A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Way of Perfection by St Teresa of Ávila

Fr Carl Telford SM

Fr Carl Telford

And its teaching on prayer -- Part 1 of 2

This article is a brief introduction to The Way of Perfection.

St Teresa wrote this book at the request of her daughters at her first monastery, St Joseph’s in Avila. This is a book for formation, written to help the sisters in their life of prayer. They would have realised that St Teresa’s prayerfulness, wisdom and joyfulness came from a deep experience of God. This book is sometimes called the Teresian Gospel. It is her handbook and manual on prayer and on the virtuous life that is its companion. St Teresa wrote it to give her daughters the key to cultivate a love for prayer which she knew must be the foundation on which the Reformed Carmel must be built. She wrote “my sisters, let us desire and be occupied in prayer not for the sake of our enjoyment but so as to have the strength to serve [the Church]”.

Carmel was to be a fountain of grace and blessing for the Catholic Reformation at a time of great turmoil in the Church. She did not write with no reference to the real world. Indeed, to write a book on prayer was a bold move, as the Inquisition had sharp ears and eyes, and at that time, women did not write books on prayer! But fear did not daunt St Teresa. Think of this book as spending time with the most prayerful person you will ever meet. She is an incomparable guide to the prayer journey and a doctor of the soul.

St Teresa by Peter Paul Rubens, 1615

It is considered to be the easiest of her books to read. She shines in this book as Our Holy Mother St Teresa, as the Carmelites today call her, as their teacher and inspirational guide, and now as a Doctor of the Church to all of us. E Allision Peers, a scholar of her work, called it a “work of a sublime beauty, bearing the ineffaceable hallmark of trace of genius”. High praise indeed from a man who spent his life studying her.

There are two editions. The first, written in 1566 [Way E the Escorial MS] is in a colloquial style just for her twelve daughters. It is a friendly letter with no chapters. However, within a short time, many others realised what a treasure this little book was and so St Teresa needed to make a more public copy, removing, for example, family references. That is why there was a second edition, called Way V, Valladollid MS 1567, more ordered and more carefully written, since the book now had a greater audience than the original audience of twelve nuns at Avila.

This is important to know because as you read The Way of Perfection you might find references to the first and second editions. There is an excellent study edition of The Way of Perfection from the Insititute of Carmelite Studies [ICS], which gives needed helpful guidance for this book for those who wish to go deeper than the brief overview in this article.

The overall structure of the book

It has 42 chapters. In it, two main teachings on prayer are found in Chapters 4-15 on the 3 virtues required for prayer; and secondly a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer in Chapters 22-42.

It is important to note that the contemplative prayer St Teresa talks of is a gift from God. The friendship with God -- her whole being turned towards God, and God being turned to her, was not generated by her. We cannot produce this life style and prayer by our own effort, as it is the fruit of God’s love in our heart. So she was insistent: it comes from God alone  -- “Forever I will sing the mercies of God”.

But her advice to her sisters and us is that we can prepare to receive it. Hence St Teresa spends the first twenty chapters, not on prayer, but on what leads to a prayerful heart.

So, the first part of the Way is on the three essentials and requirements of a prayerful life: mutual love for the sisters, detachment [a free heart] and humility. The book is an explanation of the three virtues required in a person who prays. St Teresa does not use the word ‘holistic’, but that is her genius -- to guide us to have a prayerful heart, with, above all, these three essential virtues.

So, we go to prayer with our ordinary life. For example, if we are disturbed inside or upset, because we had an argument with someone, then our prayer might be distracted. The reverse is true. If we are at peace with our family, humble-minded and hungry for God, we can pray better. For St Teresa, prayer and life go intimately together.

For her, prayer is not so much a warm fuzzy feeling. It is the loving friendship of someone with God and the desire to do his will in ordinary life. Doing his will means humbly loving others and seeking him alone. She is so wise about the conditions for a prayerful life.

St Joseph’s Convent, Ávila

Necessity of humility to pray well

The key virtue for the person who prays is, of course, humility. The deepest reason why we must be humble in order to pray well is that our real prayer is united to the prayer of Jesus, who emptied himself to take on the form of a servant. We find Jesus only in littleness, not in pretension or pride. If we enter upon the prayer journey full of ourselves and wanting the wrong thing -- ourselves or our will, then it will be a fruitless journey. However, if we go because God is good and great and calling us, and we begin deeply grateful, then we are on the right path.

Necessity of mutual love to pray well

To pray means to love God and our neighbour. Authentic prayer always leads us to open our hearts to our neighbour. So, the test of our growth in prayer is our growth in love for our neighbor, especially for those who hurt us. Do not ask: Did I feel encouraged in prayer? No, rather, do I love and forgive? If I am moving in that direction my prayer is going well. Thus, St Teresa instructs her sisters, “All must be friends, all must be loved, all must be held dear, all must be helped”.

Necessity of detachment from all created things

St Teresa writes, “You already know that there is no worse thief than we ourselves. There are many things that will take away this holy freedom of spirit by which you can fly to your Maker without being held down by clay or leaden feet.” So, for instance, we can ask to be free from excessive concern at the faults of others, or from worry about the future. God will provide and we can leave our major concerns in God’s hands. That freedom leaves us time and space to pray well, as we are not seeking our own will or desires.  

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