St. Teresa and Way of Perfection

To God with Love,

I am yours, I was born for You:
What do You want
me to do?

Teresa of Jesus

These words taken from one of St. Teresa’s poems could easily have been penned by her in a letter to God. The phrase “I was born for you” is being used as the logo for the Fifth Centenary of the birth of St. Teresa. It could likewise be the theme for her book, The Way of Perfection as she urged her nuns on to a deeper relationship with Our Lord.

Since Teresa’s other writings, both her Life and the Interior Castle, were not available to her nuns, her confessor Fray Domingo Bañez commanded her to write yet another book which would guide the nuns in prayer. What was intended simply for her nuns to instruct them in the Carmelite life that they were already living became over time a spiritual classic for anyone wishing to live a more perfect life.

In her writing Teresa gave practical insights into a number of topics. She did this because her nuns coming from different backgrounds were at various stages in the spiritual life and she was thus reaching out to offer guidance to each of them. This makes the counsels of Teresa very pertinent to those who read The Way of Perfection today because there is something in it for everyone.

Teresa begins and ends her book with her thoughts on “perfect love”. In Chapter One in referring to the fact that Our Lord has many enemies and so few friends that the friends that he has need to be good ones, she comments, “As a result I resolved to do the little that was in my power; that is, to follow the evangelical counsels as perfectly as I could and strive that these few persons who live here do the same”.

Teresa devotes the last 16 chapters of her book to the Lord’s Prayer and in Chapter 42 writes of perfect love, “Certainly it never entered my mind that this prayer contained so many deep secrets; for now you have seen the entire spiritual way contained in it, from the beginning stages until God engulfs the soul and gives it to drink abundantly from the fount of living water, which he said was to be found at the end of the way”.

Teresa has taken our most common prayer and broken it open as a pathway to perfect love. She has reached out, not simply to her nuns, but to peoples of all ages that followed and those to come.

To assist her nuns in embracing the unceasing prayer of the Carmelite rule she stresses throughout the book three practices: love of neighbor, detachment and humility. In Chapter Four she explains the first of these: love of neighbor. She cautions her nuns that she is not imposing anything new on them but simply to “observe what we profess”. She reminds them that “prayer and comfortable living are incompatible”; therefore to live the rule and constitutions is to be immersed in unceasing prayer.

What has this to do with love of neighbor? For the enclosed nuns the closest neighbors were the other nuns; the first persons to whom the practice of their charity would be directed. Teresa insisted that all must be friends. The love we have for one another is to be a virtuous love; an unselfish love concerned with the well-being of the other. If due to our weakened nature it becomes a disordered love, then all cannot be true friends. When true friendship exists the points of the rule fall in place. The same holds true for those not called to religious life. Where one’s neighbors are friends, the commandments are better observed.

Teresa’s second emphasis was on detachment or poverty of spirit, an attitude of trust in the Providence of God, which requires a vigilant self-discipline to avoid clinging to people and to things whereby we turn them into ends and idols. It is the understanding of the relationship between creature and Creator so that we do not reverse positions. Teresa understood detachment as the total surrender of all to God so that nothing comes between the soul and God. Only when the soul is not held captive by an attachment can it enter into a healthy relationship with creatures, be that persons or things.

Teresa devotes five chapters to detachment and provides examples of the closeness between detachment and humility, which is the third practice that she covers in her Way of Perfection. Detachment extends not only to exterior creatures but also to the interior attitude of where we find God leading us in the darkness of faith. Humility assists us in our self-surrender by allowing God to work in us differently from how he works in another.

Contemplation differs from mental prayer in that contemplation is not something we can acquire on our own. It is strictly God’s gift whereby the awareness of His presence is passively experienced. Teresa explains that “they are gifts God gives when He desires and how He desires” (Life). Teresa taught her nuns that God treats each of them differently according to the path He has called them to walk. He may lift a weak soul to contemplation to increase her longing for and union with Him and may leave another in her present condition of prayer. Since all are called to holiness it should not be a cause of discouragement but one of gratitude and humility in recognizing God’s concern to provide for our individual needs and an incentive to persevere in constant prayer.

In Chapter 17 Teresa writes, “…sometimes the Lord comes very late and pays just as well, and all at once, what he was giving to others in the course of many years.” Teresa herself spent many years in ordinary prayer before she was given extraordinary gifts of grace. And further on in the same chapter she offers words of encouragement to continue being faithful to prayer when she assures her nuns, “In humility, mortification, detachment, and the other virtues there is always greater security. There is nothing to fear; don’t be afraid that you will fail to reach the perfection of those who are very contemplative”.

Although as mentioned previously Teresa wrote this for her nuns, everything contained in this book can be adapted and applied to all those wishing to live a deeper life of prayer. Such prayer presupposes the practice of the virtues, particularly love of neighbor, detachment and humility. True prayer authenticates the virtues and the virtues authenticate our prayer. Whether in the cloister or out of the cloister Pope Saint John Paul II urged us to “Put out into the deep”. Teresa in her Way of Perfection has shown us how to do that. Don’t delay!

God Alone is Enough
Let nothing upset you,
let nothing startle you.
All things pass;
God does not change.
Patience wins
all it seeks.