Q & A on Chapter 26 of Way of Perfection

Question 1: In Chapter 26, St. Teresa seems at times to be talking about prayer in daily life, when for example she speaks of looking at the Lord from time to time. As if when you were doing work, you give Him a glance. Am I reading this correctly?

Answer: Yes, correct. In order to understand what she says it is important to place it first, in its context and then see it according to the intention of St. Teresa.

First let us remember: this writing is addressed initially essentially to her daughters, gathered in the first reformed monastery of St. José of Avila. They are now in a very tight enclosure, living a life of recollection, being totally focused on Christ. The contact with the exterior world has been drastically reduced. The eyes and the attention revolve around the interior of the Monastery. There is a real garden inside of the Monastery. There are also some hermitages in the garden. There is no exterior ministry or apostolate.

Everything is happening in two dimensions: i) in the heart of each nun, and ii) in the community. There is no interference from the outer world! It is St. Teresa’s choice, to be in the middle of the city, at its heart, and as its heart, but lead a very recollected secluded contemplative life. Horizontally the sisters are cut off from the world, but vertically, they are totally, utterly and mysteriously (mystically) connected to the heart of the people who live in their city.

In the ancient monastic tradition of the Desert Fathers, the highest ideal to be realised is eremitic life. So the potential monk first exercises himself in the Coenobitic life, and if he has the vocation (temperament, capacity, balance, discernment…), and with the agreement of the elders, he can then leave the monastery and go and live in a nearby cave (maybe a few miles away) as a hermit. So even if it is considered as the summit of monastic life, of spiritual life, not everybody has the call for this very difficult and challenging style of life.

Within this cadre the Carmelite rule is unique. The style of life it depicts is essentially a hermitic life. The Carmelites in fact were initially hermits gathered on Mount Carmel under one Rule, that is, first, they lived as hermits, and secondly they performed some acts in community. The Carmelite Rule is therefore an eremitic life. It is addressed to the hermits gathered and living on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. St. Teresa, reforming her Order and going back to the purity of the Carmelite Rule, knows this very well. She is aware that she is now imposing on her nuns a very strict separation from the world. She is very much aware that she is asking her daughters to practise two full hours of contemplative prayer every day. A few decades before her, the Franciscans Recollects – whom she read about – actually practised this for three hours a day. She initially wanted the reformed Carmelite brothers to do the same for three hours daily.

“Deprived” so to speak of any distractions or attentions coming from the outer world, focused on Christ and on their call to follow the Carmelite rule the nuns, gathered at the newly founded monastery, ask St. Teresa of Avila to write for them about contemplation. In fact, this is not only their desire but also their goal. We know St. Teresa spoke to her daughters about contemplation; we know she has some familiarity with God’s intervention in our life as a response, if we decide to commit totally and with resolve to Him. She had already written in the book of her Life about four different ways of watering the garden of our soul during contemplative prayer (Prayer of the Heart), i.e. receiving God’s Grace (the Particular help of the Grace of God).

But now, facing such a radical application of the Carmelite Rule, being cut off from the World, living in silence the whole day except for the two hours of recreation after lunch and dinner, her nuns are asking her to tell them how she obtained the grace of God, i.e. contemplation, and how they ought to live. They want the “magic” formula, her secret, the core of her experience.

This is the origin of her book “Way of Perfection”. In fact, in practice, she will be writing the book of the new reformed life. This is the essential book for Carmelite nuns and novices, this is the book that the entire community will often go back to every Lent as a reading in the Refectory. This is a book which indicates how to live in the community, a book where she offers the Order the intentions and the soul of this new life (see Chapters 1 and 3). Indeed, she explains in it how to live in the community, by practising the three evangelical virtues of brotherly love, detachment and humility, and suggesting they be practised with perfection. She goes on to explain the level and quality of perfection in the book.

There is the apparent paradox however: her daughters are asking her to talk to them about the “juicy” part of their life so to speak, the central part of it: supernatural contemplation. St. Teresa on the other hand seems to delay answering their question, since she does not speak about contemplation or contemplative prayer (mental prayer) for almost half of the book. By contrast, though, the Saint knew very well what she was doing. She wanted to show in a practical way the golden rule of spiritual life:

Jesus gives himself to you (i.e. supernatural contemplation) in the same degree as we give ourselves to Him.

The entire book hangs on this golden rule and follows this golden thread, which St. Teresa will repeat  many times. This is why, in the first half of the book she shows her daughters how to live in a perfect way, how to give themselves to Christ during the day. This way – she knows – He will surrender (like the king under checkmate) and will give himself to us, i.e. give us supernatural contemplation.

Note: Contemplation by definition ought to be understood as “supernatural”, i.e. involving the direct and personal intervention of the Holy Spirit. To say “supernatural contemplation” is a way to emphasise the supernatural aspect of it, or infused aspect of it, and the fact that it totally depends on God’s decision.

As one can see – and this is now the answer to the question – the chapters we are reading (26. 28-31…) should be placed in this context and within her line of thought. She is not teaching contemplative prayer only, as a separate daily exercise or type of prayer. She knows that we have contemplative prayer and a contemplative life. “Prayer” and “life of prayer”. She stresses that they cannot be separated. When I start to pray the Prayer of the Heart, I am who I was during the day, not another person. The way I spent my day (recollected or not, in the presence of Jesus or not, faithful to Him and to his word or not) determines the quality of my hour of Prayer of the Heart. I cannot separate or isolate the moment of prayer from my daily life. Vice versa, when I resume my daily errands and dealings, I am who I was during this hour of silent prayer. In this book therefore St. Teresa is not just teaching contemplative prayer. She is teaching us contemplative life, or a life of prayer, a prayer life. She is giving us her entire soul in this book. In this sense, a very traditional element in Carmelite life (we find it also in the desert fathers and in St. Paul) is to strive to live constantly in the Presence of God or to pray incessantly (St. Paul) like prophet Elijah who says: “Vivit Dominus in cuius, conspectu sto” (1 Kings 17:1) (“As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand”).

Note: We see this aspect of Carmelite life and of spiritual life greatly developed in the advice of  Brother Laurence OCD, and in the teaching of St. Elisabeth of the Trinity.

We cannot separate our effort to live in the presence of God and contemplative prayer. They are intimately linked and influence each other. For St. Teresa a “life of recollection” and “recollection” as a prayer are one. Having two hours of recollection is part of what she offers in her Reform, but this is only one aspect of contemplative prayer. She also invites us to have a recollected way of praying (Mass, Divine Office, Rosary…). Of course, living in the world is very different to living in a silent monastery, but still, we can always glance towards Jesus during the day and love Him! As she invites her nuns to do, so is she also inviting us to do the same – as much as we can.

This is why, the habit she invites her daughters to acquire, the habit of recollection, using the general help of the Grace of God, is a habit which permeates not only the entire day, not only the entire way of praying other prayers but also the two hours of contemplative prayer. There is no separation between recollection as a way for praying, as a constant new predisposition, and a life of recollection. We cannot separate the practice of Contemplative Prayer from the practice of living (recollected) in the Presence of the Lord.

Question 2: In some passages in Chapter 26 she speaks of words we might use in speaking with the Lord, giving us a model to follow. This seems different to silent prayer of the heart. How do I reconcile these?

Answer: Contemplative Prayer practised in many Carmelite monasteries in the world is of course practised in silence. The whole community is gathered in the chapel, in silence. The same applies after the end of the Mass, for ten to fifteen minutes, every day. But cultures do differ. If you were in Spain, you can very easily, during the hour of mental prayer, hear a nun exclaiming audibly. It is a natural and spontaneous expression of feelings and is totally accepted as normal and not as a nuisance. It resembles in part the moment when St. Augustine in Milan saw for the first time St. Ambrose, reading silently. In ancient times, you would read in at least a low audible voice. In many countries or cultures, it was unheard of to read silently: if you were to read, one would obviously hear you. Many priests and consecrated would ask the question – even today: “If I am alone, for it to be canonical, can I say the Prayers of the Hours (the Breviary) in silence or should my voice be heard, like a whisper?

St. Teresa is very natural; she does not excessively categorise the ways of dealing with the Lord. Instead she offers a natural, spontaneous and genuine way of dealing with the Lord. Will it stop us from being recollected? No. When the Priest invites us to lift up our hearts, he continues on to pray the Mass in an audible voice, we even sing: would this make us lose our connection with or immersion in the Lord? No. By contrast, let us not forget the fact that Prayer of the Heart still has the main characteristic of being unique, silent and not mixed with other types of prayers. The indications she gives do not stop us from praying.

It is true that she seems for a moment or two to abandon this train of thought. True. But let us remember the main idea of this chapter: how to recollect our thoughts, how to deal with a mind full of distractions, the windmill of our mind. Focusing on Jesus can be helped by our talking to Him, just as recollection can be helped by reading a passage. We are not supposed to transform Prayer of the Heart into a reading session in a library, similarly, let us not transform her recommendation to speak to Jesus into a new form of prayer or a chatty way of prayer. The idea of the answer to the question lies in “balance”, in “divining her main intention” and remembering it. In this chapter she is pursuing this goal: how to recollect the mind. A mind that can be very distracted and unstoppable.

Question 3: Some of the passages in Chapter 26 immerse St. Teresa in gospel scenes. Again, it is wonderful, but it seems quite different from the method of Prayer of the Heart that we are learning. Do I just need flexibility here? Is St. Teresa more or less blending types of prayer in her great spontaneity?

Answer: It is true that she was side-tracked twice at least in the chapter. She was engulfed very strongly by the scenes. True. Can we say that she is teaching another type of prayer? No. Can we say that we learn from her about our weakness and the need for us to use, from time to time, tools (focus on Jesus, the Gospel, an image, ..)? Of course, yes.

It is not a “blending of types” of prayer. It is one type of prayer: the prayer of the heart (contemplative prayer). It is noteworthy to add that it is also the smallest denominator of all prayers. The core of them. It is not Lectio Divina, it is not the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. When she teaches in the Book of her Life the first step in “Prayer of the Heart” which is “meditation”, is she teaching us another type of prayer? No.

If on one hand the way I present the Prayer of the Heart as a movement which involves two parts: our act of offering and God’s reply, this only adds enormous clarity, and we owe this to St. Therese of the Child Jesus. Seeing it in this way makes us also closer to the teaching of St. John of the Cross, and of the “aspirations” of John of St. Samson OCarm. It is like the skeleton or the core of contemplative prayer. If St. Teresa of Avila adds some flesh and nerves, it makes it more human. If St. Therese tells us that all the times she practised Prayer of the Heart she felt then to be rather dry, this tells us something more about contemplative prayer. If St. John of the Cross talks at a certain point of the “abyss of recollection” which is the Act of Faith, or in other places he calls it a loving gaze, we are also learning something! I think that the core is presented in the Method using the diagrams. The flesh added by St. Teresa of Avila can help our weakness. So, it is not a flexibility needed between two types of prayer. It is a flexibility needed while moving from skeleton to flesh and back to the skeleton.

Therese herself will simplify the long two paragraphs of the Act of Oblation (which is Prayer of the Heart) into “draw me and we will run”, to “draw me” only, to “Jesus”, to “I love Him”… to maybe her “breath” so to speak. Here we have a flexibility along the lines of simplification.

Question 4: Here is a much more complex and specific – almost private – question regarding the Discalced Carmelite Order. The book by Juan de Jesus-Maria (Aravalles) which presents Contemplative Prayer, published inside the Reformed Carmelite Order by the male branch, a book signed by the governing members of the newly reformed order, among them St. John of the Cross, contains the following puzzling steps: 1. Preparation – 2. Reading – 3. Meditation – 4. Contemplation – 5. Thanksgiving – 6. Petition – 7. Epilogue.

– Can we identify here the central movement of recollection led by St. Teresa of Avila?

– Can we identify the “general gaze”, or the “loving gaze” of St. John of the Cross?

– These seven steps seem quite distant from the teaching of St. Teresa and of St. John of the Cross. Paradoxically, this book was published while St. John of the Cross was still alive; he signed it!

– The text invites us to read a book! It invites us to meditate on what we’ve read. Is this book the Scriptures?

– This way of praying coined as “contemplative prayer” is normally the trademark of the reform of St. Teresa of Avila. But it looks more like a form of Lectio Divina.

All these questions are puzzling and seem to add more confusion. What can we make of this?

Answer: Let us also note that, in his work, Juan de Jesus-Maria refers neither to St. Teresa of Jesus nor to St. John of the Cross, at least not explicitly. His intent is to root the way of praying of the Carmelite Reformation in the practice of the Fathers of the Church and more so in the Monastic Tradition. Despite this, he does not indicate to us if the text to read is the Scriptures. The Carmelites Priests were allowed to have the Scriptures in Latin. The distance between the two geniuses of the Carmelite Reform (St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross) and their collaborators is indeed surprising.

A fairly popular trend, with crystallized methods of prayer, enriching spiritual life, had taken root in Spain starting from the end of the fifteenth century with the Franciscans Recollects: Francisco de Osuna, Bernardino de Laredo, Alonso de Madrid, Pedro de Alcantara, Luís de Grenada, Juan de Avila, and Bernabe de Palma who were among its most famous and prolific authors. Not to forget one of the most famous ones: St. Ignatius of Loyola with his Spiritual Exercises.

Objection: Even if the great Carmelite doctors speak essentially about contemplative prayer and contemplation, one had to start the journey with “meditation”. True. But the paradox is that “contemplation” is present in the list, it is mentioned after “meditation”. Maybe the beginners will have in the process less “contemplation” and more “meditation” as St. Teresa of Avila seems to allude in her first way of watering the garden in her Autobiography (Life)? St. John of the Cross will talk about God moving us at a certain point of growth from “meditation” to “contemplation”. But this is not at all related to a method of prayer, it is a juncture in the spiritual growth of the human being.

One has to say, however, that despite all our efforts to find answers from St. Teresa and from St. John of the Cross, the format is still more like a traditional monastic mediaeval Lectio Divina.

Certainly, St. Teresa of Jesus applied a similar method in the inner organization to be used in contemplative prayer. In her writings St. Teresa of Jesus did not deal with the question of which books should be meditated upon. In Chapter 26 of the Way to Perfection she even talks about the possibility of reading a book in Castilian. She says: “a good book”, and that is all. But she also states that she prefers the words of the Gospel: “I have always been fond of the words of the Gospels – uttered by the very lips of the Lord – and have found more recollection in them than in the most carefully planned books” (Way of Perfection, Escorial manuscript 21, 4). Conclusion, she doesn’t explain which book.

Nor can she speak about Scripture itself, for the Scriptures in Spanish were removed from the market by the Inquisition. The historians all recognise that Teresa of Avila was never able to read the Sacred Text in a partial or complete Bible, neither in Latin (which she did not know) nor even in Castilian. She could therefore only have access to the Holy Scriptures through her “prayer books (…)” and through the Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony (it is one of the books recommended by her and well present in her monasteries). The Castilian translation of the Bible was taken out of circulation because of a certain excess of zeal by the Inquisition: “The Index of Toledo (1551), then that of Valdes (1559) and finally that of Quiroga prohibited the publication and reading of the Bible in the vernacular”. This may be the reason why the Lord appeared to her and told her that he would be her living book:

“When they prohibited the reading of many books in the vernacular, I felt that interdiction very much because reading some of them was an enjoyment for me, and I could no longer do so since only Latin editions were allowed. The Lord then said to me: ‘Don’t be sad, for I will give you a living book.’ I could not understand why this was said to me, since I had not yet experienced any visions. Afterward, just a few days later, I understood very clearly, because I received so much to think about and such recollection in the presence of what I saw, and the Lord showed so much love for me by teaching me in many ways, that I had little or almost no need for books. His Majesty had become a true book in which I saw the truths. Blessed be such a book that leaves what must be read and done so deeply imprinted that you cannot forget!” (Life 26,5).

The Lord appeared to her in 1559 (Index of Valdes), when other spiritual books were withdrawn. We can conclude the issue regarding which book to use during Contemplative prayer with the words of Fr. Jesus Castellano OCD: “Even if we have to acknowledge that the contact of the Saint with the Word of God has been fragmentary, veiled sometimes because of the Latin and impoverished for a lack of a global vision of the biblical message, we have to recognise the decisive weight it has in her spiritual formation and teaching”

Generally speaking, during the period of the “devotio moderna”, which extends to the time of St. Teresa of Avila, spirituality found a form of prayer that replaced Lectio Divina. Mental Prayer became a pious exercise independent from “spiritual reading”, i.e. which was no longer nourished mainly by the Bible; this lasted well into the 20th century and up to the beginning of the “return to Sacred Scripture”.

We also know that St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus did not have access to all of the Scriptures in her Carmel in Lisieux. This was common in the Carmels for women until the 1950s.