Can a celibate nun who was born over five hundred years ago unlock the secret to a more intimate marriage?
Yes, she can.
In her autobiography, Teresa of Avila explains why, for a short season, she avoided being alone as much as possible. She began experiencing spiritual ecstasies in prayer and some of her confessors warned her that these ecstasies must be from the devil rather than God. Being alone with God filled Teresa’s heart with such delight that she couldn’t make the ecstasies stop, so she had to avoid being alone in order to avoid the ecstasies.
For my pastoral work, I had been reading up on recovery with multiple warnings to men about being alone lest they watch something, drink something, eat something, gamble something, or smoke something they shouldn’t.
What a stark contrast, I thought. Today’s believer is often afraid to be alone because our solitary state might lead us to sin; Teresa avoided being alone because God’s favors (in case you’re wondering, Teresa found out the men were wrong) were so overwhelming.
Today’s Christian is often so focused on not doing something—overeating, gambling, substance abuse, porn, etc.—that we chase avoidance (I know, that’s a weird combination of words, but it fits). Reading Teresa’s story reminds me of how essential it is that we learn to delight in God, to chase intimacy.
I can’t even begin to evaluate Teresa’s spiritual experiences. I’m not sure they are possible outside a monastic existence. But just because it doesn’t fit our life to take six months to climb Mt. Everest doesn’t mean we can’t walk up a hill now and then.
If you’re struggling in recovery, marriage or parenting and are focusing on avoidance—not relapsing, not being angry, not striking out, not yelling, etc.—do yourself and your loved ones a favor and spend some time cultivating delight in God. I’m leaning on Teresa to rediscover the joys and fulfillment (not just duty and obligation) of prayer. We can learn how to marshal the positive power of spiritual delight. Teresa is adamant that the only thing that wooed her away from sin were the superior pleasures she enjoyed while communing with God. Until she learned how to receive something better from God, she couldn’t say no to the lesser substitutes offered by the world.
We can live so desperately to get something that we’re never going to get from our spouse, our kids, or worldly experience. What’s particularly sad is that we endure thirsty lives even while living by a reservoir of delight in the affirmation, love, acceptance, and inspiration of God. Let’s move beyond intercessory prayer to spend time communing with God, receiving His affirmation, listening to Him, and meditatively interacting with Scripture.
Lately, I’ve found a great way to put an “exclamation mark” at the end of my devotional times. I focus on one-sentence positive affirmations of God taken directly from Scripture:
God is powerful (Col. 2:12)
God is just (2 Thess. 1:6)
God is faithful (1 Thess. 5:24)
God judges righteously (Jer. 11:20)
Nothing profound, nothing you haven’t heard a hundred times—but thinking on them one by one, trying to draw from them and reminding myself that these are bedrock truths to live by—is like rocket fuel to the soul. Just thinking on one truth about God fills my soul and mind and helps prepare me to go out into a fallen world where people can do awful things and fight petty battles. I can interact with and even enjoy the world without depending on the world.
Where I might push back against Teresa just a little bit is how she saw the world God created as almost a threat to enjoying Him. She “repents” of finding pleasure in relationships, for example, and “confesses” affection that might get in the way of her thirst for God.
In Pure Pleasure I write about how I discovered that the world can point me to God when I see it as God’s creation, gift and kindness. In fact, delighting in the perfect God opens my eyes to delighting in the world he has created, even a world marred by the fall. God gives us everything that is good—the thrill of the first kiss that is going to lead to something else. The thrill of a baby’s first word. The thrill of that first bite when you’re so hungry. The thrill of a good laugh. The thrill of a good day of work. The thrill of a good day lived together in a lifelong marriage.
My second book was Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God. Though it was written (I can hardly believe this now) over twenty years ago it’s still selling because the call to learn how we individually and uniquely connect with God is timeless. The way you delight in God will be different from the way I connect with God. The way your spouse spends time with the Lord will take on a different dimension from the way you spend time with God because no two relationships are exactly alike.
While the means will differ, the end must be the same for all of us: delighting in God is essential to our personal health, our family’s health, and our vocational focus. Without delight, Christianity can collapse into a moral obstacle course. That’s not the abundant life Jesus lays out for us.
When you get alone—say it’s a hotel room, or the downstairs living room when everyone is asleep—do you see that as an opportunity to meet with God in a special way, or is it a quagmire of temptation with the ice cream calling out your name, a game controller begging you to get lost for a few hours, or a website saying “you need me?”
A life defined by what we don’t do is a sad life; a life defined by what we love is the life we were meant to live. Rediscover that love and delight in God. To improve your marriage, look away from your marriage up toward the beauty, the excellence, the magnificence of a perfect God. Gazing on him is the only way to sustain a cherishing relationship with any fallen human, including ourselves. Let the rising tide of divine affection lift every “boat” in your life—the boat of marriage, self-identity, parenting, vocation and solitude.