In her teaching on the Prayer of the Heart, in Chapter 14, paragraph 6, St. Teresa says something really striking:
For many purposes it is necessary to be learned; and it would be very useful to have some learning here, in order to explain what is meant by general or particular help (for there are many who do not know this) and how it is now the Lord’s will that the soul should see this particular help (as they say) with its own eyes; and learning would also serve to explain many other things about which mistakes may be made. (Life 14,6; see as well 3Mansions 1,2; 5Mansions 2,3)
She will then explain that in order to practise the “prayer of recollection” we need to use the “general help of the Grace of God” that is being constantly given to us. And in the “Prayer of Quiet”, we receive the “particular help of the Grace of God” that is supernatural (4Mansions 1,1) i.e. infused (given freely).
The essence of what St. Teresa wants to say, in other words, is that by not knowing the difference between the ‘General help of the Grace of God’ and the ‘Particular help’ of it, people fail to gain many graces and do not progress in their spiritual life! What surprises the reader is that while on the one hand it is a bold statement, St. Teresa on the other hand does not seem to stop and explain this vitally important distinction. It is true that superficially this statement and apparent lack of explanation is somewhat puzzling. But the more one studies St. Teresa in depth and applies this distinction in its entirety, the more one starts to notice that in fact she does explain this golden difference, an explanation that will shed a great light on the issue of “contemplation”.
Note: It must be remembered that last century, during the renewal in Spiritual Theology, a huge debate arose on the nature of Contemplation: on the one hand one group said that contemplation was acquired (through our own efforts) while on the other hand another group said that it was infused (given only by God, when He wants, the way He wants, to whom He wants). The two groups fought fiercely, through the medium of journals, and the fight ended in the late 1940s early 1950s not out of having found a clear practical answer to the question but through the sheer exhaustion of the fighters. This was a sad day for the Church because we still yearn for a clear, substantial and practical definition of Contemplation; it is so essential for the Church’s life. This is why Teresa of Avila is of the utmost importance.
In fact all her teaching on the Prayer of the Heart rests on the knowledge of those two modes of functioning of the Grace of God. This distinction between the ‘general’ and the ‘particular’ help of the Grace of God is simply decisive. In this light, then, what St. Teresa of Avila calls in her writings ‘Prayer of Recollection’ is in fact the best way to ‘use’ the ‘general help of the grace of God.’ This effort of recollecting ourselves will immediately invite a reply from God. These replies will vary in intensity and depth, but all of them (‘supernatural recollection’, ‘prayer of quiet’, ‘prayer of union’, ‘ecstasy’,…) are different forms of the action of the ‘particular help of the grace of God’ in us.
In fact, the teaching on the Prayer of the Heart that she offers is an illustration of the practical aspect of this great truth and distinction in the Theology of Grace.
It has to be recognised that we desperately need this practical teaching, presented in an scholarly way.
A simple example to explain it will suffice. In the Gospel, a fundamental requirement for holiness is to receive the Holy Spirit. He is the third Person of the Trinity, and to receive Him and be guided by Him is a basic necessity. Even more than this is the fact that He is the One who, par excellence, incarnates Jesus in us. He first incarnated Jesus in Mary, true, but subsequently, day after day, He incarnates Jesus, step by step, in us! Indeed, Christ invites us to ask for the Holy Spirit. He even explains to us that praying the Our Father is equivalent to asking this of the Holy Spirit (see Luke 11:13 as a continuation and explanation of the Our Father).
Practising the Prayer of the Heart with this in mind creates an appropriate inner ‘space’ , in order to receive the Holy Spirit and to expose ourselves to His purifying and transformative action. This action of the Holy Spirit in us is what Theology calls ‘the particular help of the Grace of God’. More significantly, this action is the direct and personal action of the Holy Spirit within us, – a sanctifying action. We need this action of the Holy Spirit and Christ invites us to ask for it all the time: ask, and it will be given to you (Luke 11:9).
We believe that any action and movement by the individual towards God is also a Grace. But there are various forms of the Grace of God. Asking for the Holy Spirit itself requires a grace (please see St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II Q.109 a. 6). It constitutes a preparation for this Grace, or if you prefer it is a ‘cry’ for the Grace to come.
The next question to address, then, is the difference between the grace that prepares us (that helps us to ask for the Holy Spirit) and the Holy Spirit himself (the ‘particular help of the Grace of God’)? The difference is enormous and it solicits our free will:
If we start at the beginning we see that the general help of the Grace of God is always present in us, always offered by God to us and is constantly in us waiting for us to use, and if we fail to make use of it nothing supernatural will take place in us as a result. It could be compared to the blood coursing through the veins in our muscles! The blood is present in them, given to them, but it depends on us to activate our muscles! There is no need to ask God to give us the ‘general help of his grace’, we only need to humbly acknowledge its presence within us! It is there, constantly given, constantly available, within a hand’s reach! This is why we see in St Teresa’s explanation of what she calls the ‘Prayer of Recollection’ (see chapters 26, 28 and 29 of Way of Perfection) her enormous insistence on the fact of deciding ourselves, with determination, to start to practise the Prayer of the Heart with recollection definitively playing a regular part when doing so, until it becomes a new habit in us. When we do our part, we do it with the ‘general help of the Grace of God’. It must be recognised that St. Teresa insists very much on repeating the acts of recollection so that it becomes a new habit in us, because she inherently knows (and states it) that it is given to us and that it is the will of God that we practise it.
The immediate effect of this is to make it seem as if we are getting closer to a friend who is extending his hand, waiting for ours to shake. This is what God does: his hand is constantly extended, waiting for us to use the ‘general help of his Grace’, present in our soul, waiting for us also to extend our hand and to express to Him our desire and choice. God stands at the door of our freedom. He never forces the door, never violates our freedom, the handle of the door being on our side alone. Rather, He awaits patiently to see us express our choice by an act: He waits to see our hand reach the mid-distance in order to take it in his! Extending our hand towards Him, putting our hand (our will, our freedom, our life, our heart) in his, then, is an act that leans on the ‘general help of the Grace of God’ and without this act, normally there is no meeting between God and us.
One of the main reasons for the existence of a teaching on ‘Mental Prayer’ is to show the individual the part that is his in order for the meeting (communication) with Christ-God to take place! God respects our freedom and awaits at the door of our freewill: Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. (Revelation 3:20) This is the reason for the Lord often insisting on the necessity of ‘asking’, ‘seeking’, ‘knocking’ at God’s door, simply because He respects our freedom and waits for us to express it by the offering of ourselves to Him, by our asking, insisting, being determined to be present to Him, offering ourselves entirely into His Hands! If this is not the case and we do not move towards him, He will stand still and will continue to wait! He will not invade our personal space in order to grab our hand and shake it! No, this is not God’s way.
This is why we are often warned and advised by St Teresa to be acutely aware of this!
So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.
Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him? (Luke 11 :9-13)
Our way of expressing this would be: ‘Ask [for the Holy Spirit] and [He] will be given to you’, as if the Lord is saying to us: ‘use the ‘general help of my Grace’, that is constantly given to you in order to ‘ask’ of Me. I can’t force you, I need to see your decision and choice first. Then I will be able to give you my Gift, the Holy Spirit, my direct and personal action in order to transform you.’
It is significant to note that ‘asking’, which means to use the ‘general help’, is in fact something that implies involving all our being! When the blind man of the Gospel, seated on the side of the road, asks the Lord to heal him so he will be able see, he was not wasting his time, doubting, or closing himself to the action of the Holy Spirit! On the contrary, he was doing it with all his being, all his strength! It was a matter of life and death for him. It was he, it must be recognised, who so well expressed his desire and signified his will.
To sum up then, it can be seen that the whole structure of our relationship with God, during our prayer time but even throughout the day, leans on the distinction of these two types of Graces. It must also be noted that the one type is Grace par excellence, while the other prepares us for it, opens us to it and draws us toward it. In like manner, God’s Hand takes ours and shakes it! The Supernatural movement of God is activated and the intervention of the Holy Spirit takes place. Without this occurring there is no real prayer, no real contact with God! Without it, dealing with God is like dealing with a very remote Being, from far away! By great contrast, when the Holy Spirit gives Himself to us (and this should happen every day), contact with God takes place and what we live belongs really to another realm, a new world, totally designed by God.