As we start to follow St Teresa when embarking on a more fervent Spiritual Life, replete with Graces, we ask ourselves this question: all this is well and good, but is this action of God in Teresa palpable? Is it recognisable?
In order to find an answer it is advantageous to consider St. Teresa’s language, in particular the way she addresses spiritual questions, namely, her language is practical, real, existential. She says things as they are felt, lived and experienced by the person who is at the receiving end, while the progress itself is gradual.
However, even if the Grace of God is acting in our depths, and even if we are living in his Grace “in faith”, this grace will have exterior signs and manifestations in the soul and in the body. These manifestations are not mandatory, or better said, they are not the essence of God’s gift to us, but they often show up, because of our initial weakness. The array of what we feel “spiritually” is quite wide: it goes from tears to visions, passing through “consolations” or “spiritual delights”. Similarly the array of visions we can have goes from the lowest, the “corporeal visions”, to the highest and more stable, the “intellectual” visions. In a word, the Holy Spirit makes us experience, in many ways, the Love of God. Here, too, we see that it is the incredible humility of God who is lowering himself to our insignificant human level in order to talk to us and communicate with us.
At the same time there are pitfalls and one needs to be on guard for the majority of the above-mentioned palpable aspects of the grace of God – although the highest visions can be excluded – for it is dangerous to become attached to these crumbs that fall from the substantial table that God sets out for us within the deepest part of our being. This is the case, for instance, with tears (very common phenomena in the first long phase of spiritual growth: 4th – 5th Mansions).
St Teresa of Avila often invites her reader not to be attached to them and to continue to practise the Prayer of the Heart regardless of what is felt or not felt. St Paul uses the image of “milk” given to the baby, as opposed to solid food, in order to describe what God gives in the first stage of growth (see 1 Corinthians 3:2; Hebrews 5:11-12; 1 Peter 2:2; John 16:12). This image is also accepted by St John of the Cross in his teaching on the shift that God operates from a human mode when talking and acting with us, to a divine mode when doing so. If we depend on this “milk” (i.e. these consolations) that God gives us, we start to go astray. Ironically, we idolise crumbs from the table of God rather than the very essence of his Grace. Having said that, it should be acknowledged that God is aware of our initial weakness, and in his wisdom knows how to strike the right balance between what He gives us in some more substantial moments of dryness, and those other moments where He seems to be just holding us in his embrace, giving us a short respite before we resume our efforts to climb upwards.
Understandably, to ask for consolations is clearly not advisable. St John of the Cross even goes on to say that it is a formal sin. It is wiser and more fruitful, then, to trust in God and in his “management” of our spiritual life, knowing that He always offers what is best for us. A timely reminder would not go amiss here: whoever practises the Prayer of the Heart while expecting consolations and desiring them is going astray! This would be tantamount to starting to replace, albeit unconsciously, consolations in place of God… People become spiritual persons – but nonetheless – the consolations have become idols. As St John of the Cross so adamantly expresses: our journey is towards God, and we need to access God through Faith!
When we practise the Prayer of the Heart, our contemplation of the humanity of Christ is greatly needed because in Christ we find everything, because He is the only being who is at one and the same time, fully God and fully man, and nothing that we need is lacking in Him. Taking Him as the true companion for the journey is the ideal support for us to lean on, He is our ideal true “consolation”. This is what St Teresa offers in her teaching on the Prayer of the Heart (see for instance chapters 26 and 28 of her book Way of Perfection). In Him we unerringly find everything! If we are in need of consolation, we will find it by looking at Him, by fixing our eyes on him (one of the favourite expressions of St Teresa). If we are sad, contemplating the sadness He feels in his Passion and sufferings will lift us up. If we are happy, we can contemplate Him in his triumphant Resurrection. He is the true visible image of the Father, He has a body like us, a soul, in sum: a human nature. He is our guide during the Prayer of the Heart, dwelling as He does at the centre of our heart.
As mentioned a few chapters before, discovering that Jesus was dwelling in the centre of her heart, was for St Teresa a revolution of Copernican proportions. She felt liberated and lived it as a decisive turning point in her spiritual life. For her, to know that He is so close to her, within her heart, as a Companion, Friend, Saviour, Spouse, was of great help in her prayer. She was then more easily able to recollect herself and was able to find him more expeditiously! She just needed to “enter within herself”, and go towards Him to find him! This is why she often repeats this important piece of advice: “don’t leave Him alone” and by this she means: He is inside of you, like in a living Tabernacle, but if you are outside of yourself, immersed in creatures and creature comforts, you are leaving Him alone, and He feels lonely; therefore, do not leave Him alone, enter into yourself to find Him and then remain with Him.
When we receive Communion, an enormous source of help is accessed to facilitate the practice of the Prayer of the Heart even more! In fact, as St Teresa underlines in her book the Way of Perfection, Communion and Prayer of the Heart are in their very nature the same! One may further add that the Prayer of the Heart may be likened to the digestive process during Communion with the Lord. This is why St Teresa recommends to her daughters, the Carmelite nuns, that they remain still for ten to fifteen minutes after Mass in silence, without leaving the Chapel! Her reason for this is crucial as, thereby, they will give more space and time to Christ (Whom they have just received) to act in them, pouring out his Holy Spirit and purifying them. All this is without question Prayer of the Heart. The very moment of Communion and the minutes immediately succeeding it are the best illustration of what constitutes the Prayer of the Heart: an in-depth encounter with Jesus, a union with Him, a heart-to-heart rapport with Him, where He gives himself to us, pouring his Holy Spirit into us. Similarly the image of Baptism, with its Greek meaning of immersion, conveys the fact that the Prayer of the Heart is an immersion in Christ where He communicates his Holy Spirit to us.
As above-mentioned, therefore, Eucharistic Communion helps us best to be aware of the secret coming of Jesus into our heart, and of his presence at its centre! This awareness that our heart is like another heaven for Christ where He can find his delight, is a fundamental awareness. This and also attention to his presence nourishes our spiritual life, our inner life, and tells us simultaneously how much an inner world really does exist, and not that it fails exist just because it is invisible.This inner invisible but real world supersedes in importance the visible world and in addition nourishes it.
The daily practice of the Prayer of the Heart further allows us to put ourselves into the hands of the Lord and allows He himself to truly guide us. Subsequently the action of the Holy Spirit in us during the Prayer of the Heart will generate a true transformation of our being in His, a real purification that will allow us to get closer to Him and to be united to Him and by him – in a word – it will generate real spiritual growth. The Lord himself will make us grow and mature spiritually. This is why St Teresa of Avila mentions in her books what the practice of Prayer of the Heart becomes through the different stages of spiritual growth. In this way she sets out and describes various milestones that help us discern where we are on our journey of growth. In addition, at each stage of growth St Teresa delineates various elements:
1- The graces that God desires us to possess.
2- Our role in allowing Him to act, in order to also harmonise in us his role of interacting with us.
3- The final stage of the resultant growth encapsulating what God realises in us.
These descriptions are indications for us to gauge which stage we have reached on our journey, thereby aiding discernment. Each stage has its own manifestations, its physiognomy, and at each stage we receive nourishment, each time more substantial, and at each stage we are shown the need to contribute certain things in order to correspond to God’s action.
Taken as a whole then, in the spiritual life, whoever is not climbing upwards (progressing) is slipping and indubitably will fall down. It is a steep journey! A steady effort is necessary, but this varies according to the stages. This explains the reason for St Teresa taking her time to describe each stage of growth as the entire book, The Interior Castle, so vividly illustrates. In this sense it would be safe to conclude that spiritual growth is the result of victory over many battles, of surmounting many different obstacles. We are in fact co-authors of our own transformation, our own sanctification.
Text from St John of the Cross
The following text, even if it is by St John of the Cross expresses very well what St Teresa teaches. In this text, St John of the Cross makes God the Father reply to the person seeking consolations, visions, revelations as follows:
“If I have spoken all things to thee in My Word, Which is My Son, and I have no other word, what answer can I now make to thee, or what can I reveal to thee which is greater than this? Set thine eyes on Him alone, for in Him I have spoken and revealed to thee all things, and in Him thou shalt find yet more than that which thou askest and desirest. For thou askest locutions and revelations, which are the part; but if thou set thine eyes upon Him, thou shalt find the whole; for He is My complete locution and answer, and He is all My vision and all My revelation; so that I have spoken to thee, answered thee, declared to thee and revealed to thee, in giving Him to thee as thy brother, companion and master, as ransom and prize. For since that day when I descended upon Him with My Spirit on Mount Tabor, saying: This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him, I have left off all these manners of teaching and answering, and I have entrusted this to Him. Hear Him; for I have no more faith to reveal, neither have I any more things to declare. For, if I spake aforetime, it was to promise Christ; and, if they enquired of Me, their enquiries were directed to petitions for Christ and expectancy concerning Him, in Whom they should find every good thing (as is now set forth in all the teaching of the Evangelists and the Apostles); but now, any who would enquire of Me after that manner, and desire Me to speak to him or reveal aught to him, would in a sense be asking Me for Christ again, and asking Me for more faith, and be lacking in faith, which has already been given in Christ; and therefore he would be committing a great offence against My beloved Son, for not only would he be lacking in faith, but he would be obliging Him again first of all to become incarnate and pass through life and death. Thou shalt find naught to ask Me, or to desire of Me, whether revelations or visions; consider this well, for thou shalt find that all has been done for thee and all has been given to thee – yea, and much more also – in Him.
If thou desirest Me to answer thee with any word of consolation, consider My Son, Who is subject to Me, and bound by love of Me, and afflicted, and thou shalt see how fully He answers thee. If thou desirest Me to expound to thee secret things, or happenings, set thine eyes on Him alone, and thou shalt find the most secret mysteries, and the wisdom and wondrous things of God, which are hidden in Him, even as My Apostle says: In this Son of God are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge of God. These treasures of wisdom shall be very much more sublime and delectable and profitable for thee than the things that thou desiredst to know. Herein the same Apostle gloried, saying: That he had not declared to them that he knew anything, save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.404 And if thou shouldst still desire other Divine or bodily revelations and visions, look also at Him made man, and thou shalt find therein more than thou thinkest, for the Apostle says likewise: In Christ dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Chapter 22,5-6)