Theresa of Avila, lost in translation
Today, I received this question from a friend:
“I am currently reading St Teresa of Avila’s book, “Interior Castle”. In Chapter I of the First Mansions she states “As far as I can understand, the door of entry into this castle is prayer and meditation: I do not say mental prayer rather than vocal, for, if it is prayer at all, it must be accompanied by meditation.” Now when I am set aside time each morning and evening to practice “prayer of the heart”, I just offer up my heart to the surface of the water as you said. I am not sure where meditation fits in here.”
First of all, let me clarify Saint Theresa’s text my friend is quoting. I will put it as literal as possible, putting between parenthesis the Spanish words s. Theresa is using, and adding one or two sentences to it:
“7. As far as I can understand, the door of entry into this Castle is prayer (“oración”) and meditation (“consideración”): I do not say mental (prayer) rather than vocal, for, if it is prayer (oración) at all, it must be accompanied by meditation (consideración). [Here is what is “condiseration” for Saint Theresa:] If a person does not think Whom he is addressing, and what he is asking for, and who it is that is asking and of Whom he is asking it, I do not consider that he is praying at all even though he be constantly moving his lips.”
“Consideration” says the Thesaurus is: “the process of using your mind to consider something carefully”. The translator (E. Allison Peers) didn’t choose to translate “consideración” by consideration. He preferred to put: “meditation”. I, humbly, consider that as a misleading error for two reasons:
1- Theresa of Avila does use “meditación” in other places, so if she wanted here to use “meditación” she would have used it. This confuses the reader and the sense of the text.
2- “condiseración” for Theresa is a very important word. She draws the word and its meaning from the movement of the Recogidos, that preceded her (end of the 15th Century), and taught people in Spain how to pray with all our being and not just by repeating words. “condiseración”, by no means could be equal to “meditation”. “Meditation”, at Theresa’s time, is mainly to think about something, and to go from an idea to the other (it is mainly a mind activity). While, as she explains it, “condiseración” is exactly what it still means in English today, as well: to stare, to focus our attention on somebody. It is more the “language of the heart” I would say. While “meditation” is mainly the “language of the mind”. I hope you’ll notice the nuance I put: “mainly” repeated twice, here and there. And remember, I am commenting on the meaning of the word in the time of Theresa.
Let me now translate the passage. My friend used “prayer of the heart” for “mental prayer”, o simply “prayer” or “oracion”. I will keep “prayer of the heart” for “mental prayer” (“mental” here alludes to “mens” which is not the mind but the highest point in the sould) . It becomes like this:
“7. As far as I can understand, the door of entry into this Castle is the prayer of the heart and gazing (focusing with our heart): I do not say silent prayer of the heart rather than vocal, for, if it is prayer at all, it must be accompanied by the attention to God with our heart. Here is what I mean by attention that accompanies any prayer and makes it a “prayer of the heart”: If a person does not think Whom he is addressing, and what he is asking for, and who it is that is asking and of Whom he is asking it, I do not consider that he is praying at all even though he be constantly moving his lips.”
One last observation: Of course one can easily admit that the weight Theresa is putting upon “consideration” is big. Remember, with the First Mansion of the Castle, she is only at the entrance of the Castle. Even if she is speaking to her sisters, the nuns of saint Joseph Monastery, she knows that she is addressing the beginner; therefore, in order to start “the prayer of the heart process” she is using the same tools that worked for her: when she discovered deeper prayer (the only prayer in the end of the day), it was because of the books she was reading, books that were speaking about how to recollect our thoughts, our sense, inside, gazing, considering, looking at Jesus dwelling in us.
If I don’t start by “looking at” Jesus, considering who is Jesus for me, and changing my attitude, I won’t even be able to “enter” deep prayer life… prayer of the heart wont happen.
If in my teaching I do not stop that much on these acts: “gazing”, “focusing”, “considering Who I am in the presence of”, it is not that I dismiss them, it is only that I take them for granted. Obviously.
So, I can reply to my friend saying: you might just simply admit that “consideration” is part of the “prayer of the heart”. You don’t have to do anything more. Because if you start to “meditate” as the translation of A. Peers seems to convey, you’ll use your brain/mind, and, in this case, you might come out of the deeper prayer, the “prayer of the heart”, in which you already gave your heart to God, and you don’t need anything more.
This is why, to discipline our mind, I suggest to do lectio divina, and never pure meditation (which would be just a reflection on a text). It is much better than mere “meditation” (in the sense of using your brain).
It is obvious that today’s meaning of “meditation” encompasses a great deal of acts; many are deep (involving silence and the heart) and the majority are nowadays what I would call religious (not necessarily involving creed and religion). But this shift in the signification is the result of the eastern religions influence. One can see the shift in the Thesaurus; it is offering two meanings:
1- continuous and profound contemplation or musing on a subject or series of subjects of a deep or abstruse nature; “the habit of meditation is the basis for all real knowledge”
2- (religion) contemplation of spiritual matters (usually on religious or philosophical subjects)
Initially, historically, in the west, the first meaning was not specifically philosophical (“meditations de Descartes”), it was mainly religious (the western Christian monks did have the “meditatio”, meditation).
One last observation: the milieu of Theresa of Avila created a false problem by opposing “vocal prayer” (Mass, Divine office, Rosary, and any audible prayer) with “silent meditative prayer” (the prayer of the heart).
While Theresa will spend all her life trying to explain that any “oral” prayer (with audible sound) should have the inner component added to it, in order for it to be “real prayer”. The inner side of any prayer (this inner side appears very clearly in the “prayer of the heart”) establishes the contact with God, and without this contact, we might be praying exteriorly (making sounds, “moving our lips” as Theresa says) but internally we are not connected.
I hope this helps to become aware that “praying” by moving our lips or thoughts is not enough: the heart (and the inner consideration) should be there.