The yearning of the human heart for encounter with God has led to an exploration of the mystery of prayer which has continued down the ages. Each generation of the family of believers, as part of its searching, revisits the wisdom and insight of those who have gone before.
Each new generation also contributes its own experience of the journey to the source and centre of existence. We are never alone on this most solitary of paths. We are nudged along, taught, and inspired by “so many witnesses in a great cloud all around us” (Hebrews 12.1).
Among these witnesses, the saints of Carmel are recognised as especially helpful and encouraging companions on the way. They have something to offer at every stage of the journey, supporting the hesitant beginner as well as the weary, weather-battered traveller who has been long on the road.
Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, drawing on the traditions that preceded and surrounded them, but speaking out of hard-won experience, present a body of doctrine that addresses almost every aspect of the life of prayer. They speak with an authority that derives from life itself.
John was the son of a man who was prepared to sacrifice everything for love. Since Gonzalo de Yepes was not permitted to raise his bride to his own rank in society, he chose to embrace the poverty of his beloved Catalina, sharing her life as a weaver. Small wonder that John, the fruit of such a love, would later write in the Romances: “In perfect love this law holds: that the lover become like the one he loves.” And he attributes to the Son of God words that might have been uttered by his own father: “I will go seek my bride and take upon myself her weariness and labours in which she suffers so” (R 7). When John speaks of God’s unqualified love for us, he knows only the language of tender passion.
Throughout Teresa’s account of her life, the presence and influence of friends is all-pervasive from her youth until her death. At certain times, her friendships were a source of danger and distraction to her. But without the inspiration and support of a great variety of friends, she would never have embarked on the work of the Reform or been able to sustain the labours and difficulties involved.
Teresa delighted in the love of friends, and returned it warmly, but she also knew hurt and disappointment. Her many letters to friends reveal her fretting and worrying on their behalf, scolding and teasing, confiding and complaining. There can be no doubt that the friendship between Teresa and John, restrained though it may have been, was a stimulant to each of them on their journey to lonely spiritual heights.
Teresa’s own interior liberation came about when she finally stopped forcing herself to pray in the conventional way of structured meditation, and allowed herself simply to enjoy a friendship with Christ Jesus.
This is the first of four edited extracts from Upon this Mountain: Prayer in the Carmelite tradition by Mary McCormack OCD, published by Teresian Press at £4 and available from www.carmelitebooks.com (978-0-947916-09-1).