St. Teresa of Avila was born in 1515 and joined the Carmelite order in 1535. She spent, by her own admission, more than 20 years in spiritual mediocrity. By 1562, God had drawn her into the serious pursuit of holiness, and she had begun a major reform movement.
St. John of the Cross didn’t enter the Carmelites until 1563, a year after Teresa had begun the reform. The two didn’t cross paths until after he was ordained in 1567. But Teresa wanted a community of priests to be part of the reform, in part so that her nuns would have well-formed confessors and spiritual directors. When she became prioress of a convent in 1571 she recruited John — then just 29 years old — to be part of her team.
So began what Gillian T.W. Ahlgren., in her book “Enkindling Love: The Legacy of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross,” calls “one of the tradition’s greatest and most deliberate collaborations,” one that resulted in “a new experiment in holiness.” Here are three things we can learn from the lives and writings of these two friends and doctors of the Church.
First, the soul’s deepest center is God. This helps to explain the restlessness of our world. We always seek more, because we long for God. But we get tricked into superficiality, seeking more of what the world offers. Because the soul’s proper center is God, nothing in the world will satisfy us. We will only be satisfied by seeking and finding more than the world offers. Our souls will only find rest in seeking and finding God.
Second, because the soul’s deepest center is God, and because God is infinite, we can always go deeper. But if deeper prayer and faith will bring a peace the world cannot give, they require determination and patience. There is no “fast food” for the soul! A deeper life takes time.
Third and last, they give us an itinerary for going deeper. Teresa details seven stages of the soul’s journey to intimacy with God in her work “The Interior Castle.” John gives ten stages of the soul’s journey in his “Mystical Ladder of Divine Love.” While assuring us that the goal is real, they also let us know how much farther we have to go, and the steps we have to take to get there.
Our souls are supercharged, made with a desire for the infinite. Modern advertising preys on that desire, steering it toward the acquisition of more things. But if there’s truth in our desire for more, there’s falsehood in how the world seeks to satisfy it. Sooner or later we have to ask: Isn’t there more to life than this?
That’s where Teresa and John speak to us. Their lives and writings, shaped by their deep collaboration, call us back to the soul’s desire for God. I pray that each of us will learn, from them, how to walk more deliberately on the path to intimacy with God. Only such intimacy will ultimately satisfy our desires.
Teresa and John make clear that we are, each of us, created for union with God. Nothing less than that will satisfy us.
If Teresa and John provide us with a way of moving toward the identity that God extends to us as God’s beloved, they offer us trustworthy tools for identity formation in a time in which we are vulnerable to all kinds of false information about who we are, what we want, what we need, and where we are going.