Today is the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila. She is one of my heroes, as you know if you have read my previous blog entry on her. I think part of my attraction is that St. Teresa was so practical in her approach to everything. Her teachings on prayer, and even the instructions she gave to her sisters concerning how to live in the enclosed community, were practical. However, she never claimed to teach what was easy. In fact, she would say that anything worth doing in the spiritual life is not necessarily easy and requires work, but that the freedom which comes from the practice of prayer is what leads us to holiness, and therefore to God. This is definitely worth the effort!
Reading the works of St. Teresa is also worth the effort. She wrote in such a way that anyone can pick up her books and learn from her. She is not difficult to read. Most of what she wrote was directed to her religious sisters so that they could advance in the practice of prayer and therefore on the road to perfection. I think she called it the "practice of prayer" for a reason: prayer is a process and part of a relationship. All relationships, especially those which mean the most to us, require work. Relationships do not just happen by themselves. This is true of our relationship with God: although God does everything He can to make it easy for us, we have to put in the effort. He gives us the invitation to prayer continuously and gives us the graces we need to grow in prayer, but He never forces us to do anything. Therefore we have to take up the initiative to accept the gift, which means doing the work of growing in this relationship. It is not a one way street, though. God does more than meet us halfway. This is what St. Teresa wants us to know.
St. Teresa tells us that if we begin simply and advance from vocal prayer to meditation, and even to contemplation, we do less and less of the work as we progress. Eventually God does all the work, and we simply let Him. We go from doing to being. At that point, our prayer is pure gift from God. But to get to this point we have to do the work of being regular in our prayer. Just as an athlete may be proficient in a particular sport, the athlete cannot rely on talent alone. The athlete has to work his or her muscles to grow and progress. It is an arduous process of working out which requires a bit of sweat before they can ever step out on the court or field. St. Teresa tells us that prayer is like that, also. We have to put in the time and the practice, so to speak, dialoging with the Lord, listening to the Lord, and being receptive to His presence deep within and all around us. We learn to recognize the subtle signs of His presence until we are able to surrender our agenda, our will, to His and let Him give to us whatever graces He is offering.
St. Teresa was aware that not all people pray the same way; some are not capable of contemplation or even meditation for whatever reason, and not through any fault. She recognized that in prayer "one size does not fit all." For these she recommended praying the Lord's Prayer slowly and deliberately. She outlined a method for praying the Our Father in what she called the prayer of recollection. She called it this because she said, "The soul collects its faculties together and enters within itself to be with its God.... Those who by such a method can enclose themselves within this little heaven of our soul, where the Maker of heaven and earth is present, and grow accustomed to refusing to be where the exterior senses in their distraction have gone or look in that direction should believe they are following an excellent path and that they will not fail to drink the water from the fount; for they will journey far in a short time." (The Way of Perfection, chap. 28, paragraph 4 and 5.)
St. Teresa wants us to know that God is close to anyone who is at prayer. She said, "All the harm comes from not truly understanding that He is near, but in imagining Him as far away." She goes on to say: "For indeed we have heaven within ourselves since the Lord of Heaven is there." (The Way of Perfection, chap.29, para.5) We do not need to seek God anywhere but within ourselves as we pray. If our hearts are turned to Him, He is there. The most beautiful reminder St. Teresa gives us is this: while we may be distracted or struggle to keep focused on Him, God never takes His eyes off us! (The Way of Perfection, chap. 26, para.3) That's right: no matter what happens during your prayer time, God is never distracted away from you and it is He who gently calls you back should you become distracted. Better still, He always has His eyes on you even when you are not praying. He never takes His eyes off you!
It is important that we take to heart the words and teaching of St. Teresa. The heart of her message is that we need to do everything with love. No matter what we are able to do in prayer, no matter how we are feeling about it, if we bring love to our time with God, that is perfect prayer. He will do the rest. It is important to never let anything get in the way of our time with Him. He is our friend of friends and the one to whom we can always turn. He is the one who loves us so much He can never take His eyes off us. Who would not run excitedly each day to be with a best friend, that one with whom you can totally be yourself, to spend a little time? Being with our best friend would be the highlight of any day. I know it is for Him!
Let us ask for the intercession of St. Teresa that she would help us to grow in our life of prayer and therefore in our relationship with God! Let us imitate her in that desire to be with the Lord in prayer! Let us strive to pray always, so as to keep our eyes trained on Him! And let us be filled with gratitude that He never takes His eyes off us! Let us continue to meet in the loving gaze of our God! Peace!
(Above icon of St. Teresa of Avila by Rev. William Hart McNichols. You can find this and more of his work at http://www.standreirublevicons.com.)
Heart Speaks to Heart