others excessively we are unable to love God excessively!  Nevertheless, she does value friendships and said that in her convents “all must be friends, all must be loved, all must be held dear, all must be helped.”  (The Way of Perfection, 4:7)   

Detachment is also necessary for one who is setting out on the way of prayer. Attachment is clinging to people, ideas, and things that give satisfaction, comfort, and pleasure. Detachment is letting go of the need to find pleasure, comfort, and satisfaction in these things and to center all our desires on God. Detachment is about seeking God first. One important way to practice detachment is to detach from the love of our bodies which demand so much comfort and strive to be more faithful to our duties. St. Teresa says that our bodies want so much comfort that the more we give it the more it demands. St. Teresa also suggests that souls try to remember that everything is vanity and will all come to an end. It is a great help for souls to remove any attachment it might have to trivial things and to center its thoughts on eternal things. Detachment and control of the passions can help our soul to be like Mary’s – silent and solitary- and filled with the presence of God.

In The Way of Perfection chapter 10, St. Teresa writes about the virtues of humility and detachment saying that “They are two inseparable sisters.” Our saint warns that souls need to not feel secure or fall asleep. She advises souls to be alert in “going against our own will”. Going against our own will is humility. She points out that turning and being against ourselves is a difficult thing because. . . we “love ourselves greatly”. How true this is! The soul should embrace these two virtues and by doing so, imitate Christ who “was never for a moment seen without them!” Another interesting thing about these virtues is that they “have the characteristic of so hiding themselves from the person who possess them that these persons never see them or manage to believe that they even have them”. 

St. Teresa in The Way of Perfection Chapter 17 writes about the importance of humility in regard to contemplation. She says, “this is an important aspect of prayer and indispensable for persons who practice it”. She understood that God, if He so desires, is the one who leads the soul that prays into contemplation.  Not everyone who prays must be a contemplative and being a contemplative is not necessary for our salvation. St. Teresa stresses that “to be a contemplative is a gift from God.” However, she does not want us to give up prayer for any reason, but we are to persevere because sometimes, “the Lord comes very late and pays just as well, and all at once, what he was giving to others in the course of many years.” So we should strive “in humility, mortification, detachment, and the other virtues…[and not] be afraid that you will fail to reach the perfection of those who are very contemplative.”                

“I don’t say that we shouldn’t try; on the contrary, we should try everything. What I am saying is that this is not a matter of your choosing but of the Lord’s….Be sure that if you do what lies in your power, preparing yourselves for contemplation with the perfection mentioned, and that if He doesn’t give it to you (and I believe He will give if detachment and humility are truly present), He will save this gift for you so as to grant it to you all at once in heaven.” (The Way of Perfection, 17:7)   

A soul devoted to loving God has made the one necessary resolution in prayer which is to be recollected. Only then is it able to give itself entirely to God. We often fail to dispose ourselves for contemplation either because we give in to too much activity or because we do not produce enough acts of love. By offering to God a holy heart, one free from all actual stain of sin, we can at least do our part and strive for perfection.

May all our efforts cooperate with the grace God gives in each moment to prepare a heart, pure and receptive, to receive so great a gift.

Today, October 15th, is the feast day of St. Teresa of Jesus, Virgin and Doctor of the Church. It is also a Solemnity within the Carmelite Order. On this day it would be good, inspired by St. Teresa, to begin to live our religious life more ardently. All of us, whether a priest, bishop, religious or layperson, can foster this desire to live our spiritual life more perfectly.

Today is a new day; a day to begin again. Today we can begin to say our prayers faithfully and to say them well. Today we can begin to remain in the presence of God throughout our day and while doing our daily duties. Today we can begin to partake in the sacramental life of the Church more regularly and with greater devotion. Today we can begin to practice more self-denial and be at the service of others.

Father,
by your Spirit, you raised up our Mother, St. Teresa of Jesus,
to show your Church the way to perfection.
May her inspired teaching
awaken in us a longing for true holiness.
Grant this through our Lord. Amen.
(from the Carmelite Proper of the Liturgy of the Hours)

Path of Light – Camino de luz

This short video-clip was filmed in Alhambra and San Jose/San Francisco, California during the visit of the walking staff of St. Teresa.  This video was filmed by the people traveling with the walking staff that is making its way around the world.  The presentation in this video of Carmelite spirituality is very good. The whole Carmelite Order is celebrating the 500th Centenary of St. Teresa’s birth this year.

Praying for Priests

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The mission of the priest is to mediate between God and man. This mission is two-fold for he offers Christ to the Trinity when he offers the host during the consecration, and then at communion he distributes to the faithful the Bread of Life giving Christ to the world.

For this divine task Christ-like souls are needed, which is why Carmelites pray for priests. The whole Church should help priests to acquire this Christ-like soul, but contemplatives in particular come to their aide.This apostolic element of the Teresian charism is found in The Way of Perfection where St. Teresa of Jesus exhorts her nuns to:

“strive to be the kind of persons whose prayers can be useful in helping those servants of God who through much toil have strengthened themselves with learning and a good life and have labored so as now to help the Lord.” (Way of Perfection 3:2)

This apostolate of those who dwell in cloisters is to silently immolate their lives in purity, simplicity and crucified.

Since the priest is another Christ and is to communicate Christ to the world, he needs an interior life even though he may be busy. However, he can only do that in the measure in which he possess Jesus himself. Therefore, contemplatives need to pray for priests asking God to help them to remain ever at the fountain of living water so that He can overflow on those around him without ever becoming empty himself.

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While the priest carries Christ to souls in word and sacrament, contemplatives then stay close to the feet of Christ in silent adoration, like Mary beside the cross, asking Him to render the priest’s words fruitful in souls. The contemplative does this to help priests and for the redemption of souls.

 

 

 

“I beg you to strive to be such that we might merit from God two things: First, that among the numerous learned men and religious there be many who will meet these requirements I mentioned that are necessary for this battle, and that the Lord may prepare those who do not meet them; one who is perfect will do much more than many who are not. Second, that after being placed in this combat, which as I say, is not easy, they may receive protection from the Lord so as to remain free of the many perils there are in the world, and stop their ears in order not to hear the siren’s song on these dangerous sea. If we can obtain some answers from God to these requests , we shall be fighting for Him even though we are very cloistered.” (Way of Perfection 3:5)

Offering God a Pure Heart

The greatest obstacles to contemplation is not disposing yourself for it. When we remain dissipated and attached we block the reception of this most sublime gift.

St. John of the Cross in his work  The Dark Night speaks of this desire for contemplation when he writes, “For God does not bring to contemplation all those who purposely exercise themselves in the way of the spirit, nor even half. Why? He best knows.” (Book I, Chap 9) However, in his commentary on The Rule of Carmel, Jerome of the Mother of God, OCD,  says that the saying “He best knows” is a Spanish saying which means: the whole world knows it. Because precisely when one does not do what one ought- then it is clear as day!

How can we excite in ourselves the desire to attain the gift of contemplation?

We often fail to dispose ourselves for contemplation either because we give in to too much activity or because we do not produce enough acts of love. By offering to God a  holy heart, one free from all actual stain of sin, we can at least do our part and strive for perfection.

St. Teresa in The Way of Perfection chapter 17 says, “I don’t say that we shouldn’t try; on the contrary, we should try everything. What I am saying is that this is not a matter of your choosing but of the Lord’s….Be sure that if you do what lies in your power, preparing yourselves for contemplation with the perfection mentioned, and that if He doesn’t give it to you (and I believe He will give if detachment and humility are truly present), He will save this gift for you so as to grant it to you all at once in heaven.”

May all our efforts cooperate with the grace God gives in each moment to prepare a heart, pure and receptive, to receive so great a gift.

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The Little Flower…really was a saint

“I was doing a lot of spiritual reading – Lives of the Saints – Joan of Arc, St. John Bosco, St. Benedict, I was going through St. John of the Cross’ Ascent of Mount Carmel and the first parts of the Dark Night for the second time in fact, but for the first time with understanding.

The big present that was given to me, that October, in the order of grace, was the discovery that the Little Flower really was a saint, and not just a mute pious little doll in the imaginations of a lot of sentimental old women. And not only was she a saint, but a great saint, one of the greatest: tremendous! I owe her all kinds of public apologies and reparation for having ignored her greatness for so long, but to do that would take a whole book, and here I have only a few lines to give away.

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… However, no sooner had I got a faint glimpse of the real character and the real spirituality of St. Therese, than I was immediately and strongly attracted to her – an attraction that was the work of grace since, as I say, it took me, in one jump, clean through a thousands psychological obstacles and repugnances.

And here is what strikes me as the most phenomenal thing about her. She became a saint, not by running away from the middle class, not by abjuring and despising and cursing the middle class, or the environment in which she had grown up; on the contrary, she clung to it in to as far as one could cling to such a thing and be a good Carmelite. She kept everything that was bourgeois about her and was still not incompatible with her vocation: her nostalgic affection for a funny villa called “Les Buissonnets,” her taste for utterly oversweet art, and for the little candy angels and pastel saints playing with lambs so soft and fuzzy that they literally give people like me the creeps. She wrote a lot of poems which, no matter how admirable their sentiments, were certainly based on the most mediocre of popular models.

To her, it would have been incomprehensible that anyone should think these things ugly or strange, and it never even occurred to her that she might be expected to give them up, or hate them, or curse them, or bury them under a pile of anathemas. And she not only became a saint, but the greatest saint there has been in the Church for three hundred years – even greater than the two tremendous reformers of her Order, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.

….What can such a one do with his new idol? Stare at her picture until it makes him dizzy. That is all. But the saints are not mere inanimate objects of contemplation. They become our friends, and they share our friendship and reciprocate it and give us unmistakable tokens of their love for us by the graces that we receive through them. And so, now that I had this great new friend in heaven, it was inevitable that the friendship should begin to have its influence on my life.”

(Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain)

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What You Need to Know About Contemplative Prayer

There is vocal prayer and meditation, but what exactly is contemplative prayer? Ask a Carmelite Sister.here. Sr. Laus Gloriae, O.C. D.  explains what contemplation is and even gives the three signs of transition into contemplative prayer that St. John of Cross writes about in his work The Dark Night.

To read more…click here.

Happiness

Happy indeed is the man

who follows not the counsel of the wicked;

nor lingers in the way of sinners;

nor sits in the company of scorners;

but who delight is in the law of the Lord

and who ponders his law day and night.

~ Psalm 1: 1-2

Happiness. We all want this – it is a deep longing in all of us. The psalm tells us that the happy man is a virtuous one. A virtuous man is the one who doesn’t sin or lead a sinful life doing evil, nor is he one who scorns the ways of God. Rather, the happy man ponders God’s law day and night.

Ponders….

…….meditates….. looks at for some length.

Back to this longing. It is a longing for God whether we are aware of it  or not. This longing is for union; to be one with God. To contemplate “to seek ―mysterious union with God by way of contemplation” (OCDS Constitutions I,9b) Contemplation is a gift. It cannot be arrived at on our own power. It is also not necessary for our salvation.

St. Teresa says it is a love gift (Way 25:2), it is peace (Way 31:2), it is drinking from the fount of living water (Way 32:9). Therefore, who wouldn’t want this? We should desire this gift, but also, humbly submit to God’s will for us in receiving it or not.

This gift of contemplation has many wonderful effects in those who do receive it. In The Way of Perfectionchapter 36, St. Teresa innumerates the many benefits: humility, love of God, detachment from being esteemed, fortitude in the virtue of forgiveness, and the acceptance of trials, temptations, persecutions and struggles. Sounds good.

St. Teresa is clear in her teachings on this prayer that a high degree of virtue is necessary for contemplation. The one virtue that she desires us to have most is humility (Way 38, Way 4:4). This is the foundational virtue required in order to receive the gift of contemplation.

“I mean that the King of glory will not come to our souls — that is, so as to be united with them — unless we strive to gain the greatest virtues.” (Way 16, 2)

I cannot think of any better way to learn of the virtues, and to have as an example for us to follow, than from the Lord Jesus. And to learn from him we need to become familiar with the Scriptures, particularly, the Gospels. St. Teresa was fond of the Gospels (Way 21,3). If I draw near to him, he will teach me. This is why St. Teresa has us meditate on the Gospels in particular. What better way is there to know Christ and to let him teach you from the examples and words he gives us there.

Happy indeed is the man. . .  

. . . who ponders his law day and night.