The Third Dwelling Places
Lesson Twenty-Two: Fear of the Lord
When a soul finally reaches the third dwelling places, its footing is firmer and far less likely to completely fall from grace. But the danger of a fall from grace must be ever-present in the mind of the person in these dwelling places.
As for those who, by the mercy of God, have vanquished in these combats and persevered until they reached the third mansions [dwelling places], what can we say to them but ‘Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord’? (III.I. #1)
What misery to live in this world! We are like men whose enemies are at the door, who must not lay aside their arms, even while sleeping or eating, and are always in dread lest the foe should enter the fortress by some breach in the walls (III.I #2).
The “misery” of which Saint Teresa speaks is the constant struggle with temptation and falling into sin. There is no security in life, in the sense that we are always vulnerable and must always be on guard against falling back into sin. These struggles are best endured at this point by cultivating the gift of “fear of the Lord.” Those in these dwelling places must work to acquire this holy fear. Her description is quite useful. Imagine being securely within a castle but also being aware that there are enemies at the door, continuously trying to break in.
First, note that in the third dwelling places, sin is mostly conquered. Thus, the “enemies” are at the door, but they are not in direct contact with us. Sins, even willful venial sins, are for the most part eliminated from the lives of those in the third dwelling places, at least in a habitual way. The sufferings inflicted upon the soul in the second dwelling places by repeatedly falling into sin and enduring strong temptations are no longer present. However, if those in the third dwelling places are to remain there and even advance further, they must never forget that the enemy could break in again. They must “fear” this, fear returning to a life of sin, fear turning away from God, and that holy fear will motivate them to remain vigilant, looking for the first sign of the enemy breaking in.
Reflection: Do you understand the concept of “holy” fear? The emotion of fear is unpleasant. But this unpleasant feeling can be used for good when it is sin that we fear. We ought not to fear sin in the sense of allowing the thought of it to obsess us. Rather, we must work to cultivate a well-reasoned and ordered awareness of the real possibility of falling into sin and use that awareness to keep us ever on guard against it. How well do you do this?
Think about the sins of your past, especially those that, at times, you are still tempted to fall into. Do you find yourself entertaining the idea of committing those sins? If so, it’s time to see those sins for what they are. It’s time to keep the ill effects of those sins in the forefront of your mind so that this knowledge can be a source of protection for you from those temptations.
Make a mental list of the sins you have struggled with the most, and remind yourself that you never want to fall into them again. Pray for God’s grace to fill you with holy fear, make a firm resolution never to commit them again, and move forward with holy confidence in the power of God to keep you firmly grounded in His grace.
Most holy Lord, You are filled with pure beauty and perfection in every way, and You invite me to share in Your holy life. Please fill me with the gift of holy fear so that I will learn to hate all sin, be repulsed by it, and never fall into it again. Please especially free me from the temptations from my past, and always help me to turn to You in my times of need.
Lesson Twenty-Three: Not Always a Saint
To continue to cultivate a holy fear of falling back into sin, Saint Teresa found it useful to remind her sisters that even some of the greatest of saints fell back into sin at times but then repented, did penance, and continued the journey.
Remember, many Saints have felt this as we do, and were even far more fervent, yet fell into grave sin, and we cannot be sure that God would stretch forth His hand to raise us from sin again to do such penance as they performed.
Saint Teresa went on to recall to her sisters that she had not always lived a holy life. In fact, for the first twenty years of her religious life, she lived a life of indifference, mediocrity, and presumption. One day, as she looked upon an image of Jesus being scourged at the pillar, she had a mystical experience that led her to an ongoing life of conversion and a deepening of prayer. However, the fact that she wasted many years of her life led her to “tears and great shame.”
The sin of presumption is especially important to consider while in these dwelling places. Presumption is a sin by which we take God and His mercy for granted and, therefore, do not seriously heed His calling. We downplay our sins and exaggerate our virtue. Presumption is quite a hindrance to growth in holiness, because it leads a person to pretend all is well and that they are holy enough, or at least holier than most. They fail to see their sin and various attachments clearly, which makes it very difficult to grow closer to God.
It’s hard to imagine that a Carmelite nun could waste her first twenty years in the convent without truly engaging in a life of prayer. But that is what happened to Saint Teresa. She presumed that, because she was a nun, wearing a habit, and engaging in daily prayers and good works, this was enough. One thing this should tell us is that we can go about a routine of prayer, always attend Mass, and stay free from serious sin, but still not enter very deep into the life of prayer and conversion.
Saint Teresa’s early life as a sister should be reason enough for us all to take a good look at our conversion or lack thereof. Even if we have said many prayers for many years, this does not mean we have entered very deeply into the castles of our souls and encountered the indwelling presence of God. Knowing this should produce humility within us. Humility is honesty. It’s the honest admission that we have not entered as deeply into the castle as God wants. Let that humble realization motivate you, no matter how long you have remained somewhat indifferent to the call to perfection, stuck in the presumption that you are holier than you are.
Reflection: Do you struggle with presumption? Do you think well of yourself and downplay the seriousness of your sin? This is a dangerous habit that many people form. The best way to combat presumption is to foster a burning desire within your soul for perfection. Yes, perfection is possible. It’s what you are called to attain. If you do not believe that with all your heart, then you are struggling with indifference toward the call to perfection.
If you have overcome most sins in your life, do not stop there. God is calling you to take the next step forward by deepening your prayer life. Do you desire to perfect your life of prayer? Do you want to go deeper, surrendering every part of your life over to Christ? If you cannot wholeheartedly profess this desire, then be honest with yourself and admit this as a hindrance to your journey toward God. Rectify it by asking God to humbly see your indifference and presumption more clearly so that you will be able to surrender all to God for His glory and your perfect holiness.
Most holy Lord, You continuously call me deeper, and so often I am indifferent to that call. Please open my eyes to the ways that I presume I am holy enough, and help me to see that my journey is far from over. Fill me with a deeper desire for You and for a longing to go further in my life of prayer. May I learn to pray well and be open to being drawn into a relationship of the deepest communion with You, my God.
Lesson Twenty-Four: The Blessing of Human Weakness
Though this line that follows does not specifically pertain to her teaching, it does reveal that even the greatest of saints were human and experienced some of the same struggles we experience.
I do not recollect what I was saying, and have digressed very much: for when I think of myself my mind cannot soar to higher things but is like a bird with broken wings; so I will leave this subject for the present (III.I #7).
Do you ever feel as though your mind is more like a bird with broken wings, rather than an eagle that soars toward the heavens? This analogy can apply to more than just our mental capacity. There are many things we encounter in life that remind us of our weaknesses. Maybe you struggle with sleep and toss and turn most of the night, and this becomes a frustration. Maybe you struggle with depression because of some chemical imbalance within your body. Maybe you feel uncoordinated and wish you were a better athlete. Maybe you have a poor metabolism, and it is a challenge to keep off weight.
If you have fallen into the trap of thinking that the great saints are much different than you, then think again. Every saint had their struggles as they encountered their human limitations and endured the weaknesses of their fallen human nature. It is clear from her writings that Saint Teresa felt that her mind was not very sharp, and she continually struggled to explain herself. A modern editor would no doubt conclude that her writings are somewhat scattered and unorganized in their presentation. She often goes off on long tangents and then forgets what she was previously saying. However, despite her human weakness, God used her to write some of the most profound teachings on the spiritual life. Therefore, don’t ever doubt that you are just as capable of becoming a great saint as was Saint Teresa of Ávila and every other saint.
Reflection: What is it about your fallen human condition that plagues you the most? Certainly, sin is the greatest struggle we all deal with. But in addition to your sin, what other aspects of your fallen human nature are true difficulties for you? Do you have some physical limitations that you dwell on? Is your mental sharpness less than what you wish it were? Do you struggle with other circumstances in life, at work, or within your home that burden you?
Too often we perceive our weaknesses as obstacles that hinder us from becoming holy and happy in life. The opposite is often true. In almost every case, God can use that which is your greatest cross and struggle for His glory. If God could use Saint Teresa, who felt her mind was not very sharp and struggled regularly with physical illness, to produce some of the most profound spiritual teachings in the history of the Church, then God can use you, despite your weaknesses.
Reflect upon those things in your life that discourage you and appear to keep you from soaring. As you identify them, make an act of faith, professing your trust that God can use your human weaknesses for His glory. Believe it, be open to His masterful touch, and allow Him to use your weaknesses for great things.
All-Powerful God, Your power is so great that You choose the weak and make them strong. You are most glorified in this way and do many great things through us in our weaknesses. Please use my greatest weaknesses for Your glory. Act in and through me in ways that only You can do. Free me from discouragement as I see my limitations, and help me to know that You are limited by nothing, not even my weaknesses.
Lesson Twenty-Five: Attainable by Many
The good news is that it is quite possible to enter these third dwelling places. Saint Teresa believed that “there are many such people” who have done so.
To return to what I began to explain about the souls which have entered the third mansions [dwelling places]. God has shown them no small favour, but a very great one, in enabling them to pass through the first difficulties. Thanks to His mercy I believe there are many such people in the world… (III.II #8).
These people are those who desire to please God and sincerely desire to avoid all sins, even venial sins. If they do fall into venial sins through human weakness, they quickly confess them to God so that they do not make them a habit and work diligently to avoid each sin again, succeeding very often. They do acts of penance such as fasting and self-denial to keep their appetites in check. They regularly pray in the form of meditation and interior recollection. They use their time well, not wasting it on foolish endeavors. They are generally well-ordered, charitable toward others, and are manifest in the virtues.
Those in the third dwelling places are far from perfect, but they are no longer falling regularly into sin, which frees them from many of the interior sufferings that those in the second dwelling places endure. As long as these people continue to foster the spiritual gift of fear of the Lord and the virtue of humility and persevere in their desire to deepen their prayer, they will start to find interior peace and will continue to advance.
Reflection: Do you believe that you can be among the “many” who enter the third dwelling places? Most certainly you can. Perhaps you already reside in these dwelling places. Consider the qualities of those living here. They diligently avoid all sins, even venial sins. They pray every day, often keeping God and His will on their minds throughout the day. They are not worldly and are not obsessed with a desire for riches. They are at peace with who they are as a child of God. Does this describe you?
If one or more of these qualities are not reflected in your life, do not worry. Since many people do achieve this level of holiness found within the third dwelling places, know that you can too. Think about the qualities of these holy souls that you fail to imitate, and then think about the ways that these souls overcame their failures. Return to the second dwelling places, or even the first ones, and consider the lessons taught there. Work to overcome every sin. Establish a firm habit of prayer. Foster an all-consuming desire for holiness, and work to strengthen every virtue in your life.
If the description of a person in these dwelling places does describe your life, then rejoice in that fact. Remind yourself, using the gift of holy fear, that it is always possible to fall back into your former sins, lose your virtue and break your habit of prayer. Firmly resolve not to let any of these things happen. Reflect, also, upon the fact that the third dwelling places are not the end. Do not remain here for the rest of your life. Commit to moving forward, and continue to be open to that path as God reveals it to you.
Most generous Lord, so many of Your sons and daughters have arrived at these, the third dwelling places, on their interior journey toward You. I pray that I may be among these holy souls through my faithful practice of prayer, my growth in virtue, and my avoidance of sin. Please never allow me to fall back from the journey and to always move forward. Please show me the most expedient way, dear Lord, and give me the will and desire to press on in my journey.
Lesson Twenty-Six: Desire is Not Enough
Though many attain the holiness of the third dwelling places, it is easy to remain stuck in these dwelling places even though those living there have a desire for perfection.
O Jesus! can any one declare that he does not desire this great blessing, especially after he has passed through the chief difficulties? No; no one can! We all say we desire it, but there is need of more than that for the Lord to possess entire dominion over the soul (III.I #9).
Desire is not enough to become perfect. At this point, Saint Teresa goes on to recall the story of the rich young man in the Gospels. This is a very important story to her and one to which she returns more than once.
To begin, she used the image of the rich young man as one who is representative of those living in these third dwelling places. Recall that this young man had two valuable qualities. First, he was faithful in following the Ten Commandments. He says that he had kept them from his youth. Therefore, this good young man had mostly conquered all serious sin and was living a good and moral life. In addition to a good moral life, this young man manifested an important desire that those in these dwelling places experience. He desired to be perfect. “Teacher, what must I do to be perfect?” he said to Jesus.
When we think about this rich young man, we often think about him going away sad. But before we jump to that unfortunate conclusion to his conversation with Jesus, it is important to see that he was morally upright and desired to be even better. Perfect, in fact. Those in the third dwelling places share these good qualities. They rarely fall back into sin, have built good habits, and desire true holiness.
Reflection: Do you see yourself reflected in the rich young man? Do you keep free from sin and desire to be perfect? Hopefully, you do. If so, then sit with the image of this rich young man coming to Jesus with youthful enthusiasm. He was proud to tell Jesus that he regularly avoided all sin. And he was excited to tell our Lord about his desire to be perfect. Do you share these good qualities?
If you do not yet share these same qualities, then continue to return to the previous lessons so that you can arrive at this point. If, however, you do share these qualities, then consider Jesus’ response to him. “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). How would you react to such an invitation from Jesus?
If you have the desire for perfection, then the next step is to form the will for perfection. Desire is not enough. We must put that desire into practice within our will. We must choose to do that which might appear radical and extreme to others. We must be detached from everything in this world so that we can become fully attached to God and His holy will alone. Are you willing to do this? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to become a saint? If not, be honest with yourself. Don’t walk away sad; rather, allow yourself to be relieved as you discover those things in your life that must change. Reflect deeply upon your desire for perfection, and work to turn that desire into action.
Lord of perfection, You call all Your sons and daughters to be perfect. Please fill my heart with this desire and continually keep me free from all that hinders it. As this desire grows within me, please give me the strength of will that I need to put this desire into action. May nothing hinder me on my journey toward You. I renounce all that competes for Your love and my service of Your holy will. Help me, Lord, to never walk away from Your invitation with sadness, but to embrace every invitation You give.
Lesson Twenty-Seven: One Cause for Dryness in Prayer
Saint Teresa also refers to the rich young man as an example of one who experiences dryness in prayer:
Since I began to speak of these dwelling-rooms I have him constantly before my mind, for we are exactly like him; this very frequently produces the great dryness we feel in prayer, though sometimes it proceeds from other causes as well. (III.I #9).
She goes on to explain that many people in these dwelling places will experience dryness in prayer. They are like the rich young man. Sin is regularly avoided, and their desires are for God. The problem is that they are not yet willing to do what they need to do to be perfect, just as the rich young man was not willing to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and then follow Jesus.
Perfection demands everything from us. In the case of the rich young man, it’s not that his many possessions were evil. Rather, the problem was that they were a hindrance to him in radically and completely following Jesus. Jesus wanted so much more from him, and he would have been much happier had he realized that the spiritual riches he desired were of such great value that it was worth leaving everything else behind, especially those things that competed for his desires.
Saint Teresa explains that dryness in prayer at this stage is often caused by an unwillingness to go deeper and to spiritually detach from everything that still binds us. If we want to be perfect, we must allow our prayer to strip away every attachment in our lives. Everything must go. We must become attached only to God and His perfect will for our lives. When we refuse, then we go away sad. This refusal to detach often causes dryness in prayer because when we do not zealously respond to God in prayer, our prayer dries up.
Dryness in prayer should be seen as a gift. If it is caused by our refusal to go deeper, then we are the cause. Recognizing this will help us identify the disordered attachment we must let go of to encounter the consolations of God once again. Note that Teresa also mentions, “though sometimes it proceeds from other causes as well.” The other form of dryness is a gift that comes in the next form of prayer, which is generally called “infused contemplation.” In that case, the dryness is a stripping away of all spiritual delights by God Himself to help stretch the capacity of our soul and to deepen our resolve by purifying even the slightest attachments that we cannot eliminate by our efforts. This will be more clearly understood in the fourth dwelling places.
Reflection: Do you find your prayer to be dry at times? If not, then rejoice in the sweetness God gives, and allow it to lead you on your journey. However, if you do find that your prayer appears to be dry, then consider the cause for this. Begin by examining the way you pray. When you meditate, do you try to eliminate every other distraction? Do you spend sufficient time praying? Do you intensely focus on God? Do you seek out His still, gentle voice?
If you can answer “Yes” to these questions and still experience dryness in prayer, then spend more time considering the rich young man. Think about his refusal to go deeper. He went away sad because he could not give everything to God. When he went to pray, his prayer would have certainly been dry because he was not willing to take the next step. Think about what that “next step” is for you. What do you hold onto that God wants you to let go of?
When prayer is true prayer, it will always produce good effects. At first, it produces sweetness and strength. It produces clarity and understanding. It builds our virtues and eliminates our sins. Prayerfully ponder your prayer life and examine it carefully. If it is not producing good fruit in your life, despite your sincere efforts, then be open to discovering what might be the cause. Look for other attachments you have. When you find them, work to joyfully let them go.
My demanding Lord, You are a jealous God Who desires to receive all we are so that You can give to us all You are. Please help me to see those things in my life that hinder the total gift of myself to You and my reception of the total gift of Your life in my soul. May I never choose the passing and fleeting things of this world over You, for to choose You in all things is the only way to the fullness of life that I so deeply desire.
Lesson Twenty-Eight: Consolations in Prayer
There are many ways of being consoled in life. Even sin can produce a very basic, fleshly, passionate, and disordered form of consolation. This is why people sin! We don’t sin because it makes us miserable, but because there is some initial delight we receive from the sin, albeit a disordered delight.
Those who have entered the third dwelling places have discovered the deceptiveness of fleshly and worldly consolations. They no longer engage in sins of the flesh, ambitions for status, or desire for material comforts—at least not to a serious and intentional degree. Instead, they have found a new level of consolation and interior satisfaction that comes to them from their meditation on and service to God. Serving God through prayer and good works feels good. It produces delights in the soul that drive them to continue down the path of holiness. However, if they want to be perfect, they need to detach even from these newfound spiritual delights so that they can discover something even deeper in the later dwelling places. Though God gives these initial forms of consolations, God will eventually wean a person off them so that He can take the person much higher.
These consolations, as you have read, are often given by the Divine Majesty to the weakest souls who, I suppose would not exchange them for the fortitude of Christians serving God in aridities: we love consolations better than the cross! (III.I #15)
The consolations of which Saint Teresa speaks could be termed “sensible consolation.” These are consolations that come from God through prayer and good works but primarily reside within our feelings, emotions, passions, and mind. They produce insight and conviction, encouragement and drive, delight, and excitement. They make us want to serve God because it feels good to serve Him.
Eventually, as a person matures in their faith, God will call them to serve Him without these consolations because it is easy to become too attached to those good spiritual feelings. But this can be jarring for a person who has become reliant upon these good spiritual feelings. If, as was mentioned in the previous reflection, we feel dryness in prayer because we are unwilling to let go of some unhealthy attachment, then eliminating that unhealthy attachment is the cure to a return to the sensible consolations God wants to give. But if an unhealthy attachment is not the cause, then it might be a sign that God wants to gently take you deeper by learning to love Him without receiving good spiritual feelings.
At this point, it is useful if the person looks NOT at how they feel, but at what they do. The deeper power of conversion is ultimately found in the will, not in spiritual feelings. It benefits a soul in this situation to choose to serve God no matter how they feel. To pray, even if they feel as though they do not get anything out of it. To endure an interior trial as a sacrifice of love rather than as something that hurts.
Saint Teresa points out that when a person can choose God’s will despite any interior trials, such as dryness and loss of sensible consolation, they make great strides in the spiritual life and reach a new level of humility. Specifically, they learn that they were more attached to the good feelings they received from serving God than they were to God Himself. This is a very valuable insight to gain.
Reflection: Have you experienced sensible consolations in your life? If so, then this is good. Those consolations are from God. As long as God gives you these good spiritual feelings then allow them to console you, strengthen you and direct your path toward Him. Begin, then, by considering whether you regularly experience sensible consolation in prayer.
If you do, ask yourself the question, “What if these good feelings were to go away?” What would you do in that case? Know that good feelings gained from the prayer of meditation, the joys of serving God’s will, and every other form of spiritual consolation is a gift to be received. But also know that these good feelings are not of the highest order. They are not God Himself. Therefore, ponder whether you are willing to serve God no matter how you feel. If you do feel dry and empty, through no fault of your own, are you willing to say “Yes” to the will of God anyway? Are you committed to making an act of the will by which you choose to love God even if His presence seems distant and obscure?
If you want to grow deeper and eventually enter the fourth dwelling places and beyond, you must be ready to let go of everything that is not God. That includes good spiritual feelings. Ponder this fact so that when God does begin to wean you off this spiritual “baby food,” you will be ready to embrace that loss with peace and joy. When there is a loss of good spiritual feelings and when that loss is fully embraced, a much deeper peace, clarity of purpose, spiritual strength, and spiritual joy will be received. By letting go of these lower spiritual gifts from God, we are prepared to receive much higher spiritual goods and delights on a level we never knew existed.
Lord of true holiness, I want to be holy, not just feel holy. I thank You for all the spiritual consolations You have given to me throughout my life. Thank You for encouraging me, directing me, and strengthening me in these ways. I pray that, as I advance on my journey toward You, I will be prepared to let go of these initial good feelings so that I will be strengthened in my will to serve You no matter what.
Lesson Twenty-Nine: Beyond Natural Prudence
As has been mentioned, those in the third dwelling places can be considered “well-ordered souls.” However, sometimes they are so “ordered” that they resist moving further.
Their love is not strong enough to overcome their reason; I wish it were—that they might not be content to creep on their way to God: a pace that will never bring them to their journey’s end! (III.II #9)
Those in the third dwelling places have received many favors from God. They have gone through much initial conversion in their lives, have learned to meditate well, understand the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, and believe their faith with much fervor. However, because they live well-ordered lives, they can sometimes even be too “prudent,” as Saint Teresa lovingly jokes.
Prudence and rational thinking are good. But the drawback to living on an extremely rational level is that we end up directing our lives on our own, rather than allowing God to direct us. God’s wisdom far surpasses our own. His ways are not opposed to our human reason, but they are above it. God’s ways are more than we can comprehend by deductive thinking. Therefore, if you want to excel in holiness, you need to take a step in faith and suspend many of your natural prudential judgments. You need to seek new wisdom, put on a new mind, see yourself in a new light, and allow God’s will to take hold of your will. This is done primarily by surrendering your will over to God, not by forcefully containing your will within the boundaries of your limited understanding of what you perceive to be best for you. This demands trust on a very profound level. When this trust is acted upon, you will find that you sometimes act in ways that do not make perfect sense but do you much good. You will not always immediately understand what God is doing in your soul, but you will allow Him to act and entrust to Him all that you are.
The opposite of trust in God is paralyzing and unhealthy fear. The person who is too prudent fears doing what is necessary to advance in the spiritual life. They fear severe penances. They fear praying too much. They fear forgiving others. They fear growth in virtue. They fear trusting God with their lives. They fear making the necessary changes in their lives, and they fear even admitting to the things that need to change. Thus, they live a life that they can control and refuse to lower their guard to let God reveal to them what they truly need.
Reflection: Do you trust God? Most likely you do, at least to a certain extent. Trust requires you to let go of fear. When you sense God calling you to do something that appears to be difficult, it is easy to allow your human reason to take over and to come up with various reasons why you shouldn’t do it. This is fear at work. Do you regularly do this? Think about something that you think God wants of you, and then try to examine the reasons you have avoided it. Were fear and self-concern part of your motivation? For example, God might call you to fast on bread and water, but your human reason will fight this, telling you that it is unreasonable for you. You must learn to take the leap of faith and override your controlling intellect.
If you trust God, profoundly, then when you sense Him calling you to do something that appears difficult, you will not hesitate to respond. You will “walk into the fire,” so to speak, for no other reason than because God has asked you to do so. What sacrifice is God calling you to make? What holy service is He asking you to offer Him? What change does He want in your life?
Does God want you to commit yourself to extra time of prayer, even if you don’t feel like doing it? Is He asking you to embrace a certain form of penance, such as fasting? Does He want you to avoid certain types of entertainment, gossip, and other occasions of sin because you know they are occasions of sin? Does He want you to reach out to someone with whom you have a strained relationship? Does He want you to forgive on a deeper level?
Reflect upon how willing you are to do whatever God wants of you—no matter the cost, no matter how difficult. Dispel all fear. Renounce it and never allow it to be a controlling factor in your life. Doing so will open you to a deeper level of trust, and this will lead to greater conformity of your will to the will of God.
My trustworthy Lord, You call me to a life of radical holiness. Embracing Your perfect will demands deep love, total detachment, and profound surrender. Help me to respond to Your holy will with trust. Help me to say “Yes” to You even when Your will is difficult to embrace. May I trust You far more than I trust myself and serve You in all things.
Lesson Thirty: More Humility Needed
If you want to advance beyond the third dwelling places, humility is not enough. “Extreme humility” must be sought with all your heart.
…extreme humility is the principal point. It is the want of this, I believe, that stops people’s progress. It may seem that we have made but little way: we should believe that is the case, and that our sisters are advancing much more rapidly than we are. Not only should we wish others to consider us the worst of all; we should endeavour to make them think so (III.II #12).
What is “extreme humility?” It’s more than realizing your sins. It’s an understanding of your soul from the perspective of God. It means you see yourself in the light of God’s glory. You see your attachments and sins. You also see your virtues and the many good things God has done in your soul. Obtaining that knowledge produces the deepest form of humility. It produces deep self-knowledge as you are freed from even the slightest inordinate attachments.
There are various ways to obtain this pure and deep knowledge of your soul. As already mentioned, dryness in prayer will help by freeing you from the attachment to the initial experiences of spiritual consolations you have received and become dependent upon. Additionally, voluntary acts of self-denial and penance will also help. Acts of self-denial are good for us, not because the things we give up are necessarily bad, but because we need to be able to identify every self-love we have so that we can detach from them and attach ourselves to the will of God alone.
Growth in the virtue of humility can be tedious. It will often take time to grow in this virtue because obtaining it involves a process of discovery of who you are. Little by little, you must identify all selfishness within your soul. You must discover the ways you depend more upon yourself than upon God. You must search for every way that you refuse to respond to God’s grace wholeheartedly. These discoveries, of who you are as God sees you, are the road to a deeper humility. This road can only be traveled through a deepening of your life of prayer.
Dryness in prayer, self-denial, penance, voluntarily embracing suffering and every other form of mortification will help you detach from everything that is not God Himself, so that you can take the deepest delights in God alone. This form of spiritual detachment will produce deep prayer, which will result in humility. Humility will be produced when the clutter of superficial consolations is removed and the soul is left alone to see God, to see its soul from God’s perspective, to delight in God’s will, and to serve Him alone.
Reflection: Are you humble? Pride is a habit by which we develop a distorted view of ourselves. We become blinded by pride and remain self-centered, self-concerned, self-directed, and have an elevated view of who we are. Humility is the process of cutting through these false and selfish images of ourselves so that we can better see ourselves as God sees us. Are you committed to such a process?
One practical way by which we can grow in humility is to intentionally suspend all judgments about ourselves. As you look at your soul, try to forget all that you believe about yourself. If you think you are holy, try to discover your sin. If you think you are virtuous in one way, search for the ways that you also lack that virtue. Suspend all judgments of yourself that you have developed over time, and ask God to help give you new eyes to see yourself.
Are you open to the truth? The pursuit of humility is nothing other than an honest pursuit of the truth of who you are. You must never be afraid of discovering things about yourself that you do not yet understand. This will only be possible if you accept the fact that you certainly do not know yourself in the way God knows you. You are unquestionably attached to certain sins that even you do not realize. Commit yourself to this journey of discovery so that God can give you a better understanding of your soul, and then use that knowledge to help you conform more fully to His perfect will.
My humble Lord, You are the perfection of humility because You know Who You are to the perfect degree. Please free me from the distorted images I have of myself, and reveal to me the many ways that I fail to conform myself to the perfection of Your holy will. As I commit myself to this deeper journey of self-discovery, dear Lord, please direct me down that road.
Lesson Thirty-One: Prompt Obedience
Holiness is not found in being consoled in life; it is found in greater love. Yet so often we choose consolation over selfless and sacrificial love. This greater love takes place when your will chooses God’s will only because it is God’s will, not because it is easy or delightful.
This is hard to accomplish on your own. Therefore, Saint Teresa recommends to her sisters that they rely upon a spiritual director to help them conform their will to God’s. She says that this is best accomplished by “prompt obedience” to the spiritual director.
Souls who by God’s mercy are brought so far…will be greatly benefited by practising prompt obedience. Even if they are not in the religious state, it would be well if they, like certain other people, were to take a director, so as never to follow their own will, which is the cause of most of our ills (III.II #18).
For Teresa, a good spiritual director was hard to find. She did not want a spiritual director who was “too prudent” themselves. Prudence is good and an act of human reason. But if one is to soar to the heavens, they need a director who understands the truths that surpass the natural abilities of human reason. They need to understand spiritual dryness, how to react to trials and other forms of suffering, how to eliminate every attachment to sin, and how to completely conform oneself to the will of God. This is no casual task!
Though most people will not have a spiritual director to assist them in the way Teresa recommends, it is useful to understand the fact that it can be very difficult to direct ourselves, by our prudence, toward the highest heights of sanctity.
Even if you do not have a reliable spiritual director, the practice of prompt obedience is very useful in the spiritual life. This practice begins by making a firm resolution in your spirit to do whatever God asks of you, no matter what it is, no matter how hard it appears to be. This willing spirit, ready to say “Yes” the moment you understand God’s will is of great value. In fact, by working to train your will to do whatever God asks, the moment He asks, you will be more disposed to hear His voice and respond to it with love.
Reflection: Doing God’s will does not always feel good, at least not right away. Are you okay with that fact? Are you willing to do what appears difficult and distasteful for the singular reason that God has asked something of you?
As you look into your soul, are there things that you think God might want of you that you resist? Try to identify what these are. Look, first, at any tendency toward resistance within you. Usually, this takes place by a process of rationalizing away that which we think God might be asking of us. For example, you might sense one day that you should give something up, change a certain habit, or add a certain habit to your daily life. When you sense this, you might also find yourself resisting it and, therefore, quickly dismiss the idea. Don’t do that. Begin by considering anything that you regularly resist.
Sometimes we resist our own will, and that is good. But prompt obedience to the will of God must become a habit. If obedience is to become a habit in your soul, try to resist your resistance. In other words, try to do things that you don’t immediately want to do. If you sense God wants you to spend an extra ten minutes praying, then do so, immediately, without hesitation. And make sure it’s a full ten extra minutes. If someone comes to mind with whom you are angry and you know you should forgive them, then make an act of interior forgiveness right away. Don’t overanalyze, just act. In time, this spiritual practice will help you to respond to the grace of God more easily and more quickly the moment He acts upon your will.
My demanding Lord, You call me to obey You always, wholeheartedly, the moment You speak. Help me to learn Your gentle voice and to become far more attentive to You than to my self-will. May I overcome self-will and always obey You promptly so that I will be more completely conformed to Your will in all things.
Lesson Thirty-Two: Inspired by Others
Too often, trials in life leave us discouraged. Be it dryness in prayer, an unwillingness to let go of superficial delights, or some other difficulty inflicted upon us, many such trials can keep us from soaring in our service of the will of God.
It is encouraging to see that trials which seemed to us impossible to submit to are possible to others and that they bear them sweetly. Their flight makes us try to soar, like nestlings taught by the elder birds, who, though they cannot fly far at first, little by little imitate their parents: I know the great benefit of this (III.II #18).
Some souls in these dwelling places are very proud of themselves and portray an attitude of superiority that is not honest. They are quick to tell others about how good they are, and they perceive the sins of those whom they converse with. This is a real danger, and we must work to do the opposite. Rather than seeking to advise others, we should look to them for guidance. But we will never seek the guidance we need unless we are honest with ourselves first, admitting our confusions, weaknesses, failures, and fears.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by some trial or difficulty in life, don’t cover it up or pretend it does not exist. Instead, look to the inspiration of others who have also endured such trials and have emerged triumphant. We need the witness of these holy and strong souls to help us realize that we can endure anything by the grace of God.
In these, the third dwelling places, Saint Teresa identified many such trials. Think of yourself as a little bird who does not yet know how to fly. Look to those who exude virtue in their life. Learn from their example. Listen to what they say. Ask them for guidance. Admit you need help. Know that you can learn to not only fly but to soar to the heights of grace by God’s help, relying also upon the witness of other holy servants of God.
Reflection: Who do you know who truly inspires you? Who encourages you, helping you to believe that you can progress further in the spiritual life? Seek out these holy souls because you need their witness.
Today, thanks to the benefit of the Internet and even social media, we all have greater access to many people. If you are not blessed to have a close friendship with someone who inspires you and acts as a witness of holiness, then look for such a person elsewhere. Perhaps there is some spiritual director online who publishes sermons, reflections, and talks on the spiritual life. Perhaps some articles feed you well.
Examine your relationships and those who communicate through the means of modern communication so that you can identify the people who God wants to use to speak to you. Be certain that God will place such people in your life when you need them. Humbly turn to their witness and example, and allow God to draw you to Himself through their mediation.
Most holy Lord, You come to me in many and varied ways. You speak through my prayer, through my reading of the Scripture, and other people. Please help me to discover those holy souls whom You want to use as an instrument of Your love and Your will. May I humbly turn to You through their inspiration.
Indwelling of the Most Holy Trinity, I love You, I trust You, I surrender my life to You.