What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language he best hears is silent love. –St John of the Cross, OCD
Advent is a time of waiting…waiting in the darkness where it is still and quiet. This season is also a time to establish the conditions I need to have in order to bring Christ into my life.
Night, these long winter nights, can be a time for prayer, waiting prayer. In this night of waiting prayer, I can remain before the Lord in silence and love. St. John of the Cross teaches that silence is the language God hears best.
As St. John of the Cross reminds me, I need to remain in silence with my desires and tongue silenced. Thoughts and words are limiting. They limit my time with the Lord; therefore, I need to be present before Him with these faculties silent and remain there in a state of interior quiet. It is in this silent waiting of my prayer through faith and love that will bring me to the God I am seeking.
In the darkness of Advent, I can then see and adjust my responses after this time in silence. My response can then be to bring Christ into the lives of others, but first I need to begin by bringing Him into my own interior life.
Today is the Feast of St. John of the Cross who was and still is a good guide through the darkness that is faith. With him and his writings, he will draw me to seek God in faith and love.
This third week of Advent comes as a rest in the penitential spirit of this season and is known as Gaudete Sunday. We take this time to express our joy in the nearness of the Lord’s coming. There is one more Sunday before we will celebrate Christmas. The pink candle on the wreath is lit and represents our joy in that Christ has come into our world!
This Sunday gets its name from the second reading taken from First Thessalonians, “Rejoice always.” We as Christians should always be filled with joy, even in our sufferings, because of Christ. He is the source and the cause of our joy. As St. Paul tells us we should rejoice in the Lord always, pray without ceasing and give thanks to God for everything, counting all to be pure joy. St. Teresa of Jesus teaches that we should have “a calmness and glory within” and she even went so far to say that we should “rejoice in the fact that all are rejoicing”. (Way, 30, 5)
Joy is the fruit of God’s grace. The Gospel is a source of joy since its message is that God loves us, He cares for us and He is with us! This joy fills the heart and moves us to serve others. St. Teresa of Jesus invites her nuns, and by extension to all of us, to “be happy to serve” (Way, 18, 5); we are to put ourselves at the service of others and to do this with selfless love.
It is difficult for people to be joyful. Life isn’t easy. We are often weighed down with problems. Yet we were made for joy! Today I am hoping to raise awareness to this fact: that God is the God of joy and wants His children to be happy.
We have a soul and this is what is in us that tunes us to the inner life of the joyfulness of God. It is our soul that enables us to enjoy God in prayer. Did anyone ever teach you that you were to enjoy God in prayer? Enjoying God in prayer- seems like the concept should be self evident, but for some reason it isn’t. The little known secret of discovering enjoyment in prayer is that God is present to us and He is the God of love and joy. If we truly believe and understand this then prayer will be a joy!
“From silly devotions and from sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.” (Attributed to St. Teresa of Jesus)
Do you think of prayer as drudgery or perhaps as something altogether boring? True joyfulness, that joyfulness that is seen in the saints, comes from being rooted in and nourished by a deep prayer life. Prayer is the grace-filled secret to joyfulness.
The greatest enemy of joy is sadness. It is so easy to serve God fervently, to spread goodness and practice virtue when we are aware of God’s presence in our lives. However, when we experience feelings of sadness and despondency, we act in the opposite manner. We have no inner peace; we are troubled and down-hearted. We go about weak and all our good resolutions have diminished. We may even avoid praying. Yet prayer is what we really should do.
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” (James 5:13)
When we are suffering from sadness we should turn to prayer so that our hearts can be strengthened. Prayer puts us into God’s presence and this will lift our spirit and fill our souls with confidence. Our joyful awareness of God’s presence will bring peace, the peace for which our hearts long.
In this Sunday’s Gospel from St. John we see that John the Baptist had to point out Jesus to the men the Jews had sent to him in the desert. He had to tell them that “there is one among you whom you do not recognize”. Jesus is really in our midst. He is present in our Tabernacles and by grace in our souls. We can help others recognize Jesus’ presence today in the joy we express in our own lives because we have Him. God is our infinite joy. Let us always live joyfully so that all can see this joy and want it too!
Let us recall as we continue our Advent journey that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Gal. 5:22) Remember that the Lord is with us and He will help us to see Christ in all things and will move us in love to bring the joy of His presence to all men. And isn’t this what our world needs of us now more than ever?
“When one loves, everything is joy. The cross doesn’t weigh down. Martyrdom isn’t felt. One lives more in heaven than on earth.” (St. Teresa of the Andes)
Jesus came into the darkness, the darkness of sin and death, but the darkness did not receive His light. Oh! If this Advent our darkness would desire and comprehend His light! Even if we don’t, the day will come when His justice will burst upon us in all its brilliance, and He will disperse all the spiritual darkness in man’s heart.
During Advent we can reflect on the state of our world before Christ’s coming. It was a world filled with darkness and sin. Then let us fill our hearts with gratitude towards Jesus who came down from heaven so that He might know our miserable state experiencing all of it, except for sin, and saving us from death.
The prophet Isaiah is read during the Advent liturgies. This Sunday we receive a glimpse of the state of the world before the Incarnation. The Chosen people had ‘wandered’ from the Lord’s ways; their hearts were ‘hardened’. Nevertheless, they were expecting Him to come and the prophet exclaims, “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!” However, they are admittedly sinful and ‘unclean people’.
Then let us ponder on His mysterious coming that He desires to accomplish in hearts. Let us open our hearts to receive Him more fully than ever before. He desires to enter there, to dwell there and transform us. Let us consent to receive this Divine guest. He knocks and asks to be let in. He delights to be born in our hearts. Do not refuse Him. Receive Him and let Him in.
This Advent let Him in and preserve Him within you as a great treasure. Let Him rest there where He can shape your thoughts and guide your actions to be like His. Welcome Him with love and care more than before.
In the Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus exhorts his followers to be watchful and alert because they “do not know when the time will come”. We do not know when Christ will come the second time, but He will come and we do not want Him to find us “sleeping”.
Advent is a time where we await Jesus’ coming. He has already come in the flesh, and this is the reason for this liturgical season – to celebrate anew His coming as Savior and Redeemer. This is also a time to think about His second coming when He will come in Glory. In between these two comings He manifests Himself to us, and it is to these manifestations that we need to be Awake!
This Advent let us invite Him to join us in the interior of our heart: in deep, recollection, in silence, and in solitude. Invite Him in through a deep interior recollection combined with silence that is both interior and exterior and in solitude so that we can hear His voice and prepare for His coming however He may manifest His presence.
This is a season of quiet. A time to set aside useless chatter, self-love, sensitiveness, the prattle of fantasy and imaginings, and the thoughts that flit from here to there. In addition it is a time to get rid of any preoccupation with useless things, so that we can listen and hear the Lord speak. In this way we can be awake and attentive and will not miss “the time of His visitation”. (Luke 19:44)
“Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come…May he not come suddenly and find us sleepy.” (Mark 13)
Advent comes from the Latin “adventus” ad- ‘to’ + venire ‘come’ and means “coming”. During this season we prepare our hearts to celebrate Christ’s coming into our world to redeem us. There is no singularly important event than the Incarnation when God became man in the person Jesus Christ. We also use this time of Advent to prepare for Christ’s Second Coming which we await in longing and great expectation. The liturgical season of Advent recalls the salvation history of the past, reminds us of our present redemption that is being accomplished, and guides us as we look to the future coming of Christ.
There are many ways to spend the Advent season in preparation for the celebration of Christmas. The best way is to do some spiritual exercises that will aid and deepen the understanding of this beautiful season.
One good exercise would be to study, pray for, and practice the virtues like humility and simplicity. These were exemplified in the Blessed Mother and this season is certainly a season that includes her.
Another practice, that would put the soul in the spirit of Advent while staying attuned to Holy Mother Church, would be to pray the Collects for the Sunday Masses during Advent while lighting the Advent wreath candles:
I. First Sunday of Advent. Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
II. Second Sunday of Advent. Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son, but may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to his company. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
III. Third Sunday of Advent. O God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation, and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
IV. Fourth Sunday of Advent. Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
(taken from the USCCB website)
One more beautiful practice during Advent would be to meditate on the richness of the words found in the Preface that opens the Eucharistic Prayer during the Mass. Read each slowly, reflecting on the words and their meaning. Let these enrich your spiritual life.
The Preface that follows is said in the Mass from the first Sunday of Advent to December 16th:
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.
For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.
And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord ….
This second Preface is said from December 17 to December 24:
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.
For all the oracles of the prophets foretold him, the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling, John the Baptist sang of his coming and proclaimed his presence when he came.
It is by his gift that already we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity, so that he may find us watchful in prayer and exultant in his praise.
And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy…
(Taken from the Roman Missal)
Night Prayer, also known as Compline, is said as the last prayer of the day. It is at this time that a brief examen of the day is also to take place. At the end of this prayer, there is a hymn to the Blessed Mother. The breviary lists several popular Marian hymns to choose from. During the Advent season is a good time for focusing on the Alma Redemptoris Mater which beautifully connects to the Incarnation theme and our need for a savior. This hymn can be recited until February 2nd (Candlemas).
Loving mother of the Redeemer, gate of heaven, star of the sea, assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again. To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator, Yet remained a virgin after as before. You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting, have pity on us poor sinners.
Shortly before her death, in a letter to her friend, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity wrote:
“I think that in Heaven my mission will be to draw souls by helping them go out of themselves to cling to God by a wholly simple and loving movement, and to keep them in this great silence within that will allow God to communicate Himself to them and transform them into Himself.” (Letter 335)
Here we have laid out by the saint herself what her mission in heaven was going to be. Where St. Therese’s said her mission was “to make God loved [and that she] … will spend [her] heaven doing good on earth”, St. Elizabeth’s mission will be to draw us out of ourselves so that we can remain devoted to God. She even explains how we will do this – by a “simple and loving movement”. As we will see, her emphasis will be on keeping silent within in order to allow God to communicate Himself. From this Divine communication, a transformation will take place in our souls.
Key to understanding St. Elizabeth’s mission is her devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Carmel is Our Lady’s Order, and as a Carmelite St. Elizabeth honored the Blessed Mother with a special devotion to her dignity as the Mother of God and in her sovereignty as Queen of Heaven and Earth. In St. Elizabeth’s devotion to Mary, she finds the perfect realization of her interior ideal. St. Elizabeth sees the Word hidden in Mary’s womb, and in her communion with the Word, a mother and flowing from her loving kindness and humility. But most of all St. Elizabeth was attracted to Mary’s silence and recollection.
As a child St. Elizabeth’s piety towards Mary was typical of a young girl at that time. It has been noted that she asked Mary to guard her purity, and the saint kept a childhood diary filled with the thoughts of Mary. A statue of Our Lady of Lourdes was given to her as a child, and St. Elizabeth asked her mother for it towards the end of her life so that Our Lady “might watch over her departure”. She received the Carmelite habit on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Later in a letter to Canon Angles near the end of her life, she wrote, “ It is she, the Immaculate Conception, who gave me the habit of Carmel. And I am asking her to clothe me again in that robe of one linen in which the bride is decked to present herself at the marriage feast of the Lamb.”
The attitudes of the Virgin greatly attracted St. Elizabeth. She says that Mary’s example during the time from the Annunciation to the Nativity is a “model for interior souls”. Since God had chosen to live within her, Mary was at peace and wholly recollected in “everything she did” and “even the most trivial things were divinized by her!”. In her writing, Heaven in Faith, we see that what attracted St. Elizabeth most was Mary as Our Lady of the Incarnation. Mary was the living tabernacle of the Incarnate Word, a pure temple for God. What must it have been like for Mary to have within her the Incarnate Word? Recollected and in silent adoration, Mary embraced this great mystery within her. The Blessed Mother’s prayer included loving service to Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Baptist, as “the servant of the Lord” – humble and always forgetful of self.
In a letter to her sister, St. Elizabeth writes, “I do not need to make any effort to enter into this mystery of the Divine Indwelling in the Blessed Virgin. I seem to find in it the habitual movement of my own soul which was also that of hers: to adore God hidden within me.” St. Elizabeth had as her ideal a life of silent adoration of God hidden within the depths of her soul, in imitation of Mary.
Then there was Mary’s station at the foot of the cross, which also impressed upon St. Elizabeth’s devotion. Mary associated herself with her Son in the “work of redemption”. The Co-Redemptirx was “full of strength and courage” at the foot of the cross. Of Our Lady of Sorrows, she wrote, “Those last songs of His soul which no one else but she, His Mother, could overhear”. St. Elizabeth attests that the Blessed Virgin teaches her to suffer.
“No one has penetrated the depths of the master of Christ except the Blessed Virgin.”
(Last Retreat, First Day, 2)
It is in the fifteenth day of her Last Retreat that we can find the connection between Mary and St. Elizabeth’s mission. Our saint writes, “Her soul is so simple. Its movements are so profound”. It is obvious that she sees Mary as one she can imitate. As a Carmelite, she would want to, like the Virgin, to keep “all these things in her heart”. After-all “it was within her heart that she lived… a depth that no human eye can follow her.”
Mary has a unique role in the work of our salvation. She is the Mother of God and of all the redeemed. As a mother, Mary cares for our eternal welfare. Mary’s soul was pure, detached, and transparent. Even though she had this great mystery within her, it did not in any way diminished her charity. Through it all Mary remained humble and adored of the gift of God.
St. Elizabeth wanted to live as Mary did corresponding her life to Mary’s by keeping all these things in her heart. Then bringing all these things into the depth of her soul, in order to lose herself in the Trinity which dwells there, so that her soul will be transformed into the Trinity Itself. During her Last Retreat, and confident in Mary’s intercession, on the first day her entry reads, “This Mother of grace will form my soul so that her little child may be a living, striking image of her first-born, the Son of the Eternal, He who was the perfect, praise of His Father’s glory”.
Throughout St. Elizabeth’s writing she refers to Mary from the many titles found in the Litany of Loretto: Mirror of Justice, Faithful Virgin, Mother of Grace, Gate of Heaven. Mary is the Faithful Virgin “who kept all these things in her heart”. Mary remained little and so recollected, to “draw down … the Holy Trinity”, and “unaware of her own beauty”, Mary lived in peace and recollection. In all her actions Mary constantly adored God. On the fifteenth day of her Last Retreat, St. Elizabeth wrote, “It is Our Lady, that luminous being, all pure with God’s purity, who will take me by the hand to lead me into heaven, that dazzling heaven.” Having placed her last retreat under the protection of Janua Coeli, Mary the Gate of Heaven, St. Elizabeth entered through this gate on November 9, 1906.
“by a wholly simple and loving movement”
St. Elizabeth’s writings show us how to enter into this simple and loving movement of our soul. Essential to implementing this movement of the soul is exterior and interior silence. Exterior silence means more solitude. Solitude in Carmel is everything and what solitude there was in the soul of Mary. In the solitude of her cell, St. Elizabeth, like Our Lady, was lost in recollection under the influence of the Trinity. For St. Elizabeth the solitude of her cell was a little paradise full of Him.
To live an interior life we must also strive for interior peace even while living among the unrest of the world and our daily occupations. Interior silence, that alone, will make our contact with God continuous. The Blessed Mother is our teacher of the silence necessary for the interior life because “the interior life, which in a very special way, is Mary’s life”. (Divine Intimacy, #378 by Fr. Gabriel Mary) To imitate and resemble Mary’s soul we need to live a life of recollection. Prayer should be foremost in our day, and an uninterrupted giving of ourselves to God should be our activity, like Mary. Keeping constant contact with God in an intimate union with Him is accomplished by reserving our soul as a sanctuary for God alone.
What disturbs our interior peace? Our passions, sins and attachments -these make noise and interrupt our intimate conversation with God. Silence the memory and imagination when we find ourselves spending our time daydreaming, mulling over past events or feelings, or fantasying about the future. These occupy the soul and prevent our conversation with God.
St. Elizabeth has this to say about interior disturbances, “It includes our feelings, memories, impressions, and so forth. In a word, it is self.” We are to be like Mary detached and in control of our emotions and desires.
Likewise, we are to seek solitude and silence where God can find his delights or “rest” in us. We can ask Mary for these graces – for she is the Mistress of our interior life. Additionally, the writings of St. Elizabeth of the Trinty are filled with food for nourishing the spiritual life.
“I shall unite myself to the soul of the Blessed Virgin when the Father overshadowed her with His power, while the Word became incarnate within her, and the Holy Ghost came upon her to work the great mystery It is the whole Trinity in action, God yielding, giving Himself. And ought not the life of a Carmelite be lived under this divine action?” (Letter to Mme. de Sourdon)
J. M. + J. T.
Through the power of the cross, you can be present wherever there is pain, carried there by your compassionate charity, by that very charity which you draw from the divine heart. That charity enables you to spread everywhere the most precious blood in order to ease pain, save, and redeem.
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
She lived in solitude,
and now in solitude has built her nest;
and in solitude he guides her,
he alone, who also bears
in solitude the wound of love.
In stanza 35 of The Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross describes the blessings of a soul that lives in the peace and quietude of a solitary “settled in God and God in her”. Like the bird that prepares her nest, which requires labor, the soul too needs to prepare for this receptivity.
The soul at this stage of contemplation lives in solitude, but this is not necessarily physical solitude. More importantly, this solitude is for the sake of the Beloved. The solitude St. John is mainly concerned with is in reference to detachment or poverty of spirit. The soul is not attached to any particular knowledge from the world or from heaven nor does the soul take any pleasure or derived any satisfaction from these. The heart is empty, like the nest, ready to receive the one she loves – God and Him alone. There is a receptivity of the heart that was not there before.
St. John describes a characteristic of this contemplation when he describes the traits of a solitary sparrow in stanzas 14 and 15. The solitary desires rest but not in anything or to have any other company or affections. This is the third trait of the solitary bird which “is usually alone and allows no other bird close to it; when another perches nearby, it flies away.” Thus in this contemplation the soul is “stripped of them all” it does not “allow within itself anything other than solitude in God.” God alone.
This solitude is a quietude of soul or the “quietude of solitary love”. (stanza 35, introduction). The soul withdrawals from other satisfactions, comforts, and the support of creatures. God alone guides the soul through the liberty of spirit. The soul has learned “to silence and quiet the faculties so that God may speak.” (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk 3, 4:4)
When two people are in love they prefer to be alone rather than being in the company of others. If these two lovers that we are speaking of meet while others are around, they are deprived of an intimate encounter. They may not even be engaged in conversation with others around them, but just the presence of others deprives the lovers of a delightful experience. When two people are in love, they will not disclose anything intimate with each other unless they are alone. It is the same with a soul in union with God. When God unites with the soul he does so to speak in solitude to the heart. He speaks by filling the soul with divine knowledge now, only because the soul is empty of other images and forms.
God wants to exalt the soul “by making her equal to Himself” because “the property of love is to make the lover equal to the object loved” (stanza 28, introduction) Again this solitude is not implying isolation from others and being disconnected from creation and the beauty that surrounds us. This solitude bestows oneness. It is about sharing the solitude of God. Solitude makes sense when viewed this way – it is keeping company with the Beloved.
In stanzas 34 and 35 of the poem, the Bridegroom “describes the soul’s purity” and “her riches and reward for laboring and preparing herself to come to him”. The soul prepares and labors, like the bird that prepares her nest. There is a peaceful solitude in the soul – a peace that was obtained in “her victory over self”. (stanza 34, 4) Liberty of spirit has been attained under the guidance of the Bridegroom.
St. John of the Cross teaches that exterior solitude can assist in interior solitude enabling the spirit to soar up to God. This exterior solitude is in imitation of Jesus who often sought places of solitude to pray – to the mountain, the garden, a lonely place. Contemplation does bring forth an inclination to remain alone and in silence. Like the first trait of the solitary sparrow that, “perches on the highest things” which is contemplation.
In this solitude, the soul is truly led and moved by God. Like St. Paul in Romans (8:14) says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Essential to reaching union with God is solitude and the desire to be deprived of all this world offers in exchange for the love of the Bridegroom. It is in solitude that God speaks to the heart as described by Hosea the Prophet (2:14), where God led her into the wilderness to “speak to her heart”.
As a solitary soul, and for the love of God, everything which is not God or does not lead directly to Him, is refused its entry. This solitude only has meaning if the soul is “alone in Him”. Solitude according to St. John of the Cross is not really a void rather it is concentrating all human faculties and resources for receiving the life of God within the soul like the nest that is empty and receptive to receive. It is not restrictive; it is remarkably deep and vast. A large unbounded wilderness that is deeper and more boundless the more solitary it is.
The fruits of this solitude come from the relationship between this interior solitude and union with God. True liberty of spirit is a fruit of solitude. For solitude is the way to divine understanding. In this solitude and silence, the soul’s only activity is surrender, abiding in the beauty of God which is enjoyed and shared.
St. Teresa of Jesus encouraged her nuns to cultivate the habit of solitude. She longed for solitude for herself and it was solitude that consoled her. In a deep mystical experience, she experienced intense spiritual pain when God placed her in this expanse of solitude. St. Teresa described the experience this way, “I am oblivious of everything in that anxious longing to see God; that desert and solitude seem to the soul better than all the companionship of the world”. (Book of Her Life 20:13) St. Teresa, seeing that to commune with God is a great grace, arranged for herself times of solitude where she would withdraw “into solitude to pray and read”. (Book of Her Life, 7:3)
In a letter to Ana de San Alberto, St. John of Cross wrote that “Those who seek satisfaction in something no longer keep themselves empty that God might fill them with his ineffable delight. And thus just as they go to God so do they return, for their hands are encumbered and cannot receive what God is giving.” In prayer, we can ask God to help us and “deliver us from these evil obstacles that hinder such sweet and delightful freedom”.
Only through purity of soul, simplicity and meekness can the soul enjoy the peace and quietude of being in God and God in her. The reward for all this labor is that God comes and speaks to the heart in this solitude where there is silence of the senses and spirit. Union with God is the goal of our journey – a union of likeness brought about through love.
We can imitate the saints in seeking solitude in order to enjoy God, to love Him, and be loved by Him. Can we make more efforts to include more solitude in our day? What activities could we eliminate in order to obtain more solitude?
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.
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)
Dryness, or aridity, is when satisfaction and delight, that was once enjoyed during prayer and devotion, has dried up. It can have several causes. One reason for dryness is that the soul has neglected or set aside the practice of prayer. St. John of the Cross sums this cause up succinctly in The Sayings of Light and Love no. 39, “My spirit has become dry because it forgets to fed on you.” When we strive after various forms of recreation and the gratification of our senses, we will “find spiritual dryness and distraction”. (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 3, Chap 42,1). The devil can cause dryness too. He can do so through visions and locutions, but the effects “are unlike those produced by the divine”. “The devil’s visions produce spiritual dryness in one’s communion with God and an inclination to self-esteem” and the pride of thinking one is important for receiving these. (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2, Chap 24) When the origin is from the devil there is never a good effect. St. John of the Cross emphatically counsels in regard to locutions and visions, in order to avoid “delusion or hindrance” that, “We should pay no heed to them, but be only interested in directing the will, with fortitude, toward God; we should carry out his law and holy councils with perfection.” (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2, Chap 29, 12) Dryness can also be caused by God as a way to purify the soul. When God is the cause it is usually in those souls who are already quite solicitous in their love for Him and have already moved from the practice of discursive meditation to the state of contemplation. (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2, Chap 13)
Two things one can do when experiencing dryness according to St. John of the Cross in The Spiritual Canticle are to first continue praying with love and devotion; second to ask the Holy Spirit for His assistance. The Holy Spirit “will dispel this dryness and sustain and increase” love. (Stanza 17, 2). Another thing the Holy Spirit does is to move the “soul to the interior exercise of the virtues” of faith, hope, and love.
The Bride in the poem The Spiritual Canticle invokes the Holy Spirit in this way:
“breathe through my garden”
The Holy Spirit “awakens love” in the soul, which is the “garden”. Upon one of these visits of the Holy Spirit, the soul is refreshed, the will is awakened, and the “appetites that were asleep” are now filled with “the love of God”. (Stanza 17, 3-4) When the Holy Spirit breathes through the soul, He touches and puts “in motion the virtues and perfections already given”, and when this happens, “the Bridegroom, the Son of God, is himself sublimely communicated” evident by the beautiful fragrances that are released. (Stanza 17, 8)
Dryness in prayer is an interior trial. Although interior trials involve much more than just a lack of devotion, dryness (or aridity), is a common phenomenon among those souls who have taken up prayer.To make an issue of dryness, according to St. Teresa of Jesus, shows a lack of humility.
St. Teresa exhorts beginners to begin with determination and to persevere in prayer. Dryness and difficulty at prayer will come and we are to not let this cause us to give up prayer. She advises us to not become “distressed or afflicted over dryness or noisy and distressing thoughts. . . For, clearly, if the well is dry, we cannot put water into it. True, we must not become neglectful; when there is water we should draw it out because then the Lord desires to multiply the virtues by this means.” (from The Book of her Life ~ St. Teresa of Jesus)
During periods of aridity and excessive activity of the imagination, the soul can turn to meditative reading. When the soul is unable to meditate it can turn to a book to help collect the wandering thoughts and bring its soul in touch with God. St. Teresa confesses to not being able to meditate without a book for many years and recommends this practice.
The choice of a book should be one that is devout and will help in the time of prayer. The Gospels are always a good choice and are of great assistance in this matter. The book can also be one of the writings of the saints. It should be one that is practical and affective, not too speculative or intellectual. This is to foster love, a work of the heart, rather than that of the mind.
The purpose of reading is to put the soul in a proper disposition for a conversation with God. Read until enough has been read to arouse good and holy thoughts. Then when devote affections occupy the mind, stop reading and with the attention directed to God, meditate on the thoughts that have been read; speaking to Him or silently savoring the sentiments inspired by what was read.
“Like birds, who, when they drink, bend their heads toward the water, take a few drops, and raising their beaks toward the sky, swallow gradually, and then begin again, let us also bend our heads toward the devout book to gather a few drops of devotion, and then let us raise them to God, so that our minds may be fully impregnated with these thoughts. In this way, it will not be difficult to finish the prayer which we have begun by reading in an intimate colloquy with God.” (Divine Intimacy, #149 by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D.)