From In Silence
For much of her life as a nun, Teresa of Ávila found prayer a tedious, depressing duty that left her feeling frustrated, a failure; it is said that during these years, she regularly shook the hourglass, as if to hurry time along. “I spent nearly twenty years on that stormy sea,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I had not joy in God and no pleasure in the world.” In addition, she endured a series of grave illnesses; hers was not, in other words, a comfortable and soothing life of easy piety.
On the brink of despair, she thought of Christ alone and afflicted, praying to God in agony the night before his death – “simple thoughts of this kind.” Then someone gave her a copy of the Confessions of Augustine, “and I seemed to see myself in them.” And so she persevered in prayer despite the emptiness, the spiritual blankness and humiliations. “I only asked for grace and pardon for sins, and indeed, he showed me great mercy in allowing me to be with him and bringing me into his presence.”
From about the age of forty-two until her death at sixty-seven, she became one of the most profoundly prayerful and active reformers in European history. Her awareness of God’s presence transformed her life, and the transformation took place in silence. Now undeterred by confusion, Teresa entrusted herself entirely to God even in darkness and aridity, and so she discovered the true meaning of prayer. From this point, she knew it would be “an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” Another reformer – her contemporary, Martin Luther – expressed a similar conviction: “I am sometimes so cold and cheerless that I cannot pray. Then I close my ears and say, ‘I know God is not far from me, therefore I must cry to him and invoke him.'”
Teresa of Ávila warned gently but repeatedly about the perils for beginners in the art of prayer – primarily, the danger of placing a high value on emotions and feelings. “Set little store by consolations and tenderness in devotion, and do not be elated when the Lord gives them nor disconsolate when he withholds them. When I hear men of learning and intelligence making such a fuss because God is not giving them feelings of devotion, it revolts me to listen to them: they should master themselves and go on their way.”
Teresa’s remedies against the tendency to assess oneself by analyzing emotions were often refreshingly commonsensical: “Have good conversations with people and take a country walk” – activities that will help keep us from being “depressed or afflicted because of aridities or unrest or distraction of the mind, [nor] troubled if we have no conscious devotion.” What matters is clinging to God.
Teresa’s spiritual descendant, Thérèse Martin (known as Thérèse of Lisieux, who was also a Carmelite nun), did not live as long as the woman of Ávila. “The little flower,” as she is popularly known, died at twenty-four after enduring the ravages of tuberculosis and of a terrifying spiritual darkness and sense of abandonment: “One must have passed through the tunnel to understand how black its darkness is.”
When she was advised to take up a volume of prayers, she confided in her notebook: “I do not have the courage to search through books for beautiful prayers,” she wrote. “They are so numerous that it would make my head ache. Unable either to say them or to choose between them, I do as a child would who cannot read – I just say what I want to say to God, quite simply, and he never fails to understand.”
After years of illness and disappointment, Julian of Norwich could still write: “God did not say, ‘You will not be tempted, you will not be belabored, you will not be disquieted’ – but he did say, ‘You shall not be overcome.'”
The reassurance to which she held fast is still relevant for very many people amid every variety of suffering – even the sort that renders one powerless and inactive. Amid the unimaginable suffering of a Nazi death camp, Corrie ten Boom could still claim, “No matter how deep our darkness, God is deeper still.”