The History of Christian Spirituality was one of my last classes to complete my Certificate of Spiritual Direction at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. Throughout the semester, we were assigned a "spiritual dialog partner" who had to be a deceased saint of the church. We gave a first-person presentation of them to the class, and then wrote a research paper in the form of a dialog with them. My spiritual dialog partner was St. Teresa of Avila (3/28/1515 - 10/4/1582). She was a prolifica writer, including the Book of Her Life, reflections on the Song of Solomon, and the most famous spiritual treatise, The Interior Castle, among other writings, and 428 extant letters. As a Lutheran, I have not spent much time trying to converse or pray with saints, so this was an interesting project that expanded both my theology and spiritual practices. In order to write the first-person presentation, I spent time in prayer, and invited St. Teresa to join me, so she could share what she would like us to know. What follows is what I received! I added the structure with introduction and conclusion. It was a wonderful exercise in using the gift of imagination in prayer with inner listening to access wisdom from a female spiritual leader, and the first woman named a Doctor of the church by the Pope. Because St. Teresa lived in the 16th century, I used her male language for God, including the phrase, "His Majesty," which she used frequently. If you have a saint from the church from whom you would like to learn, I encourage you to try a similar exercise!
"Thank you for the kind invitation to speak with you today. I understand you’re training to become spiritual directors and I’m so pleased by that! You live in a generation that needs more quiet time to be with God, time to gain self-knowledge and humility, clearing a path for God to transform hearts through loving union with him. After we begin with a brief prayer, I’d like to share three insights about our relationship with God: 1. His Majesty chooses to dwell within us and how to begin the conversation; 2. That He loves us as we are, to transform our hearts; and 3. That our job is to show up and be filled with God’s love in order to serve others. As I share these insights about how God works in and through us, I’ll reveal a little bit about myself and my struggles. Let’s read the prayer on the screen responsively by line:
Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks
compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
You realize of course, that I did not actually write that poem or prayer?! My poems were never that direct, succinct or so well written! But I share it because even though it is wrongly attributed to me, it beautifully summarizes the goal of our spiritual life—to be in such union with God through prayer, meditation, and contemplation that we embody Christ in loving service to our neighbor. If I could have written so clearly and briefly, it would have saved a lot of paper, ink and writing cramps! I don’t have a linear mind, and went off on tangents of all kinds, and then I didn’t have the time to correct what I wrote. I’m surprised anyone bothers with my writing at all, but that is all the working of His loving and generous Majesty! And there-in lies the first insight that I would like to share with you today.
Our God is so great, He takes us from our low stations, and we of little skill or training, and dwells within us, beckoning us into love. I learned from reading St. Augustine that we must look for God within. He can use us in amazing ways we never imagined, and certainly in ways we could never do on our own. Our Majesty and Lord comes to dwell within our bodies and within our souls, and calls us, and woes us, and reaches out for us to be in a loving, intimate relationship with Him!
It’s not difficult or complicated. We start out sitting down like two friends, here right now, in conversation, and the more time we spend in this kind of conversation, the more deeply we are stirred to love our Lord and our neighbor. This prayer time means being present to God with all of your faculties, resting in his presence, focusing on his love and devotion to you and his creation, beholding the suffering Jesus endured to demonstrate this immeasurable love. All His Majesty asks of us, is that we spend time with Him; we sit in this quiet, active recollection, holding the presence of Jesus in us, as we are present to him, lingering there in love. I share this thought on another slide, and I really did write this one, but I learned from reading Fr. Francisco de Osuna that God desires friendship with us:
Mental prayer in my opinion, is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much, and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight, but desire to please God in everything.
The more we linger in the loving gaze of God, the more His Majesty can fill us with His love, free us from our temptations, cleanse us of our unkind thoughts, and transform our hearts and our lives into who and what He has made us to be! At first, we expend our effort, focus, and attention in prayer through the first three mansions of the Interior Castle, (if you’ve had a chance to read it), but the longer we dwell here, the deeper we move into God! Then it is no longer we who make the effort with God’s grace, but God completely does the work of transforming our hearts into loving union with Him! In mansions four through seven, God infuses us through supernatural means, with His divine love. It’s like a betrothal, moving toward spiritual marriage—all that we are is God’s, all that God offers becomes ours. We become more fully who God made us to be—imagine it! Our personality, character, and station in life, infused with his Majesty’s divine love!
And that’s the second miracle of God’s love, the 2nd insight I want to share—not just that He chooses to dwell within us and to love us there within, but that He does not want to change us into someone else, something different, something better. No, our God wants to transform us into who we truly are by His creation! We must accept that God made us the way God wants us, because the transformation of heart is only to deeper love! You do not have be different than who you are! At first, I thought God would want to change me into someone else. Wouldn’t God want someone who wasn’t vain as young woman, who didn’t love books of chivalry and romance, who wasn’t sickly, who had a more demure personality, who didn’t love humor, and the tambourine? But no, God loved me as I was with what I brought—sins, hopes, limitations, experiences and all, because transformation in Him is not a change of personality or earthly condition, it’s a transformation of heart!
Transformation in God is a transformation into greater love, deeper love, more generous love. Through His Majesty’s transformation of my heart, I came to desire what God desires, so temptations carried no attraction, and limitations became opportunities to love. Transformation in the interior castle of your soul in God’s soul, is to be drenched in the lavish love of the Creator of the universe as you are. God can use your illness, your family problems, your temptations, your sins—whatever it is going on—all as opportunities to bring about greater love in you, deeper compassion for others, greater service to the neighbor in your station and setting in life.
This is what troubles me as I witness the 21st Century and your perfectionism, comparisons, endless ego needs, and social media personas. You approach life as though there’s something wrong with the way God made you, that there must be some improvement or correction. It’ an obsession with appearance and weight, selfies and success, popularity and riches. Let’s just strip all of that away; come before God in the crystal-clear castle of the soul of your life, with all of who you are; come with self-knowledge and humility before the God who made you. None of those worldly things matter here. God wants to be with you to bring you to deeper love in Him and greater love and service to others.
What matters when you serve others and go about your life, is that you are drenched in God’s lavish love, so that when people interact with you, come to spiritual direction, meet you at the store, visit you when you’re sick, they experience the lavish love of God through you! They receive God’s forgiveness of their sins, the grace of the suffering Christ for them, and the affirmation that if God so dwells in you, then God must truly dwell in them too! If there is one thing to learn from my life this is it!
• God blessed me with faithful parents and a beautiful soul as a child, but then I became vain, and as a teen, succumbed to chivalry, romance and the vanities of the world. Yet, God loved me and used my life and wooed me into spiritual marriage.
• I was sick and unable to do much for three years, and yet God loved me and used my weakness to help me depend on Him more fully. He used time in my illness to read the saints and begin to move my will to serve only him!
• I spent a year not praying because I thought it was the humble thing to do; it was a terrible mistake and I regretted it for the rest of my life, and yet, God loved me and used it to bring me deeper into prayer.
• I can’t write a logical progression of thought without going off on a hundred tangents, and yet, God loved me and used me, and still uses my writings and their tangents.
• I was not a theologically trained man, an accepted teacher of the church, and yet, God loved me and used me during the 16th century Inquisition of all times!
• I was not as wise as John of the Cross, or Ignatius of Loyola, and did not have the strength to bring about the reforms of the Carmelites, and yet God loved me and used me to do just that.
Don’t you see how great the love of his Majesty for his creatures? God uses all of it, all of who you are to bring you to deeper love and union with His Divine Love. You don’t have to change who you are, but you must spend time with God, so He can use all of your life. Which brings me to my 3rd insight: Your job is to show up, to make yourself available and present to Christ as often as you can throughout your day, so that over time, God can do the work of implanting deeper love in you. That’s why I wrote The Interior Castle, that’s why the time in meditation and contemplation, that’s why the conversation with God as if between friends. We must simply spend time within, within this beautiful castle, or garden or mountain or whatever setting beckons your spirit.
Your primary goal is spending time with God in love through each stage of your life, so you can grow deeper in love with God, and deeper in compassion for the world. God can use even the limitations of your life as a sacrament of His love for others. So be you, and trust that in your body, in your position, in your location, in your work, and in your family, God wants to use you to show forth deeper and greater love. How do we know we are growing more in love with God? Because we grow in deeper love for our neighbor and shine God’s love through compassionate service.
The path of faith is not about greater striving, it is about quieter meditation and contemplation so that God can transform your heart into one of deeper love and spiritual oneness with His Majesty. The more you show up with all of who you are, the deeper this marital union with God becomes, making you the eyes of compassion, the body, the hands, and the feet of Christ who serves the neighbor with virtue and lavish love."