by William J. Doheny
Ave Maria Press, 178 pp. 2008.
Imagine, if you will, a group of men on the frontier plain, having a little game of target practice. Behind them quietly stands a woman, watching them take their shots. One leans back and asks if she’d like to try—but she demurs. He insists firmly and hands her his gun, which she lifts to her shoulder, aims and fires—neatly nailing the object offered.
That image comes to mind with the reading of any work by Theresa of Avila, who exhibits tremendous humility, reticence about putting her thoughts on paper and—ultimately—obedience to her superiors, for which the entire Church is grateful. She nails the methodology of prayer, complete with an understanding of the complexities of the human mind, its good intentions as well as its temptations. More importantly, she’s discovered the Goal of human longing, which makes all the strenuous activity of prayer and self-denial eminently worthwhile.
A lovely introduction to her writing has been published by Ave Maria Press, called The Way of Prayer. William J. Doheny, editor and translator, has culled a small portion of her classic The Way of Perfection, focusing strictly on her treatise concerning the Our Father. In this, Teresa—Doctor of the Church—covers myriad topics, from a description of various forms of prayer to how to embrace the Divine Will without fear.
Much time is taken to distinguish authentic humility from its impostors, which will help to bare the souls of her readers. In the pursuit of holiness, in which we walk a singular path amidst so many spiritual voyeurs, it is admittedly hard to know how to act and speak and live without either playing to the crowd or burying our piety to avoid criticism. For all our nostalgia about “Catholic cultures,” it is helpful to remember that Teresa had to forge her path among religious sisters who themselves were very much distracted and even corrupt.
Admittedly, despite years of self-directed reading on orthodoxy, forms of piety and prayer, this reviewer was stunned to discover that she had missed an integral point about dialogue with God. My attempt at humility had led me to “clean house” for Jesus, to lay down my will and to express a firm desire for Him to dwell within—only to discover that He is already here. No amount of tidying can convince Him to visit when He is already enthroned in my unworthy heart.
Even those in hardened sin carry Jesus within, for sin doesn’t expel Him from the soul. Sin simply imprisons Him so that He cannot act, cannot inspire, and cannot direct the everyday actions of the creature whom He loves with a passion. Rather than undertaking little efforts at worthiness and hospitality—the scrubbing and polishing should really be hard-core spiritual renovations in order to knock down the barriers and fall at His pierced feet.
From this tiny book, I grasped that instead of reaching out, I can safely reach within—despite my horror of eastern religions that attempt to deify the individual. God Is, and He remains distinct while awaiting our intimate union. Teresa mapped out a way for this obtuse sinner to maintain a respectful dialogue with the Ineffable Creator and to cherish His abiding Presence every moment—although admittedly it takes work. Suffice it to say, even at this age and seeming comfort with faith, my life has been transformed.
For those who know Teresa, this book is both concise and rich. For those yet to meet this sister in faith, we have an excellent introduction and a means of remarkable renewal. This is the beauty of the communion of saints—that centuries cannot keep sincere souls apart, and a love of truth will cement them across the ages with a profound bond of love—God’s love. That was always Teresa’s target, and this book nails it.