The Way of Perfection (Christian Classics), Teresa of Avila, edited and mildly modernized by Henry L. Carrigan Jr. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2000 (originally published in 1583). [This edition is out of print. Link is to a newer edition from the same publisher.]
Summary: Teresa’s instructions to nuns on the spiritual life of prayer and meditations on the Lord’s Prayer as a way to contemplative prayer.
I have yet to find the Christian who describes prayer as easy. Yet I know many who have persisted, wrestled with distractions, struggled with doubt, and broken through to times of intimacy with God, a sense of being greatly loved by the Father, and have witnessed the work of God in answer to one’s prayers.
In the late sixteenth century, the mystic, Teresa of Avila, gave a series of instructive meditations for the nuns in her order that have been collected in The Way of Perfection, a spiritual classic that has been read to the profit of many others wishing to deepen their own lives of prayer. This edition, sadly no longer in print, has been mildly edited and updated in language, to introduce Teresa’s instructions to a new generation.
Teresa begins by pointing to the role the Church plays in their formation and encourages their prayer for its theologians and priests. She urges them in love for each other, detachment from both family and the world, and humility, whether in quietly continuing in one’s prayers amid minor illness and accepting false accusations. Moments of transcendence in contemplative prayer are transitory, but the call to a life of self-sacrifice is ongoing.
She uses images from every day life to illuminate her ideas. For example, she likens prayer to water that cools, cleanses, and quenches thirst. She speaks of vocal, mental, and contemplative prayer, the latter a wordless resting in God’s presence. Her counsel is to be attentive in praying as we are able. Like many spiritual teachers, she invites us to pray the Our Father. She believes the Lord’s Prayer may take us into God’s presence:
“In case you think there isn’t much to gain by practicing vocal prayer perfectly, I must tell you that while you are repeating the Paternoster or some other vocal prayer, the Lord might possibly grant you perfect contemplation. In this way our Lord shows He is listening to the persons speaking to Him. He is speaking to her, suspending her understanding, and taking the words out of her mouth so she cannot speak even if she wants to.”
Thus, she emphasizes that contemplation is a gift of the Lord. The focus is on Jesus, his indwelling of us and presence walking with us, rather than in seeking an experience.
The latter half of the book is a series of talks focusing on the phrases of the Our Father. C. S. Lewis has written of how we may use the prayer as a structure that we “festoon” with our prayers and petitions. Her meditations are something like this, a reflection, I suspect, of how this has been so in her own prayer life. For many of us, the petition “forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others” is perhaps the most difficult. Her reflections on this are particularly rich and challenging, emphasizing that our forgiveness of others precedes, at least in intention, the request for forgiveness.
There is a bit of “stream of consciousness” in her writing, probably reflecting the turns of her mind. This warrants the re-reading meditatively of what she has written. I wonder whether perfection, even of contemplation can be attained in this life. There is a strain of that here, but Teresa tempers this with encouragements to practical self-sacrifice, and faithfulness in praying as we are able.
My own experience is that I have learned more about prayer by being in the presence of those who have lived lives of prayer, as I have listened to them pray and talk about their prayer life than by books. While we cannot pray with Teresa, we overhear her prayers and her instruction as one who prays. Little wonder this book has stood the test of time and speaks to us over four centuries later.