Monday, October 15, 2012

St. Teresa of Avila: Why you can't seem to progress in the spiritual life

October 15th, St. Teresa of Jesus
St. Teresa of Avila is the “Doctor of Prayer”, most especially for her classic work on Christian prayer, “The Interior Castle”. However, while many people desire to grow in the life of prayer, they are often confused as to what must be done. How do I pray well? What method should I use?
Sadly, many modern(ist) Catholics (including even some priests) have turned to eastern forms of meditation – like centering prayer or yoga – rather than to the true tradition of Christian prayer. If we understand St. Teresa’s key insight about prayer and the interior life, we can clearly see how far eastern meditation is from true prayer.

The active and passive movements in prayer
St. Teresa sees growth in the spiritual life as a passage through various “mansions” within the soul. In the first three mansions, the soul is primarily active – St. John of the Cross calls this the Purgative Way, or the way of beginners. In the fourth and fifth mansions, the soul begins to move (rather, to be moved) from the active prayer of meditation to passive and infused contemplation – this is the Illuminative Way, the way of the proficients. Finally, in the sixth and seventh mansions, the soul rests entirely in God in a nearly continual realization of his presence – this is the Unitive Way, that of the perfect.
What is most important to notice in this division is that the soul begins with a primarily active role in the life of prayer, but then is moved into a primarily passive role. The soul must die to itself through a period of trial. In fact, the soul cannot bring herself to this point, but God alone is able to purify the soul through passive purifications.
This is why St. John of the Cross called the first age of the interior life the “Purgative Way” – not that the other ages have no purgation, but rather to show that the first stage is the time of active purgation on the part of the soul. During the first age of the interior life (during the first three mansions), the soul actively strives to purify herself through fasting, mortification, prayer, and works of charity.
However, after the individual has done all that is in human power to accomplish, the soul still finds herself impure and unequal to the great gift of union with God. At this point, God himself must purify the soul – and he does this through a “dark night of the senses”. The soul does not enter into this darkness of her own power, nor does she purify herself through he own abilities; rather, God plunges the soul into darkness so as to purge her of self love and vanity.
Your soul is like a silk-worm
St. Teresa illustrates this period of transition from active to passive purification through the analogy of a silk-worm.
The worm works diligently to build the little cocoon. This work symbolizes the active purifications and also the active work of meditative prayer. In this stage the soul should build its home through spiritual reading and devout consideration of the mysteries of the faith. Through fasting and penances, together with works of charity, the soul merits and increase in grace.
However, once the cocoon is built, Teresa tells us that the worm must die so as to then become a butterfly. Indeed, the worm, after all that work, becomes entirely passive (at least, so it appears) and God himself works this marvelous transformation by which an ugly worm becomes a beautiful butterfly.
So it is in the spiritual life, we must work! We must work hard and pray well! And then, when God himself chooses, he will plunge us into a death to self, a dark night from which we will arise as a new creation, all lovely in his sight.
A modernist error – rushing ahead too quickly
However, the great mistake of so many today is that they think that they need not work! They think that (because the greatest prayer is passive) they ought to rush ahead to the “prayer of quiet” without crossing through the severe desert of active mortifications and penance (as well as works of mercy).
Far too often, people want to jump straight away to the last mansions of the interior castle, without building their little cocoon through self-denial and PRACTICAL love of neighbor. St. Teresa tells us that such persons will never make any progress in the spiritual life. Indeed, their final state will be worse than their first.
It is a great want of humility to think that we could attain to the prayer of quiet and the riches of infused contemplation without first mortifying our senses (through fasting and penance) and meriting an increase in virtue (through works of charity, especially for those with whom we live).
There is nothing that a man can do to attain infused contemplation. This is the whole point: It is infused, it is passive! All we may do is build our house, through mortification and the concrete practice of virtue. Active works are necessary! We must strive to die! To die to self, so as to live for God!
If we are not growing in virtue (which is exercised in the concrete circumstances of life), we will not be given the gift of infused contemplation. If we are not willing to abandon whatever attachments hold us back from perfect union with God, we will never pass through the dark night of sense.
What must I do to grow in the spiritual life?
First, follow the commandments and the precepts of the Church. Confess your sins regularly to a wise and learned priest and, if possible, to one who is holy.
Second, uproot every worldly attachment from your heart.
Third, humble yourself – especially before your family and neighbors.
Fourth, practice the virtues in your daily life, particularly through works of charity.
Fifth, pray, pray, pray! Set a time for prayer (preferably in the morning), and keep it! Pray the Rosary every day. Meditate on the mysteries, don’t just rush through or mumble the words of the prayers. Think on God’s love revealed in Christ, and his power shown forth in the lives of the saints.
Sixth, read good spiritual books. For my part, I will always give an absolute preference for books written by Doctors of the Church. If you haven’t read “Introduction to the Devout Life” by St. Francis de Sales, you have no business reading anything by a modern author (no matter how good he may be).
Seventh, put yourself under obedience to a holy and learned priest, take him as your spiritual director. For more on this consider our articles [here], [here], and [here].
Can I silence or quiet my mind during meditation?
Now, we will see precisely what is wrong with eastern meditation. Zen, centering prayer, yoga, and the like all are “methods” by which a man quiets his mind. The goal of eastern meditation is to empty the mind and become purely passive before God. Through human effort, the soul attempts to gain total silence.
This is entirely absurd, wholly ridiculous, and a great sin of pride. St. Teresa explains (Interior Castle 4.3):
Some books advise that as a preparation for hearing what our Lord may say to us we should keep our minds at rest, waiting to see what He will work in our souls. But unless His Majesty has begun to suspend our faculties, I cannot understand how we are to stop thinking, without doing ourselves more harm than good.
Possibly I may be mistaken, but I rely on these reasons.
Firstly, he who reasons less and tries to do least, does most in spiritual matters. We should make our petitions like beggars before a powerful and rich Emperor; then, with downcast eyes, humbly wait. When He secretly shows us He hears our prayers, it is well to be silent, as He has drawn us into His presence; there would then be no harm in trying to keep our minds at rest (that is to say, if we can). If, however, the King makes no sign of listening or of seeing us, there is no need to stand inert, like a dolt, which the soul would resemble if it continued inactive. In this case its dryness would greatly increase, and the imagination would be made more restless than before by its very effort to think of nothing. Our Lord wishes us at such a time to offer Him our petitions and to place ourselves in His presence; He knows what is best for us. I believe that human efforts avail nothing in these matters.
The second reason is, that these interior operations being sweet and peaceful, any painful effort does us more harm than good. By ‘painful effort’ I mean any forcible restraint we place on ourselves, such as holding our breath. We should rather abandon our souls into the hands of God, leaving Him to do as He chooses with us, as far as possible forgetting all self-interest and resigning ourselves entirely to His will.
The third reason is, that the very effort to think of nothing excites our imagination the more.
The fourth is, because we render God the most true and acceptable service by caring only for His honour and glory and forgetting ourselves, our advantages, comfort and happiness. How can we be self-oblivious, while keeping ourselves under such strict control that we are afraid to move, or even to think, or to leave our minds enough liberty to desire God’s greater glory and to rejoice in the glory which He possesses? When His Majesty wishes the mind to rest from working He employs it in another manner, giving it a light and knowledge far above any obtainable by its own efforts and absorbing it entirely into Himself. Then, though it knows not how, it is filled with wisdom such as it could never gain for itself by striving to suspend the thoughts.
God gave us faculties for our use; each of them will receive its proper reward. Then do not let us try to charm them to sleep, but permit them to do their work until divinely called to something higher.
It would be easier for a man to stop the stars in their rotation through the heavens, than for him to quiet his mind by human effort. But the same God who made the stars also made the mind, and he will quiet both in his own time. Until that Day, the stars must continue in their paths, and the human mind must be put to the active consideration of the mysteries of our faith. When God so wills to quiet the mind, let that man rejoice and be at peace, but may he recall that he then has a special obligation to perform many works of charity for his neighbor.

St. Teresa of Avila, Pray for us!


Anonymous said...

Our Lord Himself was nurtured and looked after by Our Blessed Lady in His temporal youth wherefore it would be unbecoming of us not to offer the direction of our spiritual lives into Her sweet care. She loves us and will be more than happy to be of aid in learning to know Her Son. Praying the Rosary is a high priority as it is like holding Our Lady by the hand while Saint Alphonsus has said that he would fear for his salvation if he omitted it for one day. Also it has been recommended to pray often for the grace of dying on some of Her Feasts.

Ave Maria,

Chatto said...

Father, what is the difference (in terms of how it is experienced by the Christian) between the dark night of the sense, and that of the soul? Do you think there are Christians who aren't even on the Purgative Way? I've been seeing my spiritual director for 3 months, and have been thinking about progress in the spiritual life, and feel like I'm just starting on this stage, so where was I before? Perhaps it doesn't bear thinking about!

ML said...

Thank you for this article! It is so helpful!

Post a Comment

When commenting, please leave a name or pseudonym at the end of your comment so as to facilitate communication and responses.

Comments must be approved by the moderator before being published.