The Way of Perfection for Lay Communities

This article appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Spiritual Life: A Journal of Contemplative Spirituality

by Ann Naffziger

"I have decided to obey them," St. Teresa of Avila wrote of her decision to put down on paper some instructions for her fellow nuns on methods of prayer (Prologue, 1). Thus, in some measure, we have her Carmelite companions to thank for her work The Way of Perfection, a work that is not only rich in prayer pointers but rich in the sound advice and experienced wisdom of one who has lived for years in intentional Christian communities. Of course, Teresa is well known and greatly loved for the astounding relationship with God she experienced and shared with others. Moreover, by sharing her spiritual and mystical experiences, she has aided countless others along similar paths to intimacy with the God who "never takes his eyes off you" (26:3), even as she set down an example for those who have come together to share a common life of Christian discipleship.

Her writings are a veritable font of love for God and God's creation. Yet, perhaps she is not given equal praise for the wise instructions she left behind regarding how to live lovingly and peacefully among a community of other persons brought together by God and for God. In fact, the first eighteen chapters of The Way of Perfection are nothing less than a masterful guide to living in community. These chapters deal less with prayer than with practical suggestions of how to conduct oneself in the pursuit of holiness among a larger religious community. Although Teresa addressed these chapters to discalced nuns in 16th century Spain, her insights are applicable to multitudes of other religious communities, then and now, as well as being transferable to the myriad of intentional lay Christian communities that have sprung up in the last century.

Unfortunately, because St. Teresa of Avila so clearly intended this work for nuns who wanted advice on a specific method of prayer, many non-religious miss the opportunity to absorb what she learned about living a holy life in the midst of a community of other saints and sinners, simply because they believe the book is only for nuns or friars. This essay, then, will attempt to reclaim her wisdom for all members of Christian communities, whether they live in a convent after taking permanent vows; are living for a year with five strangers as part of the Jesuit Volunteer program; whether they constitute a family that takes seriously its call to Christian discipleship; or are a group of young adults who share a house, a common purse, meals, chores, prayer, and a common faith life. Admittedly, I have a special interest in such a project because I have lived in such intentional communities (mostly like the latter example) over the past several years, and, in reading The Way of Perfection, I was struck by how applicable Teresa's words are to me and the community in which I am currently living.

Obviously there is much to be commended throughout this entire work, which was, after all, intended as a guide for prayer. Yet I will concentrate primarily on chapters 4-15, which outline the foundations of prayer and, in so doing, highlight three key practices for community living: love of neighbor, detachment, and humility. I will address each separately, critically evaluating their relevance for lay communities in the United States in the twenty-first century.

Love of Neighbor

Teresa delves into Jesus' command to love one's neighbor as oneself as a primary requirement for living with others in community. For those of us living in such communities, we can recognize the truth of her statement that "there is nothing annoying that is not suffered easily by those who love one another--a thing would have to be extremely annoying before causing any displeasure" (4:5). Of course, none of us is always a perfect practitioner of this love of neighbor, and so we often find community members' faults or shortcomings annoying. It is not uncommon, either, that other community-mates do at times cause us displeasure when they leave their dirty dishes in the sink, forget to wipe their crumbs from the breakfast table, or are slack in I their weekly chores. But as I and many others before me have discovered, if we can remember how Teresa echoes St. Paul's lyrical words in 1 Corinthians—"Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude" (13:4)— we just might restrain ourselves from lashing out at them. Then, rather than becoming annoyed, we can cultivate patience and acceptance of behaviors that might otherwise cause us annoyance.

I did not know it at the time, but during my first year of living in community in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, my community mentor and supervisor, Jeanine, gave me advice very much like Teresa's. When I once complained to her that my housemate Graciela was "driving me crazy," Jeanine asked me what part I was contributing to the difficulties in the relationship. She suggested I stop focusing on my housemate's faults and look instead at how my own faults were exacerbating the situation. Finally, she asked me what I could do to be accepting and at peace with Graciela, even if she was never able to change her ways. Just so, Teresa of Avila gave the same advice to her sisters more than four hundred years ago: "Strive yourself to practice with great perfection the virtue opposite the fault that appears in her" (7:7). Yes, there is a time to point out one another's faults with charity, as Matthew recommended to the early Christian community (18:15), but St. Teresa's advice shouldn't be overlooked either.

Similarly, Teresa counsels that we be compassionate with housemates in their sufferings: "Consider that this advice is important for knowing how to sympathize with your neighbor in his trials, however small they may be" (7:6). One of my housemates may find himself particularly distressed about determining which career path to follow after graduation, and although I feel more content in the trust that God will lead me down the right path when the time comes, I am not to disparage the worries that are keeping him awake at night. As Teresa says, the trials of others may seem trivial to me, while my trials and sufferings might appear small to them. But to remember that the devil tempts each one according to his or her circumstances, I am called to patience and compassion for housemates in their trials, just as I would want them to have patience with me. Teresa, however, would probably not expect or counsel that we look for patience from housemates; in fact, she might instead have rejoiced to suffer their impatience.

The saint spends several chapters describing the virtues of "spiritual" love in contrast to a spiritual love mixed with sensuality. Teresa nuances her definition of "purely spiritual" love so that it is always related to detachment and freedom. For her, spiritual love consists in loving the Creator and not the creature, and in loving the things of eternity and recognizing the impermanence of this world. However, to love perfectly doesn't mean that

such persons do not love or know anyone but God. I say, yes they do love, with a much greater and more genuine love, and with passion, and with a more beneficial love. (7:7)

In other words, spiritual love is free from the constraints of an "economic" approach, an unspoken agreement that "I'll love you and do good to you if you'll be nice to me." Neither does this love refuse to appreciate another's goodness or beauty. It simply loves goodness and beauty for the presence of God within them. So Teresa's words can once again be applied to community members. Distilled, her advice comes down to something like this: Beware of cultivating a self-centered love that seeks a return for its efforts, and do not place another in the position of God. Love one another because you love God within one another.


Like Teresa's teaching on the love of one's neighbor, her counsel about detachment revolves around seeing the things of this world in their proper perspective. In this she draws on the riches of the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. Like Qoheleth, so famous for his line "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity" (Eccl 1:2), Teresa advises that we "bear in mind continually how all is vanity and how quickly everything comes to an end. This helps to remove our attachment to trivia and center it on what will never end" (10:2). In this manner, she shares the same wisdom of the Psalmist who wrote,

You turn us back to dust, and say, "Turn back, you mortals." For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream. (Ps 90:4-5)

Her insistence that the sisters despise honor, money, and special attachments to friends so that they can more easily embrace the will of God is sound so far as it leads to greater inner freedom.

Teresa is realistic, too, in realizing that detachment from things of this world must happen gradually and perhaps in simple ways at first. For example, in today's world a person probably won't be able to move into a community living situation with strict standards of simplicity and poverty after living alone and in great luxury for years without experiencing resentment, a sense of being burdened, and jealousy or envy of others' possessions. Just so, Teresa says that not all women who were to enter her reformed order would be cut out to live their strict lifestyle. In my experience, a young college graduate who commits to a year of living simply in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps can gradually win greater freedom from material attachments by beginning with steps as small as watching television one day less a week or eating vegetarian meals several times a month. But to try to force such volunteers to live without a television or become strict vegetarians immediately might turn them completely off the path of detachment.

As much as I believe it is healthy to cultivate a healthy detachment from the things of this world, I disagree with Teresa's statement that "All that the saints counsel us about fleeing the world is clearly good," (9:5) and earlier, "I think the Lord wants all of us He has gathered together in this house to withdraw from everything so that His Majesty may unite us to Himself here without any hindrance" (8:2). Such withdrawal suggests a negative view of creation and God's immanence in that creation. And at its extreme, such a view is not in keeping with the biblical tradition that affirms God called all of creation "good." It suggests that God only communicates God's self directly to an individual, without the mediation of nature or other persons. And if that is taken to its logical conclusion (although Teresa doesn't go quite this far), it would leave no room for the sacraments, which are nothing less than God's grace being made manifest to us through the things of the earth: bread, wine, oil, and water.

Another danger in reading Teresa too literally is the belief that one can never be united to God without fleeing the world. Such a teaching, unfortunately, has been a common understanding of the Church for most of our history. As history unfolded, religious men and women were assumed to be holier than lay persons because they were not distracted by the messiness of family life, of marital relationships, or of laboring out among the masses in the marketplace. Non-religious came to believe that the world was evil and dirty and that they, by virtue of their contact with such evil, were themselves contaminated.

I don't want to misread the saint's counsel on detachment because at times she is more nuanced than at others. Overall, though, I find her emphasis on withdrawal most helpful when read in tandem with St. Ignatius' teaching in the First Principle and Foundation of hisSpiritual Exercises:

All the things of this world are gifts of God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily. As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God insofar as they help us develop as loving persons. But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal. In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice. (Paraphrased by David Fleming, SJ, in Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits, ed. Michael Harter, SJ [St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 19931 p. 9.)

Ultimately, I think, St. Teresa of Avila would agree with her countryman on this notion of detachment. Ignatius refrains from setting down any hard and fast rules about avoiding or withdrawing from the things of this world. There can be a temptation in hardcore peace and justice circles to judge those who have wealth or are particularly "worldly" as being bad. Yet Jesus never condemned people simply for being rich. His probing challenges only came when people like the rich young man were unable to freely walk away from their possessions. Thus, St. Ignatius' principle suggests that only when we have an unhealthy attachment to things, people, or relationships do they become problematic, and with this Teresa would wholeheartedly agree.


Teresa's treatment of humility is very closely related to her treatment of detachment. In fact, she says humility and detachment always go together: "They are inseparable sisters" (10:3). Like the virtues of love of neighbor and detachment, humility goes a long way when one is living in a community of flawed human beings. Consequently, the Mother foundress encourages her sisters to pay attention to insidious thoughts or desires for privileges of rank or superiority within the community. Likewise, esteem for honor or wealth can destroy the sense of equality of all community members before God. And to seek special attention for one's merits or labors is to forget that everything good comes from God and not from our own doing.

As a remedy for our human temptations to vanity, Teresa suggests that

the humble person will reflect on his life and consider how he has served the Lord in comparison with how the Lord ought to be served and the wonders the Lord performed in lowering himself so as to give us an example of humility. (12:6)

This, then, is the test of humility, to compare oneself to Jesus. She also urges her readers not to flee persecutions that cause humility because we are in Jesus' good company when humiliated, and it is not a disgrace to share in his dishonor.

On these points I concur with Teresa. Yet on others, I am wary of the harm they might cause if applied too rigidly. For example, her suggestion that we take upon ourselves the menial tasks or chores of a community is a helpful check for our pride at times. At other times, however, to cultivate the habit of scrubbing the floor of the common bathroom each week when a housemate is sloppy and insensitive about her mess is not always appropriate. In fact, if scrubbing the bathroom floor makes me more and more resentful at my roommate, even while I continue to clean up after her without broaching the subject of her negligence in what was to be a shared task, I am only fostering a dysfunctional relationship. To cite another example, I know of one man who left his religious order after nine years of unhappiness. When asked why he left, he often replies, "I got tired of always being the one doing the dishes after meals and parties." I'm sure he believed he was doing that work out of humility, but because he couldn't do it in freedom, his resentment continued to grow. Ultimately, I think, he believed it was all right for him to be taken advantage of in that manner, and his community-mates were never challenged to address the imbalance in the relationship.

The point of humility isn't to be slavish in our relationship to Christ, yet I think Teresa borders on this. True, we don't merit the superabundance of love that God showers us with, but neither is our biblical theological anthropology completely negative. As well as being "worms," as Teresa refers to human beings, we are also "only a little lower than the angels," as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews proclaimed. Just so, we should carry ourselves with humility and dignity, remembering that we are created in God's image.


Teresa of Avila offers many sound directives for those who have come together to live with the hope of drawing nearer to Christ. She is realistic in her understanding that one can't simply be Mary, sitting in rapt contemplation at Jesus' feet while Martha is scurrying around attending to her guests. No, we must live and work with others, and, in doing so, we will be challenged to empty ourselves again and again of our selfish loves, our attachments, and our pride. Doing so can only lead us to a greater openness to God's grace working in our lives and dispose us more fully to the gifts of prayer He wants to share with us. Her practical guidelines, therefore, are valuable for anyone who wants to be in a deeper relationship with God.

Ann Naffziger lives in Alameda, Calif., in a community of two since her marriage last year. Before that she lived in intentional lay communities for nine years. She has a Master of Divinity and Masters in Biblical Languages from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. Currently she works as a hospital chaplain and spiritual director.