SAINT THERESA OF THE CHILD JESUS
Those who concentrate on the life and doctrine of this child of Carmel who died at the age of twenty-four are seized with wonder and admiration. They discover, in fact, that her contribution to spirituality is as original as it is profoundly traditional. They also discover that under the Gospel-like simplicity of her message of "the little way of childhood" is hidden a spiritual structure both strong and perfectly balanced from the theological point of view.
No doubt this structure embodies the most authentic elements of the Order to which Theresa belongs; but Theresa has divided and arranged them according to her own genius. Better still, a very sure instinct, given by the Holy Spirit, enabled her to discern and sometimes to rediscover, not without merit, Carmel's purest spirit.
Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus truly made this interior and radiant spirit incarnate. Her life of love of the absolute and of absolute love is of rare depth and fullness. It was a combination of certain inter-related spiritual principles and constitutes a true doctrine: this is "the little way of childhood" that we must now try to describe.
This doctrine is derived from a re-discovery of the central teaching of the Gospel which may be expressed in this sentence: We are, in Christ, God's children and we ought to love our Father in heaven with a filial love full of confidence and abandonment.
Christ taught us that God is our Father. Saint Theresa adheres to this teaching with all her strength and gives to it its whole meaning.
She had a deep understanding of the truth that such a teaching has two complementary aspects: a keen realization of God's fatherhood toward us; and the need of developing in us a filial attitude of absolute confidence toward God our Father.
If the confidence of Saint Theresa in the goodness of her Father in heaven is absolute, this is because God is a father and this father is God. She comes to this basic affirmation: "We can never have enough confidence in God who is so good, so powerful, so merciful".
From this we can understand how on her lips the words "Papa the good God" are not childish. On the contrary they testify to the simplicity of her intimate relations with Him and to a confidence so absolute that she can dare to say: "I know what it means to count on His mercy".1
One might be tempted to believe that such confidence was based on the assurance that had been given her that she "had never committed any mortal sins". But she hastens to correct this idea: "Make it clear, Mother, that if I had committed all possible crimes, I would have the same confidence. I would feel that this multitude of offenses would be like a drop of water cast into a blazing fire".2 "How could there be any limits to my confidence?"3
Saint Theresa could not have reached this point, it is certain, had she not had a deep experience of God's love. Even though she always claimed that she had not known extraordinary graces, and she never stressed the graces she did receive, it cannot be doubted that she had attained to a very high mystical life during a most painful night of faith.
But what might be illusory is that this mystical life was lived under the voluntarily obscure and detached sign of the little way of spiritual childhood. Was not Saint Theresa eager not to do anything that "little souls"could not imitate? What does this mean?
Saint Theresa had very great desires, yet she would never admit that she was a great soul or that she had the strength necessary to do great things, like the saints who had been proposed to her as models. So she had to find a way in keeping with this littleness of which she was so deeply conscious.
More than this: she sought a way that depended on this very weakness. Had not the Apostle said: "When I am weak then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12 : 10). So that in searching the Gospels she found the words of the Master: "Let the little children be, and do not hinder them from coming to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19 : 14).
Such a statement corresponded too well to her knowledge, both of her weakness and also of God's fatherly heart, for it not to have been a true light. It served, too, as a link between her spirit of childhood and her confidence in the divine fatherhood.
I leave to great souls and lofty minds the beautiful books I cannot understand, much less put into practice and I rejoice that I am little because children alone and those who resemble them will be admitted to the heavenly banquet. I am glad that there are many mansions in the Kingdom of God, because if there were only those whose description and whose road seem to me incomprehensible, I could never enter there.4
This, therefore, was her way. God Himself had pointed it out and declared its efficacy. On it Theresa was to advance unfalteringly and to draw all the necessary conclusions with courage.
No one will deny that weakness is the characteristic of little children. But this weakness is the surest of guarantees to those who care for them and love them. Theresa remembered a text of Isaias that she copied in a little notebook she used:
Moreover, having learned from experience about this "motherly" goodness of God, and knowing that the smaller the child, the more it can count on merciful help and attentive care, Theresa intended to remain little, that is to say, she would no more be concerned about her powerlessness, on the contrary she would rejoice in it. "How happy I am to realize that I am little and weak, how happy I am to see myself so imperfect". She does not count on her works, or on her merits, she "keeps nothing in reserve" and she is not to be discouraged even about her faults.
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It is needful to remain little before God and to remain little is to recognize one's nothingness, expect all things from the good God just as a little child expects all things from its father; it is not to be troubled by anything, not to try to make a fortune. Even among poor people, a child is given all it needs, as long as it is very little, but as soon as it has grown up, the father does not want to support it any longer and says: "Work, now you are able to take care of yourself". Because I never want to hear these words I do not want to grow up, feeling that I can never earn my living, that is , eternal life in heaven. So I have stayed little, and have no other occupation than of gathering flowers of love and sacrifice and of offering them to the good God to please Him.
To be little also means not to attribute to one's self the virtues that one practices, believing that one can do something, but to acknowledge that the good God has placed these treasures in the hands of His little child so that the child can make use of them as needed, but always as the treasures of the good God.
Finally, it means not to be discouraged by one's faults because children often fall but they are too little to hurt themselves badly.5
This is a pleasant intuition and one that affords many fruitful applications for the spiritual life.
Most especially it drew Theresa along the path of a confidence that was not only a virtue but the life in us of the true theological virtue of hope. Advancing with great boldness to the end of this hope and wishing to place no limits to God's mercy for those who love Him with filial love, she wrote to a sister:
You are not sufficiently trusting, you fear God too much. I assure you that this grieves Him. Do not be afraid of going to purgatory because of its pain, but rather long not to go there because this pleases God who imposes this expiation so regretfully. From the moment that you try to please Him in all things, if you have the unshakable confidence that He will purify you at every instant in His love and will leave in you no trace of sin, be very sure that you will not go to purgatory.6
O, how you hurt me, how greatly you injure the good God when you believe you are going to purgatory. For one who loves there can be no purgatory.7
It seems to me that there will be no judgment for victums of love, or rather, the good God will hasten to reward, with eternal delights, His own love which He will see burning in their hearts.
Saint Theresa's confidence in God's infinite mercy leads her to this other certitude, as theologically sound as the preceding, that if God divides His graces unequally, He does so because of the same love.
For a long time I had been asking myself why souls did not all receive the same amount of grace. Jesus deigned to instruct me about this mystery. Before my eyes He placed the book of nature and I understood that all the flowers created by Him are beautiful... that, if all the little flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime garb. The same is true of the world of souls, the Lord's living garden.8
God's love is revealed just as much in the most simple soul who does not resist His graces as in the most sublime.9
Lastly, this confidence in God leads Saint Theresa, by paths of poverty of spirit and self-forgetfulness, to a wonderful simplification of spiritual life. In fact, how could she have failed to notice that the kingdom of heaven is offered not only to little children but also to the poor in spirit, and almost in the same words: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5 : 3). "Unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18 : 3). "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of God" (Mark 10 : 14).
As Theresa made spiritual childhood her own, so she made her own poverty of spirit. She aspires to be nothing more than "a poor little child" who looks to her Father for everything and who obtains everything from Him because of this same poverty. She cultivates this poverty and wants to keep nothing for herself, not even her merits and her good works.
There is only one way to force the good God not to judge at all, and that is to present one's self to Him with empty hands.
When I think of this word: "I will soon come and I carry My reward with Me to give to each one according to his works", I say to myself, He will be very embarrassed for me because I have no works. Well, He will have to give me according to His own works.
She is forgetful of herself and counts on nothing, she is truly poor: "It is necessary to consent to remain poor and weak; this is hard". "I have always longed to be unknown, I am resigned to being forgotten". "It is necessary to count on nothing".
Theresa arrived at perfect detachment but in her own humble, hidden "little way".
I know well that it is not my great desires that please God in my little soul, what He likes to see is the way I love my littleness and my poverty; it is my blind hope in His mercy, this is my only treasure.... The weaker one is, without desires or virtues the more ready one is for the operations of this consuming and transforming love.... God rejoices more in what He can do in a soul humbly resigned to it's poverty than in the creation of millions of suns and the vast stretch of the heavens.
She buries herself with delight deep in this radical poverty. "I tell you that it is enough to recognize one's nothingness and to abandon one's self like a child in the arms of God".10 Theresa is marvelously free from herself and marvelously free for God. Her soul is wide open to the invasions of divine love. We, in fact, prevent God from coming to us and "flooding our souls with waves of His tenderness", because we do not open to Him the place He wants to occupy. Only when poverty is united with confidence, is He able to understand much less to describe how great was Saint Theresa's desire to love. Nevertheless she who wished "to love and to make Love loved", perhaps wished even more "to be loved" by this infinite Love. The deep reason for this will be evident when we remember that she wrote:
Merit is not to be found in doing much or in giving much, but rather in receiving and in loving much. It is said that it is far sweeter to give than to receive, and this is true. But when Jesus wants for Himself the sweetness of giving, it would not be gracious to refuse. Let Him take and give whatever He wants.
To take and to give, in these two cases, Theresa will remain poor, in order that she can receive the love that God thirsts to pour out on her.
I beg You to allow the waves of infinite tenderness hidden in You to overflow into my soul so that I may become a martyr of Your love.
Because she will not keep this love for herself but will pour it out on others, she adds:
As for me, if I live until I am eighty I shall always be just as poor, I do not know how to economize. All that I have, I spend immediately to buy souls.11
Saint Theresa was really flooded with divine love and that is why her life bore such fruit. This charity transfigured two qualities that in her were always to remain united: love of God and love of neighbor. And when we consider her fraternal charity which was so practical, so delicate, so heroic and which flowed from a charity for God that was so faithful that "from the age of three she had never refused" Him anything and was willing to suffer all things in silence for His love and for the love of souls, then no one can any longer oppose contemplation and action, prayer and the apostolate, the service of God and the service of the Church.
She who had carried so far confidence and abandonment never ceased to multipy her own most concrete and generous efforts.
It is because of this confidence and fidelity that God could communicate the plenitude of His own life that transformed her soul and opened it to the dimensions of infinite Love.
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From the beginning of her religious life, Theresa, like a true daughter of Elias, is devoured with apostolic ardor. Was it not love for souls, especially for the souls of priests, that she came to Carmel? To save souls she would have liked to have fulfilled all vocations. She would have liked to have been preacher, apostle, missionary, martyr.
Yet it was only after she had offered herself to the divine outpouring and surrendered herself to merciful Love that she discovered the vocation God destined for her.
I understand that love includes all vocations. I realize that all my desires are fulfilled. I have found my vocation. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love.
It was only then, too, that her vocation reached its full apostolic dimension and revealed its limitless fruitfulness. In fact, henceforth, Theresa was to think and to speak only in universal terms: "I shall spend my heaven in doing good upon earth". "Yes..., until the number of the elect shall be complete, I shall take no rest".
Just as blood flows from the heart and moves with life-giving power into every part of the whole body, so this apostolic spirit springs from the love that possesses her and extends to the whole Church.
From her little cell, as from a broadcasting station, wonderful waves escape night and day. The souls whom they reach are unaware of their origin. They merely murmur: "Someone has prayed for me".12
Theresa has given us the secret of this outpouring of love and its apostolic fruitfulness: her love is crucified. In offering herself to merciful Love, she gave herself up without any reserve to trial and suffering which from this moment mark her life as with a seal. From the day that "love penetrated and possessed her" suffering seized her as if she were its prey. The victim offered in holocaust had been accepted. Love was to consume her body, by a most painful illness, and her soul, by a terrible trial: "A wall rose up to heaven and hid God from me". "O Mother, I did not believe that it was possible to suffer so much... I can only explain it by my very great desire to save souls".
But knowing that God had never before shown her so much love and that such trials also made it possible to prove her love for Him, Theresa accepted them with heroic generosity and even with joy. "I would not want to suffer less". She offered her sufferings for souls until the last ounce of her strength: "I walk... for a missionary".
Before departure she gave us not only the assurance of a wonderfully efficacious help: "Because I never did my will on earth, the good God will do all that I want in heaven", but she told us how she was able to realize her contemplative and missionary vocation in all its fullness: "I do not regret having surrendered myself to Love".
When we look at the life of Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus we are struck by its simplicity and wonderful transparency. We are amazed to discover through her, not only the purest Gospel teaching but Christ Himself. We also notice that the unity of her spiritual life is unique and profound. In fact all her words, acts, sufferings, life and death are of a piece, yield the same tone and are proof of an equal plenitude. Like her Master, Theresa is true, and also like Him, her person and her message are one.
It must also be noticed that the Christian instinct was not deceived. In search of a spirituality that is adapted to life and is livable, men turned to Saint Theresa. Not the least original thing about this cloistered religious who died at the age of twenty-four was that she has given to our times the most "incarnate" and at the same time the most supernatural doctrine that there is. Transcendence and immanence. Her life prolongs the message of the Gospel in our midst. This, no doubt, is the reason that devotion to her, suprisingly enough, was not limited by the boundaries of France but became worldwide, truly universal, because her spirit is truly Catholic.
Saint Theresa brought a maximum of depth and supernatural efficacy to spiritual life. She is as apostolic as she is contemplative, and that with a minimum of means. "Purely and simply", she succeeded in being both.
It is not only our utilitarian age (and this is true even in spiritual matters) that is conscious of her success, it is Christian life in general which has been enriched by a new way leading to sanctity, a way as quick and sure as it is evangelical.
If Saint Theresa received from Carmelite spirituality a great part of the wealth she used - and they are forgetful who fail to connect her with her "family" or who minimize what she owes it - she knew how to increase her heritage. She offers us a style of spiritual life that is so detached, so simply reduced to the essential, so supple in its absolute surrender to love, so generous in the gift to the Church and to her brothers. She made her life a reality that is so near to us and so lived in God, that to breathe the fragrance of this flower of Carmel is to breathe the fragrance of eternal life.
2 Novissima Verba, p. 60.
3 Letter of September 14, 1896.
4 Letter of May 15, 1897 to Father Roulland.
5 Novissima Verba, p. 125 etc.
6 Extract of a circular letter from Lisieux signed by R. M. Agnes, Feburary 17, 1924.
7 Extract from a letter of Sister Marie de l"Eucharistie to M. Guerin, August 7, 1897.
8 Story of a Soul, chapter I.
9 Ibid., p. 5.
10 Letter of May 9, 1897.
11 Story of a Soul Counsels and Souvenirs.
12 Abbe THELLIER DE PONCHEVILLE.
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The life and experience of Carmel's great saints enable us, better than all the theories, to understand the spirituality of the Order. So here we could stop. Yet, if we did, all that determines that spirituality - prayer and contemplation - might not be sufficiently clear.
Now a long experience of prayer has led Carmel to form, on this point, not a method, but a doctrine. The ways of prayer, the nature of contemplation and of the mystical life, the problems they raise - all these were developed little by little thanks largely to the writings of Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross. The benefit to spirituality has been great. So it is fitting that we take a quick look at all this before we summarize, by way of conclusion, the characteristics of Carmelite spirituality.
The passages in Sacred Scripture that concern the prophet Elias have always symbolized contemplative and mystical life. "The Lord liveth in whose sight I stand". "Hide thyself by the torrent of Carith". "When Elias heard the whisper of a gentle breeze he covered his face with his mantle and went out to stand at the cave's door". To this the Institution, as we have seen, testifies. Besides the search for perfection, Carmel's first end, it indicates that there is a second one and one that is no less essential: contemplation. "This end is communicated to us by God's pure gift". To drink of the torrent of divine pleasure is
to taste even during this mortal life, in some way in one's heart, and to experience in spirit the strength of the divine presence and the sweetness of the glory on high. This is what is known as "drinking from the torrent of divine pleasure".
Therefore contemplation is also one of Carmel's ends. Besides it is only too evident that the central precept of the Rule: "Day and night to meditate on the Law of the Lord" cannot have the meaning that we attach today to meditation as opposed to contemplation. What the Rule prescribes is a contemplative life in which meditation and contemplation each has its own place. They must make it possible for the Carmelite to live constantly in God's presence.
Carmel has not only brought to the doctrine of prayer the riches of a long and wide experience. It offers in the writings of its spiritual masters, Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross, a true summa of the ways of prayer.
Carmel knows what meditation is and for it has a place. Saint John of the Cross speaks of meditation in the Ascent when he describes it as "a discursive act in which use is made of images and figures produced by the senses", as for example, "to imagine Christ crucified or at the pillar... or at some other moment" (2 : 12). Exercises like this are necessary for beginners.
Saint Teresa also speaks of meditation but praises it in only moderate terms. She says that this is a good way to begin.1 She fears that meditation will detain souls in intellectual activity. What she praises much more is the prayer of active recollection. "If it is good to make use of reasoning for several moments, then let us keep still and stay near the Savior".2 This is a prayer "of recollection" because she asks the soul "to recollect all its powers and enter within itself with its God".3 The senses withdraw from exterior objects and so despise them that the eyes of the body close of their own accord so as no longer to consider creatures" and to enable the soul to awaken and see.4
This is "active" prayer because "it depends on our will and we can achieve it with God's help. I am not speaking here of the silence of these powers, but of a retreat of these powers within the soul". Then the soul
- can meditate on the Passion, can represent God the Son, can offer Him to His heavenly Father without fatiguing the mind by going to look for Him on the mountain of Calvary, in the garden, or at the pillar.5
This retreat of the powers makes possible intimacy with the Master and an affectionate colloquy which are the heart of the prayer of recollection. "Deal with Him as with a father, a brother , a master, a spouse".6
For Saint John of the Cross and for Saint Teresa, meditation is directed toward simplification and interior silence. The soul has to train herself to listen to what God says to her. She must recollect herself. In this way she enters upon the path of contemplation.
Saint John of the Cross understands contemplation to be "a general and loving attention to God", intelligence and will have their share in this act, but it rests above all on a true connaturality with God. It is both the highest activity of the soul and a passivity inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The soul must learn to abide attentively and wait lovingly upon God in this quietude, without heeding the imagination or its activity because here the faculties are at rest and are at work, not actively, but passively, by receiving what God works in them; and if at times they work, it is not with effort or with carefully developed meditation, but with sweetness of love, moved more by God than by the ability of the soul.7
Therefore contemplation is a general and loving looking at God. Now it springs from the whole work of the Mystical Doctor that this looking and this knowing are the result in the soul of the light of Faith. Freed from sensible knowledge and from reasoning, the soul begins to contemplate God in Faith and to unite itself to Him.
The Passage from Meditation to Contemplation
To advance from meditation to contemplation God must act gently... beginning on the lowest step, and with the senses so as to lead the soul in His way to the highest level of spiritual wisdom which does not fall under the senses.8 The passage, strictly speaking, will take place when "a simplified activity which is the fruit of meditation" meets "an infusion of divine light".9 The simplification of activity is, for the most part, the fruit of habit:
The end of meditation and of discourse on the things of God is to draw some knowledge and some love of God and each time that the soul does this in meditation, it is an act, and several acts beget a habit.10
Then the soul beginning to pray... drinks easily and sweetly. There is no need to draw water from the aqueducts of past considerations, forms and figures.11
God on His side, infuses light into the soul but this means that the lights of imagination and the sweetness of the senses must cease.
God darkens all this brightness, closes the door, and stops at its source this sweet spiritual water which they used to enjoy as often and for as long a time as they wished. He leaves them in darkness.12
It is then that
God transfers to the spirit the strength of the senses... and when it is the spirit that receives the pleasures, the flesh is left without savor and is too weak to act. But the spirit, which now is being fed, grows stronger and more alert and more solicitous than before in its anxiety not to fail God; and it is not at once conscious of spiritual sweetness and delight but only of aridity and lack of sweetness because of the strangeness of the change.13
When can and should the passage from meditation to contemplation be prudently made? With great objectivity Saint John of the Cross lays down three signs which ought to be present simultaneously in the soul. Inabilty to meditate. No inclination for anything particular, that is to say for anything other than God.
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The third and the most certain [sign] is that the soul takes pleasure in being alone with God and lovingly attentive to Him, without any special consideration, in inner peace, quiet and repose, without any act or exercise of the powers.14
Like all deep transformations, this passage is not instantaneous. Not only does the soul spend some time "in this vague realm where there is both activity and passivity, what is acquired and what is infused", but the soul must be humbly willing to return to meditation as often as is necessary. Nevertheless a moment will come when
- what the soul used to gain gradually through its effort of meditation upon particular facts, now has through practice, become converted and changed into a habit and substance of loving knowledge, general in nature, and not distinct or particular as before... So that when the soul comes before God, it makes an act of knowledge confused, loving, passive and tranquil, in which the soul drinks of wisdom, love and delight.15
So we see the psychology and delicacy with which the Mystical Doctor describes this prayer in which what is acquired is united with what is infused. The Teresian school always defended this prayer, using a term that caused much confusion - acquired contemplation. In fact there is a whole set of dispositions that the soul ought to possess, if she is to profit from the beginning of contemplation and these dispositions should be taught.
This is what Saint John of the Cross did and what authors following Saint Teresa's teaching have done. Their doctrine is that of active or acquired contemplation. It would seem clearer to have used the terminology of the Mystical Doctor and to have taught that there is contemplation on the borderline of mystical experience and that it is frequently granted to souls. In it the infusion of divine life meets simplified activity. But the light received is not sufficiently strong to steady and absorb the soul. So the soul must necessarily cooperate actively, lest it fall into quietism. This is active-passive contemplation and depends on both God and the soul, while infused contemplation strictly so-called depends on God alone.
Infused contemplation and mystical union.
When Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa speak of "contemplation", it is always of "infused contemplation" to which they refer. They know no other.
For Saint Teresa, contemplation is a state that "we cannot bring about by ourselves. In it the soul feels passive". For Saint John of the Cross, contemplation is "a knowledge lovingly infused by God in which He both enlightens the soul and fills her with love in order to raise her step by step to her Creator".16 The distinction between acquired and infused contemplation was not to be developed until later.
Aware, above all, of the passivity that accompanies supernatural recollection and mystical experience, Saint Teresa describes this supernatural recollection as a gradual taking possession of the faculties by God. A movement starting from the center of the soul where God dwells, takes possession of the will (the prayer of quiet) then of the intelligence and imagination (this is the sleep of the faculties), so as to produce, by an ever greater deepness, complete passivity (prayer of union). Then the soul comes to the sixth mansion and reaches, with ecstasy, spiritual espousals.
In the seventh mansion she enjoys the fruits of union in spiritual marriage. During the espousals, divine life is only substituted from time to time for the soul's natural life (first five mansions), this happens more frequently (in the sixth mansion), and finally (in the seventh mansion) the union becomes permanent. Sometimes this union is experienced only in the depth of the soul, sometimes so powerfully in the whole soul that it is lost in the contemplation of the divine Spouse. The passivity of the soul in these last mansions allows it now to say only "yes" to God.
Insofar as the soul dies to itself it is born to a life infinitely higher and altogether divine. If it is willing to die totally, it will rise in God. " "It is because our gift is not whole that we do not receive the treasure of divine love all at once."17 Saint Teresa knew that this death and this life take place essentially by means of union of wills and that ecstatic union is only its privileged manifestation.
However numerous and remarkable are the extraordinary mystical facts which are described by the Saint, they never make her lose sight of the fact that they are only means of hastening the work of purification and of detaching the soul from itself so as to plunge it in God.
When you will be united to God by renouncing your will to be attached to His, then you will have obtained the grace of union. Do not then trouble yourself about this other delicious union.
This submission of our will to God's will... this is the union I have longed for all my life; for this I never cease to beg our Lord.18
Saint Teresa's teaching should be completed and made more precise by Saint John of the Cross. The Mystical Doctor brightly illumined contemplative life and gave it new depth especially by his description of the two nights: the night of the senses, that separates meditation from contemplation; and the nightof the spirit, that is much more painful and precedes the prayer of union. The soul's powerlessness and emptiness, the knowledge it has acquired of its weaknesses, the feeling of being rejected by God forever, hasten and intensify this work of detachment and purification which condition the renewal of the soul's being and the infusion of graces and divine gifts.
It is less the succession of contemplative states (which largely coincide with those proposed by Saint Teresa) than the explanation of the principles of the soul's transformation that interests Saint John of the Cross. To him progress in contemplation requires an intense life of the theological virtues. With the help of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the soul passes from the human way of doing things to the divine; faith, hope, charity are seen to be the true principles of the soul's transformation and of its passage to the mystical life. This mystical life consists essentially of a divinization of soul. This means the divinization of the whole being through grace and the infused virtues, the divinization of all activity through the constantly deepening actualization of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The divine motion that acts only on the powers and their operations allows at least some measure of spontaneity in the soul; but the motion that takes the form of a substantial touch reaches the very depths of the soul and reduces its powers to complete passivity. This experience of love is produced by a particularly deep divine movement and leads the soul to mystical marriage and perfect contemplation.
Perfect contemplation is made up of infused love and infused light; but these two elements are not given with equal intensity. Their complete communication is called the unitive touch.19 The Mystical Doctor considers the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit to be the fundamental principles of contemplation and the life of mystical union. But the substantial touch is the characteristic of perfect contemplation. "This touch is substantial, that is to say, is a touch of the Substance of God in the substance of the soul, and... it savors of eternal life."20
We have spoken of the sureness and splendor with which Saint John of the Cross describes the unitive life, of the synthetic spirit with which he correlates all the elements of the mystical life with theological principles. In his writings light is never stressed at the expense of love. He is truly the Mystical Doctor par excellence and the inspired singer of divine love.
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Contemplation and perfection.
Carmel is equally concerned about discovering what are the exact relations that unite mystical life and holiness, or contemplation and perfection.
This concern is quite normal and is to be found in L'Institution des premiers moines, as we have already observed.
In this life we distinguish a double goal: one that we reach with the help of divine grace, through our efforts and the practice of virtue; as a result we can offer God a holy heart, freed from every deliberate soiling mark of sin; and we reach this goal when we are perfect and are in Carith, that is to say, when we are hidden in charity... The second goal proposed to us is God's pure gift: it consists in savoring in some way in one's heart and in experiencing in one's spirit the power of the divine presence and the sweetness of the glory that comes from above, not only after death but here in this mortal life... It is to attain this double goal that the monk lives the eremitical life.21
Therefore, if at Carmel, as in every religious life and even in every Christian life, the perfection of charity is to be sought before all else, then it would seem that infused contemplation must likewise be sought. Obviously it is impossible to secure this contemplation by one's self but it is possible to prepare one's self for it. One may desire it, not explicity but generally. Better still, one should tend toward it but not claim it as one's due. At Carmel, by the way of perfection the generous soul goes ahead, as it were, of the divine generosity, even, if it so please the divine Majesty, in the matter of contemplation.
So it is necessay that such souls be guided by wise directors who have had experience with contemplatives. Saint John of the Cross insists much, both on this necessity and on the serious responsibility of those who, instead of leading souls along these steep paths, mislead them or prevent them from advancing. "Such people do not know what the spirit is".22 He deplores this kind of blindness, saying that:
It is not of slight consequence nor without serious fault because it deprives souls of inestimable good... In matters as lofty as is the state of these souls, for the one who succeds there is in store an almost infinite good, while, on the contrary, for one who fails, there is an almost infinite loss.23
Better than long arguments, these words of Saint John of the Cross show in what esteem divine union is held at Carmel. It is truly the precious pearl, for whose possession all the rest is well sacrificed. It is precious, not only for the soul itself, but still more for all souls who, because of the communion of saints, greatly benefit from this growth in love. "The least degree of pure love is more useful to the Church than all good works without this love."24
1 Way of Perfection, chapter 21.
2 Life, chapter 13.
3 Way of Perfection, chapter 30.
4 Way of Perfection, chapter 30.
7 The Ascent, Book 2, chapter 12.
8 The Ascent, Book 2, chapter 17.
9 Father GABRIEL DE SAINTE-MARIE-MADELEINE, "Carmes", Dictionnaire de Spiritualite, col. 182.
10 The Ascent, Book 2, chapter 14.
11 Ibid., 1 :14.
12 The Dark Night, 118.
13 Ibid. 1: 9.
14 The Ascent, Book 2, chapter 13.
15 The Ascent, Book 2, chapter 14.
16 Dark Night, 2 : 18.
17 Life, 11.
18 Heavenly Castle, V. Mansion, chapter 3.
19 The Dark Night, 2 : 12.
20 The Living Flame, 2 : 14.
21 Institution des premiers moines, chapter 2.
22 The Living Flame, 2 : 3.
23 The Living Flame, 3 : 3.
24 SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS, Maxims.
Characteristics of Carmelite Spirituality.
"They were permitted, as they wished, to love in the perpetual service of the divine Master and His Virgin Mother." Thus William of Sanvic expressed himself in his Chronique which dates from the end of the thirteenth century. These words, in fact, describe Carmel's character and its object. But we must also ask whether this double object: the service of God in prayer and the honor paid our Lady is not itself understood in a way that is both general and yet specific.
Contemplation is a reality belonging to a well defined order. It supposes, as Carmel has always understood, certain conditions of silence, solitude, recollection. It supposes, too, deep interior detachment. While Saint Teresa recalls that "he who has God has all things, God alone suffices", Saint John of the Cross leads us to the summit of the mountain through a succession of nothings... "and on the mountain nothing". He exacts an integral, spiritual poverty, necessary to one who wishes to enter into the possession of the All.
John of Saint Samson insists that one who wishes to live according to "the true spirit of Carmel", must live in a state of great purity. Madame Acarie used often to repeat: "Too avaricious is the soul for whom God does not suffice". Near to our own time, Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity writes:
My mission in heaven will be to draw souls to interior recollection, helping them to go out from themselves to adhere to God by a movement that is altogether simple and altogether sweet, to keep them in this great silence within that enables God to imprint Himself in them and transform them into Himself.
Nakedness, detachment, poverty, nothingness, purity, simplicity... In these words, traced so spontaneously by the pens of Carmelite authors and Saints, an attempt is being make to express a profound reality. This is a reality whose exigency the Carmelite soul feels deep within itself, longing as it does for total transparency, believing or knowing from experience that in no other way can God take possession of it.
The soul is like a window on which divine light is shining... The soul allowing God to work in it (having rid itself of every mist and stain of creatures, which consists in having its will perfectly united with the will of God, because to love is to labor to detach and strip one's self for God's sake of all that is not God) is at once illumined and transformed in God.1
In Carmel it is understood that purifications of soul and spiritual poverty are the necessary conditions for the possession of so great a good; they are, therefore, ardently sought. Of them may be said what the sacred writer says of wisdom: "All good things come to me together with her" (Wis. 7: 11).
It is indeed very remarkable that in Carmel, everything, including apostolic spirit, comes as a consequence of the divine possession of the soul.
Free, disencumbered, made simple, delivered from movements of return on self and polarized by "the one thing necessary", the soul is now open to love. "Henceforth, its sole occupation is to love".2 Everything else flows from this.
Surrendered to God, it places all its confidence in Him, it abandons itself to Him completely. Apostolic zeal and love of souls is the proof par excellence that the divine presence has kindled the heart.
Charity springs from the eremitical life, just as pure water rises in the oasis set in the midst of the desert. "I am on fire with zeal for the Lord of hosts".
Carmelite spirituality is not contemplative and apostolic. It is apostolic because it is contemplative.
This is true because the soul is wholly subject to the action of the Holy Spirit. At every level of spiritual life, the Holy Spirit is at work. Purifying, enlightening, unifying, transforming. He is in the soul like an interior fountain, the source of its union with God. Is He not the Spirit of Love?
Guided by the Holy Spirit, the soul acquires great simplicity in its abandonment to the divine action, an awareness of a living, spiritual continuity, as well as a constantly renewed elan.
The Holy Spirit is the source of contemplative life as well as of the life of the apostolate. It is He who draws the being into Himself for prayer and sends it out to conquer the world. The Spirit of the Cenacle is also the Spirit of Penecost:
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It is in this perspective of simplicity, detachment and unity that Carmel envisages our Lady. Carmel sees in her the "soul" in the presence of God. Her purity and simplicity are ravishing. She is the soul whom God has completely and absolutely unified. In her is admirably made manifest: the omnipotence of the Spirit, the origin of contemplation, the origin of the apostolate.
Through Mary Carmel perceives the ideal toward which it is drawn and which attracts it. This is a life of unity in God, of union with Christ, of efficacious and salvific charity toward men.
Of course, for Carmel as for every Christian soul, Mary is above all, the Mother. "She is more mother than queen", affirms Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus. But she is also something more. She is "the beauty of Carmel". What does that mean? Under this mysterious title, Carmel tries to express something of what she means to the Order: a brightness of eternal light, she in whom God allows Himself to be contemplated and cherished, she in whom "the divine light knows no shadow".
Now we understand why, at Carmel, at least for certain souls, Mary is intimately associated in the very practice of contemplation, In her the Lord has done great things. The purity and transparency of her soul enables us to see God at work in her and to contemplate in her a reflection of the divine Beauty.
This soul, so transparent, is, we know, that of our mother. Her mission is to form us to live a life of union with God such as she enjoyed. How could our path not lead us to Her? So we see that at Carmel there has always been a contemplative way on which union with Mary, far from being an obstacle, or even a detour, is envisaged as an essential condition of advance to the highest mystical life.
The soul discovers that marian contemplation does not lead her away from adhesion to or immediate union with the Sovereign Good and the simple essence of God considered in itself. On the contrary the soul finds herself attracted to God with greater facility and is held by Him with greater stability... All this is effected in the soul by one and the same Spirit, the author of this marian life which leads finally to a perfectly mystical life.3
This, then, is Carmelite spirituality: an attraction for open spaces and solitude, interior liberty, simplicity and unity under the impulse of the Spirit of love.
Such a spirituality requires a fundamental grasp of the absolute which lifts the soul out of itself and leads it to the heights. The absolute of divine transcendence is the basis of the soul's adoration and introduces Carmel to purest theocentrism: "I shall keep my strength for You alone".4 The absolute of love requires that all things be sacrificed for love and that all things be changed into love. "Love where there is no love and you will find love".
Vowed to the service of Love, the soul is not satisfied with loving but seeks to experience love, to suffer love, and at last to be transformed into love.
Although Carmelite spirituality gives the soul the liberty and simplicity of the children of God and leads it to the heights, it also requires that all this be constantly examined in the light of principles of wisdom, of most judicious psychology and of "discretion". Finally, it weighs mysticism itself in the Gospel scales of wholesome and supernatural realism. "He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me". "If anyone love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him". (John 14 : 21. 23).
Carmelite spirituality is immanent and transcendent. To an elan toward the summits it brings a deep psychological insight and a keen realism. That is why during all these centuries it has been able to guide souls to the top of the holy mountain. In spite of their wide diversity, Carmel makes it possible for all souls to realise their highest and most necessary vocation: "Vivere Deo". - "To live for God".
1 The Ascent, Book 2, chapter 5.
2 Spiritual Canticle.
3 MICHEL DE SAINT-AUGUSTIN: La vie marieforme. P. Michael de Saint-Augustin was, as we know, the director of the Carmelite mystic, Marie de Sainte-Therese (d. 1677). His works were strongly influenced by the experiences of this Flemish recluse.
4 Ps. 58 : 10. On three occasions Saint John of the Cross quotes this verse.
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The Call To Carmel