The Way of Perfection: A reflection by a Cloistered Dominican Nun

December 17, 2020Year of the Sister

We may wince at the prospect of growing in humility—but we so enjoy the company of humble persons. Isn’t this one of the reasons why St. Teresa of Avila is so delightful? She has no pretenses and disarms the reader with her simplicity and candor. She may have been a mystic, a reformer, and declared a doctor of the Church alongside St. Catherine of Siena. But all of that flowed from the reality that she was a woman of humility.

Humility: the foundation of the entire spiritual life and St. Teresa’s magistral work, The Way of Perfection. She writes in Chapter 32, “You must practice simplicity and humility, for those are the virtues that achieve everything.” Everything—but most especially, real prayer, real communion with God. So, while her work offers countless insights and practical help on prayer, these will benefit us little if we have not grasped the role of humility.

But, before plunging into The Way of Perfection itself, we need to orient ourselves within St. Teresa’s theological universe. To do this, we must start at the very beginning of human history with the account of the fall of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. Although some scholars classify Genesis as literature from a primitive civilization, it is not rudimentary in its theological and psychological richness. Here the taproot of human sin is disclosed:

Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the Lord God had made. The serpent asked the woman, “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” The woman answered the serpent: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, “You shall not eat of it or even touch it lest you die.””

There are several layers to this passage, but often the focus is placed on Satan’s deception. However, it is supremely important to identify the content of his deceit, namely, he insinuates that God is withholding something good from her.

But the serpent said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know what is good and evil.”

Then the moment wherein Eve is suspended between temptation and actual sin:

 “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.”

This threefold seduction, which persuades Eve that God is withholding something good from her, results in her sin.  This is our blessed patrimony that Adam and Eve bequeathed to us: a tendency to grasp through sin what God wants to give us as a Father.

This theme is revisited in St. John the Evangelist’s description of sin in his first epistle:

If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life is not from the Father, but from the world.”

The forbidden fruit as good for food corresponded to the lust of the flesh; as pleasing to the eyes to the lust of the eyes, and the desire for wisdom apart from God to the pride of life. Again, notice the dynamic: sin denies that God is a Father who is to be loved.

Related to this is the insight of Fr. Dominique Barthelemy in his book God and His Image namely that the immediate consequence of the fall is that Adam and Eve notice their nakedness, and seek to hide themselves from God. This precipitates what Barthelemy describes as “self-adornment.” He writes, “Man is a being who tries to adorn much more than to dress himself. He tries to appear as someone of importance, to cut a good figure, to have the air of an angel…he tries to appear other than he is. And to be naked is to see these appearances totter.” Self-adornment is a type of grasping, a proud posture to protect oneself from God who is perceived as someone who withholds good things from us, someone who after the fall now inspires fear rather than filial trust!!! At the core, the first sin of Adam and Eve was that they refused to be like children—to receive all from the Father—and it is this posture of receptivity which is the very heart of humility, the very heart of prayer—for prayer is opening oneself to God’s divine life which he shares with us.

This is the inveterate dilemma that Teresa grapples with as she guides her sisters in the way of prayer. And her understanding of the problem is not only abstract but experiential. She has such prodigious insight into the necessity of humility because she has dealt with her own fallen human condition, especially her pride. For it is pride that best summarizes our self-adornment, our grasping, our distrust. It’s helpful to consider pride as a desire for “existential padding.” We self-aggrandize because we feel small and vulnerable.  Yet pride implicitly erodes one’s existential integrity—because it is an avowal that the way I am, my being, is definitively lacking, perhaps even unlovable. We feel compelled to define ourselves, to create an identity for ourselves because we are unaware that we are children. However, truly confident people—that is truly humble people—do not experience this existential vulnerability. They live in the light. They know the words of St. John, “Beloved, we are God’s children NOW.”

Fashioning an identity through existential padding is a clever way to hide, which is why an integral part of humility is conquering that aforementioned instinct to hide from God and others. In fact, for many centuries, monastic life has been poetically described as a “coming out of hiding”—which is affected through the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These three vows strip away the veneer, and correspond to the three things which St. Teresa teaches must inform genuine prayer: namely, detachment from created things, love for one another, and humility.

  • So, detachment from created things, facilitated by the vow of poverty, removes the option of defining oneself through material things.
  • Love for one another, as embodied in the virtue of chastity, protects us from defining ourselves through relationships other than our relationship with God.
  • And humility, exercised through obedience, keeps us from defining ourselves through our self-will, our personal talents, our honor, our achievements, etc.

Notice, too, how these three correspond to the threefold temptation in Genesis and the threefold concupiscence in First John. And humility most of all targets the wound of original sin most directly, that wound which can inhibit our prayer, our gaze toward God, which is why Teresa writes, “Humility is the most important of these and embraces all the rest.” and “Humility is the principal virtue that people who pray must practice.”

Now, perhaps you’re wondering, “I’m a wife and mother, and therefore, I have not professed vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. So, how can I apply this to my situation?” First, remember that all Christians must practice the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience according to their state in life. Some profess these counsels as vows, but the counsels can be appropriated to lay life too because they are an integral aspect of Christianity.

Let’s briefly consider some of Teresa’s enjoinders to her sisters, adapting them to the lay state. Be aware how each is intended to remove a layer of resistance to the good Father, so that we can be rehabilitated as beloved children. Also, poverty and chastity presume the virtue of humility—because humility allows us to see the givenness of reality.

In regards to poverty and detachment from created things, St. Teresa emphasizes that her sisters have given up a regular income. Obviously, this is not applicable to families. But her intention in bringing this up is to remind her sisters that they must be dependent on God. She writes, “Let us have no fear that He will fail us”—exhorting her sisters to resist that tendency to distrust the generosity of the Father—the primordial wound. Have you ever questioned if God would provide for you and your family? But apart from the sheer necessities, Teresa tries to persuade them to simplicity of life. Thus she writes, “I have the fewest worries when I possess the least.” How true is this! And then this exhortation, “At all costs we must keep this rule of poverty as it applies to our community, our clothes, our speech, and most important, our thoughts.” Her observation about keeping poverty of thought is salutary, for it is the poor in spirit—who will inherit the kingdom of God. If our thoughts are in accord with poverty, we will have peace of heart. And we won’t have the bitter luxury of defining ourselves by what we do or do not have. There will be no keeping up with the Jones’s.

Now, chastity and love for one another. In Chapter 4, she writes, “In our community, we must all be friends with each other, love each other, be fond of each other, and help each other.” Just replace the word “community” with “family”—can you even imagine how beautiful that would be—that sort of harmony in one’s house? Closely related to this is an insight Teresa offers in Chapter 6, “I should add here that when we desire anyone’s affection, we always seek it because of some interest, profit, or pleasure of our own.” She’s not talking about the desire to be loved, but about the need to give and receive love in a disinterested way. Now, “disinterested” doesn’t mean “bloodless”, but to love truly. Love desires the good of the beloved without regard for oneself. An obvious example is waking up in the wee hours to care for a colicky infant. I suspect that most of the time, the mom does not experience this as emotionally satisfying. But she loves that baby fiercely, so she’s not concerned about herself at that moment. This is loving in a disinterested way and behold how intense and pure it is! On the flip side, there is also the issue of parents who look to their children for affirmation. This would fit with St. Teresa’s caution about the danger of desiring affection. And then there are parents who think of their children as accessories. But for nuns and moms—the issue is the same: we must love the other for his or her own sake and not in reference to myself either as an accessory or as a relationship that enhances my reputation; otherwise, we risk using other people as existential padding.

Finally, obedience and humility. Our Spanish Carmelite waxes comical at the beginning of Chapter 13, “Anyone who wants to be perfect must shun such phrases as “I had right on my side”; “They had no right to do this to me”; “The person who treated me like this was not right.” May God deliver us from such a false idea of right!” How many of us seek refuge in entitlement because we are unaware of our real dignity? The saint even admits of herself, “I used to feel slighted so easily.”

This is also a beautiful chapter in which she asks her sisters whether Christ had a right to be treated as he was—and how every good wife must share in the honor and dishonor of her spouse. It is true that Christ is the spouse of women religious in a particular way, but he is also the spouse of every baptized soul. St. Thomas Aquinas writing about the theological virtue of faith explains that the union between God and the soul through faith is so profound as to be a marriage. So, Christ is your spouse, and you are invited to share in both his honor and dishonor. Christ’s willing embrace of dishonor is described by St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, rather he emptied himself taking the form of a slave…he humbled himself, and was obedient even unto death.” The devil’s pride was conquered through divine humility. This is an important truth to hold onto for Teresa writes in Chapter 17, “The chief object of the devil’s work on earth is to fill us with pride.” If we cling to the humble, suffering Christ the Bridegroom, the devil will not be able to incite us to pride.

All of this is but a prelude to the crown of St. Teresa’s work, where she tenderly presents the prayer of the Our Father given to us by Our Blessed Lord, our consummate Friend. The beginning of Chapter 27 which introduces the Our Father contain some of the most beautiful and exultant lines of the whole book. Here is just a sampling, “Our Father who are in the heavens.” My Lord, how fittingly you reveal yourself as the father of such a son. How fittingly your son reveals himself as the Son of such a Father…How can you give us so much with your first word, O Son of God and my Lord? It is wonderful that you should descend to such a degree of humility to join with us when we pray…How can you give us, in the name of your Father, all that there is to be given by willing him to have us as his children?” This final question is most poignant, for it contains within itself the pain of Adam and Eve and their descendants which has filled the centuries with a certain existential frustration and longing. But, it also expresses the astonishment—and ecstatic relief—that our lost childhood can be regained. St. Teresa’s three criteria for the spiritual life, most especially humility, are meant to purge us of all the accumulated dross, the superficiality, the camouflage, yes, the existential padding, so that stripped of the false identities, exposed as it were—His Fatherly gaze will restore us to our identity as His children. Humility brings us to the threshold of the Our Father, we have only to enter into the truth of that prayer. Every line is like a two-edged sword—which inflicts mortal wounds on the lies told to our first parents. God is not your father; He is not good; He is threatened by his creatures and so He lies; He will not provide for you; you are in great danger. Hide.

And to those lies, we can lift up our heads and say, No, we are children of the light and of the day. There is no need to hide. God is Our Father. May this Advent draw you deeper into the power and beauty of humility, which forms us into children who can pray, “Abba.” Our Father.

Well-Read Mom members can listen to the recorded audio of this post here(A special thank you to Anna Knier for reading Sister’s message to us.)

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