Patrick Burke, O.Carm
‘Do not be frightened by the many things you need to consider in order to begin this divine journey which is the royal road to heaven.'
While St Teresa of Avila focused her spirituality on the human Jesus, it was done in the context of the wider picture of growth in the spiritual life that involves the whole self. In her book The Way of Perfection she makes it clear that she did not feel constrained by the attitudes of some Ecclesiastics who belittled women for trying to improve their prayer life. On the contrary, she strove to encourage and enlighten them to aspire to their full capacity ‘without giving oneself airs’. Even in a light-hearted way she deplores the objections that were expressed about women: ‘it’s not for women for they will be susceptible to illusions’; ‘it’s better they stick to their sewing’; ‘they don’t need these delicacies’; ‘the Our Father and the Hail Mary are sufficient.’ (W. P. 21,2) However, Teresa wholeheartedly agreed with this last statement, adding ‘The prayers from the mouth of the Lord’ are sufficient.
Constantly in dialogue with her nuns, she writes to encourage them to develop and to aspire to better things and to learn to pray in such a way that the whole self is involved. There was a practical difficulty for the ordinary Christian trying to find out how Christ, the Word-made-Flesh, comes into their lives and their world, since the only spiritual books available were in Latin, and in fact spiritual books in the vernacular were banned by the Inquisition. Indeed Teresa, with tongue in cheek, several times assures her nuns that ‘No one will be able to take from you the ‘Our Father and the Hail Mary” (21, 5).
In setting out to teach about prayer, she explains that this is simply a recognition that God is accessible to the ordinary individual; that God, unlike the nobles of her time, looks on the person, because ‘here below, people in paying honour don’t take into account the persons themselves, but their wealth.’ (22, 4) With God every person is important. If someone should raise objections or discourage them, the Sisters are to tell them ‘that you have a rule that commands you to pray unceasingly - for that’s what it commands us - and that you have to keep it.’
She explains how our own development, our own appreciation and knowledge of ourselves comes through Jesus. For Teresa, Christ is our primary teacher. In The Way (chap. 6) she describes her vision of what perfect love might be. Basically it is the imitation of the love of Jesus, lived with Christian maturity in our daily lives. In a centering on Christ one discovers the richness of one’s own self, endowed continually by God with creative grace that ensures human growth in understanding and love. In 1988 Pope John Paul in a homily spoke about seeking this ‘interior equilibrium’. “It is a question of gradually and patiently coming to know what dwells within us, of harmonizing the various components of our person which makes us original and unrepeatable. Holiness passes by way of reconciliation of soul and body’.” Commentators point out the closeness of Teresa’s vision to that of St Augustine. Later in The Way she refers to the holy Doctor specifically, saying ‘that he sought Him in many places but found Him ultimately within himself’(28,2). She dismisses the fainthearted with ‘there is no need to go to heaven in order to speak with one’s Eternal Father or find delight in Him, (28.2). All one need do is to look at Him within one’s self and not turn away from so good a Guest but with great humility speak to Him as a father.