Even if the position of fraternal love is not prominent on the list of theological graces, St Teresa places if first in her book. (see Way of Perfection chapters 4-7 and Interior Castle V,3). It forms, together with the two other virtues she highlights – detachment and humility – the indispensable trio that ensures a solid foundation for a fruitful prayer life. As she does for the two other virtues, St Teresa presents not not only a spiritual way of practising them, but a heroic way to do so. Hence her style of presentation is more radical, aimed at promoting perfection, as the title of the book illustrates: ‘Way of Perfection’. By comparison with many other authors, Teresa delves more deeply into our minds and hearts, in order to dispose us to progress spiritually to the best of our ability, with the ultimate aim of reaching union with Jesus.
This process, to say the least, hardly leaves us unscathed! With spiritual finesse, the Saint unmasks what is deep within the soul yet barely discernible to the the average spiritual person! Holiness she reveals is not the for the faint-hearted! Strong courage, a fighter’s spirit and powerful determination are some of the characteristics Teresa invites her reader to embody, not to mention aiming for and achieving the highest thoughts and ideals (see Way of Perfection, chapter 23).
– Resolve, sisters, that it is to die for Christ, and not to practise self-indulgence for Christ, that you have come here. (Way of Perfection, chapter 10)
– […] commit yourselves wholly to God, come what may. What does it matter if we die? (Way of Perfection, chapter 11)
– Now, daughters, you have looked at the great enterprise which we are trying to carry out. What kind of persons shall we have to be if we are not to be considered over-bold in the eyes of God and of the world? It is clear that we need to labour hard and it will be a great help to us if we have sublime thoughts so that we may strive to make our actions sublime also. (Way of Perfection, chapter 4).
In sum Teresa advises that our overriding characteristic should be the courage to face our inner truth and then to be true to it.
Here a closer examination of her approach and an example to reinforce our findings would greatly enhance our understanding of Teresa.
It cannot be more vigorously emphasized that to exercise fraternal love is fundamental in Spiritual Life! God gave us two commandments – the first encompassing an all-embracing love of God (Matthew 22:37-39) – on which everything, the Law and the Prophets, hinges (Matthew 22:40). The second commandment is said to be ‘similar’ to the first: your shall love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:39). One can assume, then, that it is absolutely normal for the second commandment to be prominent in the journey towards sanctification. As mentioned in a previous chapter, Christ cannot be cut into two parts, where we express interest in the Head of the Body, namely, Jesus of Nazareth, while we neglect his Mystical Body, namely, our brothers and sisters. Christ cannot be loved on the one hand, when, on the other hand, we reject Him and sadden Him by wronging a brother. The love of Christ, received and treasured during the Prayer of the Heart, must imbue our actions afterwards and become progressively refined during daily intercourse with our brothers. Incontrovertibly, love of our neighbour is part of the three indispensable virtues that summarise the Gospel and which elevate and purify us, in order to receive Christ more worthily within our hearts.
St Teresa’s way of presenting the three virtues, consequently, becomes more elevated and gains in unusual intensity. Her aim now becomes to uplift us toward a purer practice in prayer embedded in greater spiritual awareness. Why would she do so? The reason becomes evident when we show determination in following Christ, for relatively soon we begin to feel his invitation to love, help and serve our brothers as He reveals himself to us in them. However, at this stage we lack sufficient self-awareness, being as yet at the beginning of the journey, and our way of loving is still very weak, feeble and quite imperfect! One could say with St Paul that the old man (Romans 6:6; Ephesians 2:15; 4:22-24; Colossians 3:9-11) in us is still alive and well and playing his usual tricks misleading us, thereby influencing our way of exercising the new virtue of Love. The capacity of the old man’s influence is very limited and limits our way of loving.
The main purpose of Teresa’s Way of Perfection is to speak about supernatural ‘contemplation’. She issues a clear warning to the reader, namely, that God can be approached in two ways: one is through the means of the old man, and the other is to through the new man‘s ones. The beginning of our spiritual journey revealingly concerns this inability to love perfectly, and St.Teresa tries her utmost to highlight the impact of the old man on the practice of the virtues! She strongly advises against practising these willy nilly, in the hope of being successful. Rather she urges the reader to exceed their known limits, in order to awaken in the individual a fully functional new man. In this way Teresa stresses and only in this way, can the acts of love be purer and please Jesus-God who wants to give Himself to us.
A brief interjection regarding St. Paul would be useful here. Even if St Teresa does not directly use St Paul’s expression ‘new man’ and ‘old man’, the real difference between imperfect spiritual love and perfect/pure spiritual love is found in the differing modalities and their effects in the human being of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ man. It is to St John of the Cross that we owe the full explanation of this difference. He makes a shrewd analysis of the seven mortal sins transposed onto the equivalent seven spiritual sins, encouraging us to discover that it is not enough to love God, but that, even more so, it is necessary to evaluate how we love Him: hence the expression ‘imperfections of the beginner’. (See Dark Night Book 1, Chapters 1-7)
St Teresa invites us to love in an oblative detached manner and to do so likewise with everyone else, for the sake of the Lord. This new and radical way of loving our neighbour seduces God and powerfully increases his action in us during the Prayer of the Heart. It is breathtaking to realise that the more we do what is pleasing to God, the more He loves us, evoking in Him nothing less than an irresistible desire to give himself to us – like a magnetic force, God cannot resist being attracted to us! St John of the Cross confirms in the following extract, that we can almost impel God to love us more when we practise fraternal love:
God does not establish His grace and love in the soul but in proportion to the good will of that soul’s love. He, therefore, that truly loves God must strive that his love fail not; for so, if we may thus speak, will he move God to show him greater love, and to take greater delight in his soul. In order to attain to such a degree of love, he must practice those things of which the Apostle speaks, saying: “Charity is patient, is benign: charity envies not, deals not perversely; is not puffed up, is not ambitious, seeks not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinks not evil, rejoices not upon iniquity, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (Spiritual Canticle A 10,11 and B, 13,17)
The Lord himself underlines this strategic element of spiritual life: If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him (John 14:23; 21). It is like a new wave of love that originates in God, and ends in us! This might seem astonishing, but this is one of the most important secrets of the Saints. We know that God loves us, that God is Love, but here we see it is something concrete, palpable, it is really received, poured into us! The love of God for us is the starting point of the Prayer of the Heart: a new love that God has toward us!
One can say that the entire book of the Way of Perfection is the illustration of this verse of St John: If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make Our home with him. This Teresa skilfully depicts in in the following manner:
The first part of the book shows our need to learn how to keep Jesus’ word by practising in as perfect a way as possible and by the grace of God, the three virtues that please God most. The effect following on from this, initiates the start of the Prayer of the Heart: My Father will love him. Finally, pure contemplation can occur in the Prayer of the Heart when as a result: we will come to him and make Our home with him. Indeed, in its complete form, this verse shows us the link between the practice of the evangelical virtues and the new transformed love given to us during the Prayer of the Heart. To receive a new transformed love from the Father and the Son, and to receive this coming of the Father and the Son into us – does this not embody the Prayer of the Heart? Here it is patently obvious that there is a deep and intimate link between the virtues practised during our daily activities and the Prayer of the Heart.
Let us take an example in order to illustrate the difference between the two loves, the imperfect one and the perfect one. Accordingly, even if love is an act of the will, when we love our emotions are directly involved. Initially, however, they are not yet purified, transformed and totally moved by God. As a consequence, without our being aware of it, we make preferences in our way of loving: we do not love as God loves. God loves because He is Love: He comes out of himself, He gives himself to us without making any distinction between the good and the bad. He gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike”(Matthew 5:45). God does not find the motivation or the reason to love us within us, but within himself. By contrast, we human beings merely at the beginning of our journey, fail to act with such perfection, for to love in this way does not come easily to us. If, for example, in the workplace or in a religious community there are ten colleagues or brothers: we often find that with one or two we, quite spontaneously, have things in common, or whose company we really enjoy and desire to frequent more, all quite spontaneously, with another one or two, we find that we are not inclined to enjoy their presence, and our attitude towards the rest could is average normality. These three different reactions are spontaneous, natural, normal to have and not blameworthy by any means.These inclinations can in no way be considered sinful. But, if we surrender to this natural reaction and if our action is influenced by it, as a consequence the tendency to spend increasing time with the persons with whom we are in accord will result, so that we might neglect or even avoid the ones with whom we have no affinity or even dislike. Can this be to love as God loves? Ironically our way of loving leads to our being caught in the trap of our own superficial making. While it is evident that we all agree that we should love our neighbour, we deceive ourselves and do not necessarily acknowledge that our act of love is stained by a great weakness. It is therefore good to encourage detachment, especially of our instinctive preferences, to concentrate on overcoming our defects by the grace of God and to deliberately choose to love this or that person whom we actively dislike, by finding even more profound reasons to do so: to love because this individual has been created, loved and saved by God, because he or she deserves to be loved as God loves….
The Growth of Love
Of necessity, now, some questions arise: what is the relationship between the love of neighbour and the curve of our spiritual growth? Does love grow? Does love have a limit?
The love that binds us to God and the love that binds us to our neighbour is the same love – it is nothing less than the Holy Spirit! The closer we grow towards God, the more closely are we united to Him, and the more our love toward our neighbour is deepened, purified and enlarged, to embrace, finally, the whole world. Our spiritual life reflects this in an enhanced growth, where an acute awareness of our poverty, our weakness and the miserable state or our soul becomes increasingly manifest, but where, simultaneously, our appreciation of the infinite mercy of God becomes daily more apparent. As a consequence, there is a rising tide of Mercy and Compassion in our heart, this becoming instinctively translated into prayer.
For the human being who has reached, as it is termed, this Union with Christ (Spiritual Marriage, Seventh Mansions of the Interior Castle), St Teresa repeatedly underlines the fact that it is a great act of mercy to remember in our prayers all those who are enslaved in grave or mortal sin, those who are in the First Mansions of the Castle. The action of the Holy Spirit within us now reveals itself in an enlarged capacity to gather our brothers and sisters into our hearts.
As one can see, during the Prayer of the Heart God purifies our love for our neighbour, elevates it, transforms it, and in tandem, our daily life offers us opportunities to love our neighbour as God desires. In consequence our capacity for love is enlarged, attracts God into our heart and draws Him with irresistible force to give himself increasingly to us!
Believe me, sisters, the soldiers of Christ – namely, those who experience contemplation and practise prayer – are always ready for the hour of conflict. They are never very much afraid of their open enemies, for they know who they are and are sure that their strength can never prevail against the strength which they themselves have been given by the Lord: they will always be victorious and gain great riches, so they will never turn their backs on the battle. (Way of Perfection, chapter 38)
A brief comparison with this and a comment made by St. Therese of Lisieux endorses this complementary action of love. This Saint remarked, that from her youth, she was very impressed by a passage of St John of the Cross where he says that exercising love is of utmost importance hastening our journey to the fullness of Love and Transformation in Jesus:
With what longing and what consolation I repeated from the beginning of my religious life these other words of St. John of the Cross: ‘It is of the highest importance that the soul practice love very much in order that, being consumed rapidly, she may be scarcely retained here on earth but promptly reach the vision of her God face to face.’ (Yellow Notebook, 27.7.5)
In fact a reading of Manuscript C of the Story of the Soul would greatly benefit the aspiring practitioner of the Prayer of the Heart, as it includes different examples and advice offered by Therese on the love of our neighbour.