We love, Scripture says, because God first loved us (see 1 John 4:19). That’s also why we pray—because God’s love melts our chill, sparks our desire, ignites our love. The saints exemplify what happens to people who respond wholeheartedly to these divine initiatives: They are transformed, as sparks of love leap up into a great blaze of union with God.
Fortunately for those of us who are better described in terms of smoldering wicks or flickering flames, many saints wrote of their prayer life in a way that can encourage our own. One is the sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite Teresa of Avila. Personable, practical, and profound, Teresa is a credible guide for spiritual strugglers because, by her own admission, she dabbled in prayer for almost two decades until a religious awakening prodded her on. Often during those years as a mediocre nun, she confides, “I was more occupied in wishing my hour of prayer were over, and in listening whenever the clock struck, than in thinking of things that were good.”
To Teresa’s astonishment, God didn’t give up on her but kept calling gently. Once she got the message, he led Teresa to the heights of mystical prayer. “God is calling you, too,” is her confident message to us. “Who can possibly despair, when he bore so long with me?”
Teresa is hardly condoning delay or half-heartedness. Calls from God require serious responses. Certainly, “there is no one for whom he makes it impossible to buy his riches,” she says of the fruits of prayer. But “if you are to gain this, he would have you keep back nothing.” And note this disarmingly simple but arduous piece of advice: “All that the beginner in prayer has to do…is to labor and be resolute and prepare himself with all possible diligence to bring his will into conformity with the will of God.”
Calls and responses, commitments and resolutions—the following selections from Teresa and other saints touch on aspects of this dynamic of prayer. Never mechanical, it is at the very heart of intimacy with a loving God, who, Teresa asserts from experience, never fails to repay anyone who turns to him. “For mental prayer is nothing else, in my opinion, but being on terms of friendship with God, frequently conversing in secret with him who we know loves us.”
We are not drawn to God by iron chains, like bulls and wild oxen. We are drawn by enticements, sweet attractions, and holy inspirations…. Grace is so gracious, and so graciously seizes our hearts to draw them… that our free will suffers no violence…. How gently God handles our hearts! How skillfully he imparts his strength without interfering with our freedom…. He adjusts his power to his gentleness in such a way that when it comes to doing good, his might gently gives us power, while his gentleness maintains our freedom of will.
—Saint Francis de Sales
And anyone who has not begun to pray, I beg, for love of the Lord, not to miss so great a blessing. There is no place here for fear, but only desire.
—Saint Teresa of Avila
Let us remember that God…has chosen never to put force upon our will. Let this be deeply impressed upon your heart: God in his love for us has desired to save us by his Son, but our salvation is not his will unless it is ours also.
—Saint Louise de Marillac
He who perseveres to the end shall be saved. Piety must be habitual, not by fits. It must be persevering, because temptations continue all our life, and perseverance alone obtains the crown. Its means are the presence of God, good reading, prayer, the sacraments, good resolutions often renewed, the remembrance of our last ends.
—Saint Elizabeth Seton