Sister Gabriella Yi, O.P.
1. Analysis of The Way of Perfection, Ch. 26, 28-31
Beginning to Pray (Ch. 26)
Prayer of Recollection (Ch. 28-29)
Prayer of Quiet (Ch. 30-31)
2. Synthesis of St. Teresa’s Teaching on the Prayer of the Heart
What is prayer? Is it only saying certain prayers, like the “Our Father,” the “Hail Mary,” and the “Glory Be”? Unfortunately, for many of us cradle Catholics, all we were ever taught about prayer is learning to “say our prayers.” While these prayers, in themselves, are far from meaningless, they become in practice meaningless when we pray them automatically, without even thinking about what we are saying and to whom we are saying them. This is precisely St. Teresa of Avila’s concern in The Way of Perfection. Although she is not dismissing vocal prayer in itself, she is challenging the way it is practiced unthinkingly, as a shell of an act. Too often, we discard the fruit and try to content ourselves with the rind. Is it any wonder, then, if we find prayer dry and meaningless? Is it also any wonder that so many Catholics are drawn to mysticism in other spiritualities? They leave because they were never taught the mystical tradition of prayer in the Church, of which St. Teresa is one of the masters. So let us turn to her now to learn how to enter into the Prayer of the Heart that unites us with our God. In the first part of this paper we will look at the chapters in The Way of Perfection in which St. Teresa gives specific instructions on this prayer. In the second part, we will offer a brief synthesis of her teaching.
- Analysis of The Way of Perfection, Ch. 26, 28-31
Beginning to Pray (Ch. 26)
In this chapter of The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa begins to explain how to enter into deep prayer. First, she says to make an “examination of conscience, confession of sin and the signing of yourself with the Cross.” On the one hand, St. Teresa does not skip over these because deepening our relationship with God presupposes removal of offenses against him. On the other hand, she does not spend a lot of time on them because they are preliminary considerations for prayer. Besides, catechesis on confession is usually more developed than catechesis on prayer.
Then St. Teresa advises us to look for a companion in our prayer, the best of whom is, of course, Our Lord Jesus. She proposes imagining him at our side, teaching us how to pray. This use of the imagination is a helpful means of realizing his real, though invisible, presence with us. Yet it is not enough to imagine him by our side, we must also look at him present within our soul. St. Teresa emphasizes the importance of looking at him. She points out that if we can stand to look at all kinds of ugly things in the world, how could we resist looking at the most beautiful sight of all? She uses very persuasive language to move her sisters to do this: “Your Spouse never takes his eyes off you, daughters.” Moreover, she recommends using a picture of Jesus and a good spiritual reading book to help us with this recollection.
Prayer of Recollection (Ch. 28-29)
In chapters 28 and 29, St. Teresa explains the Prayer of Recollection in greater detail. This recollection begins with recognizing where God is. We have a tendency to think of heaven, and therefore also of God, as being far away, but St. Teresa points out that heaven is wherever God is. If God is everywhere, including in our soul, then we need look no further than within ourselves to find him. Recognizing this fundamental truth is the key to recollection. St. Teresa uses beautiful imagery to convince us of this. She suggests imagining our soul as an exquisite palace adorned with precious stones. It is within such a palace that Our Lord dwells, “seated upon a throne of supreme price—namely, your heart.” She says that remembering this would make it “impossible for us to abandon ourselves to vanities and things of the world, for we should see how worthless they are by comparison with those which we have within us.”
Regarding the question of how we ought to comport ourselves in the presence of so great a guest, St. Teresa cautions against two extremes. One is falling into the error of thinking that God is faraway and so indulging distractions during prayer which she likens to turning our backs to him precisely while speaking to him. This is remedied by remembering how very close he is, so close, in fact, that we need not raise our voices to be heard by him. The second error that we can fall into is that of being so abashed at his greatness that we avoid him, thinking that we are being humble. St. Teresa, in her incisive way, identifies this as being nothing but a false humility, by using the illustration of a king paying us a personal visit. To avoid him, refuse his gifts, and hide in our room is not humility, but rudeness. So she exhorts us to be no less gracious to the Lord of our soul. She encourages us to address him as trustingly as we would “a Father, a Brother, a Lord and a Spouse—and, sometimes in one way and sometimes in another . . . .”
Our ability to attend to God’s presence within us will be facilitated by recollecting our outward senses. This can be achieved simply by closing our eyes. St. Teresa says in withdrawing her senses from outward things, “the soul’s spiritual sight becomes clear.” By cultivating this habit of recollection, the soul and the will are given power over the senses.
St. Teresa emphasizes that this Prayer of Recollection is fully within our control; we are entirely free to enter it or not. If we choose to enter this state by recollecting our senses and attending to God’s presence within us, this necessarily entails a movement, a turning away from the world of sense, to the palace within our soul. St. Teresa insists that God “does not give himself wholly until He sees that we are giving ourselves wholly to him.” This is because he respects our freedom and will not violate it. Thus, union with God requires a movement on our part to give our hearts to him.
Prayer of Quiet (Ch. 30-31)
Once we have done our part to recollect ourselves and to give ourselves to the Lord, he takes us at our word and give us the Prayer of Quiet. This is a supernatural state and is thus beyond our control. It is a pure gift that we “can only receive . . . with thanksgiving.” Thus it is God who is active and we who are passive during this prayer. St. Teresa’s description of the effects of this prayer is summarized on the following chart:
|-at peace||-in captivity||-free||-free||-rests|
|-very close to God||-united with||-no desire to busy itself with more||-tries to occupy itself with one thing||-greatest delight|
|-deep satisfaction||God||-thoughts come and go||-no wish to move|
|-overwhelmed by joy and delight||-simply loves||-can utter a single word|
This chart helps to bring what St. Teresa is describing about the effects of the Prayer of Quiet into greater clarity. First of all, she speaks of the soul as being at peace, being very close to God, “conscious of a deep satisfaction,” and being overwhelmed by joy and delight. The faculties of the soul are stilled, namely the will, the memory, and the mind. The will is in captivity, is united with God, and simply loves. The other two faculties, the memory and the mind, try to remain still, but because they are still free at this stage, they remain conscious and do wander. This, however, does not prevent the soul from remaining in the Prayer of Quiet unless she wills to be distracted. In other words, passive distractions are inevitable, but do not pose a difficulty unless they are actively willed. The body is at rest, “experiences the greatest delight,” “does not wish to move” or even speak, but can utter a single word to remain in this state.
2. Synthesis of St. Teresa’s teaching on the Prayer of the Heart
What St. Teresa explains using two different terms, Prayer of Recollection and Prayer of Quiet, are two aspects of what we are calling the Prayer of the Heart. The following is a synthesis of her teaching according to three key concepts: relationship, recollection, and receptivity.
When we consider what is most important to us in life, most of us will unfailingly say that it is our relationships with those whom we love. As children, what relationship means more to us than that we have with our parents? As adults, our primary relationships are with our spouse and our children. Reflecting on the centrality of relationships in our lives and how they are nurtured will help us to recognize the most important relationship of all: our relationship with God. As St. Teresa of Avila points out, when we stop communicating with someone, he or she becomes a stranger to us. In the same way, how can we expect to be in close relationship with God if we never communicate with him? So regular communication is key to building up our relationship with God.
Nurturing any relationship requires time and attention. For many of us in religious life, the time for prayer is built into our day. Unfortunately, the essential element that is lacking is attention. Hence St. Teresa’s emphasis on recollection. This recollection depends on the conviction that God is really and truly present within our soul and not far away. St. Teresa invites us to use our imagination in a number of ways to foster this recollection. She suggests imagining the Lord at our side teaching us how to pray, picturing him in agony and in glory, imagining our souls as a beautiful palace within which he is seated on the throne of our hearts. Recollection is also aided by the use of images, books, silence, and solitude. All of these things remove the obstacles to union. This proper use of our imagination is very much in keeping with the incarnational dimension of our Catholic faith.
Now that all of the obstacles have been removed, the bride is ready to receive her groom. He will not take her by force but waits for her to give herself freely. This giving of herself is in itself a response. It is not so much at her initiative, but his. God seeks our heart with all his heart, but awaits our free response as it is only in freedom that one can love and be loved.
To return to our opening question, we see that there is nothing wrong with saying certain prayers as long as we think about what we are saying and to whom we are saying it. This is because prayer is not just a duty or a relaxation technique, it is communion with the Beloved. Not only consecrated women, but all Christians have been wedded to Christ in baptism, yet they live as strangers with the Spouse of their soul. It is this tragic situation that St. Teresa of Avila tries to remedy with her treatise on prayer. Her teaching consists of two main parts: the Prayer of Recollection and the Prayer of Quiet. The Prayer of Recollection is the effort we make to recollect ourselves by turning away from the exterior world to turn toward the Spouse of our soul who dwells within us. This requires a movement of the heart, a giving of one’s self to him. Once we do this, God gives himself to us in the Prayer of Quiet. Together, these two aspects form the Prayer of the Heart. It is as though if we only make the effort to turn towards our Spouse, he is only too happy to sweep us off our feet. Such an experience of heaven on earth is the deepest longing of our hearts, and wholly ours if we would only surrender ourselves to his embrace.
St. Teresa of Avila. The Way of Perfection. Translated and edited by E. Allison Peers. From the Critical Edition of P. Silverio de Santa Teresa, C.D. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1964.
 St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, trans. E. Allison Peers (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1964) 173. All subsequent references in this paper will be to this text.