As I write this article, the surreal nature of the global Coronavirus (Covid-19) situation is pervading my spirit. It is one thing to read about the histories of plagues or fictional accounts of them, but it is another thing to be living through one. Yet, even with the surrealness of our current moment, our Lord has granted this poor sinner a source of peace. I wish to share a bit of that peace with you now.
The Peace of Isolation
This peace I write about has come to me through a person I call my “Big Sis”, namely, St. Teresa of Avila. As her spiritual little brother, I offer to you a few gleaned insights to aid us during this viral outbreak.
For Lent I made it a point to offer up time to God by rereading St. Teresa’s, The Way of Perfection. In this work, when she begins to write about the prayer of recollection, she intertwines it with a sense of solitude. As governments, community, and religious leaders ask people to isolate themselves from others by a concept called “social distancing”, their request leaves us with a question: How are we to live with each other in this case? I believe an answer to that question is given to us in the wisdom of St. Teresa of Avila. She writes:
All one need do is go into solitude and look at him within oneself, and not turn away from so good a guest but with great humility speak to him as to a father. Beseech him as you would a father; tell him about your trials; ask him for a remedy against them, realizing that you are not worthy to be his daughter.
In these two sentences St. Teresa offers us a reminder about how we are to respond as a community of people called to moments of “isolation” from each other. Even though our contact with each other needs to be limited, we are still a people in Christ.
As noted, this passage from St. Teresa is in the context of her reflecting on the prayer of recollection. The first phrase reads “All one need do is go into solitude….” The prayer of recollection is about recollecting oneself, which is an interior act, not a physical isolation. St. Teresa acknowledges the brokenness of the human person. It is like the human person has many parts that are in relationship with each other and yet separated from each other at the same time. This separation is often realized in being pulled in so many different directions by the many needs of these different parts of ourselves. Hence, recollecting is a gathering of one’s parts that were once scattered by sin.
Mere physical isolation can cause a distancing of these parts. This distancing causes one to be permeated by an air of fear and despair because a kingdom divide cannot stand (Matthew 12:25). Ergo, this process of recollecting oneself is summed up in the verb “to go”. The call “to go” by St. Teresa has in it an acknowledgement of a relationship with another, to whom we go, that makes it possible for the scattered and separated self to become whole once again in solitude with that person.
Being With God
The answer to who that person is may be found in the second phrase: “… look at him within oneself.” Solitude comes about through a movement in the soul. It is cultivated as our spirit learns to rest in the Lord who has created for us a heaven in our souls.
St. Teresa acknowledges the divine presence in the soul. In and through that presence she sees the soul as a little heaven where one can dwell with the Lord in his royal court. It is in this phrase that we begin to see the communal aspect that is intrinsic to solitude. Hence, even if we are physically isolated from people, we are never truly alone because we can always dwell with the Lord who is waiting for us in our hearts.
The wisdom of St. Teresa sets before us a truly graphic understanding of Romans 5:5. Since the Spirit has been poured fourth into our hearts, the journey of the self into one’s heart is always communal because it is done in the Spirit who allows us to find our King in the inner intimacy of our heart. Thus, even though we may feel alone and isolated, isolation is not the full truth because, in our heart, our King sits and waits for us to join him.
Our Humble Guest
St. Teresa goes on to tell us something profound about God. She writes “… and not turn away from so good a guest.” She calls God a guest. He is a guest in our heart and yet He is the one who created and gave us our hearts! This title of our God as our guest reveals a key aspect about solitude. The aspect I am referring to is humility.
God shows us humility by dwelling in us as a guest. Being a guest means we are free to ask him to leave or to remain longer with us. Dwelling with God is not a matter of force but of desire. Even though our external reality around us may be barren due to the absence of other people, that desire to be with another is always possible in the heart that desires a guest to dwell in it. God is our King, but He does not take His throne, our heart, by force. He gains His throne through attraction.
The Prophet Hosea showed us this when he wrote: “I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14). The King comes into our hearts and from our hearts speaks to us tenderly. The humility of this divine guest comforts the heart and opening it to receive from gifts from its guest. The gifts we know as faith, hope, and love.
Speaking to God
From the divine humility of the soul’s guest, St. Teresa now calls for a second response from the person. She says, “With great humility speak to him as to a father.” We are called to mirror our guest by responding with humility. How is this humility actualized? By conversing with our guest, who through humility is revealed to us as our Father.
God is never distant from us, even though we may feel He is at times. He is always close to us, waiting for us to acknowledge His presence. Even though the prodigal son sought distance himself from his father, the presence of the father always remained in his heart.
Likewise, our hearts are God’s throne and our souls are His kingdom. The reality of the kingdom is something we pray for in the Our Father: “Thy Kingdom come.” That line of the prayer is meant to awaken the heart to the reality that “… the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). We begin to experience the kingdom of God in our souls by dwelling with our Father in His court. It is in His court that we can speak to Him and to those who make up his court (the angels and saints). Thus, in solitude, we begin to accept the truth that God truly does hear us because He has chosen to reside in us.
St. Teresa calls us to speak with God, but what are we to speak about with our Father? She tells us in the final sentence “Beseech him as you would a father; tell him about your trials; ask him for a remedy against them, realizing that you are not worthy to be his daughter.” He already knows our needs before we ask them, and yet, He wants us to share them with Him in love. It is in the sharing of our needs with God that the intimate bond of our hearts with God grows and becomes fortified in the fire of His love.
A Union of Love
St. Teresa calls us to share our trials with Him and ask Him for remedies. She is alluding to the passage where Jesus tells His disciples to “ask and you shall receive” (Matthew 7:7). In this union of love, a love that heals our disassembled selves, we begin to understand what we need and can thus ask for it in love. It is a love that reveals to us that we are not worthy of what our King desires to give us, but He still gives us the fulfillment of our needs. Why? Because of love.
It is in that love that we begin to see the community that exists, whether it is in proximity to each other physically or not. In the love of God, we as his children always exist in relationship to each other. The reality of our familial bond is clarified via solitude because, in that time of intimacy, the divine breath of God blows upon the fire of love increasing the intensity of its heat inside of us.
The world is forcing a necessary time of isolation upon us, but if we focus on the presence of the divine guest in each of us, that isolation becomes a time of solitude, a solitude that joins us together in our divine guest’s love for us. Thus, through that love, our communal bonds are being vivified, no matter our physical proximity with to other! Now, what are those vivified bonds showing us? They are showing us that we are the Church!
It is not so essential to think much as to love much. ~ St. Teresa of Avila