The Carmelite Tradition of Prayer According to ST. TERESA OF AVILA
The Carmelite Tradition of prayer began around 1209 on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. The devout hermits, who gathered at Mount Carmel to dedicate their life to God through prayer and praise, approached Albert of Jerusalem who would help them through the rule. According to this rule the hermits were to live a common life committed to following Jesus Christ, serving him “with a pure heart and a good conscience”. Sacred Scripture nourished their prayer life. The rule also enjoined constant prayer in solitude, calling them to “meditate day and night on the Law of the Lord”.
For further inspiration and support in their prayer life, the hermits of Mount Carmel looked especially to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who allowed the Spirit of God to possess her and thus gave birth to Jesus the Redeemer. Moreover they looked for example and inspiration in the life the fiery prophet Elijah who represented for them a man totally dedicated to God, who walked zealously and lived continuously in the presence of God.
A significant development of the Order of Carmel started in 1450. Pope Nicholas V signed a bull that permitted pious women to come under the protection of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. To this effect under the guidance of Blessed John Soreth, the then Superior General of the Order, and Blessed Francis of Amboise, the Carmelite nuns blossomed and flourished throughout Europe.
Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda, a young beautiful talented girl entered one of those convents in Avila, Spain, in 1535. Those years were marked both by periods of mystical graces received through contemplative prayer and by inner conflict. For many years Teresa resisted God’s call to deeper and genuine fidelity.
At the age of thirty-nine, a profound conversion drastically changed her life. One day at prayer, she experienced the liberating love of the humanity of Jesus Christ, who freed her from the attachments that for almost twenty years had blocked her from offering herself completely to God’s service. As she gradually grew in this experience she realized that contemplative prayer held the key to healing and transformation of her entire life.
Teresa, a 16th Century mystic is known for her unique contribution in the field of prayer and contemplation through her enlightened writings. Prayer is the focal point of her spirituality and the central theme of her message. Her own life revolved round prayer to an extent that it became an adventure for her to experience prayer and then to be the teacher of prayer to her own disciples.
- Teresa, the Teacher of Prayer
The Church acclaims Teresa as one of the leading teachers of prayer. Since the 16th century, saints and learned people have accepted her as one of the greatest of mystics and an eminent teacher who has written precious volumes on prayer. “Through her writings” says Pope Paul VI “she has given the essential message of prayer to the Church”. Through her simple style she explains lucidly and emphatically the practical nature of prayer as almost comprising the whole synthesis of Christian living. The Christian perfection in its growth has its source in and through the dynamism of prayer. Teresa’s doctrine on mental prayer is an exhaustive blend of virtues, asceticism, grace and experience. In fact her pedagogy of prayer is appealing, fascinating and persuasive to anyone who wants to learn prayer and has God-experience. According to her, the way of prayer is the means and goal of Christian living because it is in and through prayer that we are united and transformed into God; i.e., participation in the mystery of Christ and communion with the Trinity.
Teresa, through her most simple and lucid style has immortalized her lofty and experiential teaching on prayer. Her style and method in explaining prayer is appealing, very accessible and easy to understand. The practical suggestions she offers are profound and clear even to those who have no deep learning and experience of prayer. In her autobiography she speaks of nothing but her own personal and deep experience [cfr. L 8,v], and helps out any aspiring soul from the lowest degree of prayer to the highest levels of God experience [cfr. L 11-18].
- a) Doctrine on Prayer
The book of her life virtually has for its substance the lively treatment on mental prayer. The chapters dedicated exclusively for mental prayer are 11-22; 25-30. Mental prayer was for her the “strongest pillar” for growth in virtues (cfr. L 8,ii). She emphasises and elaborates on the role of the Humanity of Christ in the practice and exercise of mental prayer (cfr. L 15,vii-viii; 16,ii,vi; 17,iv; 22,ii,xiii). The life of Jesus Christ should be the food for the mind that informs the will and stirs it. Mind is the interior door of the soul that opens the interior truth of salvation to the will (soul). Hence the need for ‘mental prayer’. However, the life of Christ cannot have equal or similar impact on all. Each one obtains according to ones ‘mental disposition’, because “there are different paths along which God leads souls” (W 5,v).
Teresa never intended to give a definition of prayer; rather she simply expressed her “opinion” on prayer to her beloved and faithful disciples. This ‘opinion’ has become almost the classical definition on prayer and has been accepted by spiritual masters through the ages as the most complete synthesis on prayer. Needless to say that the Teresian definition on prayer constitutes all encompassing essential elements of genuine prayer.
“Mental prayer,” she affirms, “in my opinion is nothing else but falling in love with Christ, frequently conversing in secret with Him who we know loves us” [L 8,v]. A complementary definition of prayer is available to us in the text Way of Perfection 25,iii).
Teresa deals elaborately with prayer in her Autobiography and in her classical treatise, the Way of Perfection. Intelligent, endowed with a keen spiritual sensitivity and animated by the spirit of faith she gives us the essentials of prayer expressed through a very simple and lucid style. Her personal experience itself speaks volumes about her prayer life. Her main concern in writing on prayer was not to give strict rules and regulations or directives regarding prayer, but to convince and lead her disciples to the enormous gain and perfection that prayer can bring in their daily life.
It should be kept in mind that by the time Teresa wrote her Autobiography and treatise on prayer she was already familiar with many writings and teachings written on prayer. Moreover, she was a voracious reader of books on spirituality and theology.
The ‘definition’ quoted above is the result of her own personal discovery through personal experience of God. What fundamentally characterises the activity of prayer – mental prayer – is elaborately explained in her way of perfection.
Teresa, elaborating on the definition on prayer writes, “I don’t understand what they fear, who fear to begin the practice of mental prayer, I do not know what they are afraid of” [L 8,vi]. According to her prayer is unity and integration of what one pronounces and lives. It is a union of thought and action; words and deeds. “Only love and a habit” [L 7,xii] is needed for such an integration and unity. “Prayer is an exercise of love” [L 7,xii]. The Christian prayer is essentially the prayer of Jesus, an exercise of love.
One becomes a Pray-er only by praying. If one has lost the habit of prayer, it is regained only through prayer: “Whoever has not begun the practice of prayer, I beg for the love of the Lord not to go without so great a good” [L 8,v], because “prayer is the door” [L 8,xii] to attain God’s friendship.
According to St. Teresa prayer can be either mental or vocal. For her there are no hard and fast rules that distinguish one form of prayer from the other. Praying is loving and loving is praying. In fact, the quality of our prayer determines the quality of our life. Therefore, whatever way one approaches God in prayer it would be an approach that has been determined by ones life. The relationship with God through prayer affects all other relationships and life itself.
- b) Prayer is Relationship
Prayer is an ongoing relationship and so must develop. It ought to be dynamic. A stagnant relationship is no prayer relationship at all. Any relationship for that matter ought to be dynamic and must tend to grow always from its initial stage towards most profound depths of intimacy. Relationship cannot be attained or perfected within a day, nor will it come to a stop where one can say that its growth has reached its perfect point and there is no further scope.
Growth in relationship with God has no end and cannot be mechanical, and therefore there are no short cuts to God-relationship. As we affirmed, prayer is a relationship, and therefore it is bound to grow. It is not mechanical and hence no physical or mental technique will serve to ensure growth in prayer.
Prayer relationship takes place between unequals, i.e., God and man. It is a relationship of Creator with creature or vice-versa. Openness and clear disposition are the main features that make the grace of God freely act on the creature. However, we cannot in any way command God’s response to our openness and disposition. Hence, growth in prayer relationship is evidently God’s gratuitous gift to man. Since God is love, prayer is not a matter of thinking a great deal, but of loving a great deal (M IV.1,vii). Love attracts love; therefore, growth in prayer augments love and love in turn nourishes prayer. But it should be kept in mind that we cannot force love from the other. Hence, relationship with God cannot be forced rather must be accepted as a precious gift. Forced love does not last and it cannot be called love at all. Forced relationships are bound to fail or break.
- c) Exercise in Prayer
Prayer in the first stages of its development requires effort and ‘exercise’. Effort and exercise mean wholehearted response to a need. All prayer is a response. It is the Lord who takes the initiative. It is He who first knocks, beckons and calls us. He calls us forth in our very creation and in our re-creation in baptism. He speaks to us in everyone and in everything, in our very selves, in all our movements, energies, and activities; in our breathing, thinking, and feeling. He is the source of all energy, life, and activity, and He is present in them as their source. With a lively active faith we hear and respond to him.
Any virtue or good habit is the result of dedicated constant exercise. Therefore Teresa recommends strongly to her disciples “Do not give up the hours of prayer for any thing else” [Way 18,iv]. Teresa through her own experience establishes that exercise bears fruit in the long run. She herself underwent long hours of exercise without obtaining brilliant success. “I spent fourteen years never being able to practice meditation without reading” [Way 17,iii]. “For though I continued to associate with the world, I had the courage to practice prayer” [Life 8,ii]. “For more than eighteen of the twenty eight years since I began prayer, I suffered this battle and conflict between friendship with God and friendship with the world” [Life 8,iii]. “God does great good for a soul that willingly disposes itself for the practice of prayer” [Life 8,iv]. “It is that in spite of any wrong he who practices prayer does, he must not abandon prayer, since it is the means by which he can remedy the situation”[Life 8,v]. “Whoever has not begun the practice of prayer, I beg for the love of the Lord, not to go without so great a good”[Life 8,v]. What we are made to understand through these texts is that there is need for ‘exercise’, ‘effort’ and the ‘necessity of setting apart time’ for prayer. It is the practice that makes us perfect. Practice is the tonic for growth.
Prayer presupposes in its initial stages, mental exercise or activity. For any function of the mind to be constant and habitual there is need for ‘exercise’. We can speak of prayers we memorise and reproduce on occasions, or spontaneous prayers done; all these require the absolute activity of the mind. Mental prayer presupposes asceticism that in normal terms could be regarded as constant exercise. In any sector of human life exercise and asceticism plays a dominant role. For example, a dancer, when he or she dances, we notice with rapt attention all his or her artistic body movements. It is so with prayer. When we are involved in prayer there takes place a similar process as it happens in an expert conducting a programme. We are actively involved in prayer, performing it, or living it or experiencing it. A person who dances is involved in dancing and experiences it. So also, when we pray we are involved in prayer and experience it. In prayer there is an interaction between grace and human freedom just as there is human effort and the experience in any art.
- d) Determined Determination
Prayer in fact presupposes the action of God and co-operation on our part. When both happily meet there is growth. What concretely required on our part is generosity and virtue. Teresa firmly suggests the virtue of courage and perseverance through “determined determination”[Way 21,ii].
But those who do give themselves with determined determination, “the Lord shares with them His food even to the point of taking a portion from His own mouth, to give them” (cfr. W 16,ix). Here we understand clearly that ‘prayer’ is only the beginning of the whole mystery of our salvation. As Teresa writes in the definition “mental prayer” is nothing but “friendly intercourse”, which signifies, when it really reaches its highest point, it is going to be not only friendly but reaches the depth of friendship and love far beyond expression. It ought to be liberating experience. God in this state cannot resist a soul that desires Him ardently. Not to desire God is equal to not to find Him. Prayer is the power that provokes encounter. But we need to understand that ‘encounter’ with God may not be always pleasant, soothing experience. ‘Mental prayer’ is the way by which we loose ourselves in order to find Christ (Phil 3:7-22). It is an exposing of oneself to God’s company and presence, because we cannot in any way force God to be our companion. If he offers his companionship it is not out of our merit but a sheer gift from Him. Dealing with God in all humility and determination is the only way to love and have him. Hence, prayer is nothing but our exposure to God and to His riches. As the sun God’s company is never failing but His rays could be prevented if one closes the door or window of ones soul. The need for spiritual exposure to God is an absolute precondition for prayer. It is in prayer that we come to know God and His mysterious works. Our eyes of faith are wide opened and hope becomes stronger through prayer. Through prayer the spiritual faculties are energised and vitalised to receive God. The initial effort at prayer is normally rewarded with gifts and graces from God, which saturate us to the point of thirsting for Him more and more with determination and courage.
- Terminological Clarification
Before we come to the core of the article we need a few clarifications regarding the various terms used in the writings of Teresa on prayer.
- a) ‘Meditation’
The Hebrew root ‘haga‘ is translated as ‘meditation’ which is the work of the heart and not of the mind. Hence, it denotes interiorization. The word ‘meditation’ is the derivative of the Greek melete signifying “exercise, study”. Its Latin root med denotes cure or care. The English word medicine refers to curative elements. In spiritual theology meditation has a vast range of meanings that are connected with prayer. The one who meditates, means one who prays. It is an initial form of prayer, reaching deeper levels of God experience. The word in fact sums up the initial steps in the ongoing growth in Christian spirituality.
In the early monastic period (V – XII century) ‘meditation’ was linked with contemplation. Meditation, in fact, was a type of prayer that began with ‘Lectio‘ – a reading aloud and pondering on the Scriptural passages – through an integration of mind and body. This pondering on was a stage that laid stress on resting on the words of the text that led one beyond the imaginative and rationalising levels of the mind, i.e., oratio. This led one to be with God through non-conceptual level of prayer, which is nothing but ‘contemplation’ – a state of being with God.
Meditation is an act of faith, hope and love because it requires generous commitment and perseverance. It ensures growth and integration leading to the state of continuous prayer enjoined by Christ (Lk 18:1; I Thes 5:17). Meditation can be regarded as the door to “mental prayer” through the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:18; Rom 8:14).
- b) ‘Mental Prayer’
The word ‘mind’ has its etymological base in the expression “to think”. Its broader meanings are ‘interiority’, ‘consciousness’. The word ‘mind’ denotes ‘spatio temporal non extension’, consciousness and partly specifies the ability to think.
The expression ‘mental prayer’ is used often interchangeably with meditation and contemplation. The terms ‘meditation’ and ‘contemplation’ are also at times used interchangeably. In reality both these terms denote two different levels of prayer life. If there is an extended pondering of God’s presence and activity, it is meditation. When there is a total gazing with love and attention on God, it is, and could be called contemplation. St. John of the Cross calls it “inflow of God into the soul”. In normal definitions regarding meditation there is the domination of reasoning; whereas in contemplation ‘love’ predominates.
In the writings of Teresa there is a real difficulty to distinguish between mental prayer and contemplation. This difficulty is also prevalent when she speaks of vocal and mental prayer. Mental prayer entails a lot of risk because most of the time we spend with God might seem in vain. “Whoever in fact risks all for God will find that he has both lost all and gained all” (L 16,vii). The particular feature of ‘mental prayer’ is that it has no specific or fixed formulas. It is a spontaneous elevation of the heart and mind to God through love.
- c) Mental Prayer and Vocal Prayer
For Teresa, there is basically no difference between vocal and mental prayer, provided the basic concept of prayer is understood as ‘loving’ God. Vocal prayer done with attention and concentration is nothing but meditation. Vocal prayer done with deeper love and attention, becomes mental prayer. In vocal prayer we have to mean what we say; in mental prayer we say what we mean. When we say what we mean, it is always accompanied with love. Hence, any prayer recited or sung with love becomes mental prayer. Therefore, the saint affirms, prayer is not “thinking much but loving much” (M IV,1,7). However, in the initial stages of prayer “it is a great help to take a good book written in the vernacular in order to recollect ones thoughts and pray well vocally and little by little in order not to grow discouraged (W,26,x).
Teresa further adds “but I tell you that surely I don’t know how mental prayer can be separated from vocal prayer if the vocal prayer is to be recited well with an understanding of whom we are speaking to. It is even an obligation that we strive to pray with attention” (W 24,vi). Through this affirmation Teresa disagrees with the conventional attitude towards vocal prayer. She strikes at the root of vocal prayer and brings out its deeper significance in our life. In vocal prayer we have to apply the mind. If not, vocal prayer cannot be called ‘prayer’ at all. Any recitation to be prayer needs the grasp of the recitation. The serious danger in the recitation of vocal prayer is when we recite it by heart. Often the words are pronounced through force of habit, and the prayer remains a sounding cymbal. Teresa insists that even vocal prayer recited integrally can lead us to God equally as the contemplative prayer. She writes: “I know that there are many persons who while praying vocally… are raised by God to sublime contemplation… It is because of this that I insist so much upon your reciting vocal prayers well” (W 30,vii).
- d) Presence of God
For ‘mental prayer’ the presence of God is absolutely necessary and fundamental. The presence of God constitutes the essential element of mental or vocal prayer. “To recite the Our Father or the Hail Mary or whatever prayer you wish is vocal prayer. But behold what poor music you produce when you do this without mental prayer” (W,25,iii). Mental prayer consists of “being aware of and knowing what we are speaking, with whom we are speaking, and who we ourselves are, who dare to speak so much with so great a Lord” (W 25,iii).
- d) Prayer is Loving
Prayer is loving. One who does not love cannot pray and vice-versa. Prayer is life. One who does not pray has no life of the spirit in him. Where there is no love there is no life. Hence, prayer, love and life are a necessary network of human life. They are interconnected. The lack of one results in stunting the growth of the whole human person.
Prayer continues when there is continuation of love. Love can be continuous when it is concentrated and total. Hence, one needs to persevere in prayer if one has to grow in love and life (Rom 12:12).
- e) Four Degrees of Prayer
St. Teresa chokes out a synthesis of prayer in her Autobiography chapter 11. According to her, the beginners in prayer are those who draw water from the well. This involves lot of work on their part trying to recollect their senses. Those who have done already progress in prayer fall in the second degree of prayer, which is called prayer of quiet. Teresa compares this type prayer to watering the garden by turning the crank of a water wheel and by aqueduct. The gardener obtains more water with less fatigue. The third kind of prayer is the prayer of contemplation. This type of prayer is compared to the river that flows out and supplies water to plants. This prayer is experienced through God’s special intervention and grace. The fourth kind of prayer is prayer of union. The intensity of this kind of prayer is compared to rain water. The field is drenched with water that for many days and weeks there is no need to irrigate the plants. This form of prayer is the prayer of union the soul enjoys without many mystical phenomena. Here God is united to the soul and the two separate beings become one. No effort is invested on the part of the gardener, i.e. the soul.
- Analysis of the Teresian ‘Definition‘ on Prayer
We intend to quote the whole definition here for a detailed analysis. “Mental prayer” she affirms “in my opinion is nothing else but falling in love with Christ, frequently conversing in secret with Him who we know loves us” [L 8,v]
- a) “Mental Prayer” (Oración Mental):
In this expression there are two words. Oración in Spanish signifies ‘prayer’. The word mental signifies ‘mental’ activity. Mind and intelligence are closely connected or could be said are equivalent. For St. John of the Cross both intellect and understanding spell out the same meaning. When we stress the words ‘mind’ and ‘mental’ it should not be confused with ‘memory’. Memory has a function of storing images and experiences of the past. It recalls these images and experiences on occasions. In fact the function of the mind or intellect is very important in all the spheres of life. It is the activity of the mind or intellect that moves us to start any adventure and not the activity of the memory. In spiritual life it is the mind that begins first its ascent to God and then only the activity gradually reaches the heart.
In general, prayer is mental when the internal acts of the intellect and will are not expressed externally in words and gestures. In modern usage the term is not restricted to an internal petition but embraces every interior act of faith, hope and charity, – every thought of God with the object of serving Him and of fostering charity and the other virtues, every movement of praise, thanksgiving, penance, petition, adoration, and love.
As an exercise in the spiritual life, mental prayer may be either formal or diffused (virtual). It is diffused when internal acts are intermingled with other occupations, as in the practice of aspiration while engaged in activities (cooking or gardening). It is formal when a definite space and time is devoted to making these internal acts to the exclusion of all other occupation and involvement.
Teresa frequently insists in her writings the need for ‘meditation’ even at an advanced stage of spiritual life (M VI,7,viii). This attitude of Teresa leaves us in no doubt that the saint could and did practice a form of prayer that was neither vocal nor contemplative, but involved some kind of mental activity. Therefore, many commentators on her writings have found it difficult to arrive at a conclusion regarding her definition on mental prayer as indicating ‘meditative prayer’ or ‘contemplative prayer’.
There are some simple souls with little education who cannot regularly practise formal ‘mental prayer’ and nevertheless by the devout practice of vocal prayer and asceticism come to a high state of perfection. For this reason it cannot be said that formal mental prayer is necessary for all those who strive for Christian perfection. Nevertheless it is a normal means of Christian perfection, and usually cannot be neglected without spiritual loss.
Teresa was not well versed in using philosophical terms in her writings. Hence, when she writes on mental prayer, she intends to highlight a relationship with God through knowledge without making reference to the various functions of the soul as St. John of the Cross who elaborately deals with such themes.
According to Teresa, in prayer, the mind is applied and as a result we know what we pray. Without knowledge, we cannot love. For Teresa prayer cannot be isolated from Christian living, because it is based on Christ and the Church. Hence, for a Christian to be initiated into prayer life, the knowledge of Christ is absolutely needed. One who knows Christ can love him. The one who loves, prays and one who prays necessarily should love. The life of prayer that results in close friendship with Christ presupposes concrete exercise. Teresian mental prayer in its early stages of growth is an exercise of the mind. Without exercise a habit of prayer cannot be formed. Moreover, exercise presupposes time. In addition to time, effort is a prerequisite for exercise. Hence, exercise, effort and time form the essential factors that contribute to the success of mental prayer in Teresian spirituality.
- b) “In my Opinion” (a mi parecer)
Teresa in her ‘definition’ writes “prayer in my opinion”. This expression indicates that what she has expressed is only an opinion and not a dogma. For us Carmelites, this ‘opinion’ has become a ‘definition’, in the sense that it contains the most important and sublime ingredients of prayer. Teresa could not affirm any teaching categorically, especially when it concerned about prayer because of the strict regulations of the Spanish Inquisition. Hence, Teresa just expresses her ‘opinion’ on prayer.
- c) “Nothing but” (no es otra cosa)
This expression refers to her conviction regarding this opinion. This is not a theoretical conviction, rather experiential conviction. In this modern world we come across hundreds of articles and books that explain and elaborate on the various methods or ways of prayer, perhaps well documented and sadly without personally experiencing what actually is prayer. These theories and written documents sway us from the essence of prayer. But for Teresa prayer is ‘nothing but’ growing in friendship with God.
Growth in friendship does not seek anything but friendship matured out of love. If we aim at satisfaction, gain and personal fulfilment in prayer with the exclusion of real ‘love’ of God and neighbour, it cannot be called prayer. It is interesting to know how Teresa makes this issue clear when she confesses: “Only once in my life, when in great dryness, do I recall having asked for spiritual delight” (L 9,ix,c).
Again the expression “nothing but” indirectly is a reference to all kinds of techniques and methods of prayer. A technique cannot be prayer because a technique does not presuppose ‘love’. A technique can be only a help or method and cannot be prayer. “I warn you that if you wish to progress a long way on this road of prayer and to enter the mansions of your desire, the important thing is not to think much, but to love much” (M IV,1,vii). Very often in our efforts thinking and reflecting is regarded as prayer. This wrong notion of prayer is corrected at the very outset of the definition with the words “nothing but”.
- d) “Friendly intercourse” (Tratar de amistad)
Friendly intercourse (tratar de amistad) or “frequent converse”, signify ‘friendship’, ‘dialogue’, ‘confidential encounter’, ‘presence’, ‘intimacy’, ‘spontaneity’, ‘freedom in dealing with’ etc. “Frequent” signifies, ‘frequency and continuity’, ‘uninterrupted communion’, ‘being with God everywhere and in everything’. “Solitary” means, in ‘silence’, in ‘solitude’, in ‘exclusion’, ‘totally for’.
Against this background Teresa more often speaks of ‘mental prayer’ and not of meditation. For her mental prayer meant “loving” and “friendly intercourse”: “I am not asking you now that you ‘think’ about him or that you draw out a lot of ‘concepts’ or make long and subtle ‘reflections’ with your intellect. I am not asking you to do anything more than look at Him. In the measure you desire Him, you will find Him” (W 26,iii).
Since prayer is a loving encounter with God, Teresa is keen on avoiding ‘thoughts’, ‘concepts’ and ‘reflections’ during the advanced stage of prayer. Forced thoughts and reflections in prayer can limit the flow of God’s love and consequently we remain merely speculative and theoretical in our approach to prayer. Perhaps we could boldly say that when we think, reflect and conceive many ideas during prayer, we do not pray but waste our time in speculation and reflection. According to Teresa prayer should be nothing but “friendly intercourse” i.e., ‘looking at Him’, ‘desiring Him’, ‘speaking to him’, in a way different from our normal manner of speaking to human beings. “Speak with Him as your Father and Brother, as your Lord and Spouse, and in one way or another He will ‘teach’ you what you must do to please Him… The Lord is within us and we should be with Him” (W 28,iii). Friendship is the richest relationship the human heart can ever enjoy and experience.
As we have already hinted above, there are no short cuts to friendship. If in the “opinion” of Teresa, mental prayer is “nothing but friendly intercourse”, there can be absolutely no shortcuts to reach this intense friendship – relationship with God, because “nothing is learned without a little effort” (W 29,viii). One truth must console us. God is immensely generous towards those who are generous to gain His friendship. “I know, if you try, that within a year, or perhaps half a year, you will acquire it, by the favour of God” (W 29,viii).
For Teresa ‘mental prayer’ is a less particular exercise than the very practice of spiritual life. The way of prayer is not a way of perfection. It only opens out avenues into the depths of the divine intimacy that is so vast and inexhaustible. However, Teresa’s writings reveal to us that prayer is indispensable to reach such heights in spiritual life and to enjoy God-experience. Therefore, mental prayer is the sure way of contacting God and helps foster further encounters of friendship.
‘Friendly intercourse’ with God is had through love. God is love and he attracts every act that is made out of love. He then, can be said to be the biggest and the most powerful “Love Magnet” drawing every act of a being that possesses any element of ‘love’. He created man out of love because He is love Himself. He redeemed us out of love and for love. Since God is the source of love, there is nothing in the world as dynamic as love because it is rooted in God. Love is a devouring fire, it is in constant activity and movement, consuming everything that is akin to it. The expression “tratar de amistad” which is translated “friendly intercourse” in fact, signifies a ‘continual, dynamic and reciprocal inter-penetration of love between God and soul. Love is not static; it grows and has the capacity and inclination for equality. All love craves for unity and equality. As in the human order the highest peak of love is the union of husband and wife in the flesh, so the highest union in the divine order is the union of the soul with God. Unity with the Divinity can be attained only through love. When love grows (between the Creator and the creature) there is sharing and when sharing reaches its highest intensity there is consummation and equality. Hence, friendly intercourse is a tendency towards equality and inter-penetration. Such a deep relationship requires exclusiveness and being alone with the other. Love is a unitive force that integrates the whole of us and leads us towards God intensifying our desire for Him. Therefore, prayer with love becomes a reaching, uniting, unifying and transforming factor. It is life itself and an attitude towards it. This can be clearly noticed in the various phases of the life of Jesus. If we expand and grow spiritually, the only reason for it is to be found in the genuine and unitive prayer experience. Such a prayer experience nourishes both the body and soul. Without such a prayer, life can be disintegrating and shattering itself from its very fundamental purpose.
Mental prayer is nothing but a “friendly intercourse” with God; it does not mean that we have to involve ourselves in shedding tears and enjoying spiritual consolations. “Friendly intercourse” is nothing but loving through great humility and service. Friendship brings two wills together in harmony. We call it the conformity of our will with God’s will.
“Loving intercourse” or “friendly intercourse” presupposes an exercise of love. When we speak of an exercise of love in prayer, we cannot claim that Teresa was original in her proposal. Ignatius of Loyola had a ‘method of prayer’ which presupposed an exercise. The method suggested a preliminary reading before prayer, which helped one to dwell on two or three points that enabled one to meditate discursively. Teresa’s method could not be absolutely identical, rather it drastically reduced the work of the mind and intensified the work of the heart.
Teresa suggests that prayer should be friendly colloquy with Christ than an intellectual reasoning. This friendly colloquy is nothing but loving conversation with the Lord. It is being effectively active in the presence of the Lord. Her practical recommendation in prayer is that we “look at Him” (W 26,iii; L xiii,21). “For if we humbly ask him for this friendship, He will not deny it to us” (W 26,ii).
The process of colloquy is designed as an exercise in which the use of the imagination is followed by a reasoned discourse with the finality of stirring ones love for God. We should aim to enhance our love for God and not restrain it through discursive process. Teresa is certain that after a considerable time in this type of prayer we will be able to come to this loving colloquy directly without discursive reflection. This is what Teresa meant in her classical expression “friendly intercourse”, which is nothing but nowadays what they call “affective prayer”. This in fact is “looking at Him” and as Teresa writes “in the measure you desire him, you will find Him” (W 26,iii). It is through this friendship with God that we can grow in spiritual life. Becoming ‘friends of God’ is the only concern of Teresa through prayer. To be interested in God is learning to be friends of God. It is a life of friendship rather than a moment of friendship with God. Love continues to grow when prayer continues. It is an ongoing process through which we become more and more aware of God, expanding our desire for a deeper relationship which eventually results in permanent bond with Him. If we feel that we have lost our way to God it is nothing but loosing contact with God by giving up prayer.
- e) “Being/Frequent” (Estando)
This expression signifies “frequent encounter” or “frequent meeting”. The encounter or meeting is always enriched through ‘talk’ or ‘communication’. In the initial stage of any kind of relationship the use of spoken ‘words’ is predominant. Since in the initial stage the friendship does not reach the heart to heart level, there is need to use words to express what actually happens in the heart. Speaking or communication through words also requires ‘listening’. Speaking or communicating is not one way traffic flow; rather, it is letting also the other speak. This implies giving a generous hearing: “consider the words that Divine mouth speaks, for in the first word you will understand immediately the love He has for you; it is no small blessing and gift for the disciple to see that his Master loves him” (W 26,x). Hence, to communicate or to speak with the master “great deal of skill is necessary” (ibid).
Prayer or friendship with God bears two-fold dimension, namely, vertical and horizontal. The vertical dimension consists in a loving and friendly conversation with God, which is a heart to heart talk with God. Horizontal dimension of prayer signifies finding God in our relationship with others. Contact with God through our brethren is the vital essence of prayer that is nothing but deep rooted ‘life’ in Christ. This life is a revelation of God in prayer. Our loving and genuine relationship with others is destined to promote, enrich and intensify our love for God and consequently empower our prayer life. Therefore, “do not let any one deceive you by showing you a road other than that of prayer” (W 21,vi). Therefore, Teresa advises her companions: “let us give ourselves to mental prayer. Let whoever cannot practice it turn to vocal prayer, reading and colloquy with God. Do not abandon the hours of prayer we have in common; you do not know when the spouse will call” (W 18,iv). The fact is that so long as we direct our whole life towards God we are at prayer.
- e) Many times/Very Often (Muchas Veces)
Exercise makes one the master. Frequent meetings or encounters with God can result in becoming true friends of Him. The expression “muchas veces” signifies “many times” or “frequently” or “very often”. We know that the continuous use of a knife keeps it sharp and shining. Constant singing makes one produce enchanting melody. One who practices dance daily can keep the audience spell-bound through the flexible and graceful movements of hands and feet. In the same way prayer becomes a means to strengthen our bond with God when we frequently return to it. The expression “muchas veces” in prayer signifies a constant return to God in fidelity. Fidelity indicates desire for growth. Long periods of dedicated prayer can result in strong moments of encounter with God. Constancy in prayer is dynamic. True friendship can be dynamic and growing when there is constancy in prayer. This striving after signifies, attempting “many times”. This is what we find in the Holy Scripture, the call to pray always: “watch all times praying” (Lk 21:36); “pray constantly” (I Thes 5:17); “be constant in prayer” (Rom 12:12); “pray at all times in the spirit” (Eph 6:18); “continue steadfast in prayer” (Col 4:2); “we always pray for you” (II Thes 1:11); “we are bound to give thanks to God always for you” (II Thes 1:3). Hence only unceasing prayer enables us to cultivate lasting friendship with God. Therefore, the Pope exhorts in the decree on priestly formation “learn to live in familiar and constant companionship with the Father, Son and Spirit” (n. 8). It is a kind of constancy that requires undivided love and attention to God, by which we let God possess us. Prayer like any other power grows with use. We exercise our body to make it stronger. In the same manner exercise at prayer is a ‘must’ to hold on to friendship with God. “There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the one who gives me strength” (Phil 4:13), because “nothing is impossible to God ” (Lk 1:37). “Everything you ask and pray for, believe that you have it already, and it will be yours” (Mk 11:24). Therefore, “ask and you will receive” (Mt 7:7). “Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Eph 3:20); because His grace is enough for us (II Cor 12:9) in every way and in every circumstance.
What strikes us regarding prayer is Teresa’s insistance to come back to prayer if we have given it up. “Muchas veces” (often) coming back to this precious way is the remedy for all evils. “There is no other remedy for this evil of giving up prayer than to begin again” (M II,1,x). “Someone could think that if turning back is so bad, it would be better never to begin but to remain outside the Castle” (M II,1,xi). The indication here is for the need of perseverance: “one gains much through perseverance” (M II,1,iii). Teresa writes “unceasing prayer is the most important rule” (W 4,ii). Growth in prayer requires a constant exercise and dedication. “Prayer and comfortable living are incompatible” (W4,ii).
Another significance of the expression “muchas veces” is never to get discouraged. “If you should at times fall, don’t become discouraged and stop striving to advance. For even from this fall God will draw out good” (M II,1,ix). This is what St. Paul advises his fellowmen – “have no anxiety at all, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Phil 4:6). “Muchas veces” is an attitude and willingness to make whatever efforts are necessary to fulfil God’s will, no matter what the cost, so that at the end of life we may join St. Paul saying “I have competed well, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (II Tim 4:7).
The expression “muchas veces” could also be interpreted as a form of paying close and frequent attention to God. Jesus in fact challenged his disciples not only to “pay attention” to his teaching (cfr. Lk 9:44) but to remain watchful for his return (Lk 12:36). Praying insofar as it involves awareness of, or communication with the divine, seems necessarily to require constant attention. Attention requires practice and to acquire practice there is need for repetition. Hence, the expression “muchas veces” points to regularity and constancy. Simone Weil asserts: “prayer consists of attention, the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God ” (Waiting for God, New York, 1973, p. 105). Frequency is a sine qua non for building up relationship. Frequent meeting, corresponding, keeping in touch, in fact help us to keep fresh and alive in any kind of relationship. Therefore, Teresa suggests that to obtain a constant habit of prayer we “must not abandon prayer”; and must spend at least “two hours in prayer each day” (L 8,vi). This suggestion is not to be taken literally as two hours in prayer at a stretch, but returning to prayer “often” or “frequently” even when we are at work.
- f) Alone/in solitude (A Solas)
It is a call to be alone with God. In solitude and silence we must learn to converse with God. This attitude of solitude and silence helps us to ‘listen’ and to ‘speak’ to the one who loves and sees us in ‘secret’. We have clear examples for this in the life of Christ himself: “He withdrew to desert places to pray” (Lk 5:16); “rising very early before dawn, left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed” (Mk 1:35). Before choosing the twelve, “He departed to the mountain to pray, and He spent the night in prayer to God” (Lk 6:12); after feeding the multitudes in the desert and before preaching the crucial sermon on the bread of life, Jesus once again spent the night in prayer (cfr. Mt 6:46; Mt 14:22-23; Jn 6:15). Teresa writes, “now with regard to prayer you already know that His majesty teaches that it be recited in solitude. This is what He always did when He prayed” (W 24,iv).
Jesus’ agonising prayer was made in utter solitude of suffering and Cross: “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 5:34). It was in utter solitude and abandonment that He surrendered himself in prayer to his Father “Father into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). Jesus who experienced the providence and love of his Father in being ‘alone’ says, “when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in ‘secret’ will repay you” (Mt 6:6).
Prayer done in secret does not require long and empty phrases (Mk 12:40). It requires perseverance which is the key to success in prayer (Lk 18:1).
Aloneness with God, which is the hallmark of Christian attraction to solitude, is not a matter of loneliness. Genuine solitude is rooted in each person’s unique call from God. This personal and absolute uniqueness of each person testifies beautifully to the unique tri-personal life of a Trinitarian God, in whose image and likeness each person is created.
Making room for solitude and silence offers new challenges in the fast progressing technological society. The urbanisation process with its crowded living conditions and the constant communication provided by the media often presents insurmountable difficulties to the practice of solitude or to spend time ‘alone’ with God. Nevertheless, there is no other way than finding space and time to practise genuine prayer in solitude and silence. In the midst of hustle and bustle of the modern society the human spirit craves for solitude, because it is only in solitude that we can encounter God and dialogue with Him in the depth of our heart. We need to pray abiding in him (Jn 15:7). Prayer is more than an activity relegated to specific times and places where one human being talks to God. Prayer must be understood as a state of being, not just a particular activity. It is the movement of the human spirit towards ever-fuller participation in the life of God.
The ‘secret’ dialogue between God and man takes place in the ‘heart’. The heart stands for the deepest and most fundamental centre of the person. Indeed as some philosophers would say ‘the person is the heart’. To have a heart is to possess the capacity to be in relationship. Thus ‘heart’ is a dynamic space that allows good to dwell and gives birth to goodness. Therefore, prayer finds its fullest expression in interpersonal communion in and through communication with God in our heart, which is the secret chamber or the cave of the heart. There is in each of us a heart called to respond to the one Triune communion of divine persons made manifest in the presence and action of Jesus Christ and the Spirit. We are called to respond to what God asks of us. The response is given in the depth of our heart, being “alone with God” because we “cannot speak simultaneously to God and to the world” (W 24,iv). Therefore, Teresa suggests that “we must disengage ourselves from everything so as to approach God interiorley and even in the midst of occupations withdraw within ourselves” (W 29,v). “This involves a gradual increase of self control and an end to vain wandering from the right path; it means conquering, which is a making use of one’s senses for the sake of inner life” (W 29,vii). The motivation for such an effort to be alone with God is simple and radical because “a real lover never ceases to love and thinks always of the Beloved” (F 5,xvi). Teresian prayer is nothing but a personal encounter with God or being with God (estar con Dios). Experience of love through prayer presses us to give attention to whatever we do for the Lord and never lose sight of Him. This becomes a penetrating and liberating force that elevates us to be alone with God. Thus, when we learn to be alone with God, prayer and life, God and the world, become increasingly a single experience of integration that begets spiritual energy that leads us to establish the kingdom of God on earth.
Hence, praying is paying personal attention to God. “One should just remain there in His presence” (L13,xxii), because prayer “is an intimate sharing between friends”. Intimacy is the experience of closeness between two persons. Therefore, “draw near then, to this good Master with strong determination to learn what He teaches you” (W 26,x), because “He is looking at us” (L 13,xxii). In prayer we know God and prayer is the triumph of consciousness.
- f) With Whom We Know (Con quien Sabemos)
The seed of God is sown in our hearts in Baptism. It is through the grace of Baptism that we experience the gratuitous love of God because we know He is dwelling there. As we grow in this grace we become aware of this vital presence and the generosity and the providence of God. This leads us to grasp why He created us and we understand that he loved us first and He saves us.
Before coming to the central theme of ‘love’ which follows the above quoted expression, we need to find out the relevance of the word ‘sabemos‘ to the whole definition. We cannot love a thing if we do not know it. Knowledge matures love and relationship.
Knowledge is necessary to love. In prayer two types of knowledge is necessary. One is self-knowledge and the other is God knowledge. Knowledge can be further subdivided into sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge. Besides these two, we speak of spiritual knowledge or supernatural knowledge, which is not achieved through natural cognitive power but through gratuitous gift of God. The spiritual knowledge is also called infused or contemplative knowledge of God, which is again a gratuitous gift of God. Man is only a passive recipient of this knowledge.
For prayer, “knowledge” is very essential. First of all we need to obtain knowledge of God through self-knowledge. In the first stages of prayer, knowledge acquired through reading and instruction is sufficient. Knowledge provokes love. Love is not satisfied with superficial knowledge but longs for union with what is known. “Prayer consists of what was explained: being aware and knowing what we are speaking, with whom we are speaking, and who we ourselves are who dare to speak so much with so great a Lord” (W 25,iii). Hence the word ‘sabemos‘ refers to the knowledge of God one possesses. ‘Sabemos‘ can be interpreted as ‘awareness’ from the psychological point of view. It is not so much the intellectual awareness that matters in prayer, but loving awareness. When we go for prayer if we are ‘aware’ that the one who loves us throughout the day is waiting for us, the whole attitude towards prayer changes. Awareness helps us to remain inwardly tuned in mind and heart to God, whatever the occupation in which we are engaged. This is what usually happens with lovers. It is not necessary that they speak but they are ‘aware’ of the presence of the other. Therefore it is very necessary that we become ‘aware’ of the presence of God in and around us.
For Teresa it is the knowledge of God we acquire through feeling the nearness of Christ that helps us to come closer to God. To pray, we must be in the presence of Christ and “grow accustomed to being inflamed with love for His sacred humanity” (L 12,ii), keeping Him ever present in our hearts. This awareness and knowledge nourishes us to “strive to remain in this precious company” (L 12,ii). Christ is the “living book”, the “true book” in which we come to know “what must be read and done” (L 26,v). To obtain “true” knowledge of God we must “set our eyes on Christ” (M I,2,xi). Teresa sees Christ as the “only friend”. “If we are friends of the crucified we will have to carry many crosses in life. He is a great friend” (W 26,i). “He is an understanding friend” (C 2,i). “He is true and only friend and spouse” (L 22,vi). “He is a friend par exellance” (L 37,vi). This experience of friendship is Christ’s gift to us in prayer: “I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father” (Jn 15:15).
The Lord is in the centre of our soul (M III,2,iii), and since we know He loves us we should not go out from that centre, rather be “always with Him” (M VII,1,x), and “speaking with Him as with a Brother, a Father, a Lord and Spouse” (W 28,iii). “The Lord is within us, and that there we must be with Him” (Ibid). “If we knew Him we would love in a way different from that in which we do love Him” (W 30,v). Therefore the first word “sabemos” of the expression chosen for analysis has the property of “knowing” and being “known”. Knowledge enhances our love for God and strengthens our bond with him.
- g) Desire to be (Querer estar)
These words literally signify a constant and deep desire “to be” with the One whom we love. It is a desire of the will to be “with such a good company” (L 8,vi), it is an unquenchable desire “to be alone with God” (L 8,vi).
- h) Loves Us (Nos ama)
“We love because He first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). Teresa calls God “the Captain of Love” (W 6,ix). In His love God is undivided and all consuming. Therefore, anything short of this type of love can never reach us to God. St. John of the Cross, contemporary of Teresa writes “nothing is obtained from God except by love” (Spiritual Canticle 1,xiii). God always extends His friendship to us: “The Lord is so good a friend to those who are His friends” (W 35,ii). To grow in this friendship “the important thing is not to think much but to love much; do then whatever most arouses to love” (M IV,1,ii).
True love can be generated in us when we become aware of the great deeds God worked for us. “We have our being from God, that He created us from nothing and sustains us and all the other benefits flowing from His death and trials” (L 10,v). “In recalling that it is a gift and that we possess it, we are compelled to love the giver” (L 10,v). “True love of God brings with it every blessing” (L 11,I).
God’s “love for those who love Him is not small” (W 16,x). When we truly become aware of God’s love “it is a beautiful exchange to give our love for His” (W 16,x). His love is pure, and only the “pure in heart shall see God” (Mt 5:8).
Real love for God creates in us intense desire to see Him (cfr. Prov 8:17); makes us run after Him (Is 1:23); and to cleave to Him (Dt 11:22). Since God loves us passionately we too are asked to love Him with the same intensity (cfr. Dt 6:5). Hence, “it is no small blessing and gift for the disciple to see that his Master loves him” (W 26,x). The sublime knowledge of God is obtained in loving communion with Him in prayer. Love is the axis and motor of prayer. Love is the only language God understands. At the evening of life every one of us will be examined only in love and through love.
“Love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). It is love that makes us the temples of God. If any man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and, make our home with him” (Jn 14:23).
Therefore, love is known by experience. Love can neither be inducted nor deducted. Love proves itself in faithfulness. This faithfulness is rooted in being faithful to prayer. Love and prayer radiate faithfulness. St. Paul shows how faithfulness is rooted in love. “That charity may dwell in your heart through faith, that you being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17-19).
Hence, the expression “loves us” (nos ama) carries with it the whole theology of God’s creation and redemption. Prayer reveals to us God’s plan and His design. Moreover, if we really pray we become participants in the work of creation and redemption through His grace. When we pray we pray with the Church. When each one of us is faithful to prayer God’s work of redemption is accomplished in us and begins to bear fruit. We become co-workers with God. “Let us desire and be occupied in prayer not for the sake of our enjoyment but so as to have this strength to serve” (M VII,4,xii). The ultimate purpose of prayer is service, because Christ prayed and served humanity. “This is the reason for prayer, the birth of always of good works, good works” (M VII,4,vi).
God is “fond of friends” (W 35,ii). What remains ultimately in prayer is true friendship and love. Genuine love is the key to integration and unity in us and among ourselves.
So far we have interpreted exegetically the words “tratar de amistad” which is building up of a friendly relationship with God. The essential elements that contribute to such a relationship are ‘exercise’, ‘love’, ‘detachment’ and ‘humility’. These elements serve to maintain and deepen friendly relationship with God. It is also the case with human relationship that is difficult to foster without a virtuous life. However, the greatest difference between human and divine friendship is that divine friendship is always present and is gratuitously given. Moreover, human friendship has always the danger of loosing its intensity due to any trivial factor, whereas divine friendship has no end for its growth, and there is no danger of loosing it unless we ourselves want to lose it. Divine friendship is always a covenantal friendship that keeps all the possibilities open for its growth and progress. As we have understood through the various texts of Teresa, prayer is the only means and goal of this friendship.
- Prerequisites for Growth in Prayer:
Teresa is keen in pointing out certain measures essential for prayer life. She calls them “some things that are necessary for those who seek to follow the way of prayer” (W 4,iii). If we do not possess them “it is impossible to be truly contemplative” (W 4,iii). These ‘some things’ that are an absolute precondition for genuine prayer are: “to love one another”; “detachment from all created things”; and “true humility” (W 4,iv). If these conditions are not fulfilled in our life we who practise prayer “will always be dwarfs” (M VII,4,ix).
- a) Detachment
“Prayer cannot be accompanied by self indulgence” (W 4,ii). For if detachment is practised with perfection it includes everything. Detachment is our willingness to give up any worldly value for the sake of a good of higher order; i.e. performing God’s will. Detachment is a means to freedom from sin and from the disordered inclinations. Therefore, Christ said “whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24), and again to the rich young man “sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come follow me” (Lk 18:22); “there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive an over abundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come” (Lk 18:29-30). All these passages point to the attainment of a higher good at the denial of a lower one. In this context St. Paul says “taking off the old self with its practices of immorality in order to be re-clothed with the new self, renovated in the image of its creator” (Col 3:5; 8-12).
The term ‘detachment’ is expressed through multiple other equivalents, such as abnegation, renunciation, mortification, stripping off of old self, renunciation, self-abandonment, forgetfulness of self, self-sacrifice, humility or spiritual freedom.
For Teresa detachment consists in a very positive attitude of “giving oneself to the All entirely and without reserve” (W 8,i). It is also “withdrawing from everything” so that we might get united with His majesty, because “we are so miserly and slow in giving ourselves entirely to God” (L 11,i). Detachment from worldly things necessarily speeds growth in prayer and prayer helps us to practise detachment in a deeper level.
Writing very profound thoughts regarding detachment Teresa warns the reader not to be self content when one is detached from the external world. This would “resemble some one who very tranquilly lies down after having locked his doors for fear of thieves while allowing the thieves to remain inside the house” (W 10,i). Teresa here targets ‘self complacency’ the biggest enemy of detachment.
The primary way to combat against ‘ourselves’ is to regard “all is vanity” and conclude: “how quickly everything comes to an end” (W 10,ii). In this respect humility can greatly contribute to the practice of detachment because both these virtues go together and are inseparable.
Teresa gives a few practical suggestions regarding detachment, which point at getting rid of our love for the body. Inordinate love for our body and being too conscious of our health can be detrimental to growth in prayer: “a fault this body has is that the more comfort we try to give it, the more needs it discovers. It is amazing how much comfort it wants” (W 11,ii). A serious effort at prayer leads us to die to ourselves and to comforts. However, Teresa is very conscious regarding over indulgence in penances and mortifications in order to control the needs of the body. She writes: “penances without rhythm or reason should be avoided” (W 10,vi).
The cunning devil can trap those who pray seriously in either ways. He can tempt us with heavy penances as a need to attain to genuine prayer so as to lead us astray from discernment. Involving in heavy penances we can also run the risk of falling into grave errors in spiritual life. This makes us even to be afraid of the most simple penance of “the very ordinary things of the rule” (W 10,vi). Consequently “we stop going to choir one day because our head ached, another because it was just now aching, and thrice more so that it won’t ache again” (W 10,vi).
Another form of detachment she suggests is regarding the ‘opinion’ others have of us. Getting opinion from others is a psychological need we have to obtain appreciation, acceptance and honour. Besides the basic psychological need, we could become absolutely victimised by just a few remarks others pass on us. To overcome this attachment to appreciation she suggests that we should obtain a kind of divine freedom and not care whether others say good or evil, rather “think of what is said as though it was another’s affair” (W 15,vi). Thus with God’s help “we grow accustomed to this attitude and remain lords of our bodies” (W 11,v).
Ultimately detachment is a determined attempt at total liberation from all personal egoism and self-indulgence. It is the way of directing our energy towards God in self giving and self-gift. “It is an important matter for beginners in prayer to start off by becoming detached from every kind of satisfaction and to enter the path solely with the determination to help Christ carry the cross like good cavaliers who desire to serve their king at no salary” (L 15,ii). Hence this detachment for the love of Christ must be radical, irrevocable and persevering.
To make progress in prayer detachment is the primary requirement, which liberates us and gives us spiritual freedom. Teresa points to two essential aspects that sustain this effort at detachment, viz. Silence and solitude.
- a) Silence and Solitude
She writes “get used to solitude, it is a great help for prayer” (W 4,ix). Solitude and silence are considered synonyms, yet each has its own effect on prayer. Solitude is a pointer to the unexplored treasures within us. The discovery of great spiritual treasures helps us to hasten our effort at detachment. Solitude provides us a sense of integration and spiritual strength. Through solitude we become fully aware of the sacred within us. Silence is a factor that contributes greatly to the nourishment of the inner spirit. It assists us to face shallowness and superficiality. In silence we get strength to combat distractions and temptations.
Through silence and solitude we can wage war against all kinds of evils that threaten prayer life. These two virtues put us at ease and repose. Spiritual solitude is so clearly linked with prayer that it becomes a strong way of discernment. It is a great help to distinguish between the love of God and love of the world. “This desire for solitude is continually present in souls that truly love God” (F 5,xv), and “to get used to solitude is a great help for prayer” (W 4,ix), because Christ himself loved solitude and “this is what He did when He prayed” (W 24,iv).
True practice of detachment implies surrender to God. For that matter any surrender entails continuous self-giving. It is a self giving of mind to mind, of will to will, of being to being. Surrender has two dimensions. One is a once and for all surrender and the other is a continuous, day by day surrender. Once and for all surrender must be enriched by the day-by-day surrender that ensures growth. This growth in surrender could be regarded as unfolding surrender. Detachment carries with it the essential element of prayer that is surrender. There is no genuine prayer without surrender to the will of God. Prayer is surrender. Therefore, detachment practised for the sake of detachment without the noble desire of surrender to God remains sterile. Hesitant surrender is not surrender at all. Holding back what interests us and detaching ourselves from surplus is not a total surrender to God. Prayer requires wholeness, and total self-gift.
Prayer shapes us according to the will of God through surrender. “Father it is not my will, but yours be done”. God wants us to “withdraw from everything so that His majesty may unite us to Himself here without any hindrance” (W 8,ii).
“The whole aim of any person who is beginning prayer should be that he work and prepare himself with determination and every possible effort to bring his will unto conformity with God’s will” (M II,1,viii). “It is the person who lives in more perfect conformity with God’s will receives more from the Lord and be more advanced on this road of prayer” (M II,1,viii)
“because everything I have advised you about in this book is directed towards the complete gift of ourselves to the Creator, the surrender of our wills to His” (W 32,ix).
- b) Love of Neighbour
For Teresa love of neighbour is the proof for growth in prayer. If we do not have love for our neighbour, however great may be our experience, it is worthless and good for nothing. She dedicates a lot of time for explaining to her disciples the way we can really love our neighbours. Love of neighbour cannot be separated from love of God. Since God is love, we need to love our neighbours who represent God to us.
If our love towards God is to be genuine and lasting it must be manifested in our love towards our neighbour. “The way we came to know love was that He laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers… Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1 Jn 4:16-18). Teresa affirms that “our nature being so evil, I do not believe we should ever attain perfect love for our neighbour unless it has its roots in the love of God” (M V,3,iii). This she calls “spiritual love” (W 7,iv). Spiritual love embraces all trials and every act done with pure intention towards our neighbour. In all her references to God, Teresa takes for granted His generosity, care, providence, patience, forgiveness, intimacy, concern, etc. To love God is to be His friends and from this friendship should flow true love of neighbour: “and if you do not yet love Him as He loves you because you have not reached the degree of conformity with His will” (L 8,v). “For the love of our Lord and for the great love with which He wins us back to Himself, I beg souls to watch out for the occasions” (L 8,x).
- c) Humility
The word ‘humility’ is derived from the Latin ‘humus’ which signifies ‘ground’, ‘soil’. Its significance in the spiritual life is ‘to be lowly’, or ‘being true to self’. In classical Latin the word expresses ‘unimportance’, ‘insignificance’, ‘of lowly birth’, ‘weakness of character’, ‘lack of resources’. Hence, humility was always in reference to slaves, servants and people of low status and character in association with condescension and contempt.
In the OT ‘humble’ is associated or linked with the poor of Yahweh (anawim). These have no resources of their own and submit themselves wholly to the will of God who hears the cry of the poor and the needy. The essence of humility therefore consists in a sense of total dependence on God in gratitude for His goodness.
The NT recommends the need to be humble like little children to gain entry into God’s kingdom (Mk 10:15). The kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit who show forth childlike humility (Mt 5:3). This is all inclusive of the spirit of Christ who invites his disciples to learn from him because He is meek and humble of heart (Mt 11:29). He humbled himself, being obedient to death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:8).
In Christ’s teaching, humility is closely associated with love and service. The humility of Jesus is the model for progress in prayer life. “If I therefore, the master and teacher have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:14-15).
Gregory the great describes humility as “the mistress and mother of all virtues” (Moralia xxiii,13,24). Keeping this affirmation in mind we can link the importance of humility to love of neighbour and detachment which are of no importance if humility is lacking. Hence, love of neighbour and detachment are happily combined in humility. Therefore, all these three virtues greatly contribute to genuine ‘prayer’. Prayer life cannot be strong until it is rooted solidly in detachment, love of neighbour and humility: “for I cannot understand how there could be humility without love or love without humility” (W 16,ii).
Writing on humility Teresa does not dedicate a separate section to it. She combines humility with other topics and therefore we cannot obtain a systematic exposition of this virtue. For her humility and detachment go together (cfr. W 10), they are like two inseparable sisters (W 10,iii).
It is impossible for a humble person not to gain strength in prayer. When we humble ourselves we participate in the life of our Lord Jesus who humbled himself to give us an example (cfr. W 12,vii).
Teresa clearly observes that however advanced we may be in prayer, humility always demands that we should be prepared to go back to the beginnings. “No soul is ever such a giant in this way that it will not need often to turn back to being a baby at the breast and never let this be forgotten; for it is very important and perhaps I shall speak of it more often. There is no state of prayer so exalted that it will not be necessary to return often to the beginnings” (L 13,xv). It is by gazing at God’s grandeur, we get in touch with our own lowliness; by looking at His purity, we shall see our own filth; by pondering His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble” (M I,2,ix). For humility has an excellent feature: when it is present in a work, that work does not leave in the soul a feeling of frustration” (L 12,v).
Teresa makes a direct reference to the question of ‘honour’ and ‘rank’ as deadly and contrary to the spirit of humility. “God deliver us from persons who are concerned about honour while trying to serve Him. Honour itself is lost by desiring it, especially in matters of rank” (W 12,vii). The best remedy to such issues is the practice of humility. “It calls for great humility to be silent at seeing oneself condemned without fault. The truly humble person must in fact desire to be held in little esteem” (W 15,ii); “it is only right that you should try to understand how to train yourselves a great deal in humility; in fact this is an important aspect of prayer and indispensable for all persons who practise it” (W 17,i). True humility consists very much in great readiness to be content with whatever the Lord may want us to do. It is being content with what is received. Hence this attitude of contentment can be obtained only in and through prayer.
Teresa finally makes a synthesis of all the three essential elements required for true prayer and writes: “Humility drew the king from heaven to the womb of the Virgin, and with it, by one hair, we will draw Him to our souls [in prayer]. And realise that the one who has more humility will be the one who possesses Him more; and the one who has less will possess Him less. For I cannot understand how there could be humility without love or love without humility; nor are these two virtues possible without detachment from all creatures” (W 16,ii). However, prayer is the only way again to acquire the above three virtues/elements of prayer: “for meditation is the basis for acquiring all the virtues, and to understand it, is a matter of life and death for all Christians” (W 16,iii). Therefore, “let each one of us consider how much humility we have and he will see how much progress [in prayer] has been made” (W 12,vi).
In the above analysis we have seen love of neighbour, detachment, and humility can contribute to the growth in prayer life. Unless we strive after these virtues we will always be dwarfs (M VII,4,ix) in our prayer life.
The ultimate scope of prayer in Teresa is union with God. The first quality of this exalted union is its completeness. In this type of prayer, which is called prayer of union there is an indescribable fusion into one. There is total possession of each other by the soul and God, and a certain mutual con-penetration. It is a joining of spirit to Spirit, of human love to divine Charity; what is human becomes divine by participation; and the divine Spirit transforms the human spirit, penetrating and beautifying it. Teresa writes:
God has desired to be so joined with the creature that, just as those who are married cannot be separated, He doesn’t want to be separated from the soul [.]. Or it is like what we have when a little stream enters the sea, there is no means of separating the two. Or, like bright light entering a room through two different windows; although the streams of light are separate when entering the room, they become one (M VII,2,iii-iv).
This union is characterised by the intensity and intimacy of its love. In its “extreme interior, in some place very deep within itself” (M VII,1,vii) the soul enjoys the company of the Holy Trinity. The soul has entered into a lively and personal relationship with God in prayer. Probably the most striking effect in this type of prayer is that “God alone and the soul rejoice together in the deepest silence” (M VII,3,xi). Finally, Teresa advises “this is the aim of prayer, my daughters, this is the purpose of spiritual marriage: that it may always give birth to good works, good works” (M VII,4,vi).
The Carmelite Tradition of prayer according to Teresa of Avila is really striking and rich. We know through her life that it was not an easy task for Teresa to arrive at such a height in mystical life through prayer. What we learn from her very life is that, she desired for a life with God that is genuine and authentic. When God saw her good intentions she was led into the divine intimacy.
Her exposition on the doctrine on prayer is simple and lucid. She, writing mainly on ‘mental prayer’ covers the whole range of teaching on prayer, from the point of departure, in meditation, till the point of arrival at Union with God.
Teresa is a model and a living example of prayer. What we have read above is the theoretical explanation of the practical and experiential life of Teresa. Now it is up to us to learn from her to find out how far we have reached in our prayer journey. If we have stopped, we need to look ahead and continue to move forward encouraged by the words of Teresa. If we are tired we need to remind ourselves of the words of Teresa “determined determination” in pursuing prayer. Ultimately what counts, is not the days and years we have spent in prayer, but the way we have grown in love towards God and neighbour. This is the greatest of the commandments that can clearly gauge the depth of our prayer life.
L The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila
W The Way of Perfection
M Mansions (Interior Castle)
F The Book of Foundations
 Kieran Kavanugh and Otillio Rodrigues translate this expression as: “Very resolute determination to persevere”. Its Spanish rendering is “Determinada determinación“.