Monday, 21 September 2015

132: St Teresa of Avila 11/16: Humility

When we read St Teresa, it is impossible to refrain from noticing the importance she gives to humility. For St Teresa humility is the foundation of spiritual life and prayer, without which nothing can grow. Humility 'persuades the Lord to give us all what we want from him'; humility 'conquers everything'; humility is truth; it is only through the growth in humility that we measure our progress in spiritual life. These are but a few of the examples Teresa uses to underline, at various times, the great humility of Our Lady, and to invite us to understand its empire over God and to draw us to imitate the Mother of God. Humility seems to be the outstanding element that triggers the Grace of God. According to her beautiful expression, it allows us to 'checkmate' God!

Here it is expedient to note that Chess was very much in vogue in the Spain of St. Teresa's day, and that she learned it when she was young before entering religious life. In her first version of the Way of Perfection called “Manuscript of Escorial,” in the first four paragraphs of Chapter 16 (see below) she uses the image of chess playing. Out of consideration for her nuns, however, and in order not to leave on record her knowledge of such a worldly game, thereby promoting bad habits amongst them, she tore them out of the manuscript.

The 'checkmate' allegory, it consequently should be recognised, is so expressive, beautiful and theologically very deep that it has rightly become famous, and from the time of Fray Luis de León all the editions have included it, which is an important reason for us to understand. The goal of the game of Chess is for one of the two players, using his pieces, to corner and capture his opponent's King. In this case the King is said to be 'in check', which means 'threatened with capture'. If the King has no way of removing the threat, it is to be considered 'captured' or 'dead', that is, 'Mate', the lucky player winning and the game being over. Checkmating the opponent thus wins the game. Figuratively speaking then, a checkmate is 'a situation in which someone has been defeated'. In St Teresa's own words it means: to 'corner' God, drawing Him to us and conquering Him, making Him ours. As can be seen the image is very powerful: being able to seduce God, and draw us into his grace is reminiscent of a “secret of the saints”. The most powerful piece of the game is called the Queen, which has the greatest flexibility of movement therefore greatly threatening the opponent's King. More will be explained about this important piece later.

It is beneficial for us, in our self-pride, to remind ourselves of this, that God himself is humble (learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart (Matthew 11:29)) - indeed it can be said that He is humility itself! In St. Teresa's writings she also constantly talks about spiritual life and progress in it, to attain, in the fulness of time, Union with God himself! Therefore it is inevitable for her to insist on humility, increasing humility being our goal until we are united to the Humble-God. This, it must be emphasized, entails extreme vigilance. The more we immerse ourselves in the spiritual life, the greater is our need to be attentive to humility. If our self-awareness reveals to us that there is a struggle, this would tend to denote that a deeply spiritual life is distant from us, and an urgent examination of the state of our humility is vital. Accordingly St.Teresa states that humility and knowing oneself go together. How, then, is our humility to be increased? The answer is obvious: by seeking the truth about ourselves. St Teresa even went so far as to coin the phrase: humility is the Truth. It must be recognised, above all, that there is a need for self-discernment regarding all that comes from God and a need to be grateful to Him for it.

Spiritual Life bears in itself an important fact: the necessity to receive an extraordinary number of graces ! Significantly, in order to receive these and, more importantly, in order to keep them, there is a great need for humility! Rain falls, it can even fall abundantly, but who collects the water? The heights of the mountain or the humble valley?

St.Teresa deals with this question by writing the book the Way of Perfection, primarily in reply to a request by her daughters of the first reformed monastery, to write them something on “contemplation”. This is the origin of the book the Way of Perfection. It is already blatantly obvious that “contemplation” is for St Teresa a pure gift from God, the essence of the supernatural given to us. In writing this book she handed on to them a very significant way of perfection to follow in order to receive the Grace of God, the very secret that triggers the Grace of God.

However, it is interesting to note Teresa's letter to them before writing the book. Here she indicated that if they wanted her simply to talk to them about the first steps in prayer, that is, 'meditation', this could be easily achieved, as all that was needed was her guidance on how to proceed, which they could then put into practice with relative ease. But since they requested she talk to them about the Gift of God (John 4:10) and how to receive it, the matter encompassed a totally different level of functioning. The book of the Way of Perfection becomes, subsequently, her full answer to their request. Ironically in almost the first half of it she seems to address something entirely different, for she talks about three virtues, amongst them humility. In fact, the reader can easily be puzzled by the fact that she fails to enter immediately into the core of the subject. In fact this gives a false impression. In order to explain her present choice of subject-matter and therefore the structure of the book, she takes the example of the game of Chess. As noted above above, for one to win in this game one has corner the opponent's King and threaten it. Ingeniously, then, the entire first half of her book is devoted by Teresa to 'set out the pieces of game [correctly]: “you may be sure that anyone who cannot set out the pieces in a game of chess will never be able to play well” (Way of Perfection 16:1-4). Thus in order to do so, she teaches the three fundamental virtues: humility, loving one another and detachment. She stresses that by practising these virtues with determination and in a 'perfect' way (as she describes it), that the human being is properly enabled to give himself sincerely and wholly to the Lord. It is the quality of the gift of ourselves to Him that makes the Lord surrender himself to us: He is conquered or, in other words, He is checkmated.

Working on the three virtues and especially on humility is the direct means by which we offer ourselves to Christ, and by this means, it is possible to attract Him to us. Referring to these virtues the saint says: I hope you do not think I have written too much about this already; for I have only been placing the board, as they say. [...] But you may be sure that anyone who cannot set out the pieces in a game of chess will never be able to play well, and, if he does not know how to give check, he will not be able to bring about a checkmate. (Way of Perfection 16:1-4) It is at this point that she begins to entrust to the reader the secret of the supernatural encounter with God using the allegory of Chess, namely, in order to win, we need to corner the opponent's King in a way that totally prevents movement or escape and then attack him (checkmate him). At this juncture he is 'mate' which means beaten (conquered), or as Teresa writes: “[...] if we play it frequently [exercising ourselves in the virtues], how quickly we shall give checkmate to this Divine King! He will not be able to move out of our check nor will He desire to do so.” (idem.) This secret she entrusts to us is all together searingly beautiful and utterly audacious, but in the language of Love – God's language – this is his modus operandi.

It is at this very moment that the core of the secret of the spiritual life and of the Prayer of the Heart is imparted to us:

It is the Queen which gives the King most trouble in this game and all the other pieces support her. There is no queen who can beat this King as well as humility can; for humility brought Him down from Heaven into the Virgin's womb and with humility we can draw Him into our souls by a single hair. Be sure that He will give most humility to him who has most already and least to him who has least. I cannot understand how humility exists, or can exist, without love, or love without humility, and it is impossible for these two virtues to exist save where there is great detachment from all created things. (Way of Perfection 16:1-2)

Our Lady's humility is the secret of the Spiritual Life. This humility is not only capable of receiving God, but is also capable of holding Him and of safeguarding all the received Graces, because growth is not concerned with receiving graces but of becoming capable of not losing them.

Here may we ask God to grant us Mary's humility, to give us Our Lady herself, to clothe us in Her garments, like those of a bride, and thereby attract Christ to make his home in us!


“Graciously O Lord, Give me Our Lady's heart,
so I can have not my humility
but her all-powerful humility,
capable of attracting you to her,
and alluring you to dwell for ever in her.”

The following comprises the text from the Way of Perfection just paraphrased above:

I hope you do not think I have written too much about this already; for I have only been placing the board, as they say. You have asked me to tell you about the first steps in prayer; although God did not lead me by them, my daughters I know no others, and even now I can hardly have acquired these elementary virtues. But you may be sure that anyone who cannot set out the pieces in a game of chess will never be able to play well, and, if he does not know how to give check, he will not be able to bring about a checkmate.

Now you will reprove me for talking about games, as we do not play them in this house and are forbidden to do so. That will show you what kind of a mother God has given you -- she even knows about vanities like this! However, they say that the game is sometimes legitimate.

How legitimate it will be for us to play it in this way, and, if we play it frequently, how quickly we shall give checkmate to this Divine King! He will not be able to move out of our check nor will He desire to do so.

It is the Queen which gives the king most trouble in this game and all the other pieces support her. There is no queen who can beat this King as well as humility can; for humility brought Him down from Heaven into the Virgin's womb and with humility we can draw Him into our souls by a single hair. Be sure that He will give most humility to him who has most already and least to him who has least. I cannot understand how humility exists, or can exist, without love, or love without humility, and it is impossible for these two virtues to exist save where there is great detachment from all created things.

You will ask, my daughters, why I am talking to you about virtues when you have more than enough books to teach you about them and when you want me to tell you only about contemplation. My reply is that, if you had asked me about meditation, I could have talked to you about it, and advised you all to practise it, even if you do not possess the virtues. For this is the first step to be taken towards the acquisition of the virtues and the very life of all Christians depends upon their beginning it. No one, however lost a soul he may be, should neglect so great a blessing if God inspires him to make use of it. All this I have already written elsewhere, and so have many others who know what they are writing about, which I certainly do not: God knows that.

But contemplation, daughters, is another matter. This is an error which we all make: if a person gets so far as to spend a short time each day in thinking about his sins, as he is bound to do if he is a Christian in anything more than name, people at once call him a great contemplative; and then they expect him to have the rare virtues which a great contemplative is bound to possess; he may even think he has them himself, but he will be quite wrong. In his early stages he did not even know how to set out the chess-board, and thought that, in order to give checkmate, it would be enough to be able to recognize the pieces. But that is impossible, for this King does not allow Himself to be taken except by one who surrenders wholly to Him.” (Way of Perfection 16:1-4)

131: St Teresa of Avila 10/16: The necessity of Mental Prayer

St Teresa in her works constantly refers to the Prayer of the Heart (Mental Prayer), that is, to the time and space given each day to the Lord, during which we are called to offer ourselves to Him. Preferably this should be twice a day, the time spent on it increasing progressively. Thus, it is advisable for the first three months two fifteen minute sessions a day, increasing subsequently, if possible with the advice of the Spiritual Director, to two thirty minute sessions a day, to be then increased to two forty-five minute sessions, the final stage being two sessions per day each lasting one hour. During this precious time, the Lord prolongs his action in us and pours into the deepest part of our being his Spirit of Love. Reading St Teresa reveals this practice to be truly essential for her, and that it is a mandatory condition without which christian life is non-existent. It is the greatest irony, meanwhile, that in the Church regular practice of the Prayer of the Heart is rare, while in some cases it is completely unknown! How can this contradiction be explained? Some argue as to the necessity and the viability of the Prayer of the Heart, while some even argue that there are many other forms of equally worthwhile prayer. Indeed, today some even consider the Prayer of the Heart as being a particular type of practice that belongs only to certain schools of spirituality, and that it does not as yet have universal status - even if it appears amongst the three main expressions of prayer in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see ccc n° 2700-2724).

In order to obtain a clear answer to this vitally important question it is essential, first, to address the very nature of the Prayer of the Heart. It is only when a clear light is shed upon this that it becomes possible to address the actual contradiction in question. If the Prayer of the Heart is reduced to a simple pious exercise that only few practise and if its content and what happens during it is ignored, if it is imposed (i.e. observance of the form) certainly a huge opposition to its practise might arise in many if it is said to be universal, namely, open to everyone.

In her book The Way of Perfection, in order to present the Prayer of the Heart, especially its supernatural nature, St Teresa uses the 'Our Father' as the canvas for her comments on it (see Chapter 27 onward). Significantly, when she starts explaining the meaning of 'Thy Kingdom come', she alludes to entry into the Supernatural state, namely, the beginning of the Direct and Personal Action of the Holy Spirit in us. Entering into the Kingdom, or receiving it, is described as being at the very heart of God's action in the Prayer of the Heart. Can this be argued as an option as some do? Is receiving the Grace of God something optional in Christianity? Is it to be assumed that there other ways in order to become Christian?

All Christians pray. But the ways to do so are many and varied. The Mass is the prayer par excellence. Thus, during the Mass, by saying 'lift up your hearts', the priest warns us and points out that there is more than one way of participating in the Mass: by lifting or not lifting up our hearts. This means that we can either participate in the Divine Action of the Mass by entrusting our heart to Christ who is 'seated at the Right Hand of the Father', or attend Mass while remaining immersed in earthly matters and concerns. In this latter case, while our bodies are physically inside the church, while attending Mass, our lips praying and singing, our minds and hearts are really engaged with the outside world, with earthly concerns, instead of being lifted up, of being engaged in Christ.

It must be acknowledged, then, that real prayer occurs 'in Christ', 'before the Father' and 'through the Holy Spirit'. The very movement of the Prayer of the Heart invites us into the Trinity, through the Son, and in doing so we find ourselves participating in the interchange of the Love of the Trinity. It is for this reason that it can be said that many 'practise the prayer of the heart' unknowingly. Many people, while saying their prayers, place themselves into the hands of Christ, and thereby they enter into a 'state' of prayer with their heart. Any vocal prayer - any prayer said audibly as in, for example, the Mass, Divine Office, Rosary - is not opposed to the Prayer of the Heart. They are simply two halves of the same fruit. St Teresa underlines this point with great clarity in her writings. She even gives the example of an old nun who asked Teresa's advice concerning the said nun's sadness at being unable to practise the Prayer of the Heart, and of only being able to pray vocally because her mind would ramble on in a restless way inhibiting her ability to focus. St Teresa listened to her, questioning her about her method of prayer and about her daily life, only to come to the clear realization that not only was this nun unknowingly practising the Prayer of the Heart, but that she was very advanced in it. The supernatural action of God was well and truly present and active within her – an invaluable and consoling piece of discernment given to us by St. Teresa through this example!

With these added nuances, the question needs to be asked: what is then St Teresa's advice? Should the Prayer of the Heart be made widely known? Or should we let the matter rest and rely on the fact that people might be practising the Prayer of the Heart regardless, knowingly or not?

These questions raise an important issue in the life of the Church. St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says that belief will not follow if, the message has not been first announced (see Romans 10:14). This clearly stresses that it is a fundamental mission of the Church to teach Spiritual Life and the Prayer of the Heart and to form the faithful in them. The faithful cannot be abandoned to uncertainty, praying in a random way that might or might not invite Christ into their spiritual lives. In fact, The Lord announces most decisively and very clearly in the Gospel of St John, that He wants to treat us like friends and not like slaves (see John 15:15)! Not only this, but He goes on to explain the factors that go to make up friendship. For Jesus friendship is an intimate relationship where He confides everything to his friend, explains it thoroughly, and unveils it, clearly emphasized in Matthew 13:11, namely, He leads us from within through the Holy Spirit, to the fullness of the Truth, which is himself (John 16:13). This underlines the contradiction that we cannot reach holiness using the means that the Lord came to offer us if our practice of Spiritual Life is unsure and random manner. This would be tantamount to committing a grave sin, because it is essentially to tempt God! To tempt God is to place ourselves in a dangerous and unsure position, not going about it in the way God desires, yet expecting God to save us come what may!

Christ's mission of teaching spiritual life continues in and through the Church. Throughout the centuries, God has deliberately provided us with a vast amount of rich teachings on the Spiritual Life, to ensure his Church makes wise use of them. A simple example will suffice to illustrate this. The following dialogue from the Mass shows what Christ desires :

- Lift up your hearts
- We lift them up to the Lord
- Let us give thanks to the Lord
- It right and just...

The role of the Church, for instance, should consequently be to explain to the faithful the clear and precise sense of the spiritual content of the this dialogue. It is necessary for us to learn what is required of us when the priest invites us to lift up our hearts. To begin with, we have to learn where the Lord is situated when we are invited to lift up our hearts to Him. St Paul explains it when he says: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Col 3:1) However, who is Christ for us? He is our Dwelling Place our Temple, comes the answer in St. John 2:21. Moreover He invites us to dwell in Him (John 15:4). On a more personal level, then, what method can be used to lift up our hearts? Through recollecting ourselves, as St Teresa explains in the Prayer of Recollection (Way of Perfection chapters 28-29), or in addition if you prefer, by offering ourselves to Him (See the Act of Oblation of St Therese of Lisieux).

Pauline Levy Lazzarini, “Lift up your Heart”, 2008

If the act of lifting up our heart does not occur, Christ will not be able to come and take possession of it, in order to dwell within us and pour His holy Spirit into us! One will continue attending the Mass pro forma only being bodily present, but the Mass will not be lived 'at the level' of Christ. As can now be appreciated, 'participating in the Eucharist' is a profoundly spiritual act based on the teaching on the Prayer of the Heart.

The above-mentioned teaching is very bold, to say the least, and certainly not many it may be assumed will 'hear' it. But the Gospel itself is extremely audacious and there is a tendency to dilute it. The Lord himself said that God is Spirit, and whoever wants to worship Him has to do it in Spirit and in Truth (see John 4:24). In order to worship God who is Spirit, then, one has to be in Him! By the Incarnation and the Redemption the Triune God himself opened his heart to us so we could dwell in Him.

Through his Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension Christ, then, prepares a Dwelling Place for us in himself, in his heart. By this He imparts to us the knowledge that He does not remain in situ - that is, at the right hand of the Father. On the contrary, He comes to us, in order to embrace us, lift us, so that He might dwell in us. In this way He allows us to access Him in his own domain. This eminently lays bare what it means to be 'in the world' (John 17:14-18) and to live in the Trinity, rooted in Christ, at one and the same time. This is what it means to be Baptised, that is, to be immersed in Christ, to take root in Him.

The following verses aptly voice Jesus' answer when we lift up our heart to Him, the culminating point of the Prayer of the Heart:

"In My Father's House are many dwelling places […]
If I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come again and will take you to Myself,
that where I am, there you may be also. » (John 14:2-3)

By Baptism, Christ dwells within our heart. But this is not meant to force us to remain continuously immersed in Him, begging the question that we ask ourselves whether we are within his heart, or outside of it. This is the very reason for his plea not to leave Him alone in our heart, but to return to Him through renewed loving acts of our free will and dwell with Him. To dwell in Christ is obviously not something that comes automatically because of our Baptism. This latter rather opens the way for us, but does not ensure we remain in Christ ! It is up to us to express our free will in order to be reintroduced into Him. This is why Christ keeps insisting with the words: dwell in me as I dwell in you (John 15:4). It is as if He is saying to each one of us: 'I dwell in you by the virtue of your Baptism, but now, I invite you to use your free will, and I myself opened this way for you to come and dwell in me' (Hebrews 10:19-20)!

Although all that has been outlined is not optional, it is still difficult to practise, or better said, it is challenging because we discover that Christ will not force himself upon us, but that the ultimate responsibility is ours, and that it is we ourselves who need to be involved in the process. As St Augustine says, we are the co-authors of our salvation. Expressed succinctly it declares that If God did not ask our permission to create us, we will not be saved without our taking part in it. The realization of the enormity of this responsibility, may lead to the the impression that a deeply spiritual life, or this aspect of the Gospel, is for some privileged persons only.

St Teresa like us as regards the aforesaid, is very well aware that all the Baptised are called to holiness! But meeting with Christ, hearing his Call and really listening to Him, she would agree, is quite another challenge. Her agreement would be endorsed by Teresa herself having gone through this selfsame process of discovery. Indeed, she is particularly aware that discovering Christ in one's life is something different, it is a special grace of which we are all unworthy.

In this light, then, listening to St Teresa's teaching increases our awareness of the enormous chasm between the general theory, that is ’all are called to be holy’, and the practice of it, namely how this can become a reality for random persons, through a real meeting with Christ. For this specific person, it is important to offer the richness of the teaching on how to pray the Prayer of the Heart, because without it, the call to holiness remains totally inert.

130: St Teresa of A 9/16: The Movement of Contemplative Prayer

It is an essential part of the Mission given by God to St Teresa to teach us how to practise the Prayer of the Heart. In truth she can be considered to be a major Prophet. Admittedly she is not the first one in history to do this, but, by an exceptional grace, God wanted her to leave a legacy greater in breadth and depth that would impact on the Church at a very critical moment in its history. In fact, when the Protestant Reformation claimed that each person needs to have a direct personal relationship with God, the Lord sent this great Prophet to the Church to show us the orthodox and therefore fuller way to have it. In every sense she embodies the perfect way to have a personal relationship with Jesus. She takes her time in her books (Autobiography, Way of Perfection, Interior Castle) to explain to us in a very practical, flexible and accessible way how to practise the Prayer of the Heart, indicating what happens, how we feel it, and how we can discern it. It will be of great benefit, now, to explore her precious teaching and learn from her how to practise the Prayer of the Heart.

St Teresa learned how to practise the Prayer of the Heart by reading some well-known authors of her time especially Francisco de Osuna (1497 – c. 1540), on his Third Spiritual Alphabet. In particular his explanation of the word 'recollection' was of great help. It might be useful, here, to recall what we emphasized in earlier chapters, that she had to be determined to give everything to Christ, to become totally his, in order to give a solid foundation to her prayer life so that the Prayer of the Heart would commence bearing fruit. It is worth remembering that before her conversion, she practised only intermittently what Francisco de Osuna described on how to recollect oneself. It is also helpful to reiterate here that the foundations of the Prayer of the Heart are laid, first, when there is a call from Christ to follow Him from close proximity, followed by an inflow of the Grace of the Holy Spirit, the total and determined gift of oneself, and lastly especially by the determination to follow Him, unconditionally and selflessly. The Prayer of the Heart is not a relaxation technique, a form of entertainment, or a quest of any kind! It does not occur just out of our pure initiative, it happens in a very precise context, the context of a relationship that starts with Christ, where we put our hand into His Hands, in order to walk with Him and follow Him. St Teresa teaches us that the Prayer of the Heart is a love encounter with Christ where we are immersed in Him, where He pours into us his Love, the very essence of the Holy Spirit. We can add without fear of betraying her teaching (see end of Way of Perfection) that the Prayer of the Heart is the extension of our most recent Communion, the 'digestive' process that comes with it! It is a substantial meal where the human being is fed, mostly in the very depths of his heart! What is more to the point, however, is that the effects of this food appear quite rapidly!

What now has to be considered is when to practise contemplative prayer. This covers the material aspect of the practice in space and time. According to St Teresa, we can practise the Prayer of the Heart in two forms: first, by dedicating to it short moments during the day, as if to nourish and sustain ourselves during the journey, and secondly, by choosing to dedicate one or two specific moments during the day for longer practice. As we know, St Teresa established the rule that her reformed nuns would practise one entire hour of Prayer of the Heart in the morning and another hour in the late afternoon.

The next consideration encompasses the method to be used. In her book, the Way of Perfection, in chapters 26, 28 through to 31, St Teresa offers her best description of 'how to practise the Prayer of the Heart'. But an important point must first be clarified. As we underlined in the previous chapters, the grace of God is offered to us in two different ways: first, through general ordinary help, and secondly, through personal and direct Grace. The journey of our heart (our very being) until it is immersed in the furnace of Christ's Love is then divided into two parts: the first part depends on us, when St Teresa invites us to activate and use the general help of the grace of God, but then she tells us that the second part is simply the free response from God.

God, it is to be remembered, is at the door of our being, He never violates our freedom and never forces us to enter into HIm. On the contrary, Almighty God waits for us to give ourselves to Him. If we offer ourselves to Him, if we entrust ourselves into his hands, if we throw ourselves into his very arms, his response will be immediate and He will possess us and we will be immersed in Him while his Holy Spirit is poured into us. As we have seen, according to St Teresa the process entails two 'steps' which she calls 'Prayer of Recollection' and 'Prayer of Quiet'. The first one is realised when we give ourselves to Him, thereby expressing our choice to Him, and the second one, in response to the gift of ourselves to Him, occurs when He gives himself to us, namely, when we are immersed in Him. In the Prayer of the Heart both of them are inseparable.

As will be noted, consequently, when reading St Teresa's writings two expressions stand out sharply when delineating these parts of the journey: 'Prayer of Recollection' and 'Prayer of Quiet'. One could be tempted to think that these are two consecutive stages and ways of practising the Prayer of the Heart. A beginner for instance, would be forgiven for thinking one would start with the practice of the 'Prayer of Recollection' and subsequently after a few months or even one or two years, according to God's will, he or she would then be moved on by God toward a more supernatural prayer, that is, 'Supernatural Recollection' or in fact right into the 'Prayer of Quiet'. This vision entailing successive sections is erroneous. The 'Prayer of Recollection' and the 'Prayer of Quiet' are two halves of one and only one fruit: the complete act of the Prayer of the Heart.

God's Desire to Give of Himself

It is a fact, however, that commentators are often misled and are even induced into thinking that these are successive stages. The reason is based on a partial understanding of the Supernatural, that is, the Theology of Grace. Theology is extremely firm that God gives himself to whom He wants, when He wants and in the way chosen by Him. However, the freedom of God the Giver of the Grace of God is but part of the Theology of Grace. The other more significant part that is not always taken into consideration, is the desire in God himself and his thirst to give himself to us. Indeed, God has an overwhelming thirst to give himself to us! The saints tell us, indeed, and from experience, about this all-consuming desire. Therefore it is imperative that the two aspects of the unequivocal truth on the Theology of Grace be joined to understand that if we offer ourselves to God, He will never delay in coming to possess us and pour his grace into us. When using the general help of His Grace we clarify our availability to God, and in turn He does not coldly stand back watching and waiting, detached and inactive. According to the knowledge of the saints - St.John of the Cross, St.Therese of Lisieux to name but a few - this is definitely not the real God. He is thirsty, He IS Thirst itself, and we are the water that can quench this great thirst. Therefore if we practise the Prayer of Recollection (Way of Perfection chapters 26, 28-29), his reply is immediately offering us the first stages of his supernatural action, mostly the Prayer of Quiet, where the in-dwelling of God commences. (Way of perfection, Chapters 30-31).

Theology of Grace

The following explanation deals with a delicate matter concerning the Theology of Grace and its interpretation, but it should be understood by everyone in order to understand what God really desires of us and how we are to implement this desire in order to grow steadily in the Spiritual Life.

When we say that 'God gives himself 'the way He wants, when He wants to whom He wants', this sounds very incomplete because it gives the impression that God, for some unfathomable and mysterious reason, or simply for the sake of safeguarding his total freedom, acts strangely, and and has no real desire to communicate with on a regular basis. It also gives the impression that the Grace of God is like a delicacy which He is in two minds about imparting to us. This is definitively not the case. Herein, lies the crux of the matter from which huge confusion results.

In order to clarify the matter, let us first of all state that no-one challenges the freedom of God, no-one interferes in his decisions. But it must not be forgotten that He died for us and this in itself reveals the insatiable thirst He has to give himself to us, all of us, all the time and abundantly. It is impossible to endure what He did for each one of us, as evinced by his sufferings, Passion, Death, without his being totally committed to love of us and without being consumed by his Thirst for us. Otherwise this would seem to contradict the received belief. Given this, then, wherein lies the difficulty? Two incorrect assumptions cause this difficulty to arise. First, the thirst of God is not clearly perceived, nor is his constancy in wanting to give himself to all of us, all the time and abundantly. Secondly, there is confusion between the perception of the Grace of God (which falls into the soul and or the body, being an extra and optional 'crumb' from the divine table), and the Grace itself (that is uncreated and communicated to our supra-conscious spirit, but imperceptible to the conscious soul and body).

A significant question now presents itself: why does God not give the 'perception of the Grace' with the Grace itself? The answer is important for it illustrates that the beginner tends to confuse the perception of it with the uncreated Grace itself and, as a consequence, will easily idolise the 'perception', and deviate from Faith, going astray from the True God. It is only faith that leads to the real Uncreated God.

As a conclusion, we can say that the truth that 'God gives himself the way He wants, when He wants to whom He wants' would generally apply not to the core of the grace – the condition, as we have seen, being the gift of oneself – but to the perception of the grace of God. Thus a fairer evaluation would be to say: 'God gives the perception of his grace in the soul/body the way He wants, when He wants to whom He wants'.

Theology of Grace and St Teresa

A brief aside is indicated here to clarify some points St. Teresa makes on the Theology of Grace. When St Teresa of Avila reminds us what theology says concerning the freedom of God to give of himself 'when He wants, to whom He wants, and in the way He wants', we must be aware that she is at an early stage of her spiritual life (Autobiography). At this early stage she cannot distinguish between first, the core of the grace poured into the spirit, secondly, the perception of the grace in the soul and/or the body and lastly a possible particular effect on the body – tears. When explaining this supernatural action of God in prayer, Teresa uses the allegory of watering the garden, where water is the Grace of God, with the human being himself as the garden. However, here, 'water' comprises these three realities and they have become fused together, without Teresa consciously realising it in her mind, namely, receiving the grace in the spirit, second, feeling the grace (soul/body), third, having tears as a more common effect in the body. This may be misleading, hence the explanation given above which comes from St John of the Cross' teaching. This is a further reason that seems to reinforce the aforementioned partial understanding of how the Grace of God works. In addition to what has just been outlined, therefore, we have to bear in mind the difference between the General help of the Grace of God and the Particular help of the Grace of God, as seen in previous chapters.
In conclusion, it must be realised that it is necessary to remember the crucial fact that the foundation of the Theology of Prayer should be based on a complete and clear understanding of its vital component – the Theology of Grace.

The Nature of Contemplation

Added to this is the fact that having a correct understanding of all the above-mentioned concepts would immeasurably aid the proper understanding of the nature of contemplation. As a previous chapter illustrates, during the first part of last century, theologians discussed and argued interminably about the nature of contemplation. One group stressed the importance of the human element in it, which makes it something that is acquired by human effort, and the other group laid great stress on the importance of the supernatural (infused) aspect of it. As it happens, both are right: both stress the decisive aspects of contemplation, the human part and the divine part. Both are vital for its success. It is the story of the meeting of two beings: God and the human being... The Prayer of the Heart, it is important to realise, is essentially the story of an expressed love between them (and to love means to give oneself), and that it is impossible to take into consideration only one of them and ignore the other. Both beings have free will, both can give themselves. The Prayer of the Heart is the mutual gift of each of them to the other. A similar mutual gifting occurs during Communion: God gives himself to us, and we give ourselves to Him. Communion should remain a very important point of reference for us in our practice of the Prayer of the Heart – we cannot afford to neglect it.

God, being in his very nature love, comes out of himself, and stands at the door of our being and, incredibly, He waits. He does not enter. He never forces the door. With divine respect and love, Almighty God knocks and waits. If we are really willing to love Him, if we really want to give ourselves to Him, then a 'union', a 'meeting', an 'embrace' will result. The meeting of two free beings, in an élan of mutual love, presupposes the use of two mutual freedoms! Christian contemplation is this meeting, this sacred kiss, the supernatural embrace! In no way can it exclude the personal initiative of both beings! The solution to having a correct orthodox understanding of the nature of contemplation, consequently, comes through recognising the two modalities of the action of the Grace of God: the grace that prepares us to receive God and the Grace itself of receiving Him within us. Christian contemplation, it must be emphasized enough, cannot be either acquired or infused, it is both: it consists of two parts of one unique journey that goes from where our heart initially beats to the Furnace of Love in Christ.

129: St Teresa of Avila 8/16: Mapping Spiritual Life

When we read and meditate upon St Teresa's books, we cannot fail to make a comparison between her and Christopher Columbus the explorer and Diego de Ribera the Cartographer (see Map and Bibliography at the bottom). Indeed, she is led by God to explore and discover new “territories” at deeper levels within the human being, and, in addition, it has been given to her to draw the new “map” of these discoveries as clearly delineated in her book The Interior Castle. During her times, on the one hand the inhabited world was discovering new territories and on the other hand, amazingly, St Teresa was receiving the grace to explore new dimensions in the human being! Let us not forget that St Teresa's brother, Lorenzo, emigrated to America, settled in what is to-day the capital of Ecuador and married a daughter of one of the conquistadores of Peru. He came back to Spain a wealthy man and did a great deal of good with his money. Another of her brothers, Pedro, followed suit by sailing to Spanish America. It can be said, consequently, that she too through her writings seems to draw the map of a “new world”! In fact, after St Teresa of Avila, the Gospel is no longer the same! Admittedly she does not add anything new to it, but only imparts a deeper meaning to it. Significantly, however, Christians are called to follow a new and different set of requirements set out by Teresa: she presents. in fact, a journey with milestones along the way marking the different stages of growth in Spiritual Life.

Icon 'St Teresa the Seraphic', Carmelite Nuns Harissa - Lebanon

Today, when we say that everybody is called to become holy, the fact cannot be denied that God gave St Teresa the capacity to shed a very important light on the journey to holiness, by showing the various stages of growth. After her, holiness has a different aspect!

If we ponder on the life of the Christian, it is true and easily seen that the dimensions of the journey and the existence of clear and understandable stages of growth are not something that is obvious. If on one hand there is a common consensus today in the Catholic Church that 'everybody is called to holiness' and that 'christian life presupposes a process of maturing,' on the other hand very few have noticed and acknowledged the existence of a new “map”, or at the very least that this mapping is not really well integrated within the daily life of the Church. No one can deny that the goal of the “universal call for holiness” is far from having been achieved.

Note: It would be useful here to make the point that St Teresa is not at all the first to draw a map of the Stages of the Growth in Spiritual Life. She most definitely is not the only one. One has just to reopen the file from day one, from the New Testament time, in order to discover all the antecedents and see how this doctrine is well affirmed. It is true that her book The Interior Castle had a great influence on the Church and the world at large, but this 'doctrine of the journey' of transformation, and of its stages is clearly represented throughout the fourteen centuries that precede her. During the decades preceding Teresa it is true to say that Spain saw the birth of many authors who addressed this question with different images , for example: stages of human life, ascent of a ladder, of a mountain,...

Returning now to the subject in hand, it must be recognised that far from being merely content to preach the necessity for universal holiness - in itself a remarkable achievement - one has in addition to help the faithful, the monks, the nuns, religious, priest, all consecrated, the members of the new movements in the Church, to commit to the journey of growth. It is not an option to be satisfied with just having a spiritual life which has a few well-known consolations in it! It is most definitely not an option to think that in some mysterious and magical way the goal of holiness may somehow be achieved!

Moreover, how can we understand the goal of Spiritual Life, holiness, union with Christ, the fullness of charity, if we do not understand even the stages that lead up to it? This type of attitude is blatantly absurd! There must be a radical change of hearts and minds in this respect! Spiritual Theology is the science in charge of these questions and it seems to struggle today to give an account of the Spiritual Journey, of its real meaning, of its implications for the human being! By contrast, in her writings St Teresa talks about the very real changes that occur in the individual, at each stage! It seems curious that many don't seem to grasp these practical insights. For a start the stages of spiritual growth, the different experiences during the Prayer of the Heart, cannot be separated! Everything is connected to the action of the Holy Spirit itself at each stage, and to the goal of its action in general, that is, there is a real connection between the specific growth necessary to a specific person at a certain specific stage.

St Teresa does not merely describe feelings, epiphenomena! She describes a profound transformation that occurs in the human being, and describes, in addition, the landmarks with which to recognise it, and she ends with the advice to implement it in order to progress to the next stage. To indicate milestones on the journey of growth towards holiness, as she does, and to become able to recognise what is happening to a human being at all stages is of fundamental use: the individual should come to discover the appropriate food for his stage and as a consequence will grow. Ironically the importance of this fails to attract the attention of many!

Icon by Carmelite Nuns Haifa Holy Land

As it progresses through the stages then, our practice of the Prayer of the Heart, that is, what we have to do, remains roughly the same throughout our life here on earth. This entails our Prayer of Heart always having two things in tandem: 1- our personal input (Prayer of Recollection) and 2- God's input (His reply: any form of supernatural prayer like Prayer of Quiet). Subsequent to this the effects of the Grace of God will permeate us more deeply than ever leading to our transformation by the Holy Spirit in Christ, thereby realising spiritual growth. This is why St Teresa mentions in her writings the many forms of God's supernatural reply to our constant efforts to be recollected: Supernatural Recollection, Prayer of Quiet, Prayer of Union, Ecstasy, Rapture,..., Spiritual Engagement, Spiritual Marriage (Union with Christ). Each of these types of the supernatural action of God reveals God adapting himself to our individual needs.

Representation of the Interior Castle

Furthermore, each one of these types of prayer corresponds to a degree of transformation. We can see the description of this journey of growth in her book of the Interior Castle, where she describes spiritual growth using the image of a Castle where the centre of the Castle is the Lord's Nuptial Room, symbol of the Union with Him. Then she reveals the first challenge is to enter the Castle by its door (the Practice of the Prayer of the Heart, humility and consideration), and to penetrate deeper, mansion after mansion, doing what we are supposed to do at each mansion in order to reach the centre of the Castle: Union with Christ-God. The Castle is nothing else than the human being himself, within whose centre Jesus dwells by the Baptism.

The Interior Castle is a masterpiece that presents the entire journey of growth, a masterpiece as we have seen that speaks to the entire Church, reminding us that when Jesus says 'I am the Way' He really means that there is a journey and that He is both the goal and the means to reach it.

Castle in Spain

Avila Walls

Here is how the Interior Castle starts:

"I thought of the soul as resembling a castle, formed of a single diamond or a very transparent crystal, and containing many rooms, just as in heaven there are many mansions. If we reflect, sisters, we shall see that the soul of the just man is but a paradise, in which, God tells us, He takes His delight. What, do you imagine, must that dwelling be in which a King so mighty, so wise, and so pure, containing in Himself all good, can delight to rest? Nothing can be compared to the great beauty and capabilities of a soul; however keen our intellects may be, they are as unable to comprehend them as to comprehend God, for, as He has told us, He created us in His own image and likeness." [see continuation...]


The Interior Castle

- Alison Peers translation.

- Benedict Zimmerman OCD translation.

- John Dalton translation.

For a similar book written by St John of the Cross, presenting the stages of spiritual life please see: The Spiritual Canticle.

On Cartography

- Diego de Ribera's Map 1529:

Diego de Ribera Map 1529

First scientific world map (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Ribeiro's most important work is the 1527 Padrón Real. There are 6 copies attributed to Ribeiro, including at the Weimar Grand Ducal Library (1527 Mundus Novus) and at the Vatican Library, in Vatican City (1529 Propaganda Map or Carta Universal). The layout of the map (Mapamundi) is strongly influenced by the information obtained during the Magellan-Elcano trip around the world.

Diogo's map delineates very precisely the coasts of Central and South America. It shows the whole east coast of the Americas but of the west coast only the area from Guatemala to Ecuador. However, neither Australia nor Antarctica appear, and the Indian subcontinent appears too small. The map shows, for the first time, the real extension of the Pacific Ocean. It also shows, for the first time, the North American coast as a continuous one (probably influenced by Estêvão Gomes's exploration in 1524/25). It also shows the demarcation of the Treaty of Tordesillas. The absence of any large continent south of Asia is evidence that there had been no discovery of Australia at that date.