By Anthony Lilles
The teachings of Teresa of Avila are a vital source of wisdom for many who seek a deeper life of prayer. EWTN’s Daniel Burke, founder of the Avila Institute, often provides testimony how the teachings of this Doctor of the Church guided him through the shallows of Quietism and into the discipline of authentic contemplation. Connie Rossini, author and apologist for the Catholic contemplative tradition, refers to the Spanish mystic’s example of determination and perseverance in prayer. The winds of strange doctrines and religious myths, from centering prayer to Catholic mindfulness, need to be answered by her feminine genius and re-proposal of the Church’s mystical tradition.
Saint Teresa unmasks the spiritual kitsch of our time because she effectively contended with it in her own. New deviant forms of spirituality are, generally, simply re-presentations of previously failed gimmicks. In her time, like the New Age movement in ours, the teachings of the Alumbrados promised mystical experiences after which the ongoing hard work of personal conversion was no longer necessary. Against this, she taught that no matter how far we advance, the Lord often returns us to humble forms of prayer that demand even more ascetical effort and the determination. If some in her time, like some today, proposed states of consciousness that went beyond the humanity of Christ and doctrines of the Church, she emphasized devotion to Christ crucified as the only way to the heart of the Father. If the teachings of Martin Luther promised a more authentic encounter with Christ outside full communion with the Church, she worked hard to promote obedience even as some of the ecclesial authorities rejected and betrayed her.
St. Teresa sets as rallying point, for anyone who would strive for spiritual maturity, a captivation with the presence of God revealed in Christ Jesus. After years of lukewarm religious life and many failed efforts to accept the gift of prayer that was entrusted to her, she encountered the Lord who suffered out of love for her, and this through a humble statue positioned on a stairwell leading to chapel.
The One who was wounded for her sake looked on her with love and she interpreted this, not in an individualized way, but as part of the fellowship of the saints. She connects her encounter to that of Antony of the Desert, who believed that the Lord spoke to him personally through the language of the Scriptures. She interpreted the graces given to her in same light that St. Augustine witnessed to in his Confessions—for the light of God’s confidence had flooded her soul too. She interpreted her encounter with the Lord not only against the backdrop of those saints who preceded—but also in relation those saints who shared her time and culture. Indeed, most of the great spiritual writers of the sixteenth century are known today because she constantly references their teachings throughout her corpus.
The great Louis Bouyer describes how her understanding of contemplation is characterized by its object—the mystery of God Himself surpasses what she experiences of Him. For all the psychological descriptions of the stages of prayer that she provides, her main concern is not really prayer experience, but astonishing self-disclosure of the Living God.
The Object of her contemplation is personal and personally implicated in the plight of the soul. This personal presence evokes waters of devotion and compunction, causes sparks and a raging fire of mystical love. This Divine Presence lives, totally other, as the illuminator of the whole life of the soul, making of the soul a castle of radiant crystal. This spiritual castle set ablaze in the mystery of prayer shines in the cold darkness of this world.
Her spirituality is not about what one experiences, but about what one becomes. She does not promise any achievement of inner peace, but a relationship that this life is too small to contain. Rather than a vague sense of well-being that comes from exercises that aim at mental hygiene, St. Teresa advocates for a transformation, the bestowal of divine purpose, a fruitfulness that this world cannot contain. Past the peripheries of a comfortable and convenient life, she wants her readers to know the kind of contemplation that leads deep into the mystery of the Cross. She argues for a devotion that the Holy Spirit Himself causes to burn in our hearts. In such mystical graces, we find the freedom to offer the total gift of self that she offered through her own devotion to the Lord. She is convinced that the power of God is at work in us: the more one loses oneself in love of God, the more one’s integrity is made whole—and a fullness of life begins.
Contemplative prayer oriented to the mystical life opens up the horizons of a more meaningful existence. The routine of secular existence and the humdrum of merely material dreams are not enough for our hearts. Instead, St. Teresa helps us to seek the One who has loved us to the end. In so doing, she sets us on the path of adventure in which God makes something beautiful of our lives.
Dr. Anthony Lilles is an author and theologian who serves in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as academic dean of St. John’s Seminary and academic adviser to Jaun Diego House. Together with Dan Burke, he wrote 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, which provides a deeper and more prayerful reading of St. Teresa’s writings.