Blue Area of Recollection

Question: I have a question regarding the habit of recollection St. Teresa of Avila recommends building in Chapter 26 of Way of Perfection. Translating it in the sea diagram (see above), you say that it means we need to live in the blue part so to speak – near/at the meeting point where Jesus takes your heart.

My question is: in practice when I try to live there, I seem to others to be somewhat detached – because one is not victim of one’s reactions to senses, emotions, thoughts. For those around they are not happy with this because they expect you be there for them/with them. I mean husband, children, family, friends etc. How does this work in practice with loving our neighbour.  Are they not allowed to benefit from us being fully present to them when in our company? I don’t mind the detachment it creates in me – one doesn’t enjoy certain activities as one used to etc. but it seems unfair to those around us in our daily life. Perhaps I am missing something and as you speak a lot about nuns and their way of life obviously there will be some differences with those living a different vocation. Perhaps you could explain. Thank you.

Leaving our senses, emotions, imaginations, thoughts and drawing close to the Lord by offering ourselves to Him.

Answer: Thank you for your question: one can easily fall into replying that this habit of recollection is rather for contemplative persons who have much more time in solitude. However, in the first place your question involves nuances and needs clarification. Secondly, there is also a need to fine-tune the points for us lay persons. Once this is done, one notices that certain aspects apply also to the consecrated. In monasteries, for example, this behaviour is also found during community times; one might of course be tempted to apply these aspects to it. There are in fact various elements to consider. Combining them together is also different, depending on where we are on our journey of growth, as enumerated below.

1- It is absolutely clear that if somebody is around and needs our presence, our attention should be totally given. The more one grows, the more one sees Jesus in the situation and can listen to Him through the events and persons, as in a constant lectio divina where Jesus talks not through a text by through persons and events.

2- We, however, do not start with this: we start by giving our full attention to the person only. We need to be reminded that Jesus is present in our neighbour and deserves our full attention there also. Spiritual life increases our attention and focus on all such practical things.

3- It is true that for the spiritual beginner, practising the habit of recollection might have a collateral effect of disconnecting the person from material reality and practical things. St. John of the Cross, in the active purification of Memory, talks about unwilling losses of presence to the persons around us, clumsy behaviour in daily dealings. He sees them as effects of God’s action of purification in us. He says that we can forget things. Since God is working on our memory, we can have absences, not of consciousness, but of focus. We can be forgetful. (see Ascent of Mount Carmel,Book III) It is consoling to know this, especially when and if it happens.

4- But one must know that the work of the Holy Spirit is – paradoxically – to incarnate us more. In this sense, the more the person is truly spiritual (I insist on “truly”) the more the person becomes human, practical, attentive to material things. In a way one becomes spontaneously more “ecological”, because he or she is more attentive to matter, losses of energy or waste etc. the appreciation of reality, nature, persons increasing.

5- “Martha” is traditionally synonymous with serving, being there, helping, action. “Mary” on the contrary is the one who is totally dedicated to the Lord, staying at his feet, listening to Him, and being totally attentive to Him.

* Can one be at the same time Mary and Martha? It seems that according to the Mystical Doctors this is the case. The same person, but not the same sphere in the person. Yes we are still one person, but deeper layers are united to God (our spirit) and outer layers (including conscious mind and will) are busy serving the Lord. St. Teresa of Avila’s description of growth, for example, makes her come across the theme of Mary and Martha twice.

* The first time occurs when she describes the Prayer of Quiet. What distinguishes the Prayer of Union and the Prayer of Quiet? In both God acts in the depths of our being, takes our spirit and immerses it in Him. But in the case of the Prayer of Quiet, the conscious part (the soul, emotions and senses) remains free. While in the Prayer of Union, the conscious part is also taken. As we can see, one can very well have his or her spirit immersed in the Lord and keep his awareness intact. As we know, passive distractions can easily be there during the Prayer of Quiet. The supernatural action of God does not invade the conscious active part in us. The person here of course is still being purified.

* It is true that not only during the Prayer of Union, but during more powerful moments of absorption in God, like ecstasy or rapture, or flight of the spirit, the conscious part is absorbed, and this creates a disruption. Thank God that in the first place the effect (like fainting) is stronger in only a few persons and, secondly, that they are rather rare.

* The second time St. Teresa of Avila mentions Mary and Marth is in the Seventh Mansion. The spirit now is united to God, constantly: it is a continuous state, not just brief moments. And the newness of the Seventh Mansions is that they allow the soul to be free, and dedicate ourselves to normal errands, business, work, service.

6- Another interesting factor is mentioned by St. John of the Cross. When he describes a person having reached union with God (the state of Spiritual Marriage), he says that since these persons are purified and united to God, the way they are touched and feel things is rather “rationally” like the angels: the angels when they see us suffering, they know we are suffering but they do not have the experience of suffering. Their compassion is therefore more “rational”. St. John of the Cross seems here to acknowledge the existence of something similar in the persons purified and united. We can assume that the progressive liberation from the sense, from emotions, and from thoughts, is in fact also a progressive transfer of what could be enslaving us through the sense (enslaving is not absence of sensing, it is about the effect it has on us), through emotions and through thoughts to a more rational sensing, feeling and thinking. The process of purification does not remove the acts of sensing, feeling and thinking, but the impact they can have as enslaving us in many cases is very much diminished.

God then can from time to time allow us to sense, feel, and think as before, and He would certainly have his reasons. This is illustrated in the Seventh Mansions when Teresa of Avila says that sometimes, for relatively brief moments the “war” happening outside can affect us, namely, God allows it to happen to show us our worth without His grace (nothing)!

This, in turn, has the positive effect of showing us the direction in which we are going and the fine tuning that the Lord is trying to achieve. Again, it is not about making us less human, but less a slave; it is not about making us less capable of sensing or feeling, but rather about not making us be troubled by them.

7- Now, bottom line, what are we supposed to do? 

A) One has to be there for one’s neighbour. Initially, before saying that all our activity is for Him, we need to ensure that the moments of prayer become really windows of time dedicated totally to Him. 

B) If we feel that progressively we sense less, or feel less, we need to use the “rational” empathy. Yes, the core of our being is taken more and more by the Lord, but we need to “manage” or “govern” ourselves in a wise way, where we can really show empathy. The new empathy is not less empathy. It is a purer one, more directed and governed by God’s Light, allowing us also to be freer. But it is still empathy.

* Remember St. John of the Cross’ general and golden advice: come to terms (or reconcile yourself) with reason. This means that the highest achievement in Spiritual Life (think of the Lord, Our Lady, St. Joseph) can be perfectly matched with common sense, and the use of reason,… Spiritual Life does not take us far from this world. Paradoxically, the “weight” of Love (St. Augustine) takes us down, and not up. It is the movement of God’s Love, of the Divine Charity: He came to save whoever is lost. He goes down, down, down, searching for the person who is lost. The mysterious attraction of God to “matter” (us, creation) is something we rarely think about.

Question: But doesn’t detachment just mean we are not attached? The fact we are detached doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy certain activities. Also it doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy them anymore, it just means we have a better/higher preference right?

Answer: While purifying us, the Holy Spirit changes our palate. There are things which we used to like and now we do not. This is a normal change. As a consequence, also, the friends we used to have, since they continue to be attracted by things we have moved on from, can eventually lead us to be more distant from them, to make new friends, more spiritual friends. Spiritual Friendship is also important. See what St. Teresa of Avila says in the book of her Life.

Question: Also if it’s true we no longer enjoy a certain activity – but if our families/friends still do, we can make the effort no? After all handing our hearts to Jesus means He increases its capacity to love other people and with that comes the capacity/willingness to enjoy and suffer things with them too. In short by dying to ourselves it means Jesus to lives more in us and with Him also comes the Body (members) of Christ. Hence by serving Him we also serve others whether we enjoy the activity or not, is not the point. The point is our accommodating ourselves also to our families and friends. As we sometimes don’t like His will we do it anyway so sometimes we don’t like their activities but we can still accommodate out of love – is that it? Unless of course St. Teresa of Avila means the activity is displeasing to God, then that’s another matter.

Answer: yes, generally speaking yes. But the initial question above was rather about dwelling in the area of recollection which absorbs us more in God and could have the effect of isolating us from our family and friends. The question is valid as it does not challenge the love of neighbour (even when it can be difficult), but it challenges the teaching of St. Teresa of Avila and its effect on us. Thus, if she says we need to be recollected, and if at the same time we need to be attentive to our neighbour, what are we supposed to do? I have tried to address this above.

Question: Am I right in thinking that if the “Mary” in me is aware of the presence of Jesus in my heart, while the “Martha” in me is interacting with my family etc, that I am being as detached as I can be and doing his will as I should be doing?

For this question and the following, let us replace the questions above in their context. We are studying what St. Teresa of Avila teaches about acquiring a habit of recollection. To be fair, she is teaching it to beginners. But of course, in a certain sense, we are all beginners as Blessed Marie-Eugene says. It is always useful to read St. Teresa of Avila regardless of where we are on the spiritual journey. She is talking about acquiring the habit of recollection by using the “general help of the grace of God”. What we are trying to understand here is what it is exactly, how we apply it and what is the outcome of such practice. It was I who later, while trying to explain further the effects of such practice and more so the development of spiritual life, who addressed the relationship in us between two attitudes and how they can be combined: the “Mary” attitude and the “Martha” attitude.

In this question you talk about the Mary in me and the Martha in me, which is along the lines of what I tried to develop in the previous questions. First a little adjustment: I wouldn’t use “aware” applying it to the Mary in me, (“if the Mary in me is aware of the presence”) I would prefer to say: if the Mary in me knows and loves Jesus. Being “aware” can induce us to think that our conscious part in us can be “aware of” of anything which is happening in the spirit. By definition, what occurs in the spirit is beyond our perception. Now as mentioned above, the conscious part can have a sort of a share of what is happening, but we never count on that. We can be perfectly united to Jesus, in our spirit, perfectly participating in his divine being, life and operations and not be “aware”. So, let us be careful with the dynamics of “Mary” and “Martha”, what occurs in the spirit and what occurs in the conscious part: soul and body.

Your question here (“that I am being as detached as I can be and doing his will as I should be doing”) is rather focusing on detachment and making sure that one is detached. Detachment, as in any virtue you pick, has two aspects: active (i.e. depending on us, with the use of the general help of the grace of God always available) and passive so to speak (i.e. depending directly on the grace of God). In the spiritual life, we have our effort, and we have God’s reply. There is what we can achieve and what God can achieve. What we can achieve is little compared to the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit in us, but it is mandatory. If we do not do it, nothing will happen and we will be losing immense graces and growth.

Focusing on an outcome, or on measuring it (am I detached or not) is not healthy. Focusing on what I can do is better. Remembering of course that at the end of the day, God’s intervention will come and make the huge difference.

Question: Consciously I am constantly trying to detach myself from things material and emotional that bind me and of course spiritual pride etc. Although I do not enjoy certain things as I used to, I have never felt that detachment as such as mentioned in the first questions above. I have always thought that as the Lord is leading me, detachment naturally follows. Am I going wrong?

You say: “I have never felt that detachment as such as mentioned”. Better not to judge and try to evaluate. We might be detached, and we do not know it. We might be detached, and God is not showing it to us to keep us humble! We might not really be detached, and we still need to work on it. The list is long. It is important not to try to compare, to evaluate. I know it is not your goal. What matters is to do our part and just make sure we are doing the right thing. The Spiritual Director here helps more because he or she will be able to listen better to more details and sense better if there is a lack.

Theoretically, yes, of course: detachment naturally follows.

But evaluating it and comparing is not good. Better to avoid and focus on the Lord.Trying to have a perfect functioning between the Mary in me and the Martha in me is also a delicate matter! It involves on our part “evaluation”, judgement on our state and our dealings. There is also a normal inclination to imagine and then judge the Mary / Martha relationship with a psychological projection, carrying a lot of idealisations, which really is undesirable. Let us accept our spiritual life, our perception of it, its poverty and do our part. God will not measure our life by these standards (if we had this experience or not, if we feel we are detached or not) but by seeing if we did our part, repeatedly, with a infinite trust in His Mercy. Let us always remember what perfection is: it is the deep experience of God’s mercy on us and on our brothers and sisters. It is loving our nothingness and entrusting it all the time to the Lord! What counts in His eyes is our trust in renewing the gift of ourselves to Him, and not the sleek perfect movement of a Greek Statue. Relying on Our Lady is fundamental.