TERESA OF AVILA & THE LABOR OF THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
Teresa of Avila, a contemporary of John of the Cross, and the Doctor of Prayer in the Catholic church, wrote extensively on how to hear the voice of God, mainly by looking at the effect the inner hearing would have on the heart. She echoes the sentiment of John of the Cross, that it requires maturity to weigh the voice of God.
In her seminal work, Interior Castles, Teresa has the soul moving through seven stages of purification. It is not until the sixth stage that she even begins talking about hearing the voice of God. Why? Because peace and quiet must settle into the inner life before the voice of God can be easily discerned.
The labor of the spiritual life (service, silence, solitude, prayer, etc…) over time settles the heart into extended quietude. As we discipline ourselves to approach God, we set our mind (the form of our being) upon Him. The result of this focus is that peace begins to reign in the inner life. (See our course series on Preparing Your Heart)
DISCERNING GODS VOICE
When peace and trust take root, hearing God becomes much more consistent and fruit-bearing. To the contemplative theologians like Augustine, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila, the inner life must go through a period of being reformed in order to hear clearly. How could you hear clearly when your inner life was in chaos and tumult? The inner din would drown out the daily bread of hearing His voice.
However, when peace reigned, Teresa of Avila had numerous tests to discern the voice of God. These tests are as follows.
The power and authority the voice carries:
“The first and truest sign is the power and authority they (the words) bear.”
The voice of God would leave the hearer in peace:
"The second sign that a spiritual voice comes from God is the great quietude left in the soul."
The voice of God would leave a lasting impression:
"The third sign is that the words do not fade from the memory for a very long time; some stay forever."
The voice of God would speak about things not expected:
"Frequently the soul hadn't even been thinking about the things she hears in the spiritual voice. The transmission often comes unexpectedly, maybe even in the middle of a conversation."
The voice of God will confirm deep truths found in scripture; it will not reflect what placates ourselves:
"In a false spiritual voice her imagination composes bit by bit what the soul wants to hear. In a real one, she hears truth."
The voice of God brings clarity:
"The words are received differently. In an authentic spiritual voice, the mind grasps truth far more profoundly and with much greater immediacy than the intellect could ever present on its own."
The voice of God is more than the words shared:
"The truth that is conveyed to the soul on the wings of words simultaneously transcends all words."
The voice of God works deep humility:
“What about when the spiritual voices bring gifts and consolations from the Beloved? Then the soul must look deeply inside herself to see if this makes her think that she is better than other people.”
While it is understandable that Teresa and John taught that purity must come before hearing, room must be granted for the voice of God coming to those who have freshly encountered His saving presence. To wait until perfection to seek His voice is to wait in continual delay as none are without flaw. Aside from that practical reality, God has spoken to many before peace reigned in the heart.
He spoke to Joseph through dreams long before he was mature enough to carry the weight of God’s call on his life. (Genesis 37)
He spoke to Jeremiah the prophet before Jeremiah even realized that he was a prophet. (Jeremiah 1:5)
He spoke to Samuel about Eli while Samuel was still a young boy. (1 Samuel 3)
Jonah was a recognized prophet but lived his life with enough chaos to reject the call of God, yet he still heard God. (Jonah)
Paul (first called Saul) was actively persecuting the church when he first heard the voice of God. (Acts 9)
In the third century, Anthony the Great heard the voice of God speak to him through scripture.
Ammonas, a 4th century desert father, heard the voice of God tell him to leave his prestigious position as a teacher in the emperor’s court to seek God in solitude.
Augustine, after nearly a decade of sinful living, heard the voice of God in the fourth century answer his desperate cry.
The advice of John and Teresa to first acquire purity before trusting in the inner voice that whispers to your heart is not to dissuade people from listening to God, but rather to lay out principles for consistently hearing His voice.
We grope for God because we have caught a glimpse of His beauty revealed in the face of Christ. As we grope, we are slowly changed, from one glorious moment to the next. Slowly, out hearts learn to submit and we are no longer tossed to and fro by the opinions that surround us. There it develops within us an inner stability. This stability to gives rise to peace, which helps us to capture the voice of God.