To start with, let us address the title itself and define the expressions. If we consider the unusual aspect of the title in general, and if we pass the test of not thinking it is meant to be provocative, we can say that this ‘unpleasant’ ‘categorisation’ of the words: ‘committed parishioner’, ‘spiritual’ is in fact artificial or harmful or reductive. However, on the contrary, it is based on the observation of the action of the Holy Spirit in us, observation and analysis made in a deeper and more articulate way.
God doesn’t make us saints in one day. He needs our collaboration, our personal decision, the use of our free will. From our position, from who we are in relation to who He is, there is need for a long and arduous journey of growth and transformation. This journey is described by great doctors of the Church like St John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and many others, but maybe not in such detail. So, in order for us to understand how the Holy Spirit works in us, the different types and levels of His action, it is important to study the writings of these doctors of the Church carefully and with great attention.
One of the most important turning points in Christian life, a turning point that in a sense introduces the human being to a new world, The Spiritual World, comes in meeting with Jesus, in the beginning of a Personal Relationship with Him, and in the experience of the first type of action of the Holy Spirit.
When we consider Baptism, then, we see it is a Divine Seed in us, which parents and godparents, educators and priests help to nurture. But there is a decisive moment when the Divine Seed, with its divine power is awakened in us. It could occur slowly, progressively, or suddenly, abruptly, but without a doubt it will have to unfold. This is the turning point.
Note: it is important to remember that we do not understand or grasp everything in the experience of others. Many things can be developing in the ”background” of one’s being. And by “background” I am not alluding to the unconscious or subconscious or any of these psychology realities – though, of course, they deserve our attention and consideration. What I mean by the aforesaid expression is the perception-awareness of any experience and expression it. Not all that is lived by a person has a perfectly well-shaped perception and awareness. Only very few people can even express clearly to themselves what is happening to themselves and even less so can people express it well to others. In giving an account to themselves or to others, of their daily life, some people, might overlook important elements that they are experiencing while underlining others. In this sense a person can very well undergo the experience we are talking about but not have enough perception, awareness, culture, to “see” it as relevant. It is not necessarily a defect at all. It is just the human condition.
A blatant example is the fact that St Teresa makes no relevant and consistent mention of an experience similar to what St John of the Cross describes in the Dark Night of the Spirit. Does this mean that she didn’t go through it? No. It could simply mean that suffering is so present in her life, on a daily basis, that it starts to have less relevance. She states that there is not a day that passed in her life without physical suffering such as tummy aches, headaches and the like. Therefore, to her underlining suffering might become less important or needed. It was her daily bread. As a reward for greater and more meticulous attention to detail, if we look carefully into the many chapters of the sixth mansions we will notice that there is a point where she does mention suffering.
The Formator in Spiritual Life or the Teacher of spiritual theology’s ideal student is the person who has had this experience, this awakening. Why? He or she will be better understood in his teaching. His teaching will be sought after with great interest and even passion. As St Teresa of Avila states repeatedly: the person who has had the experience will understand her better. And in certain circumstances she adds: otherwise what I am saying will seem gibberish. This is the fate of the teacher of Spiritual Life.
Before we move on to the following point let us remind ourselves of a coined expression that is highly useful here: Second Conversion. Hearing Jesus’ Call, discovering His Presence, initiating a relationship with Him, can happen (and does) to people who are already Christian. Therefore, we don’t call this new step “conversion” but we prefer to call it “second conversion”. “Second” because the person is already Christian. But the Seed of Baptism exists in a non-active state. It doesn’t mean that the person is neglecting her Christian life. No, on the contrary, one will find that it is a person a person who is fully committed in her parish, active, helping others, a regular Mass goer, morally very sound, not committing mortal sins and who goes regularly to confession! Having all these qualities can puzzle many greatly. How come a person like this can still not yet have had the “second conversion”? How strange! Indeed, it looks very strange. St Teresa of Avila underlines it and Blessed Fr. Marie Eugene, see I Want to see God, also underlines this apparent contradiction: on one hand we are faced with a “good catholic”, a good “church goer”, a morally sound person, a committed person, and on the other hand, we don’t find in this person the relationship with Jesus, the powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit described by St Teresa of Avila after her conversion! Both St Teresa and Blessed Marie Eugene say that this person is very rational. Reason is in control. I would rather say: order. Because the person might not be intellectual. St Teresa has this beautiful expression in the third mansions when talking about such people: love didn’t bring them ‘out of reason’. By this she means: the love of Jesus, the action of the Holy Spirit, didn’t unlock the strongbox of (good) habits of that person, opening “reason” to a wider range of perspectives, led by Love! Love breaks the mould. Love make us do foolish things for the beloved. Love offers a new horizon. Love is a relationship. Experiencing Jesus’ Love gives a divine “drunkenness”.
How can we then describe the Spiritual Life of this person? What defines “spiritual” in fact comes at a further stage. But can we say that there is no spiritual life in this person? Would that be correct? Could we call it: dormant? This is a delicate subject. There could be little bursts of fervent spiritual life, graces can be received, but the person is not progressing yet, and the weight of his/her good habits could return back. The moral weight of the life they lead can sometime cover any new perspective on spirituality. Incorrect or misleading information about any “spiritual life” or “mystical life” can/could dissuade as well.
Despite these few attempts prompted by God, the person could go revert to type and continue to go around in circles. The person will seem to be spiritually alive, truly alive, but will hit a wall, the wall of the Second Conversion. The person could be trying repeatedly, but without success.
All the moral values of their life, of their Christian life, all the sound commitments in their life can become – paradoxically – a good screen! A little bit of pride mixed in with the commitments and the values can indeed hinder the needed humility that will pave the way for the new stage. The result is that we can then say that the person is “going in circles”, hitting a wall and bouncing back, or being simply convinced that her the life she is committed to is what it is to be a “good catholic”.
Can we Trigger the Second Conversion?
There is an important question that now arises: why is conversion not triggered? Are there reasons for this? Is there a moment in the life of this committed person where he or she can hear Jesus’ Call more clearly? And put more directly: can we trigger the Second Conversion? To a certain extent and to my limited knowledge, I am not aware that this question has been studied. Why so? Theologically, we are used to be constantly led by a very important truth: God is free, He gives His grace to whoever He wants, when He wants, the way He wants! The sovereign freedom of God cannot be touched! It has to be preserved at all costs. Plus, our knowledge and wisdom cannot determine when and how it is best for a specific person to undergo the Second Conversion. Is he or she ready? In reality, however, we haven’t studied the subject enough, and in greater depth.
Here we are, standing in front of the average committed parishioner, on one hand wanting earnestly to invite him or her to attain greater depth, to a new experience, and on the other hand we don’t know what to do and how to do it.
St Teresa’s of Avila Conversion
St Teresa of Avila’s life can be also viewed as a paradigm, a teaching, a type for the Church. It can be seen as a micro example of the macro reality of the Church; the church of her time and the church of our time. Under certain aspects little has changed, and the need remains the same.
When I say that her life is a paradigm or example or type for the Church I allude, for instance, to what happens to the prophet Ezekiel: overnight God makes him lose his wife (see Ez 24). By acting this way God offers Ezekiel as an example: here Ezekiel embodies God himself and Ezekiel’s wife is God’s People. So, the story of Ezekiel is in fact a reflection of the story of God himself. In our case, God gives us St Teresa of Avila as an embodiment of the story of the Church (not of God).
In fact, her church struggled for more than three centuries to reform itself. One can actually see it! Council after council sees the Church, deciding to reform herself, making important statements, but in the end, implementation-wise, she fails. For three centuries this is ongoing! The desire for reform is truly present. The awareness for the need to reform is most certainly there! But to no avail. Martin Luther will then try. But his trial does not employ God’s methods: he departs from the Church – though politics and ethnic reasons are certainly a great factor as well – and tries something different. However, it is not in this way that one reforms an existing body. Reforming an existing body is a most difficult task. Leaving it to wither and die and working with a new “body” is so much easier! But it is this the way? Anyway, this is not our subject. Our subject is how St Teresa is a personified parable of the Church for the Church. How her experience embodies the experience of the Church.
Therefore, St Teresa of Avila’s experience is transformed into a clear message from God to the Church, where God invites her to gaze at her life, and where we come to notice that it reflects ours, as a church and as individuals.
Teresa, then, becomes a nun at the age of twenty and for nineteen years will be living as a nun: committed, spiritual, obedient, but not yet having had the “second conversion”! So, it is only around the age of forty that she undergoes her second conversion and change. Before that she indeed received graces, sporadically, but they sadly didn’t have any serious consequences – something important was lacking. After that, the graces of God start to be poured out, her life totally changes! She remains a nun, but everything has changed! As she states in her Autobiography, from that moment on, it was God’s life and history in her, not hers.
Her second conversion is fundamental. But the temptation is to understand it in a fatalist way by repeating the fundamental principle we stated above about God’s sovereign freedom: “God is totally free to give His Grace to whoever He wants, when He wants, the way He wants”. In doing so on the one hand we state a fundamental truth, but on the other hand, we do not balance it with other truths, but instead we fall into a heretical deviation, not seeing : 1- what God does, the repeated attempts to make a move towards us or attract us! 2- the human response in general and in particular that can hinder or facilitate the closeness to the Second Conversion!
Are we facing a moody and unpredictable God? If this fundamental truth is absolutised and not balanced properly with other equally important truths, we end up not understanding who God is and what He wants to do! God is love: a burning love who wants to give Himself to us – this is his constant state: a fire, a thirst, a Divine Desire to give Himself to us!! Who can understand this thirst?! Hence, when we say that God gives His grace “when he wants to”, we seem to imply that for some days or months or epochs He burns with love for us, and at other moments in history, in the history of this specific person, He is rather calm, cool, and not interested in giving Himself! As if He could change his nature! Of course, this is simply utter nonsense! But this is what we do unconsciously when we absolutise this fundamental truth: God is free! He gives Himself when He wants! But God is love. He wants…He wants now, now, now! No delay! Fire is fire! It can’t become water! “I am a devouring Fire”! “I am Jealous”! say the Scriptures. What does this mean? It simply means to burn with the desire to give oneself.
Thus, if Teresa’s second conversion is delayed for almost twenty years, if the reformation of the Church is delayed for centuries, it is not that this pleases God, or that from these lengths of time He is busy doing something different! Or that He “went to the market” as Prophet Elijah describes concerning the gods of Baal.
This indeed, by contrast, gives us a glimpse of an urgent much needed endeavour on our part: to ask ourselves and indeed study the reasons why the Second Conversion failed to take place in the case of St Teresa and learn from it for ourselves and for the life of the Church. What caused it to happen? How come she was not only a good Christian, but also a committed nun, spiritual, faithful and obedient, yet despite all that she wasn’t triggering the second conversion. Can we trigger it then? What can we learn from her second conversion? What can we learn studying this turning point, from looking at her life before, and during the second conversion and of course her life afterwards!
Studying St Teresa of Avila’s Conversion
Considering the “second conversion” of St Teresa not as proceeding not from a pure decision of God, but from the human perspective i.e. what as individuals we can do, what we can avoid,… is a necessity in honour of God’s action: it was He who sent us a Prophet, i.e. Teresa, to teach us, to show us a real second conversion, a proper Reformation.
It is surprising to see to which extent the conversion of St Teresa of Avila, her second conversion, is so little touched on, studied and the elements which embody it are so rarely studied or examined in greater depth! We don’t seem to see any relevance in it! Like bees attracted by the flower, when we take her writings into our hands we fly to the flower of the graces that the Lord is showering upon her after her second conversion, we stand in awe in the face of all that God has given her – all that He made her achieve, her foundations, her books, her apostolic endeavours! But we hardly stop to consider that this nun had been for no less than twenty years a nun in a monastery not creating any ripples, a simple nun, with hardly any relevant events in her life and hardly any effects on the Church to speak of. She could have continued like this for the rest of her life, had she not undergone her second conversion! For some reason this does not seem to move us! We take God’s graces for granted! Indeed, we have a very weird understanding of God’s behaviour! We end up not gaining a great deal from this living Parable that He gave us: St Teresa’s life, her struggles in an turbulent sea for twenty years!
It is therefore mandatory for whoever would like to work in the Spiritual Life, teaching it, conveying it to others, to study with great care Teresa’s part in her conversion, the reproaches that God made against her, the different elements of her conversion, the stages of it. The benefits that come out of this study are simply beyond human comprehension, because they will enable us to understand the very known – but still “mysterious” for the majority of us – passage from the third to the fourth mansions: how can we facilitate, remove the obstacles for this crossing! What can we do to “open” that Divine Fountain in us, the Fountain of the Outpouring of God’s Graces, of “Grace upon Grace”.
It is of the utmost importance to focus on St Teresa’s Second Conversion in order to extract from this research and study, the elements of teaching that God gives us through her life and teaching.
She tells us about her conversion in her Autobiography: Chapter 9 and the chapters that precede it and Chapters 23-24. As a result, from this first stage in the study, having gathered the elements, one will find them crystallised and synthesised in her book: The Way of Perfection. In fact, this book in its entirety and in its structure, is the living embodiment of the teaching that we can find about her Second Conversion and which we can be viewed in her Autobiography. This book holds the secret that is needed to “trigger” the Second Conversion and therefore all the Graces that God wants to pour into us… “grace upon grace”.