Last week, I attended the annual spiritual retreat of the Bishops of our region (Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin) that was held at the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House on the campus of Our Lady of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. It was a grace-filled time of prayer, rest, and fraternity with brother Bishops.
Retreats are wonderful opportunities to draw apart from our normal routine to be with the Lord, to take stock of our life, and to be renewed in spirit. We can think of Jesus who drew apart from the crowds, and even from the apostles, to be with His Father, to pray in solitude. Such withdrawal from the world is not an escape from the world: it is a way to enter more deeply into life, to encounter Christ anew, to drink of the living water He gives us to satisfy the thirst of our soul. Even if it is not possible to go on a retreat, we all need the spiritual refreshment that comes from prayer.
Last week’s retreat was truly spiritual refreshment for me. The retreat director was a Discalced Carmelite priest who shared with us beautiful and practical meditations and insights from three great Carmelite saints and doctors of the Church: Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Therese of Lisieux. His talks brought back wonderful memories for me since the spiritual writings of these three saints were favorites of mine as a seminarian. Also, when I was a deacon, I lived and served two months in Salamanca, Spain, where I was able to visit Avila and other towns and cities where Teresa and John of the Cross lived and carried out the great reform of the Carmelite order.
Saint Teresa of Avila has always been one of my favorite spiritual masters. She was a great mystic, yet she was so very human. She is forthright, candid, transparent, and practical in her writings. Her Autobiography is a classic, along with her other writings: The Way of Perfection, The Interior Castle, and other smaller works. Our retreat director last week often cited The Interior Castle. In this work, Saint Teresa uses the analogy of a castle with seven dwellings or “mansions”, each one closer to the heart of God who dwells as the King in the center of the castle. Through each mansion, one moves closer to God and further away from attachment to the things of this world. In each mansion, there are blessings and struggles.
Saint Teresa’s Interior Castle is filled with spiritual wisdom. Writing about the first mansion, Teresa says: “It seems to me that we will never know ourselves unless we seek to know God. Glimpsing His greatness, we recognize our own powerlessness; gazing upon His purity, we notice where we are impure; pondering His humility, we see how far from humble we are.”
The first mansion is the one where the soul recognizes that there indeed is a castle to be explored. One enters its doors by prayer. The first mansion is still a very exterior place where one can be easily distracted by the world’s temptations. But as one enters the second mansion, one begins to hear the voice of God calling. In the third mansion, one moves and progresses to humility and submission to God’s will. In the fourth mansion, the soul begins to experience the supernatural: consolations in prayer and what Teresa calls the “Prayer of Quiet.” The fifth mansion is where the soul experiences the “Prayer of Union,” the sixth the desire to be with God and leave the world behind; the seventh is where the soul finds rest in the presence of the King.
In the Interior Castle, as in her other writings, Saint Teresa of Avila teaches us to feel the thirst for God in our hearts and the deep desire to be with God, to converse with Him, to be His friends.
She, like so many other great saints, teaches us that it is in friendship with Christ that we find true peace and joy. How important it is that we make time for prayer, to grow in this friendship! It is not time wasted. Teresa had a true human friendship with God. This friendship, if authentic, produces fruits in our lives. From union with Jesus flows love of neighbor. As I said, prayer is not an escape. Good works are the fruit of prayer, the criteria of authentic prayer. The authenticity of prayer is not judged by visions and ecstasies, the mystic Teresa teaches us, but by the conformity of our lives to the life and teaching of Jesus, conformity to God’s will. True perfection is love of God and love of neighbor.
While reflecting last week on the rich insights of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, I was reminded also of the following words of Pope Francis about prayer: “How good it is to stand before a crucifix, or on our knees before the Blessed Sacrament, and simply to be in His presence! How much good it does us when He once more touches our lives and impels us to share His new life!”
I leave you with a quote of Saint Teresa of Avila, her definition of contemplative prayer: “Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”
And finally, Saint Teresa’s poem of trust in God, even in adversity:
“Let nothing trouble you / Let nothing frighten you.
Everything passes / God never changes
Patience / Obtains all
Whoever has God / Wants for nothing
God alone is enough.”