Why ask the Question ‘Ensuring Steady Growth’?
Recently a number of people have been following a Foundation Course in spiritual life bearing the name: “Ensuring Steady Growth”. The following thoughts summarise the reason for the need of such teaching. These thoughts will lead to a better understanding of a very important passage written by St. Teresa of Avila, to be found at the end of this article.
The First Formation in Spiritual Life
Those who received the First Formation in Spiritual Life, received tools for growth and will have started implementing them:
Taking on board Jesus and Mary,
Practising on a daily basis Lectio Divina, Prayer of the Heart, the Theological Acts,
Learning how to respond to ups and downs, temptation,
And most of all learning how to remain faithful to the Holy Spirit and to respond constantly to His Action.
Two aspects of this process, however, remain imperfectly understood:
First, a necessary stage has to be reached: the Union of Will. This is a victory, a liberation, a stability, a short moment of rest, a break, an enjoyment. This first stage is within a hand’s reach, but it is necessary to focus in order to take this big step. It is a veritable Crossing of the Red Sea.
Secondly, that there are conditions to fulfil in order to reach “Union of Will”. Hence the word “ensuring” in the title. It is necessary to ensure that this will happen in people’s lives.
Because of this two-fold ignorance, so to speak, people can go round in circles, with ups and downs, but never cross over. It can be compared to the situation of the People of God in Egypt: when they first arrived in Egypt they gathered at a distance from the Egyptians, outside the main cities, but they were obliged to work for them – they were not allowed to have total freedom. They remained physically in Egypt, under the rule of Pharaoh, even if they had chosen a piece of land beyond the cities.
With the above in mind, it would be as well to consider what follows. When the human being starts his journey, implementing the tools mentioned above, he can be compared to a woman pregnant with twins: the old man and the new man. Of course, the twins constitute a different life, and are not equal in size and influence: the Old Man is almost full-sized with strength and influence, while the New Man in us is very tiny and vulnerable. The Lord compares this to the smallest seed in a field. The person is not aware that there are two challenges in Christian life, not one: opting for Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Guide/Master, and subsequently allowing the new man in us to grow in order to lead us on our path as followers of Jesus Christ. It is true, then, that the goal of life has changed and has become “Jesus” – this as a result of its conversion. But it is nonetheless equally true that the means to follow Jesus should change as well. Accordingly, what should transpire is an actual battle for real supremacy, between the way of functioning between the Old Man and the New Man. While this is ongoing, however, even if Jesus is the Master and Guide, de facto, one tends to be led – unconsciously – by the Old Man’s way of doing things. Our love of neighbour for a start is full of imperfections, led by our sensitivity, our emotions, tastes and personal choices, and most significantly our lack of real humility. Not having that virile capacity to put Jesus’ Truth in us above everything else in us, we are still attached to various ties, especially blood-related ties, and we are concerned about our health, thinking that a too committed ascetic Spiritual Life (fasting, making sacrifices, training our body, praying,…) could damage our health. As yet the spirit of the world, our flesh and the devil have a share in our way of functioning.
Under these conditions, having a divided heart, not working to perfection on the essential evangelical virtues, real progress is jeopardised! The result is that too much effort is required, and there are too many leakages (loss of time and energy not involved in God’s will), ups and downs, of going round in circles…. We can safely say that the heart of the human being is divided, and that he epitomises the third soil of the Parable of the Sower: the good seed has been sown, it has really started to grow, striving to reach the maturity that will allow it to bear fruits, but sadly the soil bears another seed – attention to the world, with heart and emotions divided.
St. Teresa of Avila
There is a well-known Saint who went through this very difficult situation of not being able to commit totally to Jesus: St. Teresa of Avila. She remained in this troubled sea for almost twenty years with its ups and downs, receiving graces from the Lord, but not being able to keep them safe, and especially prone to a divided heart through which these graces seeped. It was, in her own words, a very hard situation, because on the one hand here was a person attracted to others, seeking their affection and support, while on the other hand she has met the Lord who desires all her heart, not a mere part of it. Facing the Lord in prayer with this attitude, certainly becomes an ordeal. Jesus wants all our attention, all our emotions: He wants us to love Him with all our heart and not just a part of it (the upper one), the other part being given to human beings.
It becomes then a necessity to study the conversion of St. Teresa of Avila, at the age of thirty-nine, and to deepen our understanding of
a- how rich in humanity her heart was,
b- how it was divided,
c- what constituted the elements that contributed to her conversion (studying her conversion),
d- how in fact all these elements structured her whole life.
The following is a very important passage from St. Teresa of Avila where she speaks about the Union of Will with the Lord. Very few things have had to be adapted to the modern reader and these have been put into squared parentheses:
“But note very carefully [dear friends] that the silkworm [the Old Man] has of necessity to die; and it is this which will cost you most; for death comes more easily when one can see oneself living a new life, whereas our duty now is to continue living this present life, and yet to kill it ourselves [“it” alludes to “the life of the silkworm”, the Pauline old man]. I confess to you that we shall find this much harder, but it is of the greatest value and the reward will be greater too if you gain the victory. But you must not doubt the possibility of this true union with the will of God [Union of Will]. This is the union which I have desired all my life; it is for this that I continually beseech Our Lord; it is this which is the most genuine and the safest. But alas that so few of us are destined to attain it!
A person who takes care not to offend the Lord and has [decided to start the Journey of Spiritual Life] may think he has done everything. But oh, there are always a few little worms which do not reveal themselves until, like the worm which gnawed through Jonas’s ivy [Jonas 4:6-7] they have gnawed through our virtues. Such are self-love, self-esteem, censoriousness (even if only in small things) concerning our neighbours, lack of charity towards them, and failure to love them as we love ourselves. For, although late in the day we may fulfil our obligations and so commit no sin, we are far from attaining a point necessary to complete union with the will of God.” [St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 5th Mansions, Chapter 3]
As we see, in this quote from St. Teresa of Avila, she lays considerable stress on the fact that committing to spiritual life (in her case it is included in Religious Life) is not enough. One has to be aware of the worms that undermine steady growth. Indeed, she emphatically declares that the old man has to die, and even more so she underlines the necessity of a first important victory: reaching Union of Will. This passage is a hymn to the Union of Will and its importance in Christian Life.
These words of St. Teresa of Avila are also a warning given to all the Church, and this warning should be taken seriously, because it comes from a Saint who is also a Doctor of the Church. A Saint who was sent to us at a time in the life of the Church where Reform was needed and showed us the way to true Reformation. It is simply not enough to commit to Spiritual Life; it has to bear the conditions of real steady growth in order to reach Union of Will with the Lord. Deep analysis of St. Teresa helps us to avoid pitfalls as we proceed along the way.
Many are called, many engage in Spiritual Life, but how many succeed in reaching this first stage of Spiritual Life? And we are not talking about Spiritual Marriage….
The Imitation of Christ, Thomas Kempis
Book I, The Eleventh Chapter
Acquiring Peace and Zeal for Perfection
I 1 We should enjoy much peace if we did not concern ourselves with what others say and do, for these are no concern of ours.
2 How can a man who meddles in affairs not his own, who seeks strange distractions, and who is little or seldom inwardly recollected, live long in peace?
3 Blessed are the simple of heart for they shall enjoy peace in abundance. (Ps. 37 (36):11)
II 4 Why were some of the saints so perfect and so given to contemplation?
5 Because they tried to mortify entirely in themselves all earthly desires, and thus they were able to attach themselves to God with all their heart and freely to concentrate their innermost thoughts.
6 We are too occupied with our own whims and fancies, too taken up with passing things.
7 Rarely do we completely conquer even one vice, and we are not inflamed with the desire to improve ourselves day by day; hence, we remain cold and indifferent.
III 8 If we mortified our bodies perfectly and allowed no distractions to enter our minds, we could appreciate divine things (Mt. 16:23) and experience something of heavenly contemplation.
9 The greatest obstacle, indeed, the only obstacle, is that we are not free from passions and lusts, that we do not try to follow the perfect way of the saints (Heb. 9:8).
10 Thus when we encounter some slight difficulty, we are too easily dejected and turn to human consolations.
IV 11 If we tried, however, to stand as brave men in battle, the help of the Lord from heaven would surely sustain us (Ger. 41:16; 2 Chr. 20:17).
12 For He Who gives us the opportunity of fighting for victory, is ready to help those who carry on and trust in His grace.
13 If we let our spiritual progress depend on the observance of its externals alone, our devotion will quickly come to an end.
14 Let us, then, lay the axe to the root (Mt. 3:10) that we may be freed from our passions and thus have peace of mind.
V 15 If we were to uproot only one vice each year, we should soon become perfect.
16 The contrary, however, is often the case—we feel that we were better and purer in the first fervour of our conversion than we are after many years in the practice of our faith.
17 Our fervour and progress ought to increase day by day; yet it is now considered noteworthy if a man can retain even a part of his first fervour.
18 If we did a little violence to ourselves at the start, we should afterwards be able to do all things with ease and joy. It is hard to break old habits, but harder still to go against our will.
VI 19 If you do not overcome small, trifling things, how will you overcome the more difficult?
20 Resist temptations in the beginning, and unlearn the evil habit lest perhaps, little by little, it lead to a more evil one.
22 If you but consider what peace a good life will bring to yourself and what joy it will give to others, I think you will be more concerned about your spiritual progress.