It is an essential part of the Mission given by God to St Teresa to teach us how to practise the Prayer of the Heart. In truth she can be considered to be a major Prophet. Admittedly she is not the first one in history to do this, but, by an exceptional grace, God wanted her to leave a legacy greater in breadth and depth that would impact on the Church at a very critical moment in its history. In fact, when the Protestant Reformation claimed that each person needs to have a direct personal relationship with God, the Lord sent this great Prophet to the Church to show us the orthodox and therefore fuller way to have it. In every sense she embodies the perfect way to have a personal relationship with Jesus. She takes her time in her books (Autobiography, Way of Perfection, Interior Castle) to explain to us in a very practical, flexible and accessible way how to practise the Prayer of the Heart, indicating what happens, how we feel it, and how we can discern it. It will be of great benefit, now, to explore her precious teaching and learn from her how to practise the Prayer of the Heart.
St Teresa learned how to practise the Prayer of the Heart by reading some well-known authors of her time especially Francisco de Osuna (1497 – c. 1540), on his Third Spiritual Alphabet. In particular his explanation of the word ‘recollection’ was of great help. It might be useful, here, to recall what we emphasized in earlier chapters, that she had to be determined to give everything to Christ, to become totally his, in order to give a solid foundation to her prayer life so that the Prayer of the Heart would commence bearing fruit. It is worth remembering that before her conversion, she practised only intermittently what Francisco de Osuna described on how to recollect oneself. It is also helpful to reiterate here that the foundations of the Prayer of the Heart are laid, first, when there is a call from Christ to follow Him from close proximity, followed by an inflow of the Grace of the Holy Spirit, the total and determined gift of oneself, and lastly especially by the determination to follow Him, unconditionally and selflessly. The Prayer of the Heart is not a relaxation technique, a form of entertainment, or a quest of any kind! It does not occur just out of our pure initiative, it happens in a very precise context, the context of a relationship that starts with Christ, where we put our hand into His Hands, in order to walk with Him and follow Him. St Teresa teaches us that the Prayer of the Heart is a love encounter with Christ where we are immersed in Him, where He pours into us his Love, the very essence of the Holy Spirit. We can add without fear of betraying her teaching (see end of Way of Perfection) that the Prayer of the Heart is the extension of our most recent Communion, the ‘digestive’ process that comes with it! It is a substantial meal where the human being is fed, mostly in the very depths of his heart! What is more to the point, however, is that the effects of this food appear quite rapidly!
What now has to be considered is when to practise contemplative prayer. This covers the material aspect of the practice in space and time. According to St Teresa, we can practise the Prayer of the Heart in two forms: first, by dedicating to it short moments during the day, as if to nourish and sustain ourselves during the journey, and secondly, by choosing to dedicate one or two specific moments during the day for longer practice. As we know, St Teresa established the rule that her reformed nuns would practise one entire hour of Prayer of the Heart in the morning and another hour in the late afternoon.
The next consideration encompasses the method to be used. In her book, the Way of Perfection, in chapters 26, 28 through to 31, St Teresa offers her best description of ‘how to practise the Prayer of the Heart’. But an important point must first be clarified. As we underlined in the previous chapters, the grace of God is offered to us in two different ways: first, through general ordinary help, and secondly, through personal and direct Grace. The journey of our heart (our very being) until it is immersed in the furnace of Christ’s Love is then divided into two parts: the first part depends on us, when St Teresa invites us to activate and use the general help of the grace of God, but then she tells us that the second part is simply the free response from God.
God, it is to be remembered, is at the door of our being, He never violates our freedom and never forces us to enter into HIm. On the contrary, Almighty God waits for us to give ourselves to Him. If we offer ourselves to Him, if we entrust ourselves into his hands, if we throw ourselves into his very arms, his response will be immediate and He will possess us and we will be immersed in Him while his Holy Spirit is poured into us. As we have seen, according to St Teresa the process entails two ‘steps’ which she calls ‘Prayer of Recollection’ and ‘Prayer of Quiet’. The first one is realised when we give ourselves to Him, thereby expressing our choice to Him, and the second one, in response to the gift of ourselves to Him, occurs when He gives himself to us, namely, when we are immersed in Him. In the Prayer of the Heart both of them are inseparable.
As will be noted, consequently, when reading St Teresa’s writings two expressions stand out sharply when delineating these parts of the journey: ‘Prayer of Recollection’ and ‘Prayer of Quiet’. One could be tempted to think that these are two consecutive stages and ways of practising the Prayer of the Heart. A beginner for instance, would be forgiven for thinking one would start with the practice of the ‘Prayer of Recollection’ and subsequently after a few months or even one or two years, according to God’s will, he or she would then be moved on by God toward a more supernatural prayer, that is, ‘Supernatural Recollection’ or in fact right into the ‘Prayer of Quiet’. This vision entailing successive sections is erroneous. The ‘Prayer of Recollection’ and the ‘Prayer of Quiet’ are two halves of one and only one fruit: the complete act of the Prayer of the Heart.
God’s Desire to Give of Himself
It is a fact, however, that commentators are often misled and are even induced into thinking that these are successive stages. The reason is based on a partial understanding of the Supernatural, that is, the Theology of Grace. Theology is extremely firm that God gives himself to whom He wants, when He wants and in the way chosen by Him. However, the freedom of God the Giver of the Grace of God is but part of the Theology of Grace. The other more significant part that is not always taken into consideration, is the desire in God himself and his thirst to give himself to us. Indeed, God has an overwhelming thirst to give himself to us! The saints tell us, indeed, and from experience, about this all-consuming desire. Therefore it is imperative that the two aspects of the unequivocal truth on the Theology of Grace be joined to understand that if we offer ourselves to God, He will never delay in coming to possess us and pour his grace into us. When using the general help of His Grace we clarify our availability to God, and in turn He does not coldly stand back watching and waiting, detached and inactive. According to the knowledge of the saints – St.John of the Cross, St.Therese of Lisieux to name but a few – this is definitely not the real God. He is thirsty, He IS Thirst itself, and we are the water that can quench this great thirst. Therefore if we practise the Prayer of Recollection (Way of Perfection chapters 26, 28-29), his reply is immediately offering us the first stages of his supernatural action, mostly the Prayer of Quiet, where the in-dwelling of God commences. (Way of perfection, Chapters 30-31).
Theology of Grace
The following explanation deals with a delicate matter concerning the Theology of Grace and its interpretation, but it should be understood by everyone in order to understand what God really desires of us and how we are to implement this desire in order to grow steadily in the Spiritual Life.
When we say that ‘God gives himself ‘the way He wants, when He wants to whom He wants’, this sounds very incomplete because it gives the impression that God, for some unfathomable and mysterious reason, or simply for the sake of safeguarding his total freedom, acts strangely, and and has no real desire to communicate with on a regular basis. It also gives the impression that the Grace of God is like a delicacy which He is in two minds about imparting to us. This is definitively not the case. Herein, lies the crux of the matter from which huge confusion results.
In order to clarify the matter, let us first of all state that no-one challenges the freedom of God, no-one interferes in his decisions. But it must not be forgotten that He died for us and this in itself reveals the insatiable thirst He has to give himself to us, all of us, all the time and abundantly. It is impossible to endure what He did for each one of us, as evinced by his sufferings, Passion, Death, without his being totally committed to love of us and without being consumed by his Thirst for us. Otherwise this would seem to contradict the received belief. Given this, then, wherein lies the difficulty? Two incorrect assumptions cause this difficulty to arise. First, the thirst of God is not clearly perceived, nor is his constancy in wanting to give himself to all of us, all the time and abundantly. Secondly, there is confusion between the perception of the Grace of God (which falls into the soul and or the body, being an extra and optional ‘crumb’ from the divine table), and the Grace itself (that is uncreated and communicated to our supra-conscious spirit, but imperceptible to the conscious soul and body).
A significant question now presents itself: why does God not give the ‘perception of the Grace’ with the Grace itself? The answer is important for it illustrates that the beginner tends to confuse the perception of it with the uncreated Grace itself and, as a consequence, will easily idolise the ‘perception’, and deviate from Faith, going astray from the True God. It is only faith that leads to the real Uncreated God.
As a conclusion, we can say that the truth that ‘God gives himself the way He wants, when He wants to whom He wants’ would generally apply not to the core of the grace – the condition, as we have seen, being the gift of oneself – but to the perception of the grace of God. Thus a fairer evaluation would be to say: ‘God gives the perception of his grace in the soul/body the way He wants, when He wants to whom He wants’.
Theology of Grace and St Teresa
A brief aside is indicated here to clarify some points St. Teresa makes on the Theology of Grace. When St Teresa of Avila reminds us what theology says concerning the freedom of God to give of himself ‘when He wants, to whom He wants, and in the way He wants’, we must be aware that she is at an early stage of her spiritual life (Autobiography). At this early stage she cannot distinguish between first, the core of the grace poured into the spirit, secondly, the perception of the grace in the soul and/or the body and lastly a possible particular effect on the body – tears. When explaining this supernatural action of God in prayer, Teresa uses the allegory of watering the garden, where water is the Grace of God, with the human being himself as the garden. However, here, ‘water’ comprises these three realities and they have become fused together, without Teresa consciously realising it in her mind, namely, receiving the grace in the spirit, second, feeling the grace (soul/body), third, having tears as a more common effect in the body. This may be misleading, hence the explanation given above which comes from St John of the Cross’ teaching. This is a further reason that seems to reinforce the aforementioned partial understanding of how the Grace of God works. In addition to what has just been outlined, therefore, we have to bear in mind the difference between the General help of the Grace of God and the Particular help of the Grace of God, as seen in previous chapters.
In conclusion, it must be realised that it is necessary to remember the crucial fact that the foundation of the Theology of Prayer should be based on a complete and clear understanding of its vital component – the Theology of Grace.
The Nature of Contemplation
Added to this is the fact that having a correct understanding of all the above-mentioned concepts would immeasurably aid the proper understanding of the nature of contemplation. As a previous chapter illustrates, during the first part of last century, theologians discussed and argued interminably about the nature of contemplation. One group stressed the importance of the human element in it, which makes it something that is acquired by human effort, and the other group laid great stress on the importance of the supernatural (infused) aspect of it. As it happens, both are right: both stress the decisive aspects of contemplation, the human part and the divine part. Both are vital for its success. It is the story of the meeting of two beings: God and the human being… The Prayer of the Heart, it is important to realise, is essentially the story of an expressed love between them (and to love means to give oneself), and that it is impossible to take into consideration only one of them and ignore the other. Both beings have free will, both can give themselves. The Prayer of the Heart is the mutual gift of each of them to the other. A similar mutual gifting occurs during Communion: God gives himself to us, and we give ourselves to Him. Communion should remain a very important point of reference for us in our practice of the Prayer of the Heart – we cannot afford to neglect it.
God, being in his very nature love, comes out of himself, and stands at the door of our being and, incredibly, He waits. He does not enter. He never forces the door. With divine respect and love, Almighty God knocks and waits. If we are really willing to love Him, if we really want to give ourselves to Him, then a ‘union’, a ‘meeting’, an ’embrace’ will result. The meeting of two free beings, in an élan of mutual love, presupposes the use of two mutual freedoms! Christian contemplation is this meeting, this sacred kiss, the supernatural embrace! In no way can it exclude the personal initiative of both beings! The solution to having a correct orthodox understanding of the nature of contemplation, consequently, comes through recognising the two modalities of the action of the Grace of God: the grace that prepares us to receive God and the Grace itself of receiving Him within us. Christian contemplation, it must be emphasized enough, cannot be either acquired or infused, it is both: it consists of two parts of one unique journey that goes from where our heart initially beats to the Furnace of Love in Christ.