Adventures in Prayer
Reflections on St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux
ISBN 0 8601 2348 0 (paperback)
Burns and Oates, London, 2004, £12.99
(price at publication of review)
Reviewed May 2005; © Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2005
As her painful death drew ever closer and her experience of interior aridity and desolation continued unrelieved, Thérèse of Lisieux attempts to explain her poems by saying "I only write what I am determined to believe." In any study of Carmelite spirituality, one might expect this 'dazzling darkness' to be the thread woven through the mystical fabric. Yet, here in this book, Noel O'Donoghue is careful to avoid any superficial unity between three of the greatest personalities within the Carmelite tradition.
In one volume, O'Donoghue has given us theological and spiritual reflections on Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Thérèse of Lisieux. His book devotes three sections to each saint in turn and, with great clarity, presents us with the uniqueness of these individuals whose most common characteristic, apart from their Carmelite life is, perhaps, only the title they share: Doctor of the Church.
John's adventure in prayer led him through terrible darkness and 'unknowing'. Teresa refuses to take this apophatic road, staying at the level of the human Christ as He comes to us in the gospel. While Teresa loved to dance and to laugh, and also knew well how to weep, John's warmth was rather that of the sun on the high mountains. In her suffering and aridity, Thérèse gives no indication that she linked her trial and its 'impenetrable darkness' with the 'dark night' of John. Although she would have been familiar with John's writings, she kept them in subordination to the New Testament, being more conscious of the lama sabachthani of Jesus than the dark night of John. It is in this especially that Thérèse would have found a higher light within her darkness. At times she even wonders whether heaven can hold any greater joy. In these moments, Thérèse is linked with the 'perfect joy' of Francis of Assisi. O'Donaghue suggests that Thérèse moves from a vision of God as love to a vision of love as God, in her affirmation that 'love alone counts.'
This in-depth study compares the symbolic images used by each saint to convey their spiritual experience. For Thérèse it is Love, for John, Union, and for Teresa it is Marriage. It is assumed the reader has some familiarity with the writings of these Carmelites, but for any drawn to the adventure of mystical prayer, the book offers keen insights into the interior pilgrimage and provides signposts for us along our own rugged pathway toward the goal of our longing. The author's strong convictions are conveyed in beautiful prose and his obvious affection for and affirmation of Thérèse, caused this reader to find in that 'Child of the Little Way' a closer sisterly bond than ever before.
The overriding theme of the book is the nature of mystical love and our human yearning for God, that 'union with God in the Spirit': the coming of God's Realm into the heart of the one who seeks it.
Catherine Joy CSF
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