To make a start, a keen sense of challenge must fill those aspiring to grow closer to St. Teresa and her method of praying!
In the last chapter we ended by mentioning Prayer of the Heart, or to give it the other names by which it is known: ‘Contemplative Prayer’ or ‘Mental Prayer’ or ‘Silent Prayer’ or the ‘Jesus’ Prayer’. St Teresa is perceived by the universal Church as a Mistress of Contemplative Prayer, and of prayer life in general. This was Pope Paul VIth ‘s intention when he declared St Teresa ‘Doctor of the Church’ in 1970, in particular as in most of her books she talks about ‘Contemplative Prayer’. What, therefore, can she reveal to us concerning this form of prayer ?
The Prayer of the Heart embodies the core of her new life in Christ after her second conversion. She is now more constant in practising it, plus, she is very vigilant in practising the virtues. In fact, in a decisive confession around the time of her conversion she received a piece of excellent advice from a knowledgable priest: first, to lay a solid foundation for her practice of the Prayer of the Heart, i.e. to practise virtues as we will be seeing in the coming chapters.
Before her conversion she had read the Third Spiritual Alphabet of the Franciscan Francisco of Osuna (1497 – c. 1540), where he speaks about the method of recollecting ourselves while praying in order to get closer to God and receive his Grace. But one has to say that without her conversion, the practice of the Prayer of the Heart was impeding the divine waters to gush forth from the fount of its source, and therefore she was left to rely almost solely on her own strength. However, the reality must be faced that without Christ and without His Grace, especially in a matter like the Prayer of the Heart, the human being can do very little – in fact almost nothing.
After her conversion, after by the Grace of God having understood that all her heart had not been given to Christ, after having been turned by the Lord towards Himself and Himself alone, Prayer of the Heart began to flow more freely. The next challenge now had to be faced. In the Scriptures God asks us to pray incessantly (1 Thessalonians 5:17 and Luke 18:1-8), and the Rule of the Carmelite Order also states it: ‘Each one of you is to stay in his own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s Law day and night and keeping watch at his prayers unless attending to some other duty.’ (§ 10). But how can one pray incessantly? To take time to meet the Lord personally, ‘heart to heart’, eye to eye, is essential in order to receive the Living Water of his grace. One needs to go to the Divine Well – Christ – in order to draw the Waters of the Holy Spirit.
St Teresa’s practice of the Prayer of the Heart then became more determined and regular, and because of the fervour generated by the Gift of herself, Christ started to pour into her grace upon grace (John 1:17). In the beginning of that new journey, however, and for a long while afterwards, she lacked the understanding of what was happening within her! The manifestations of the Grace of God in her were unusual, new! Visions, ecstasies, feelings,… The fears she endured were indescribable! Moreover, she unfortunately mentioned her experiences to some indiscreet people, each interpreting it according to his own thinking, while many feared she was being misled and that it was the work of the Devil! Admittedly it is well recognised that the devil can present himself in the shiny clothes of an angel of light (see 2 Corinthians 11:14). The issue was further complicated by the spiritual trends in Spain at that time, as embodied in, for example, the Alumbrados, literally translated as the Enlightened, not to mention the trouble generated by Luther in France which only served to exacerbate the situation. The Church in Spain had to contain all this in order not to deviate from the purity and orthodoxy of faith. Teresa, consequently, suffered immensely by not understanding what was happening to her! But all this trial was beneficial: what was happening to her paved the way for many after her and her suffering was in the service of others!
Furthermore all the meetings she had with the greatest theologians of her time opened a way for two other graces to manifest themselves in her: first, understanding and recognising what was happening within her, what type of graces she was receiving, and secondly discerning and expressing what was happening within her! In this way, her experience instead of being isolated became, day by day, an experience for the Church, valid for others! As mentioned in the first chapter, it is very tempting to think that what she experienced is valid only for the few in number, or worse, uniquely for her! This is in fact the challenge her experience and teaching brings to us! It is certainly a new area, and the first reaction can be at times defiance and fear, the fear of change being deep-rooted in mankind. And it is more than a mere change, it is cataclysmic! Sadly it is more comforting to say to oneself: what she says is not for everybody! By contrast, in fact, the majority of what she describes, if looked at under a magnifying glass, encapsulates what the Lord desires to give to everybody. The magnification can be frightening, but in fact it induces more acute vision! Some, admittedly, will be fearful just because of the unknown! The fear of opening a Pandora’s box and not knowing how to close it again, or better still, how to ‘control’ what is happening! A more positive approach is to have greater trust in the Lord!
While practising Prayer of the Heart, and often after having received Communion (the link between will be enlarged upon later), St. Teresa started to receive powerful graces. The more she continued in this direction, it must be mentioned, the more she consulted Theologians, and the more God made available to her the best of the theology of her time in a condensed form (a one to one consultation), at the service of Spiritual Life! In fact she herself stresses these were not the half-knowledgable theologians or priests, which she states did much harm to her formerly and whom she now strongly advises are to be avoided! God alone can appreciate the difficulty of this science, Spiritual Theology as it is called today.
Spiritual Theology embodies the essence of St Teresa’s Doctorate. It is the most useful science and the most necessary one for mankind and for his efforts at holiness. But it is the most difficult science because it presupposes a conjunction and integration of two other qualities: first, personal spiritual experience of the Graces of growth God wants to give us and two, discernment between what comes from God and all the rest. In total, these three qualities (Science, Experience, Discernment) harmoniously blended in time, contribute to the formation of a Master of the Spiritual Life. Seen from a practical viewpoint, this science implies inevitably a personal involvement in the Theologian or the Master: the personal practice of spiritual life and the reception of the graces that come with it. Teresa often endorses this in her writings, when she reiterates that the person who has experienced the influx of these graces will readily understand what she has been expressing!
It is valid at this point to question whether the others who have not had this experience will derive any benefit at all. Admittedly it will be more difficult for them to understand her, because without the Grace of God one cannot understand or internalise the account of the experience of a Grace! But, what is to be hoped is that those who have not had the experience will trust Teresa and so will be allured to practise her what she is putting forward in order to receive what she describes. In the final analysis, experience here is fundamental. The presence of ‘experience’ in St Teresa’s teaching is one more reason to think how she is so attractive to the modern mind, one avid for experience. She is a true witness of the risen Lord telling us how He earnestly desires to meet us and she explains, in addition, what to do in order to have this experience! For her, this is the core of christian life.
However, what exactly does experience imply? It implies having two things at least: first, the practice of the Prayer of the Heart, and secondly, the practice of a life of prayer, which she calls in her writings, the work of the virtues. ‘Prayer’ and ‘prayer life’ cannot be separated, just as the New Wine and the New Skin (Matthew 9:17), or The Divine Seed and The Good Earth (Matthew 13:8).
One cannot fall into a ‘spiritual schizophrenia’, where on the one hand one claims to practise the Prayer of the Heart and on the other hand one does not listen to Jesus and does not follow Jesus by doing his will during the day. This is exactly what the Lord warns us to do various times in the Gospel: If anyone loves me, he will keep my Word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:23). In this verse of St John everything is summarised: we have the Prayer of the Heart (we will come to him and make our home in him) and Prayer Life (keep my Word ) whereby we put into practice the Lord’s Words. The same logic is to be seen in His other piece of advice: Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.(Matthew 7:21). A similar way of thinking is the case concerning the two parts of the Mass. In fact not only does the ‘Liturgy of the Eucharist’ not stand alone, but also we do not attend Mass for the second part of the Mass only, i.e. to receive Communion. One goes to Mass to receive Christ the Living Bread in his twofold forms: first, as a Word uttered by Him and put into practice (the liturgy of the Word) and secondly, in Communion with Him (receiving the Body and Blood of Christ).
St Teresa often states in her writings that if we practise this form of ‘schizophrenia’ (of course she does not use the word), i.e. practising only the Prayer of the Heart while neglecting the work of the virtues by giving ourselves fully and faithfully to the Lord during the day, we will remain like ‘dwarfs’, an expression she actually uses, implying no growth, no transformation, no becoming closer to full Union with Christ. This means that we are deluding ourselves! It is our determination to listen to Christ and to put his Word into practice that allows the deployment of the Powerful Graces of God during the Prayer of the Heart. Let us make a mental note here that it is because of her conversion and determination to follow Christ with all her heart that the Living Water of the Graces of God started to flow in Teresa abundantly!
The virtues she wants us to practise and grow in are actually stated in the Gospel and are not a new invention of hers: humility, fraternal love, detachment from creatures and from oneself! One can easily notice that these three virtues she focuses on are in direct relationship to the three evangelical counsels respectively: obedience, chastity and poverty!
All this, then, deals with the concept of experience.
Now, what about discernment, the third important quality to develop within ourselves in order to have a solid spiritual life? According to St Teresa, discernment is received progressively, while ‘walking the walk’ of spiritual life. In order to do so we need to understand first that our Main Guide in the journey of growth is the Holy Spirit. He is our true Spiritual Master as St John of the Cross states clearly: we need therefore to entrust ourselves totally to Him, to listen to Him from within and be guided by him constantly. Not only this, but one needs His guidance while being in the hands of a Spiritual Guide during Spiritual Direction. Spiritual Direction (or Spiritual Accompaniment) is the main place where discernment is transmitted to us, throughout the weeks, months, and years. Without discernment it is simply impossible to grow in Spiritual Life, because the obstacles are countless! The necessary humility leads to the understanding that the Holy Spirit who talks to us directly and generates in us the experience of God, is the same Spirit who talks to us in and through the Church. A particular need here is the Act of Faith, an openness to the extension of the logic of the Incarnation in the Church, whereby Jesus leaves his authority to the Church.
The Jesus Christ who calls us is the same Jesus Christ who guides us in and through the Church. But here too prudence is very important: into whose hands do we entrust ourselves is the question. As expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2690, ‘according to St. John of the Cross, the person wishing to advance toward perfection should take care into whose hands he entrusts himself, for as the master is, so will the disciple be, and as the father is so will be the son.’ And further: ‘In addition to being learned and discreet a director should be experienced. . . . If the spiritual director has no experience of the spiritual life, he will be incapable of leading into it the souls whom God is calling to it, and he will not even understand them.’
This is an important reason for St Teresa of Avila who considered it to be a huge grace in her life to have had, as well as the many excellent and knowledgeable priests and religious, St John of the Cross as her spiritual guide.