March 28, 2015

Saint Teresa of Avila's Way - on the Quincentennial of her Birth

"When our actions and our words are one, the Lord will unfailingly fulfil our petitions.  He will give us His kingdom and help us by means of supernatural gifts...which the Lord bestows on our feeble efforts." Teresa of Avila, Way of Perfection, Chapter 37

Today, Saturday, March 28, is a great day of rejoicing for Carmelites everywhere and for the whole Church.   Five hundred years ago the daughter of Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda and Beatriz de Ahumada y Cuevas, in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula, in the province of Avila, in the small town of Gotarrendura, she became a pioneer in the renewal of contemplative prayer that swept through Spain in the 16th Century.  In her work, Way of Perfection, she offers a meditation on the Lord's Prayer.  For her, this prayer aims towards the heights of mystical contemplation, but starts in the simplicity of a humble petition.

Teresa is convinced that the prayer that Christ commanded us to say demands the same humble movement of faith whether from the simple minded or else the most genius, the most disciplined or the least. Only as the disciplined realize the insufficiency of their own efforts do they glimpse the spiritual logic that she contemplates in this Gospel message. Only as a great mind humbly bows down in wonder can it begin to explore the pathway to perfection that she sees in these seven petitions entrusted to us by the Lord.

The pathway to the progress that she sees in this prayer revealed by the Word of the Father is the way of authenticity, the alignment of what we say with what we do.  We are so out of harmony with ourselves, with each other and with God that only God Himself can bring us back into tune.  She herself knew from first hand experience how His saving intervention comes in the nature of a gift that we welcome by humble efforts informed by living faith. Her encounter with the Man of Sorrows in her convent in Avila helped her understand that this saving gift is the heart piercing realization of how much He loves us, a consuming desire to contemplate the suffering love by which He contemplates us.

She suggests in so many ways that the Lord is never indifferent to even the most tepid efforts of devotion if only we will trust Him and not lose heart.  What starts as a spark becomes a consuming fire.  What seems to take so much effort at first soon washes over the soul like a refreshing rain.  The silken cocoon of good works we make by God's grace but with great difficulty becomes a transforming place of new spiritual freedom.  She describes a quietness of soul filled with the fulness of God, a sacred stillness exploding like a fountain of living water.  Although bringing the way we live into harmony with those noble intentions the Holy Spirit has stirred in our hearts may seem impossible, she insists every act of devotion exposes us to these splendors of heaven...provided we keep our hearts fixed on His great love.

What amazes me is her confidence in God.  She is acutely aware of human weakness and our capacity for self-deception. She knows how given we are to self-torment.  She is no stranger to the host of irrational anxieties that can assail a soul. She is even more aware, however, of the astonishing immensity of God's love.

On this great day in the life of the Church, Teresa helps us consider how the Lord permits himself to be bound by our love.  It is love that makes our prayer authentic, God's love at work in us that brings into harmony what we say and what we do.  If however our efforts to repeat what the Lord has told us to say move in our hearts in even the most subtle of ways, it is only because the Holy Spirit used our frail efforts to blow new life in us.  This is the Kingdom of Heaven that the wisdom of Saint Teresa of Avila sees coming, and today, on the threshold of Holy Week, may we all come to see it too!

For more on this Doctor of the Church, I recently published a book with Dan Burke that provides meditations on a selection of Teresa of Avila's letters, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila through Emmaus Publishing. 

March 5, 2015

The Gravity of the Father's Love in Heaven and on Earth

The Lord taught us to call on our heavenly Father not because God is distant or inaccessible, but because the Father is awaiting for us with love. This means that heaven is near and dawning on us even now.   This means that we are the objects of a particular joy, a special and un-repeatable delight that has lived in the Heart of God from the beginning. He respects our freedom but no power from above or below can thwart the hidden purpose of His exceeding love. He is making His will on Earth as it is in Heaven.

The Lord's prayer reveals that the Father Himself is not passive or absent, that heaven itself is not indifferent to our struggles here below. Similarly, the Lord's prayer has nothing to do with spiritualizing away the painful ambiguity of life.  Even when overwhelmed with crushing hardships and painful sorrows, even when our dreams are dashed to pieces and we feel left in total darkness, it is not escapism to remember that our present problems do not have an ultimate claim on us. Instead, we see our hardships in a broader context, a difficult but brief moment in a beautiful story that is raising us on high.

What most defines our existence is the specific gravity of the Father's love.  To turn to this love is to choose to confront what is most essential in reality, what is most painful in our existence. Here we know the mystery of the Cross. All longing and disappointment, all guilt and injury, and death itself fall in prostrate silence before this threshold of Heaven. Following in the footsteps of our Crucified Master into this great mystery, we discover the dynamism of the Father's love as an unvanquished force even when disguised by the obscurity of great suffering.  

His heart is pierced by our plight. He watches for us eagerly even when we are still a long way off.  He is ready to rush to us as soon as He sees us turning home.  He cries out with His Eternal Word and by His Holy Spirit implicates Himself in our lives to welcome us home.  His Love aims for nothing less.

This new presence of the Father working through the Word and Spirit cried with love into our hearts makes our spirits increasingly more heavenly.  This beautiful presence is is in the form of a celebration, filled with the joy of banquet, a feast too wonderful for this world to contain,

If the Father cries out to us in love and truth, how can we do anything other than cry out to Him in faith and confidence? We must never be afraid to allow Him to welcome us home.  Faith and confidence are the most beautiful way of welcoming God and showing hospitality to the one who rushes to us.  The more we makes space and welcome this heavenly reality, the more powerfully this divine indwelling moves us to cry out with trust "on earth as it is in heaven."