Saint Teresa of Avila Mental Prayer
By Sister Helena of Mary, O.Carm 2009-02-02
The Carmelite Order celebrates the feast of St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila) October 15th. St. Teresa does not need any introduction. She is famous among the laity and a shining luminary in the Catholic Church. She is one of the three women Doctors of the Church, with St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Catherine of Siena, being the other two. She is known as the Reformer of Carmel, along with St. John of the Cross, and founded the Discalced Order of the Carmelite family. The Teresian reform is not the only reform in Carmel. There were other reforms including the Reform of Touraine in France (17th century) and the Mantuan reform in Italy, which effected many changes in the Order. But St. Teresa’s reform was the most well known partly because of her own charismatic personality and widespread influence. She was a very influential woman of her day and collaborated with powerful people .
She wrote books dealing with her Life and Prayer. To mention some of her famous works: The Life (autobiographical), The Way of Perfection (written for her Nuns) and The Interior Castle (on Prayer).
I got to know St. Teresa in 1984 after I graduated from College. I accidentally found a Carmelite Monastery on my way home and met the nuns there. That was the turning point for me because I ended up joining them in the cloister. I left the cloister since then to join an active Carmelite community but its influence on me is deep and the lessons I learned stayed with me. In our cell in the cloister, there were only two books allowed for postulants and novices to read: Works of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross. We called them Our Holy Parents. Our reading of them was not scholarly and critical but mostly meditative and contemplative. St. John’s works are deep and mystical and needed elaboration by the Novice Mistress, St. Teresa’s was confusing because of her disorganized presentation. But somehow both were nourishing and their counsels served as food for mental prayer.
My favorite reading is her Way of Perfection . It deals with the subject of prayer. I also like The Interior Castle when I am trying to analyze what mansion I may be in! Although the Way of Perfection was written for her nuns and is tailored to those living a solely contemplative lifestyle, one can use her counsels in this book to know about prayer and how to grow in the life of prayer. She summarized three preconditions for a life of prayer: Humility, Detachment and Charity. The entire book expounds on these three criteria.
One subject St. Teresa persistently wrote was how to pray . In her own life, she had a terrible time praying, to be specific 18 years, of not being able to pray. In her autobiography, she stated that she needed the security of a book to get her focused. Even though most of the time she did not read the book, she needed the security of having it with her for reassurrance. Because of her personal difficulties in praying, she is able to explain to us through her writings difficulties we ourselves often experience. She is very insistent about imagining Christ in His humanity. She imagined him in those moments when he was most alone because she figured she will not be turned away when he is so abandoned.
I thought of presenting a little of her thoughts on Mental Prayer or meditation. I used the article presented by Fr. Sam Anthony Morello OCD “Lectio Divina and the Practice of Teresian Prayer” by ICS Publications.
Lectio Divina (or divine reading) is not particularly exclusive to Saint Teresa of Avila. It is an old form of monastic prayer used throughout many centuries. It is a monastic designation for meditative reading of the Scriptures. According to Fr. Morello’s book, there are four steps to lectio divina:
1. Lectio: Meaning “reading”, understood as the careful repetitious recitation of a short text of Scripture.
2. Meditatio: Meaning “meditation”, an effort to understand the meaning of the text and make it personally relevant to oneself.
3. Oratio: Meaning “prayer”, a personal response to the text, asking for the grace of the text.
4. Contemplatio: Meaning “contemplation.” It is gazing at length on something. The idea behind this element is that sometimes with God’s infused grace, one is elevated beyond meditation to an experiential contact with the divine presence, to God’s truth and benevolence.
Applying the Teresian flavor to the basic elements of lectio divina, we come to the following exercise:
1. Teresa’s “lectio” Reading the Word of God with Teresa
She counsels that when we start to pray, we must be aware of the following: who it is who is praying (we are creatures), who it is we are praying to (God), what we are praying for.
Attentiveness to what one is doing and saying is the first of Teresa’s advice.
2. Teresa’s “meditatio” -meditating with Teresa.
Saint Teresa counsels that one aid to prayer is to find a companion at prayer. She is referring to taking Christ as our companion in prayer. Whether one imagines Christ within oneself or before the Blessed Sacrament (although Jesus’ presence in the Blessed Sacrament is not imagined but a reality), or in the image of the crucifix. She teaches us to think of God as very near to us or as within us, dwelling in our depths. With Teresa we go where God is. Her advice is to locate God according to one’s inclinations. There is no one way we ought to pray. We pray as we can, not as we ought. Teresa also wants us to ‘think” of Christ. We address ourselves to him, or we try to “hear” his words in Scriptures addressed to us.
3. Teresa’s “Oratio” Prayerful expression with Teresa.
Teresa’s prayer is full of affectionate expression to Christ. It is the prayer that comes out of a heart that begins to be filled with love. The heart can express itself in a million ways. But here we implement the Teresian principle of making Christ the object of that prayer. You can utter words that come spontaneously to you. This is the part where prayer becomes a conversation.
4. Teresa’s “Contemplatio” Contemplating with Teresa.
After going through the steps of reading the text to feed the mind, meditating on the meaning of the text to move the heart and praying the words or other emotions that come to heart. Teresa describes a state of “resting” in the Lord. A new recollection of the soul, in its innermost core, is experienced. With Teresa, we rest in the presence and take a holiday from the work of meditation.
The fruits of contemplation for Teresa is shown in the growth of virtues. For her, the virtues are the flowers in the garden of the soul.
We have explained in summary the exercise of mental prayer according to Saint Teresa of Avila. We should endeavor to learn this exercise of mental prayer for our growth in the spiritual life.
We begin her novena tomorrow, October 6th, with the following short daily prayer:
“God our Father, by Your Spirit you raised up Saint Teresa of Jesus to show your Church the way to perfection. May her inspired teaching awaken in us a longing for true holiness. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen”