In her approach to prayer, St. Teresa of Avila shows a levelheadedness and psychological insight that readily puts beginners at ease.
To know Teresa of Avila is to love her. She is a spiritual mother, a warm, confident, capable person at whose knee we find comfort and wise counsel. Of all the popular saints, no one has given more practical advice for beginners in prayer than the great Teresa. Because of her own decades-long difficulties with prayer, she understands the reluctance and insecurity of those who want to pray regularly but cannot seem to stick with it.
Her compatriots knew Teresa as a talented woman who balanced action and contemplation with consummate grace. The Carmelite habit, although it hid her curly chestnut hair, merely emphasized her high forehead, arched eyebrows and the dimples that announced her playful sense of humor. She paired charm with political savvy, common sense with intellectual mastery, humility with awareness of her own capabilities. Declared a Doctor of the Church, she had only two years of formal schooling.
If, instead of traversing 16th-century Spain in a mule cart to establish new convents, she was doing the same in 21st-century America, St. Teresa would surely be regularly quoted in social media:
Well, Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!
From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us!
God gives us much to suffer for him, if only from fleas, wicked boys and bad roads!
I won’t have nuns who are ninnies!
At prayer time, pray; at partridge time, partridge!
There are no worse robbers than those we carry within ourselves.
If obedience sends you to the kitchen, remember that the
Lord walks among the pots and pans and that he will keep
you in inward tasks and in outward ones, too.
The profusion of exclamation points underscores Teresa’s passionate intensity. Her advanced spirituality, characterized by mystical prayer and dramatic visions, did not prevent her from enjoying the pleasures of castanets and fancy pastries on feast days. Her immense capacity for life echoes through her correspondence.
The prioress’s letters are laced with favorite recipes, herbal cures, administrative and marital tips, diplomatic overtures, jokes, and reprimands to those who had earned them.
These letters were often penned in great haste as she juggled her duties as foundress, superior, spiritual director, and author. Since there was never time to polish what she had written, she bluntly advised one correspondent, “If I miss out a letter, put it in yourself.” (She would have been a prolific texter.) Prayer was the only occupation for which she always had time.
Letting Teresa Teach Us
In her approach to prayer, Teresa shows a levelheadedness and psychological insight that readily puts beginners at ease. She starts with vocal prayer—focusing on the familiar ground of the Our Father—and moves imperceptibly, painlessly into mental prayer. The novice is never quite sure when she or he has crossed the line. Teresa makes the transition seem as natural as going from dialogue into devoted silence with a loved one.
She recommends disciplined attention to God our Father “because it is impossible to speak to him and to the world at the same time.” She also realizes, however, that this is sometimes easier said than done. Assuring her followers that prayerful concentration can be very difficult during stress or illness or “when our heads are tired,” she advises simply praying as best they can or busying themselves with some virtuous action.
Her reasonableness is irresistible. How can we reject a teacher who assures us that there’s no point in worrying about our occasional inability to pray? “You mustn’t weary yourself by trying to put sense into something—namely your mind—which is for the moment without any,” she quips.
teach me to pray.
I trust in your seasoned direction.
Because you struggled for 20 years with mental prayer,
you can understand my insecurities and weaknesses,
my habit of procrastinating.
Today, right now,
I am ready to pray.
Do your best with me.
Mother my spiritual progress.
Come, Holy Spirit,
open the door to my interior castle!