’14 MTS Candidate
So far my favorite class this semester has been a seminar on Teresa of Ávila. It’s been a great blessing for someone with interests in theology and spirituality to have the opportunity to read and discuss the writings of such a beautiful saint. This week, we are reading the first part of The Interior Castle, what the scholar and translator Kieran Kavanaugh calls her “spiritual masterpiece.” We’ve read through quite a bit of her writing so far so I was somewhat taken aback–but mostly really really excited–when I saw this in his introduction. I mean, everything so far in the course has been great, and a person who has devoted his life’s work to studying St. Teresa thinks this is the best? Bring it on.
Even though this reading is for a class and has an academic grounding, it would be pretty hard not to involve myself personally in the text. Teresa wasn’t writing treatises or grand comprehensive theologies. She was writing to the sisters under her direction who were pursuing a life of holiness. They wanted to know how best to serve God and in what ways this should be desired and lived out in their vocation as Carmelite nuns. As someone whose prayer life is in constant need of improvement, it was hard to turn a blind eye to the places Teresa’s writing was speaking directly to where I need to grow. Her books are practically bursting with how important humility is to the spiritual life and developing this virtue is the foundation upon which everything else stands.
Immediately prior to the passage quoted below, which is taken from Dwelling Place 3, Chapter 1, Teresa describes how important it is not to jealously desire spiritual favors (e.g. contemplation) from God. These favors are given to some and not others according to God’s will. It does not indicate a lacking or inferiority in one’s soul to never be granted these gifts. This life of prayer and devotion to God is never complete or fulfilled but rather necessitates constant attention and effort, so even the person who has received great favors still has much room for growth. We the reader must always desire that God lead us closer to Him. The Sisters in particular cannot assume this work is done once they renounce all possessions and things of this world. They must persevere in desiring more and more intimate union with God, always seeking greater conformity with His will. Then came the passage that really jumped off the page for me.
“This perseverance includes the condition…that you consider yourselves useless servants…and believe that you have not put our Lord under any obligation to grant you these kinds of favors. Rather, as one who has received more, you are more indebted.”
For a moment I wondered whether this last line meant this perseverance was only important for Sisters who had “received more.” It is what follows this line, however, that absolutely drove the message home and showed me how central this point is to all of us.
“What can we do for a God so generous that he died for us, created us, and gives us being? Shouldn’t we consider ourselves lucky to be able to repay something of what we owe Him for His service toward us? I say these words ‘His service toward us’ unwillingly; but the fact is that He did nothing else but serve us all the time He lived in this world. And yet we ask Him again for favors and gifts.” (Interior Castle III:1.8)
I’m well aware that too much of my prayer is focused on myself. So much of the time I spend with God is devoted to what I need or what I’m stressed about. But here Teresa takes it a step further and asks if, in the times we think we are being the most humble or selfless, we are in fact acting for our own gain. It is well attested in the Christian tradition, and more that most in Teresa’s own life, that God grants great favors to those who serve Him. But when I do pray for others or serve them as my neighbor, it shouldn’t be so that I too can experience contemplation or receive a greater reward in heaven. We are called to serve because we must, because of the sheer immensity of God’s generosity. When we do not appreciate simply how amazing the gift of our salvation truly is we demand more from Him and, in doing so, fail to realize we are actually asking for less.
Its not that we’re wrong in desiring to receive something, its that we’re not recognizing that we’ve already been given more than we could ever think to ask for. Because of this, we ask even more of an already prodigal God. “We are fonder of consolations than we are of the cross” (III:1.9). This is where I think this passage is particularly fitting for reflection during the season of Lent. How often do we look at Lent as a time of earning our salvation? It’s already been given! We can’t earn what we don’t deserve! Don’t think of this as cause for inactivity, but rather a demand that we commit our entire lives to serving God and rejoice in the opportunity “to repay something,” no matter how insignificant that may seem. Exactly how amazing and unbelievable the Paschal Mystery is, which is too often lost because of how familiar and mundane it has become to our consciousness, is precisely what Teresa is trying to remind us of. Even if God never gives us anything else as spiritual nourishment, let what we have received be enough.
“Be convinced that where humility is truly present God will give a peace and conformity – even though He may never give consolations – by which one will walk with greater contentment than will others with their consolations. For often, as you have read, the divine Majesty gives these consolations to the weaker souls; although I think we would not exchange these consolations for the fortitude of those who walk in dryness. We are fonder of consolations than we are of the cross. Test us, Lord – for You know the truth – so that we may know ourselves.” (III:1.9)
St. Teresa of Avila, pray for us.