A Practical Commentary on St. Teresa’s Wisdom
BOOK PICK: The Way of Prayer
In The Way of Prayer, Carmelite Father Gabriel of Saint Mary Magdalen leads us into the refreshing solitude and silence opened up in St. Teresa of Avila’s Way of Perfection. Father Gabriel challenges us to take up St. Teresa’s teachings to satiate our own thirst for Christ in the difficult circumstances of our own lives.
With her own energetic style, St. Teresa of Avila wrote the Way of Perfection for contemplatives.
Although her teaching is brilliant, sometimes a less-experienced reader can find himself lost as the great saint meanders on important tangents. Although these eventually come together as a whole, without a good guide, one can sometimes lose the outline of her argument and the overall purpose of the work.
This is why recourse to a good teacher is sometimes useful, and Father Gabriel is just such a guide. The Carmelite ideal that he proposes in this commentary is drawn right from St. Teresa’s wisdom.
In this way, Father Gabriel skillfully contextualizes the mendicant note of St. Teresa’s wisdom: It is teaching not merely for contemplatives, but apostolic contemplatives, people of prayer given over to the mission of the Church. Father Gabriel is right to see a warrior’s note to her text. Mendicant spirituality, after all, rose during the “Age of Chivalry,” and St. Teresa is writing at the end of this age.
In the face of the confusion threatening the Church at the time of the Reformation, Christian prayer is a battle cry for truth in confusing times. St. Teresa’s teachings about prayer helped the faithful not only avoid dangerous errors, but thrive and grow in holiness.
Like St. Teresa, Father Gabriel presumes a connection between the good, the beautiful and the true that lives in the Carmelite tradition. Life, prayer, God’s will and true joy coincide, align and fit together into a beautiful whole. Though this connection is often lost sight of or even rejected in more contemporary spiritual practices, the patient reader will find it compelling.
How we live, how we pray and how we realize life’s purpose makes our lives to be “fit” for the things of God, and this commentary on St. Teresa’s work reminds us that, when this happens, God does great things through us in the world.
Like Way of Perfection, Father Gabriel’s The Way of Prayer starts with the basics to help us ready the heights. Like St. Teresa, he is understated in his references to the struggles of his time, perhaps even more so. When his work was originally published, Italians were climbing out of the devastation of World War II. They faced not only severe poverty, but despair, as well. This focuses his commentary, even if implicitly, and this focus is one of the reasons his insights can be appropriated to our own times.
This is to say that it is helpful for readers to remember that his commentary was written at a time like St. Teresa’s and ours: These are times of social turmoil, cultural confusion and ecclesial contention. At least for me, he helps me read St. Teresa’s spiritual classic in a more meaningful way, for she, too, faced these things. And only someone who understands this can appreciate the wisdom that she offers between the lines. Drawing from this, what Father Gabriel puts forth is so compelling, even years later in a more de-Christianized context, that those of us who are not Carmelite can find it a fountain of powerful insight.
Father Gabriel is convinced that contemplative prayer is a grace that flows from our baptism. God immerses the soul in all kinds of blessings in an effort to draw it into a deeper friendship. He desires to lead it out of its self-occupation and into a beautiful silence, a peaceful stillness that he can suddenly flood in transformative and fruitful ways. This in-flow of prayer leads to spiritual maturity and offers healing for those wounds of sin that hold us back in our love for one another and for God. With this in mind, his calls to mutual love, humility and simplicity are not moralizing, but necessary, challenges. Christian prayer cannot thrive if we do not work to supply it with the right “atmosphere.”
At the same time, Father Gabriel observes that a lack of fervor, tepidity, can prevent the Lord from blessing the soul with this kind of prayer. It is in this particular context, that is, the struggle against spiritual lukewarm-ness, that Father Gabriel affirms that those who want to grow in prayer must also desire suffering — suffering tests our devotion in ways that prepare us for deep communion with God — beyond our propensity to sluggishness.
Spiritual aficionados might be put off by his teachings on suffering. It is worth the effort to attempt to understand what he is saying on a deeper level. He does not counsel doleful resignation before difficult challenges or delight in self-hatred. Instead, he is attempting to help us see that the beautiful work that God is bringing to completion — the Kingdom of God — is realized in the midst of suffering. This kingdom comes when we, like Christ, suffer to love, to be loved and to make love loved.
In the Carmelite tradition, suffering has value because it is contemplated through the lens of the God who is love. There really is something beautiful about a love that suffers for another, and this is especially true of a love that suffers for God.
Father Gabriel has written this book to encourage us in our dedication to the Lord. If he insists on embracing a disciplined life and to seek God’s blessing in the midst of suffering, it is because he wants to help us deepen our devotion to prayer. He highlights what motivated St. Teresa — that living a disciplined spiritual life allows God to realize his desire to lead us into transformative and fruitful communion with himself, not only for our own healing and happiness, but as a sign of hope for the whole world.
Not a promoter of esoteric methods and techniques, The Way of Prayer highlights St. Teresa’s connection between the simple prayer that Christ commanded us to say and mystical contemplation.
In the Golden Age of Spanish mysticism, there was a widespread spiritual thirst that the material accomplishments of the new Catholic kingdom could not satiate. There were many, however, who questioned whether contemplative prayer was actually a worthwhile pursuit. St. Teresa’s doctrine helped the Church discern that widespread recourse to this kind of prayer is vital. In our own times of both technological achievement and dehumanizing social calamity, we need this wisdom again to point us away from the tyranny of passing exigencies so that we might be touched by a “gift” that surpasses all understanding.
A practical commentary faithful to St. Teresa’s wisdom, The Way of Prayer offers a clear presentation of her maternal warmth to those who thirst for heaven. If our hearts are parched for living waters, works like The Way of Prayer remind us that the Body of Christ not only has a head, but a heart.
To find this heart, we need teachers who themselves drink deeply from the wisdom of women mystics and spiritual mothers.
Father Gabriel lived the wisdom of St. Teresa in the midst of war-torn Europe and encourages us to drink from this wellspring in our own journey through troubled times.
THE WAY OF PRAYER
A Commentary on St. Teresa’s Way of Perfection
By Father Gabriel of Saint Mary Magdalen, O.C.D.
Ignatius Press, (second edition) 2017
205 pages, $16.95
To order: ignatius.com or (800) 651-1531
Anthony Lilles, Ph.D., is academic dean of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California, and co-founder of the Avila Institute of Spiritual Formation. This post was used with permission of The National Catholic Register.
PS: If you are looking to deepen your prayer life through the mystical patrimony of the Catholic Church, check out the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation. We offer both graduate and personal enrichment courses to the laity as well as priests, deacons and religious. The courses are live online and can be taken wherever you have a computer and an internet connection. Learn more HERE.
Art for this post: Cover of The Way of Prayer – A Practical Commentary on St. Teresa of Avila’s Way of Perfection: used with permission, all rights reserved. Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, mirror from open source material.