Listening to the Saints – Teresa of Avila: The Interior Castle (part 2)

This is my second post on Teresa of Avila’s spiritual classic, The Interior Castle.  Read part one.

The whole point of this work is to show the soul’s journey to God.  But this is no other-worldly, irrelevant spiritual mumbo-jumbo.  Teresa’s message is actually quite practical. She emphasizes that true perfection, the essence of what it means to be a Christian, is to follow the Great Commandments:

“Let us realize, my daughters, that true perfection consists in the love of God and of our neighbour, and the more nearly perfect is our observance of these two commandments, the nearer to perfection we shall be” (Kindle location 561-563)

 “the Lord asks only two things of us: love for His Majesty and love for our neighbour. It is for these two virtues that we must strive, and if we attain them perfectly we are doing His will and so shall be united with Him” (1529-1530)

When I think of nuns I am tempted to think of people who sit in a cloister and think about how great Jesus is all the time. While nuns and monks value the part of life taken up by prayer and meditation, we see that they also are active in the world. Think of Mother Theresa’s work in the slums of Calcutta in the 20th century. Teresa of Avila says that we only know we are loving God if we are loving our neighbor:

 “The surest sign that we are keeping these two commandments is, I think, that we should really be loving our neighbour; for we cannot be sure if we are loving God, although we may have good reasons for believing that we are, but we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbour. And be certain that, the farther advanced you find you are in this, the greater the love you will have for God; for so dearly does His Majesty love us that He will reward our love for our neighbour by increasing the love which we bear to Himself, and that in a thousand ways: this I cannot doubt” (1533-1537)

We may sit in our room praying, or spend time with other Christians studying Bible but if we go out and do not love people there is no point in it. As Teresa says: “It will profit me a little if I am alone and deeply recollected, and make acts of love to Our Lord and plan and promise to work wonders in His service, and then, as soon as I leave my retreat and some occasion presents itself, I do just the opposite” (3211-3213)

I love the perspective Teresa gives to this though. I think we are tempted to judge our success in Christian ministry, our success in loving those around us, in numerical ways: if you are the pastor of a church of forty, you are a failure, but if your church has 4,000, then you are a success. Teresa keeps us honest, reminding us God does not need our work, “what He needs is the resoluteness of our will” (771). We love our neighbor, and thus love God, not to gain anything but simply in order to know God:

 “But how,” you will ask, “are we to gain them if we do not strive after them?” I reply that there is no better way than this one which I have described. There are several reasons why they should not be striven for. The first is because the most essential thing is that we should love God without any motive of self-interest. The second is because there is some lack of humility in our thinking that in return for our miserable services we can obtain anything so great. The third is because the true preparation for receiving these gifts is a desire to suffer and to imitate the Lord, not to receive consolations; for, after all, we have often offended Him. The fourth reason is because His Majesty is not obliged to grant them to us, as He is obliged to grant us glory if we keep His commandments, without doing which we could not be saved, and He knows better than we what is good for us and which of us truly love Him” (1091-1098)

The reward in this is to become more like Jesus: “For His Majesty can do nothing greater for us than grant us a life which is an imitation of that lived by His Beloved Son” (3193-3194)

I find this incredibly encouraging and challenging. Our culture is all about what you produce, how successful you are. Sometimes it seems that Christians, recognizing greed as a sin, simply push greed into the afterlife. Thus, if you abstain from whatever you are tempted with you will get all kinds of rewards when you die. We think of “reward” as “stuff.”

What if reward is becoming more like Jesus?

Then, in the end, the little we do is united with what Christ has already done:

 In a word, my sisters, I will end by saying that we must not build towers without foundations, and that the Lord does not look so much at the magnitude of anything we do as at the love with which we do it. If we accomplish what we can, His Majesty will see to it that we become able to do more each day. We must not begin by growing weary; but during the whole of this short life, which for any one of you may be shorter than you think, we must offer the Lord whatever interior and exterior sacrifice we are able to give Him, and His Majesty will unite it with that which He offered to the Father for us upon the Cross, so that it may have the value won for it by our will, even though our actions in themselves may be trivial” (3286-3291)

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