Patrick Burke, O.Carm
‘Oh, what a good friend You make, my Lord’
In her writings St Teresa of Avila reflected theologically on her own spiritual experiences. For her, mystical theology is a theology of love. Real prayer is nothing other than the expression of a relationship of friends. Time and again she mentions this as encouragement for persevering on the road leading to heaven. ‘And if he perseveres, I trust then in the mercy of God who never fails to repay anyone who has taken Him for a friend.’ she wrote in her Life. She added, ‘For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends. It means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. In order that love be true and the friendship endure, the wills of the friends must be in accord’ (Life 8,5).
About her own experience, she wrote ‘A much greater love for and confidence in this Lord began to develop in me when I saw Him as one with whom I could converse so continually. I saw that He was man, even though He was God; that He wasn’t surprised by human weaknesses; that He understands our miserable make-up, subject to many falls on account of the first sin, which He came to repair. I can speak with Him as with a friend, even though He is Lord’ (Ibid. 37,5). This relationship of Teresa with Jesus was at once real and practical. In describing this experience, she could point out for ordinary people, such as her Carmelite Sisters, how different it was from the situation in the world around them. ‘I know that He isn’t like those we have as lords here on earth, all of whose lordship consists in artificial displays: They have to have designated times for speaking and designated persons to whom to speak. If some poor little creature has any business to be done, what roundabout ways they must go through and what trials and favours it costs them in order to get to speak to this lord.’ And regarding the King? For people who are poor or who don’t have noble connections, to speak to him or get near him is impossible.
At the beginning of such a relationship with Jesus as Teresa enjoyed, a path of prayer, words and images express our faith. Aided by reflections on the events of the gospels, one recites the usual prayers of our thinking and imaging. As one grows in faith and knowledge, the prayer life becomes more consoling and the friendship of which Teresa speaks becomes a reality in the sense of a presence of God, leading to deeper faith. For Teresa, the most important thing was imitation of Jesus and love of neighbour; more even indeed than the sublime heights of prayer, which she had experienced. St John of the Cross stresses this same point when instructing beginners of prayer. ‘First, have a habitual desire to imitate Christ in all your deeds by bringing your life into conformity with his. You must then study his life in order to know how to imitate him and behave in all events as he would’ (Ascent I, 13,3). Teresa would tell her Sisters not to bother about the ecstasies or mystic heights - but to sweep the corridors and wash the dishes.
The relationship of friends, in the sense that Teresa wishes to recommend, is basically rooted in and sustained by love. The great theologian, Hans von Balthasar, writing about prayer, states that ‘love wants to be in the presence of the beloved and love desires to have the beloved before its eyes.’ He is describing the noble aspirations of the human heart. But for the one who wishes to contemplate Jesus, the Beloved, it is necessary to employ the powers of his ‘inner senses’ to affect the image. ‘This picture’ he says ‘is not meant to be a realistic photograph, but love’s picture, solely concerned with love, the divine love of the Father, which is here manifested in the Son and in the concreteness of his whole earthly life.’ This would concur with the sentiment of Teresa. She explains in her Life (22, 1) how she had mistakenly followed a path of prayer which was not for her. It was based on ‘strong advice to rid oneself of all corporeal images and to approach contemplation of the Divinity.’ Later she describes the result. ‘When I began to experience something of supernatural prayer, I mean of the prayer of quiet, I strove to turn away from everything corporeal’ (Ibid. 22, 3). She appeared to get consolation and felt some benefit so that ‘there was no one who could have made me return to the humanity of Christ. As a matter of fact I thought the humanity was an impediment.’ She was to learn how great a mistake this was. She realised that she hadn’t the companionship of Christ to help her ‘in her trials and temptations.’ She records that the Lord had rescued her from the path she was following.
Once more the humanity of Jesus becomes important and she walks with Christ at her side. ‘Whoever lives in the presence of so good a friend and excellent a leader, who went ahead of us to be the first to suffer, can endure all things. The Lord helps us and never fails; He is a true friend. I see clearly, and I saw afterward, that God desires that if we are going to please Him and receive His great favours, we must do so through the most sacred humanity of Christ in whom He takes His delight. Many, many times have I perceived this truth through experience’ (Ibid. 22, 6). Once she had come to understand this truth, she studied then the lives of some of the saints, the great contemplatives, and found that they had taken the same path. St Francis through the stigmata, St Anthony with the Infant, St Bernard, St Catherine of Siena etc. Now Teresa, instead of looking at Jesus outside in whose presence she walked, allows the life of Jesus to fill within; and with St Paul, she can say: ‘I live, now not I, but Christ lives within me’ (Gal.2,20).