There is a word that St Teresa repeatedly uses with the word ‘contemplation’ or ‘pure contemplation’, namely, ‘supernatural’, defined as meaning ‘beyond the capacity of mere human nature’, or better still: ‘the direct personal action of the Holy Spirit’. It covers the same spectrum covered by the ‘Particular help of the Grace of God’. In other words it is the Grace of God.
One simple example will serve to enhance the understanding of this, to be found in the the Gospel scene where Jesus outlines for the rich young man the real conditions necessary for following Him. He then comments to his disciples: ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24). The disciples in turn are greatly astonished, because all human beings – and therefore they themselves – are rich in one way or another. One can be materially poor, but still continue to desire riches, and this is, in Jesus’ eyes, to be rich: For where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Matthew 6:21). This elicits a radical cry from the disciples summing up this great difficulty in following Jesus, when they lay bare to Jesus the honest truth saying: [if these are the conditions to follow you] who [then] can be saved? (Matthew 19:25) At this very juncture Jesus underlines the enormous chasm that lies between what fallen human nature can do, without the aid of the new Gift of the Grace of the Holy Spirit that Jesus came to bring us, and what God can accomplish in the human being, with this same Holy Spirit: But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26). This underlines effectively that what God desires and is able to perform in us is beyond our own feeble capacity. The normal action of the Grace of God is consistently miraculous, because it is beyond our reach, beyond our capabilities, hence its definition as ‘super-natural’. Some more recent debates and books in the last century have even lobbied toward stopping the use of the word. At times Theology can in this way become so abstract that it loses track of reality resulting in sterility, in becoming incapable of doing any good, incapable of producing ‘edible fruits’, and in finally causing us to go astray from a fundamental dimension of Christian life: the Action of the Holy Spirit in us.
It cannot be emphasised more that the direct and personal action of the Holy Spirit in the person is the ‘supernatural’. This word appeared more frequently in Theology during St Teresa’s time, therefore, having met many great Theologians and having received from them the explanation of the specific action of God in us, she employed it as they did. The beginning of the Fourth Mansion gives ample evidence of this:
Now that I commence writing about the fourth mansions, it is requisite, as I said, to commend myself to the Holy Spirit and to beg Him henceforth to speak for me, that I may be enabled to treat these matters intelligibly. Henceforth they begin to be supernatural and it will be most difficult to speak clearly about them, unless His Majesty undertakes it for me, as He did when I explained the subject (as far as I understood it) somewhat about fourteen years ago. (Interior Castle, Fourth Mansions, Chapter 1,1)
Her humble attitude is apparent in that she recognises when God starts to work in us, his action is beyond our capacity and beyond our understanding. This, in turn, necessitates the intervention of God himself in Teresa’s mind in order to help her recognise, understand and explain His Grace. A closer look at the word ‘super-natural’ reveals this: ‘super’ means beyond or superior to us, more elevated, while ‘natural’ i.e. our nature, illustrates what we can accomplish by our own efforts i.e. what the human being can do only with the ‘general help of the grace of God’. Or to express it as a former chapter does: to reach the meeting point with God, half-way between Christ and us in order to allow Jesus to grab us: Jesus reached out his hand and grabbed him (Matthew 14:31).
When Christ ‘grabs’ our heart and settles it deep within his heart, immersing it in the Fire of His Love, this is a supernatural action that only He can perform, freely. The individual, any individual is strictly incapable of entering into God’s very domain let alone move in it by his own volition: the Kingdom of God is in verity the Kingdom of God ! Emphatically this is beyond the capacity of the human being for it consists in super-natural action alone. Consequently, when Jesus starts preaching He speaks about this newness that He is introducing, a newness that is completely original in the history of humanity: the Kingdom of God is at hand (Matthew 4:17). The meaning does not entail our entering at will, but it means that the Gift of God, the door that beckons us into the Life of the Trinity is at hand. This reinforces the reason for Jesus’ repetition of the teaching on how to enter the Kingdom and on the conditions of entering it. The kingdom is not something about the future, after death. It is present right now, and has been for the last 2000 years, at hand, at the door of our heart.
To enter it and move in it is something that belongs to the sovereignty of God, and has conditions. It is God’s space, God’s life, God’s intimacy that is at stake. It is a unique reality and Jesus came to gain open access to it for us, to make it available to us.
To those who dislike the word ‘super-natural’, or if the word has unwelcome connotations, another word can be substituted providing it faithfully translates the sovereign freedom of God and the elevation of his saving action in us. In fact we see Jesus many times in the Gospel extending his helping and saving hands and healing not only the bodies but also the souls of his contemporaries. This saving hand, this Divine Energy (the Holy Spirit) that emanates from Him (think of the woman who touched his clothes from behind), is something that is beyond human capability. It is miraculous. If God does not always heal the body, He always wants to heal, sanctify, purify and transform our soul and our spirit. In a way, we can say that each of his miracles on the body can be understood also as a deeper miracle for the Soul: the blindness is not only the blindness of the body, it is first and foremost the blindness of the Soul, the incapacity to see God’s light and life in it. The withered hand symbolises the withered quality of the soul mired in its own diseased will that is incapable of acting according to God’s will. Paralysis, leprosy ,… are all first and foremost illnesses of the soul that Jesus with his ‘super-natural’ action wants to heal and bring to life. God’s life is a gift that initially is beyond our reach.
By contrast, since God created us free, it can be said that He ‘swore to himself’ not to interfere in our freedom. To Him, we are sacred beings, made in his image and likeness, capable of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Him. In this sense we are ‘super-natural’ for Him, namely, different from his nature, beyond his being. It’s as if He were addressing these words to us: I wait at the door of your heart, I do respect your free will, and I consider that you are ‘beyond’ what I would allow myself to reach!
Given this revealing insight into the magnanimous and loving heart of God, the fact remains that the action of God, his intervention in us is by definition more elevated than our own limited capacity. Putting it bluntly, it is quite beyond our means!
It is true that St Teresa talks about ‘pure contemplation’ or ‘contemplation’ pure and simple. But in her eyes and in the eyes of her experience it is the same thing as ‘supernatural’. They are synonymous! Contemplation, too, is a reality seldom used today. However, without the supernatural dimension, or if preferred, without the Direct Personal Action of the Holy Spirit, there simply would be no christianity! This is exemplified admirably with the Apostle Paul (see Acts 19:1-7) when he meets some men, and in no uncertain terms notices the absence of signs of the action of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues and prophesying), begging the question he asks of them: Whose Baptism have you received? Their reply: ‘John’s one’ confirms in St. Paul’s eyes what he felt: not only had they not received Jesus’ Baptism, but they had also not yet experienced an encounter with the Holy Sprit! In haste, he baptises them.
It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptised?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptised with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men.’ (Acts 19:1-7)
A beautiful, simple, and yet transcendent lesson on the supernatural Action of the Holy Spirit it must be said! As St Paul himself had crossed the divide between what is possible to man and what to God, he guided them also to make the crossing. In addition, this illustrates that there is a dividing line between being non-christian and becoming christian, namely, experiencing the Grace of God. It is, admittedly, true to say that one can be legitimately baptised, only for the Action of the Holy Spirit to lie dormant within one, thereby denying access to his supernatural action: Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given to you by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery (1 Timothy 4:14)
St. Paul enlarges on this more fully when he says later:
Wherefore I put you in remembrance that you stir up the gift of God, which is in you by the putting on of my hands. For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. Be not therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began(2 Timothy 1:6-9)
The above-mentioned episode involving St. Paul mirrors St Teresa’s case perfectly. She had lived for almost forty years without the in-depth experience of God’s Action within her. She had been baptised, confirmed, consecrated as a nun, but had had little and sporadic experience of the ‘super-natural’, the ‘Holy Spirit’, of, in fact, ‘Christian Contemplation’.
That this might cause us discomfort as Christians, as Catholics, might be a question to ask ourselves. This might certainly be the case. Would it come as a surprise to us? The answer might surprisingly be in the affirmative! St Teresa, too, was just as surprised by the newness of the Action of God. She could flawlessly assess the difference between a life with or without that New Action of God in her. However, do not be deceived into thinking that life was untroubled afterwards! It created quite a stir, not only within herself but in those around her, and it soon became obvious that she had to clarify, for her own sake, what was happening within her. Fortunately this clarification was also to be most beneficial for the entire church. Having had the humility and honesty to expose to the Church what was happening to her reaped a huge reward: her experience became for others a possible yardstick for a real christian life. One can read her Autobiography and see the turmoil created in her by the Action of God, not to mention the creativity it generated in her: the reform of an entire religious order and all the persons coming into contact with it, both priests and lay persons. Furthermore, since 1970, her teaching has been recognised officially for the entire Church, while she is considered the ‘mother of spirituals’ – as it is stated on her statue in St Peter’s in Rome.
Again, let us remind ourselves that when we say that her teaching is for everybody, that we mean the supernatural action of the Holy Spirit is for everybody, that her way is for everybody, and that we do not mean that the extraordinary phenomena (levitations, locutions, the external manifestations of ecstasy,…) are for all… No. Here we are talking about the normal spiritual growth of the Christian, up to the point where one reaches Union with Jesus and the fullness of Love, i.e. Holiness! In fact Holiness is not just for some only. It is for all.
Here a valid objection can be to raised as to whether there is any truth in the assertion that these heights can be fearful to more than one person, and that there is no way to discern between ‘what is for everybody’ and ‘what is specific to this or that person, classified so to speak as ‘extraordinary’. Arguably this is so – but to put it bluntly, one cannot take off to the moon on a bicycle. In order to reach God we need a rocket, we need the deployment of the Power of the Resurrection, we need the Action of the Holy Spirit. To find a discreet tranquil christian way will bear no fruit. A reasonable, ‘good catholic’, morally sound, faithful, charitable, helping here and there, does not necessarily lead anywhere, because what Christ wants to realise in us is a radical change and in order to do so, He sends the Holy Spirit!
Anyone can follow a ‘reasonable way’. One has but to remember the description St Teresa makes in the Third Mansions of her Interior Castle: the human being finds himself comfortable in it and leads a good christian life. But crucially the Love of God (the Holy Spirit) has not made him exceed the bounds of all reason. A reading of St. Teresa, here, is revealing. She starts by stating a fundamental condition must be fulfilled in order to cross the red line of the supernatural, from the Third to the Fourth Mansions – we need to surrender totally to God, to submit our will in all things to the will of God:
Believe me, the question is not whether we wear the religious habit or not, but whether we practise the virtues and submit our will in all things to the will of God. The object of our life must be to do what He requires of us: let us not ask that our will may be done, but His. If we have not yet attained to this, let us be humble, as I said above. Humility is the ointment for our wounds; if we have it, although perhaps He may defer His coming for a time, God, Who is our Physician, will come and heal us. (3rd Mansions 1:8)Then, she describes what we would call the ‘life of a good catholic’:
The penances performed by the persons I spoke of are as well regulated as their life, which they value very highly because they wish to serve our Lord with it – in which there is nothing to blame – so they are very discreet in their mortifications lest they should injure their health. Never fear they will kill themselves: they are far too sensible! (3rd Mansions 1:9)
Would such a committed catholic be to blame? Yet St. Teresa categorically does blame the person! She finds this way of being christian too ‘reasonable’, or as today’s parlance would label it: ‘having everything under control’. These christians do not commit grave sins, they go to Mass, they help in the parish, they even have their mortifications. Is this enough in the eyes of God? What is lacking? This is Teresa’s view:
Their love is not strong enough to overcome their reason; I wish it were – that they might not be content to creep on their way to God: a pace that will never bring them to their journey’s end! (3rd Mansions 1:9)
The key expression here is: ‘love is not strong enough to overcome their reason’. The Spanish says love is not foolish enough to unhinge them, “hinges” denoting their security, comfort, supports, bearings. This type of person is convinced that his is the way to be a ‘good catholic’. It is similar to what St Paul says in his first Letter to the Corinthians where he speaks about the foolishness of the Cross that is God’s Wisdom. Reason can deceive us into living a life based on reason that is the enemy of God. Ironically the person appears to be doing very well, yet he or she does not have any inkling that this falls far short of what it is to be Christian! In fact the experience of the Love of God does not erupt in him. Meeting the Risen Lord has not yet taken place! A living relationship with Him, face to face, has not yet occurred! There is no opposition between the two states, but significantly they just belong to two completely different realms.
One can see St Teresa as an exalted person. But this is an unfair judgment on her. One has to only to consider how much she achieved during her lifetime: how many monasteries she has founded in her life (please see the outline at the beginning of the book) and how many sufferings she endured by the grace of God! There is not a day in her life when she was not at the mercy of pains in her body or in her head! In all fairness, then, let her be judged impartially, and let us understand that what she says is of the utmost importance for us! Let us remember, after all, that she did not write her books because she enjoyed writing, for she had other duties to perform as a nun. Instead she wrote about serious matters, done out of pure obedience to her confessors. Incredibly, too, she only wrote, in haste, in her spare time – against common belief, a nun’s day is a full day.
Holiness and our endeavours to reach holiness, as we have considered, are serious matters. The journey and the means that lead us to holiness are as important as holiness itself, because without them the entire structure of our christian life would collapse. A sound understanding of what we can do and what God alone can do and wants to do, is of the utmost importance for our spiritual life. It is God who traces out our journey, and nobody else. If we fail to learn how to entrust ourselves totally into the hands of God, if our yardsticks are of poor quality, if our understanding of Christianity is impoverished then nothing will make us take off, rocket-like, towards God!
It is only the Action of the Grace of God in us that will help us both to realise this and to reach our goal.
Note: It is of utmost importance to notice the need to distinguish clearly between what falls within the domain of Psychoanalysis/Psychology and that appertaining to Spiritual Theology. Today, more than at any other previous time, there is a great temptation to replace Spiritual Theology (already in a seriously weakened state) by Psychology or Psychoanalysis, or even Personal Development and Therapies of all sorts, including ‘meditation’ and methods of that ilk. Nowadays it is no longer possible to distinguish the difference between what can be achieved by the actual tools of these sciences and therapies themselves (and sometimes we have to have recourse to these, when needed), from what can be achieved through the Grace of God. The weakness of Spiritual Theology today is of no help at all in realising this distinction. Consequently a huge vacuum is generated by this failing. The deeply spiritual analysis of St Teresa of Avila (and St John of the Cross) of the human being under the light of God’s action is undeniably, therefore, of urgent need and is a real guide in our challenging times. We need to have a thorough knowledge of what God can do and what He desires to do and to transform in us. Otherwise we replace his work in us by a poor imitation of this.