“Probiotics for the soul”

“A disciple of God is always a disciple of God!” St Teresa would have agreed with this, I am sure. So would I, but it is harder to live it. The way of perfection is pretty narrow! Or I may be too big.

Finished St Teresa’s book The Way of Perfection. There is a certain irony in this, that I would read a book with that title. When I was a teenager, a main reason why I chose the particular Church I did was its references to the Bible verses about perfection. I argued that no one could be perfect, but the Bible argued otherwise. And yet, here I am. I’d like this to not be the home stretch of my life, but at the very least decades are gone, and I am still far from perfect.

Reading this book has not made me perfect either. But I think it has helped me a little, or at least preserved me a little from going in the other direction. Throughout the spring (from February) I have been reading a little bit most days on the commute bus to work. I currently think of it as “probiotic for the soul”. (Obviously probiotics have been on my mind the last few days!) Just like you supposedly can keep your body’s inner life healthy through regular intake of certain friendly lifeforms, so I think a regular intake of wholesome words can help the soul maintain its inner working. These words must be living, so that they have the ability to grow and work inside us.

The Bible, which I read a lot more when I was young, is well known among Christians to be “God’s living Word”. Jesus compares the Word with seeds that were sown, and there is also mention of the Christians (well, disciples as they were known at the time) being conceived through this seed. When Jesus is called the Word of God, this is an extreme honor: The Jews honor the Torah, as God’s Word, above all the prophets, even Moses who brought it to them.

In one of my unfinished pieces of fiction, the protagonist arrives in an alternate world where his hosts have a library where most books are of the form “Commentaries Vol 20 on the Commentaries Vol 19 on the Book of Light.” Trying to read one of them, it is way too deep for him, and he says so. His host asks him to first read the Book of Light. He opens it and finds that it is a collection of fairly simple-looking songs, a very easy read. His host says: “Where is a river deepest, at its wellspring or as it approaches the sea?”

Much of the Way of Perfection is dedicated to teaching the reader how to pray the Paternoster, the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, who art in Heaven”) the way it was meant to be prayed. The saint draws out deep spiritual meanings and their implications for our life, over the course of many chapters. In the end, the short and simple prayer becomes such an awe-inspiring commitment that I have to reflect on myself before even starting to pray it. I don’t think this is a heresy, either. I think this depth, this awesome commitment, lies implicit in the original. The details may be colored by Roman Catholicism to some degree, but overall it is a universal truth. (Ironically perhaps, “Catholic” originally means nearly the same as “universal”.)

The divine Light differs from electromagnetic light just in this, that it is alive, able to grow and able to produce fruit. Ordinary light passes only in through our eyes, but the heavenly Light should shine out from our eyes, if all goes well, and indeed make us glow all over. But it is not visible to all, even in a figurative sense. (And to very few, in a literal sense. I am normally not one of them, and am quite happy with that.)

The Book of Revelation (“apocalypse”) is not at all my favorite in the Bible, but it has a great mental image: “The city wall’s foundations were decorated with every kind of jewel. The first foundation was jasper, the second was sapphire, the third was chalcedony, and the fourth was emerald. The fifth was sardonyx, the sixth was carnelian, the seventh was chrysolite, and the eighth was beryl. The ninth was topaz, the tenth was chrysoprase, the eleventh was jacinth, and the twelfth was amethyst.” (Revelation 21, verses 19-20.) The stones have different color and in some cases different transparency. The city was said to be illuminated by the Light of the Lamb, so I imagine this light shining out in different directions taking on different hues depending on the gemstone.

So this revelation that shines through St Teresa, it might have had a different color if it shone through someone else, and it may be colored by the particular nature of the Roman Catholic Church; but it is a living Light, I believe. If I tried to explain it again to someone else who had not read the book, it would take on some of my color, and it would no doubt be less luminous because I am less transparent. But because it is living, this light might once again grow and multiply in the person who received it, and shine more brightly from them (in time) than it did from me. This is what I mean by saying that the Light is alive and can grow. It is the nature of the Light itself to be like this; the souls in which it grows are not the source of the Light, but carriers of it, and it is the Light itself that grows in them.

This is what I believe. But because I am such an opaque stone, with shadows and fault lines within, you would be wise to also check elsewhere, and listen to your heart. People who are filled with love for others are particularly worth listening to, but even those will have a color, so they may be more or less visible to different people depending on the color of the recipient.

Anyway, I recommend the book warmly, whether you are a Catholic or not. The first part of the book talks about how to live as a nun, and obviously some of us are not nuns. ^_^ But it is still inspiring. And its lengthy exposition of the Lord’s Prayer should be of interest to all Christians, and may even be inspiring to others who seek the Heavenly things.

But if you have no interest in what is eternal and closer to Heaven / God / the Light, then you should not read this book. It is written in a familiar tone as if from a loving older sister. To bare one’s heart like this is a matter of trust, and it would be indecent to take such a trust and misuse it. I fear that the harm that comes from this would outweigh any hope that her seriousness might help you. This is not a book of evangelism, but one that speaks to those who are within God’s family, who are hoping to dare call upon the Eternal One as “our Father”.

It may be too early to read it again yet, for when it is so recent, I tend to just skim. I kind of miss it, though. There are many good books, but to me there was something so very safe about this book. It was indeed as if I had found a collection of letters from an older sister I had never known, who had gone through much of this life before me and left me advice. When I read St Teresa, I lament that I did not know of her when I was young. But the truth is probably that I would not have been ready for it then, and might instead have become immunized, thinking ever after that “I know this” while not truly knowing it. Hopefully there will be at least less of this now!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *