Wednesday, July 9, 2014

St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross on Spiritual-Sensible Friendships

[Sensible love] can be legitimate in marriage. Saint Teresa is talking to religious [....]:
These last affections are a very hell, and it is needless for us to weary ourselves by saying how evil they are, for the least of the evils which they bring are terrible beyond exaggeration. There is no need for us ever to take such things upon our lips, sisters, or even to think of them, or to remember that they exist anywhere in the world; you must never listen to anyone speaking of such affections, either in jest or in earnest. (Way of Perfection, vii; Peers, vol. II, 31)
[...] The Saint tells us her plan to explain two kinds of love.
There are two kinds of love which I am describing. The one is purely spiritual, and apparently has nothing to do with sensuality or the tenderness of our nature, either of which might strain its purity. The other is also spiritual, but mingled with it are our sensuality and weakness; yet it is a worthy love, which, as between relatives and friends, seems lawful. (Ibid., iv; 19)
The first is dominated by spiritual love. In the second, the spiritual is united with elements drawn from reason and the senses in diverse degrees, such as make it lawful and even good. Let us call this last love "spiritual-sensible" from the two extremes that it unites; and with the Saint, let us speak of it first.

Spiritual-sensible love

Spiritual love is a fruit found at the summits; hence, it is very rare. Spiritual-sensible love is much the more frequent. It is the one that ordinarily nourishes friendships between spiritual persons. As a rule, their spiritual bonds are engrafted in natural sympathies and find in these their strength and their stability. How could they love with a love purely spiritual when their faculties are not purified, and supernatural charity has not yet established its dominion over the lower powers?

Saint Teresa reassures us as to the morality of spiritual-sensible friendships by comparing the love that animates them to that which we have for our relatives. Not only are they lawful; they may be beneficial. The apostolate of friendship, that is found so often in specialized movements, will use for the most part this spiritual-sensible type, more adapted as it is to our weaknesses. By the atmosphere that these friendships create around souls, the persuasive force that they add to counsel, the affectionate support that they afford, they can rescue a soul from loneliness, from bad surroundings, or from the mediocrity of a milieu, to elevate it into purer and more supernatural regions.

The friendships by which Saint Teresa benefited before her entrance into Carmel were of this nature. The affection that she inspired in those about her and that enabled her to attract them, must also have been spiritual-sensible. We cannot suppose that those souls were elevated at once to spiritual love [....]

Might not the same be said with regard to the crowds that forgot their food and drink to follow Jesus even into the desert? They were not only captivated by the divine radiance that shone forth from the sacred humanity of our Saviour; but also, by the kindness, the eloquence, and all the external charms of the Master. Indeed, it was in order to conquer thus, by adapting Himself to our weakness, that the Word became flesh; and by assuming our human nature, He wanted it to be clothed with all the perfection of which it is capable.

In Christ, and also in Teresa, affection was wholly spiritual; and it preserved from danger the less perfect affection of the souls that were captivated by it.

The case will not be the same when both friends bring to their union only an imperfect love. How then can we avoid fearing a loss of balance between the two elements, spiritual and sensible, that are united in this friendship? It is a law that each one of our faculties is drawn towards the good that is presented to it, to taste its proper satisfaction. The satisfactions of the senses are the most violent and risk dominating in the soul that is not purified, and dragging it down. In our nature wounded by sin, love tends to descend to the lower powers and to pour itself out through the senses. This break in balance threatens the most sincere strivings for spiritual good and makes them founder in the culpable liberties of sensuous love [....]

Without falling into these excesses, spiritual-sensible friendship can imperceptibly be transformed into an inordinate affection, or an exclusive and particular friendship which is already a disorder. The Saint writes:
Little by little they deprive the will of the strength which it needs if it is to employ itself wholly in the love of God.... even among brothers and sisters such things are apt to be poisonous.... The harm which it does to community life is very serious.... I am more inclined to believe that the devil initiates them so as to create factions within religious Orders. (Ibid., iv; 17)
They are "wrong in anyone, and, in a prioress, pestilential."

The Saint notes in this connection that "consciences of those who aim only in a rough-and-ready way at pleasing God ... think they are acting virtuously"; and that in order to check such friendships, "we must proceed diligently and lovingly rather than severely."

It could happen that some element of sensibility might creep into ones relations with the confessor. The question is important and delicate for religious; and so, the Saint treats of it at considerable length. First of all, a person should not fall into exaggerated scrupulosity on this point. If the confessor is holy, zealous, and if he is guiding the soul to greater perfection, Teresa advises:
What you can do here is not to let your minds dwell upon whether you like your confessor or not, but just to like him if you feel so inclined.... Why should we not love those who are always striving and toiling to help our souls? Actually, if my confessor is a holy and spiritual man, I think it will be a real help to my progress for me to like him. (Ibid.; 22) 
But if the confessor is seen to be tending in any way towards vanity, he should be regarded with grave suspicion.... It is a dangerous matter, and can be a veritable hell, and a source of harm to everyone.... The devil can do a great deal of harm here. (Ibid., iv; 19-20)
 [...] The friendship that is deviating, feeds on trifles:
Some injury done to a friend is resented; a nun desires to have something to give to her friend or tries to make time for talking to her, and often her object in doing this is to tell her how fond she is of her, and other irrelevant things, rather than how much she loves God.... Many imperfections can result from this. (Ibid.; 17)
The discernment of good friendships was a problem that had bothered Saint Therese of the Child Jesus. Saint John of the Cross gave her the solution. On the back of a holy card that she kept in her missal, she had copied this passage from the Dark Night:
Some of these persons make friendships of a spiritual kind with others, which oftentimes arise from sensuality and not from spirituality; this may be known to be the case when the remembrance of that friendship causes not the remembrance and love of God to grow, but occasions remorse of conscience. For, when the friendship is purely spiritual, the love of God grows with it; and the more the soul remembers it, the more it remembers the love of God, and the greater the desire it has for God; so that, as the one grows, the other grows also.... But, when this love arises from the vice of sensuality aforementioned, it has the contrary effects; for the more the one grows, the more the other decreases, and the remembrance of it likewise. (Dark Night, iv; Peers, vol. I, 362)
The tree is recognized by its fruits. The criterion given by our Lord for the discernment of true prophets is applicable here also, and gives certitude. The effects make known the nature of the affection; or rather, indicate which, in this synthesis, is the force that dominates and imposes its movement on the other elements. If the spiritual-sensible friendships make one grow in love of God, they are good and should be encouraged. Such is the conclusion.


Source: Fr. Marie-Eug√®ne, I Want to See God, trans. by M. Verda Clare (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1953), 262–266.

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