Am I Called To Be a Contemplative?

The Dignity and Destiny of Every Man According to St. Teresa of Avila

In a world of distraction and dispersion, modern man is distraught, thirsting for peace in a troubled world. The dream of humanity sufficing in itself by its enlightened thought and conscientious humanitarian charity has met the sad reality of mass ideological murder of the twentieth century and a rampant selfish individualism that has man saying with the Psalmist, “What can bring us happiness?”1

The outside turmoil of violence, abuse, hatred, and lust finds its origin in the unrest and selfishness within the human heart. “Can there be an evil greater than that of being ill at ease in our own house? What hope can we have of finding rest outside of ourselves if we cannot be at rest within.”2 St Teresa of Avila, the Doctor of Prayer, proposes a remedy for our times to discover this interior peace in order to work toward peace in the world. She invites us to look to the person of Jesus Christ in order to discover our dignity and destiny in him: that we are all made in the “image and likeness”3 of God and we are all destined for eternal glory.

Teresa realized that we are all capable and called to be contemplatives. This is, according to our spiritual nature elevated by grace, our dignity and destiny. This is not some high-in-the-sky unattainable ideal, but simply the reality of who we are as creatures endowed with a spiritual soul and so existentially thirsting for the infinite truth and love that will satisfy our minds and hearts. As St. Augustine exclaimed, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rest in you.”4

Evelyn Underhill’s definition highlights this universal calling that Teresa taught, for “mysticism is the art of union with Reality.”5 We are all called to be united with reality, and the highest reality that we are made for is God. For every man but especially for the Christian, we are called to grow in likeness to God, and to make of our soul a worthy dwelling place for the Most Holy Trinity. This is done by the process of prayer where we are united to God, or rather God unites himself to us.

One might object that this is only for the virtuous consecrated who spend their day in the chapel. No, this is the beauty of the Christian life. It is first of all a grace. We do not merit grace; it is a free gift of God. This is what Teresa says about the mystical graces of the fourth mansion and up.6 We cannot do anything to produce this experience; “even though we can do nothing in this work done by the Lord, we can do much by disposing ourselves so that His Majesty may grant us this favor.”7 This work of disposing and purifying through the practice of virtue, in order to receive more, in order to be united more and more to God, is what is asked of the soul throughout the spiritual journey.8

Through this union with the Ultimate reality in prayer, we get to know God in the biblical sense of the word. We enter into this intimate loving knowledge of the mystery of his unfathomable and absolutely gratuitous love for us. We are invited to enter into this mystery and to follow the way Jesus Christ; to be holy as he is holy. This is the goal of the spiritual life and our life in general: to be united with the Lord. This is the reason we were created. This union of love is not a fuzzy feeling but a true spiritual love, a mutual gift and conformity of the wills. “Love is union or desire of union” as Luis Martinez says.9

Teresa is a mystic and therefore a realist who wants to correct the caricature of the contemplative who is lost in their thought, contemplating ideal forms as Plato suggested. No, the aim of the contemplative life is perfect union, which means perfect love. “I only wish to inform you that in order to profit by this path and ascend to the dwelling places we desire, the important thing is not to think much but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you to love. Perhaps we don’t know what love is. I wouldn’t be very surprised, because it doesn’t consist in great delight but in desiring with strong determination to please God in everything, in striving, insofar as possible, not to offend Him, and in asking Him for the advancement of the honor and glory of His Son and the increase of the Catholic Church.”10

This is the ideal of the contemplative life that we are each called to, and yet we experience so many obstacles to this union because of our condition as wounded sinners. “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit.”11 This can’t be reduced to just a dualistic Platonic opposition of the body and soul, but we must see that there are all the consequences of sin which disorder our faculties and make us live for the idol of our own pleasure and selfishness. To use the Johannine expression, this idolatry is the world which is ruled by the Prince of this world, Satan. “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.”12

This disorder which prevents us from union with God is known as the concupiscences. One example that comes up frequently in Teresa’s writings is the imagination, which is easily tormented by the enemy and can be a great source of distraction for the soul seeking God. “If they come, as they do, from one of the many miseries inherited through the sin of Adam, let us be patient and endure them for the love of God.”13 Jesus calls us to follow him but the god of the world drags us down to follow him. So what can we do? Who can save us? There are many miseries inherited through the sin of Adam that put us in this state of turmoil that has us crying out with St Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”14

Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ who saves us, but he does not do so without our cooperation. Jesus is the central figure in the spirituality of Teresa, for he is the way to perfection of holiness and the full revelation of our dignity and destiny. Jesus, “Christ the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”15 He gives us the responsibility and dignity to choose freely, for this is love. “He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent.”16 Jesus says this clearly to all of his followers; if they want to be his disciples they must “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”17 We need to deny our disordered selfish tendencies in order to be free to follow Jesus. Teresa says over and over again that we need, first and foremost, to conform ourselves to God’s will, and this requires a gift of our will in order to be bound to the will of God.18

This is illustrated by the beautiful exchange of hearts which many mystics, including Teresa, experienced. This is not just a grace for the mystic but a requirement for everyone who will enter into paradise, the kingdom of the Love of God. Our heart represents our very person that we offer to the Lord. “For we are preparing ourselves that we may quickly reach the end of our journey and drink the living water from the fount we mentioned. Unless we give our wills entirely to the Lord so that in everything pertaining to us He might do what conforms with His will, we will never be allowed to drink from this fount.”19 We need to empty ourselves in order to be filled with God. This is expressed so well in the notion of “kenosis.” Paradoxically, this self-emptying is the only way to fulfillment, “they can fully discover their true selves only in sincere self giving.”20

This implies detachment. We need to get rid of all the junk in our hands that distracts us in order to receive the gift that God wants to give us. Even if it’s a “little” attachment, just a thread tied around the bird’s foot, it will keep it from flying.21 “The whole point is that we should give ourselves to Him with complete determination, and we should empty the soul in such a way that He can store things there or take them away as though it were His own property. And since His Majesty has the rights of ownership, let us not oppose Him. And since He doesn’t force our will, He takes what we give Him; but He doesn’t give Himself completely until we give ourselves completely . . . This fact is certain; and because it is so important, I bring it to your minds so often. He never works in the soul as He does when it is totally His without any obstacle, nor do I see how He could. He is the friend of all good order. Now, then, if we fill the palace with lowly people and trifles, how will there be room for the Lord with His court?”22

This Kenosis lived out in our prayer is also a gift of ourselves, our gifts and talents, in charity at the service of God and neighbor for the greater glory of God. For as we said, perfection is love. The sign that we are true contemplatives is if we are able to practice what we preach, if we are able to love in truth. “Well, if we never look at Him or reflect on what we owe Him and the death He suffered for us, I don’t know how we’ll be able to know Him or do works in His service. And what value can faith have without works and without joining them to the merits of Jesus Christ, our Good?”23

We know that we are united to God’s love in the intimacy of prayer if we are able to dispense this mystery to others in our daily life. This is the wisdom of the “Little Way,” which is the way of the Gospel, love of God and love of neighbor. These commands are for our full realization of our destiny of eternal happiness, union with God in love. In order to reach happiness and realize our full potential as men, we need to learn this science of divine love. We must follow the Master in his death in order to rise to life with him like the silk worm which enters its cocoon in order to rise as a new creation.24 This begins our heaven already here on earth, for in the end this charity will be the only thing that remains; “love never ends.”25

  1. Ps. 4:6.
  2. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle (henceforth abbreviated IC), trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979), II, 2. 9.
  3. Gen. 1:26–27. “For in reflecting upon it carefully, Sisters, we realize that the soul of the just person is nothing else but a paradise where the Lord says He finds His delight . . . I don’t find anything comparable to the magnificent beauty of a soul and its marvelous capacity. Indeed, our intellects, however keen, can hardly comprehend it, just as they cannot comprehend God; but He Himself says that He created us in His own image and likeness.” I, 1.1.
  4. Confessions, Lib 1, 1–2, 2.5, 5.
  5. Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism (1915), Ch. 1, 7.
  6. “But however great the effort we make to do so, we cannot enter. His majesty must place us there and enter Himself into the center of our soul.” IC, V, 1.11.
  7. IC, V, 2.1.
  8. “For indeed the soul does no more in this union than does the wax when another impresses a seal on it . . . it is only disposed — I mean by being soft. And even in order to be disposed it doesn’t soften itself but remains still and gives its consent . . . All you want is our will and that there be no impediment in the wax.” IC, V, 2.12.
  9. Luis Martinez, True Devotion to the Holy Spirit (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2000), 13.
  10. IC, IV, 7.1.
  11. Gal. 5:17.
  12. 1 Jn. 2:16.
  13. IC, IV, 1.11. We suffer from the consequences of original sin but also the consequences of our own sin and vices. “We have so many great and true friends and relatives (which are our faculties) with whom we must always live, even though we may not want to. But from what we feel, these seem to be warring against us because of what our vices have done to them.” IC, II, 2.9.
  14. Rms. 7:24.
  15. Gaudium et Spes, 22.
  16. St. Augustine, Sermo 169, 11.
  17. Lk. 9:23.
  18. “What is most essential and pleasing to God is that we be mindful of His honor and glory and forget ourselves and our own profit and comfort and delight.” IC, IV, 3.6. “The whole aim of any person who is beginning prayer — and don’t forget this, because it’s very very important — should be that he work and prepare himself with determination and every possible effort to bring his will into conformity with God’s will. Be certain that, as I shall say later, the greatest perfection attainable along the spiritual path lies in this conformity. It is the person who lives in more perfect conformity who will receive more from the Lord and be more advanced on this road. Don’t think that in what concerns perfection there is some mystery or things unknown or still to be understood, for in perfect conformity to God’s will lies all our good. Now then, if we err in the beginning, desiring that the Lord do our will at once and lead us according to what we imagine, what kind of stability will this edifice have?” IC, II, 1.8.
  19. The Way of Perfection, 32.9. Also, “Your will, Lord, be done in me in every way and manner that You, my Lord, want.” 32. 10.  This is a principle laid by Jesus himself and which is found in all of the other mystics which is seen so beautifully in the Suscipe prayer of St Ignatius of Loyola: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.” And again in St. Therese of the Child Jesus, “Jesus is asking for ALL ALL ALL. As much as He can ask from the greatest saints” (Letter 57).
  20. GS, 24.
  21. John of the Cross: “The soul that is attached to anything, however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of divine union.” Ascent of Mount Carmel XI.4.
  22. Way of Perfection, 28.12.
  23. IC, II, 11.
  24. “Let it die; let this silkworm die, as it does in completing what it was created to do.” IC, V, 2.6.
  25. 1 Corinthians 13:8.
Br. John Paul Puschautz About Br. John Paul Puschautz

Br. John Paul Puschautz, a brother of Saint John since 2011, grew up in Chicago IL and attended the University of Illinois, where he studied fine art painting before responding to Jesus’ call to religious life. After getting his Master’s in Theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary in NJ, he is currently doing postgraduate studies at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley CA.

All comments posted at Homiletic and Pastoral Review are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative and inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.

Speak Your Mind

*