The Prayer of St Teresa helps us to acknowledge that we are the Body of Christ in the world today.
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Introducing Teresa of Avila
Teresa de Ahumada was born into an age of adventure and turbulence. The ‘New World’ of the Americas was being opened up by the Spanish and, two years after her birth, the Protestant Reformation began in earnest. Although Teresa entered Carmel at the age of twenty, it was not until she was almost fifty that she began writing, as well as reforming the Carmelite order.
Teresa’s own great work of reform began with herself. For a long time:
“she did not trust her inner sense of prayer…things were obscure. …translated as ‘dark’… As in the dark of a real night, Teresa could not see clearly. At the same time, she was very attached to the opinions of others… Only when she was liberated from this attachment was she able to trust her own inner authenticity in prayer. Finally, she put her ultimate trust in God alone” (G May, Dark Night of the Soul).
Writing from her own experience in prayer, Teresa provides a rich spiritual doctrine and guiding light for all who wish to embark on a life of contemplative prayer. She divides prayer into active and passivedimensions. For Teresa, active prayer is characterised by what feels like work on our part. It consists of both vocal prayer and meditation, or what she calls active recollection. Passive prayer is the experience of God’s work in us, beyond anything we could have done. It is pure grace. This is the gift of contemplation.
The Interior Garden
Teresa uses rich imagery to describe the life of prayer. She compares it to the watering of an interior garden. ‘I don’t find anything more appropriate to explain some spiritual experiences than water,’ she writes, ‘and this is because I am so fond of this element that I have observed it more attentively than other things.’ Teresa’s advice to beginners in prayer is very practical and down to earth. Beginners start with very barren soil, she warns, ‘full of abominable weeds’. However, it is God who ‘pulls up the weeds and plants good seed.’ It is the beginner’s duty to ‘get the plants to grow and take pains to water them so that they don’t wither.’ In this way the interior garden becomes a place of beauty where God dwells and takes delight. From her experience in prayer, Teresa suggests four ways in which the garden might be watered. Each way suggests a degree, or level, of prayer. Ultimately she is describing the movement from human to divine action in prayer.
Degrees of Prayer
- According to Teresa, the first degree of prayer is the way of active meditation. She uses the image of drawing water from a well. This requires focused effort as well as withdrawing from the many distractions and concerns that until now have absorbed us.
- Teresa advises that water can be obtained more easily by means of a waterwheel. By now the beginner is moving toward the prayer of quiet. ‘Here the soul begins to be recollected and comes upon something supernatural because in no way can it acquire this prayer through any efforts it may make.’ At this level of prayer, the soul begins to lose its craving for earthly things and is filled with a sense of peace and delight. Our efforts at prayer are easing although the activity of prayer does not.
- Water flowing from a stream into the garden is the third stage of prayer. God now seems to be doing all the inner work, while our faculties seem to be asleep. The stream of divine water flows into the garden, whether we are contemplative or active in doing works of charity. It is as though the relationship of prayer is continuing beneath the conscious surface of one’s life.
- Teresa has difficulty describing the fourth degree of prayer, the prayer of union. She uses the image of the ‘heavenly rain that saturates the whole garden in abundance’. Teresa says that these experiences are short-lived and that the goodness experienced is incomprehensible.
Spiritual ‘dwelling places’
Teresa’s major work is The Interior Castle. This was written for her Sisters as a guide to the inner life of contemplation. The interior castle is the soul, likened to a transparent crystal globe with God at the centre in radiant light. As individuals grow in prayer, they enter into a deeper intimacy with God. Teresa illustrates this as a progressive journey through seven ‘dwelling places’ or rooms in the castle, from the darkness of the outer foyer to the light-filled centre. These represent stages of gradual enlightenment on the spiritual journey, culminating in union with God. In the first three stages we purify the soul of self-centred and materialistic desires. The next four stages are God’s gift of contemplative recollection whereby the soul progressively becomes one with God in a ‘spiritual marriage’ . She reveals that there can be a lasting awareness of God in our day to day experiences because God is at the centre of the soul. According to Teresa, our growth in prayer is manifested in our growth in charity. In her Interior Castle, she describes Martha and Mary joining together in order to show hospitality to the Lord. This is the whole reason for prayer, says Teresa. It is ‘the purpose of this spiritual marriage: the birth always of good works, good works.’
One of Teresa’s significant metaphors for the soul’s transformation through the darkness of unknowing is that of the silkworm, ‘slowly transformed in the darkness of its cocoon, emerging as a butterfly, fluttering about, and finally finding its rightful place in divine realisation.’ For Teresa, the cocoon is Christ.
Teresa reveals a spirituality that is entirely focused on attaining union with Christ, the divine Beloved. The soul must be satisfied with nothing less than God. Teresa’s gift to us is not so much what she did or the particular things she wrote but simply the witness of a woman for whom God was an overriding passion.