The meeting with Christ the Head comes about during prayer, while an encounter with Christ ‘s Mystical Body occurs during daily life. But Christ’s head and Christ’s body are one and indivisible. Therefore Christ, whole and entire, Head and Body, is present to us during prayer. The disassociation of the two parts of his being is impossible, especially pertinent where we refer to ‘his body’ when his mystical body takes on concrete form in our brothers and sisters. Through this mystical body, the entire Christ remains undeniably present to us as well during the day, outside of moments of prayer! Given this fact it would be illogical to embrace one part of Christ – the Head – and ignore the other. A ‘schizophrenic life’, is not an option or even worse, if the reader permits the expression, it is impossible to ‘behead’ Christ. St Teresa is absolutely adamant about preserving the unity of our life. Ironically, however, there are some who desire Christ, but do not desire to be involved with the rest of his Body: the brethren, the Community, the Church – a ludicrous assumption in trying to separate the inseparable!
As we have seen in a former chapter, in her book of formation, Way of Perfection, St Teresa considers that there are three essential virtues that are the foundation of the Prayer of the Heart: humility, love of one another and detachment. The Saint invites us to practise them in a ‘heroic’ way in order to trigger the flow of the Grace of God and to have a deeper prayer life. The reason for giving prominence to these three virtues, over many other virtues, is to be found in the Gospel. If we examine them more closely, we will find that all these virtues are intimately connected to the human being and most especially to the Evangelical Counsels. The human being we know has a spirit, a soul (heart, emotions) and a body (senses), but significantly these, simultaneously, mirror the identical rule of life summed up in the the Evangelical Counsels, later to absorbed in the vows of Religious. Thus ‘obedience’ requires ‘humility’ of the spirit, ‘chastity’ teaches us to have a pure ‘heart’, transformed emotions are required in order to love one’s neighbour, as does a ‘poverty’ that ‘detaches’ us from all material goods and makes us free for the service of the Kingdom.
Just as it is impossible to separate ‘spiritual life’, or ‘interior life’, from the rest of our anthropological structure and our daily life, so too is it impossible to separate ‘the prayer of the heart’ from a ‘prayer life’. This would indicate that there should not be any dichotomy between the time dedicated to prayer (and how it is spent) and the rest of the day! A deep bond exists between the two that cannot be dissolved. An apt example is that of the relationship of the artesian wells: all communicate with each other, support each other, but if this does not occur the very existence of each may be jeopardised. Juxtapose this relationship onto a person’s daily life, if Christ figures only vaguely in daily life, the impact on the time dedicated to prayer will be felt in no uncertain terms.
It cannot be denied that our heart can effortlessly become attached to material good of every kind. Even health is a material good. This in turn engenders having recourse to considering purely human means to fulfil our aspirations. What fails to enter this thought process is that when God calls, when Jesus calls, it is not possible to delay our response! It is imperative there be no delay because of the nature of the caller! Almighty God is the one who is calling, and He deserves an immediate and complete response.
In the Way of Perfection, St Teresa shows us how, when God’s call is answered, it should be done with vigilance with regard to ‘detachment’ from material goods. Too easily does our weak human heart seeks support, help, consolation, human means, in the hope that with these means there will be a decided improvement! This is mere temptation says St Teresa of Avila. She is as radical as Christ in the Gospel (see Matthew 6:16 onward). A plethora of questions arise from this radical view: Where is our Faith in God’s Providence? Are we really being called by our faith? Is He not God? Is He incapable of providing us with all that is necessary for us? Why the change of role?
In the Gospel, to aid our journey towards detachment, Christ invites us not to invert values and to keep our hearts pure, detached from material goods: seek first the kingdom of God… namely, if a person possesses goods, let him live in a detached way as if he had none:
But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away. But I want you to be free from concern. (1 Corinthians 7:29-32)!
St Paul says it indeed, he who learned to live in abundance and in poverty: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4:12)
The Lord even before St. Paul said: seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice and all the rest (to which we easily become materially attached) will be given to you, in addition (Mt 6:33). He never states: first do this and then do that! He says: do this and only this, will all your energy, with all your heart! The tone is decidedly radical and has a quality and a purity that are vital components for our hearts as we go about our daily lives! What is at stake is our faith in God’s Call, in the God who calls, and therefore in the Providence of the one who is Father, in his real presence, action and intervention in the world, in our life – the fact that He by himself takes care of even a single hair that falls from our head:
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.’ (Matthew 10:28-31).
The overriding advantage of Christ’s statement is to show that once we are freed from ‘what pagans seek’, as the Gospel says (Matthew 6:32)), we abandon all to God, and to God only! This most assuredly comprises the essence of the First Commandment and its radical requirement as proclaimed by Jesus: you shall love, that is, you will give yourself to your God with all your heart, all your energy, all your thoughts. The first commandment comes first, indicating that it asks us to give everything! Thereafter, nothing is left in us, except God. That detachment is included in the First Commandment can emphatically be deduced from this, for if we give ‘all’ the energy of our heart, it would be impossible to dedicate time and effort to any attachment whatsoever! However, this might appear ‘too radical’ to some! But this begs the question as to our heart and in whose image and likeness it is made. Is it made in the image of material goods or in the image of God himself? Who is normally the only person who should dwell in our heart? God! Added weight is given to this for it is not only St Teresa who states this, but it is also to be found in the Holy Scriptures. In addition, we know that detachment is fully represented in the Gospel – with the two other virtues – in order to keep our heart free to love, free to give itself totally and solely to God.
God does not desire other gods (idols) in our heart!
It is true that if a little attention is paid to St Teresa’s life an awareness rapidly grows that she is a true ‘entrepreneur’. In truth she dealt with many earthly concerns – not that she was attracted to them, but because it was part of her mission as a founder. It is really striking to witness the the spirited way she interacted with the world! She founded many monasteries, and in order to do so she counted on the Providence of God. She even requested her nuns remain poor and that they count only on God’s Providence. She required that they engage in some form of work, and to do so in an intelligent way in order ensure their products would attract buyers and so provide for their needs! The combination of all these elements in her, it must be noted however, is precise, well proportioned, and all this from Above! This purity she alludes to remains her constant guide, and she never accepts diluting it, changing it or diminishing it! This purity is but another face of detachment.
Another facet of her thinking must now be examined, for Teresa’s sole concern was to serve the Lord in the best possible way. What did “best way” mean for St Teresa? It would be opportune here to return briefly to her second conversion at thirty-nine years of age and to the powerful spiritual life that blossomed in her from that moment onwards! Two profound lessons can be learned from this conversion and they are intertwined: she learned first of all that if she offered herself totally to God, then He would in turn offer himself to her totally and, moreover, that the abundant graces which would then ensue would be significant testimony to this! The fundamental lesson bears repetition here: God cannot be deceived in any way whatsoever! Expressed differently it stresses that one cannot offer oneself half-heartedly. We remain free undeniably, and He will never force us to give ourselves to Him, but, when doing so we must not dupe God! Another factor is also at play here, for it is God who desires to offer himself, totally and without reservation – one simply has to gaze at Him as He hangs on the Cross…. The profound lesson Teresa finally grasped was that a true and sincere offering to God would result in an abundance of graces being received. Her life after this discovery is a living testimony of how to attain the goal of union with the Lord and the fulness of Charity.
Who is Jesus? He is the Lord! This is the question Teresa’s wit replies to so readily: ‘The Lord of all money and of all who possess money’. (Way of Perfection 2:2). These words reveal how profoundly her discovery has imbued her very being, for she has learned that she cannot go to Him relying on her own human thoughts and plans. Decidedly not! The means of her approach to God need to be as elevated as the Person with whom she is interacting. Thus, if Jesus wants a monastery, Teresa trusts He will be able to provide the necessary means, her part in this being only to be attentive to his way of doing things, and not to force Him to follow her designs – after all, she has realised He is the Lord not only of heaven, but of all the earth as well! The mission for Teresa and for her nuns, as well as for the life they have to lead entailed, ever more from now on, fidelity to Christ ‘in spirit’ down to the minutest material detail. In fact, when she founded the new monasteries she indicated to the tiniest detail how things should be done, in order, also, to teach observance of even the smallest detail.
The above-mentioned interaction if expressed as a spiritual formula in real terms would be as follows: if you take care of Him, He will take care of you! After all the nuns are the Brides of the King for a real and true reason. The Gospel is the first place where this concept is outlined and it is applicable to all! The challenge is simply to try it: seek first the Kingdom of God, that is, put all one’s energy into searching for Christ, into the gift of oneself and into the reception of his graces. Seek first the kingdom of God, and its justice. The Carmelite nuns do work as everyone does, working being an obligation as the Scriptures say: whoever doesn’t want to work shouldn’t eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Simultaneously however, this work is totally submitted to the essential enterprise: “to serve God in a specific way”, “to be faithful to their vocation” – nothing less than to “seeking the Groom”. Obviously it is sensible to use common sense when doing this work and not produce goods that are useless and not saleable. Using sound judgment when planning an enterprise is is not merely the preserve of the few! However, more important is the fact that it is eminently obvious where the “absolute” lies for them – and it is not in the work! It is the Lord who should be always the first to be served.
St. Teresa, through her works, can urge us to sample her philosophy and this, in turn, will reveal the substance of the the Providence of God. In all fairness, however, this philosophy does not originate with Teresa, but rather with Christ, with the Gospel, the Apostles’ way of life: many before her lived in the same way and many after her will be doing the same!
“I repeat that this consists mainly or entirely in our ceasing to care about ourselves and our own pleasures, for the least that anyone who is beginning to serve the Lord truly can offer Him is his life. Once he has surrendered his will to Him, what has he to fear? It is evident that if he is a true religious and a real man of prayer and aspires to the enjoyment of Divine consolations, he must not [turn back or] shrink from desiring to die and suffer martyrdom for His sake. And do you not know, sisters, that the life of a good religious, who wishes to be among the closest friends of God, is one long martyrdom? I say “long”, for, by comparison with decapitation, which is over very quickly, it may well be termed so, though life itself is short and some lives are short in the extreme. How do we know but that ours will be so short that it may end only one hour or one moment after the time of our resolving to render our entire service to God? This would be quite possible; and so we must not set store by anything that comes to an end, least of all by life, since not a day of it is secure. Who, if he thought that each hour might be his last, would not spend it in labour?” (Way of Perfection, chapter 12)
It would now be fitting to conclude with a number of profound questions to ask ourselves: Where is my heart truly to be found? Into what do I put my energy? What (or Who) comes first in my life? Is there purity in the way I act? Am I detached from material goods? What is my “enterprise”? What do I seek? What do I value most in my life, the value that guides me in everything? Would not the search for answers entail a full and honest enactment of St. Teresa’s way of perfection…?