Book Review: The Way of Perfection

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During March 2015, I read Baronius Press’ The Way of Perfection to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Theresa of Avila, one of the first two female doctors of the Church.  St. Teresa of Avila, a Spanish Carmelite nun who lived and wrote during the Counter Reformation, penned The Way of Perfection as a handbook for the nuns in her convent, explaining: (1)  the reasons and rationale for committing to the contemplative life; and (2) how to make progress in one’s spiritual life.  As with all of Baronius Press’ offerings, Catholics are in urgent need of this book and every effort should be made to widely distribute it among local parishes and schools.

IMG_0402While I have long known that The Way of Perfection is a “Catholic classic,” I was skeptical when Baronius Press sent me a copy of the book because it was difficult to envision how a handbook for the Carmelites could presently effect a man living in modern times with no hope of living the contemplative life until retirement.  Simply put, the charity, order, and humility that St. Teresa of Jesus envisioned for the reformed Carmelite order must be present in our homes if Catholic families hope to withstand the buffets of modernism.  As St. Teresa puts it:

I see very great evils, and that human forces do not suffice to quench the fire started by the heretics, and which is gaining such proportions, that it seems to be necessary to act as in time of war.  When the enemy has over-run the whole country, the lord of it, seeing himself closely pressed, takes refuge in a city, which he causes to be well fortified.

If every man’s house be his castle, then let each man see to it that his castle has the requisite defenses to overcome modernism, beginning with the methods for spiritual advancement provided in The Way of Perfection.  For St. Teresa, humility and charity are the cornerstones of these defenses.

IMG_0406St. Teresa embraces humility to Christ and His Church throughout the book in a manner that must be described as heroic. She briefly discusses Enlightenment key-words, such as “rights,” “liberty,” and “independence,” with the understanding that were these concepts to exist in reality, our submission to Christ and His Church precludes us from exercising them in a manner incompatible with justice and virtue.  Humility drives St. Teresa’s desire for perfection; her wish to wholly submit her will to Jesus leads to the heroic virtue for which she was canonized.  To St. Teresa, humility was more than some phony self-deprecation.  It was the realization that one must submit one’s will wholly to Christ and His Church in order to achieve salvation.

Second, St. Teresa advocates for charity as demonstrated in its purest form, through the concern for the salvation of the souls of others. She is obsessed with bringing souls to Christ, and at one point mentions that if she were a man, she would willingly lead an army for Christ because it is better that 1,000 die prematurely in the arms of the Church than one die outside of it. Such things are not spoken of in softer, more modern realms of the Church but military warfare aside perhaps it is high time that men rediscover the importance, significance, and lordship of Jesus, who did not compromise with those aligned with the devil.

Days after finishing the book, I was struck by the fact that the two cornerstones of St. Teresa’s thought, humility and charity, or the desire to love Jesus more than ourselves and the desire to love others more than ourselves, uniquely parallel the two great commandments in the Gospel (Matthew 22:37-40).  It is interesting that St. Teresa built one of the strongest spiritual lives in the history of the Church — a spiritual life that perfectly conformed to Church teachings — through a unique focus on two of the most fundamental and simplistic precepts of the Christian faith.

It is interesting that some scholars have debated whether St. Teresa’s writings are compatible with those of the Angelic Doctor, but to me St. Teresa is the perfect compliment to St. Thomas Aquinas.  It is always extraordinarily comforting when experience confirms what we know in theory.  While the Angelic Doctor so wonderfully laid out the doctrine of reason and that of the Catholic Church in a manner that speaks to his unique relationship with truth and reason incarnate — our Lord — St. Teresa beautifully applies the doctrines of the Church to her daily life to achieve personal spiritual growth and formation — which is perhaps the most worthy reason for studying doctrine in the first place.  In this sense, the two doctors of the Church build on one another and certainly do not stand in contrast.

St. Teresa approaches the Catholic life with an enthusiasm and vigor frowned upon by many quarters of the modern Church. Like a doctor for the soul, she prescribes the medicines considered taboo in modern times — mortification, self-denial, and an uncompromising loyalty to Christ’s Church.  Every father should consider purchasing a copy of The Way of Perfection when forming his family and spiritual life.

St. Teresa of Jesus, ora pro nobis.

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