From Lord, Have Mercy: Praying for Justice with Conviction and Humility
Prayer as Friendship: Teresa of Ávila
Another Spanish spiritual guide, Teresa of Ávila, a mystic and preeminent teacher on prayer, described prayer as “nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends.” Teresa knew about friendship and about prayer; she was sociable and as a teenager quite absorbed in what she later would see as vain friendships. Inspired by spiritual books and conversation, she made a decision at age twenty (against her father’s wishes) to enter a nearby Carmelite monastery and live as a nun. She experienced terrible health problems and great difficulty in prayer for years before experiencing the intense mystical encounters in prayer for which she has become famous. She remains a teacher of prayer who knows its difficulties and all the more so extols its importance. Prayer, she wrote, means frequently taking time to be alone with the One who we know loves us. We open our hearts to God and seek for our lives to be aligned with God’s purposes for us. Though we often think of prayer as words, Teresa’s perspective reminds us that fundamentally prayer is relationship. Prayer is, in her words, “an exercise of love.”
As in any relationship, there can be periods of difficulty and dryness. We may know Teresa as a saint and doctor of the church, but in her autobiography she describes feeling distracted, caught up in vain pastimes, absorbed by relationships that dragged her down. At one point, she stopped praying for more than a year. That was a grave mistake, she writes, for “in this life there could be no greater good than the practice of prayer.”
Teresa was acutely aware of her own weakness. Prayer depended, in her experience, on humility and openness to God’s great grace. She describes the importance of aligning her will with that of God: In order that love be true and the friendship endure, the wills of the friends must be in accord. Discernment is a critical part of the life of prayer. Teresa believed, as did many others of her time, that the devil leads us astray. The devil may delude us such that we interpret our experience wrongly. The devil may distract us, puff us up, cause us to stop praying, seduce us into ungodly relationships and habits. Only with discernment in prayer can we perceive what is truly of God and grow in true humility. Teresa, like Ignatius, found a way to recognize what is of God partly through careful attention to her interior states. The devil is recognized clearly by the disquiet and affliction it brings to the soul. True humility, on the other hand, doesn’t come to the soul with agitation or disturbance, nor does it darken it or bring it dryness. Rather, true humility consoles and acts in a completely opposite way: quietly, gently, and with light His [the Lord’s] mercy lifts its spirits.
Although she attends closely to her own experience in prayer, for Teresa it would be unthinkable to discern and pray outside the community of the church. She repeatedly discusses her experience with confessors, testing her experience against the wisdom of the church. She does not always agree with her confessors, and she finds ways to defend the authority of her own experience of God. This is a bold move, because she is writing during the Inquisition – a dangerous time for anyone whose experience might be judged as outside the bounds of orthodoxy. Hers is a delicate dance, sharing her extraordinary experiences of God while not stepping on the toes of the church. Yet the church is her dance partner; her prayer is rooted in the life and teachings of the community.
Teresa receives abundant experience of mystical grace, like God saturating the garden of her soul with plentiful rain. As God draws her more and more deeply to prayer, she finds that God does the work in her while she rests joyfully in God. She even describes a kind of union with God, a “joining with Heavenly love.” Those experiences can lead her to devalue the world and even her own life: From this prayer comes the pain of having to return to everyday life. This is unfortunately a real and common theme in the Christian spiritual tradition; holiness is often understood as requiring or producing extreme detachment from worldly pursuits, relationships, and concerns.
Still, Teresa did come down from the heights of mystical rapture to straddle a horse and ride tirelessly around Spain establishing a new structure of religious life, a more rigorous Carmelite order. She was distressed at how lax the nuns had become in her convent, and she set out to reform the order. Navigating ecclesial and local politics, she gained approval for new convents and monasteries throughout Spain. Teresa was, in fact, transforming structures, envisioning and building new organizations. She can speak of being oblivious to everything but her longing for God, but she also writes that, God can be served in everything.