Prayer that Pleases God: Advice from Teresa of Avila
By Dan Burke
The purpose of the newest book in the Navigating the Interior Life book series,30 Days with Teresa of Avila, is to reveal the unique personality, wisdom, and insight that often emerges out of the letters of the saints.These letters are a window into Saint Teresa’s genuine humanity,witness, and pragmatic advice for pursuing an intimate friendship with God.
I’ll be sharing some of the letters here, in the hope that you’ll be inspired to spend time prayerfully reflecting on them. This is from Day 21.
Toledo, October 1576
To Father Gracian, Seville
Father Gracian and the Calced friars.
Paul and Joseph. Counsels on prayer.
May the grace of the Holy Ghost be with your Paternity, my Father.
I received three letters from you today by the head courier, and others brought by Fray Alonso yesterday. God has well repaid me for the delay. May He be forever praised for your Reverence’s good health.
It was a great shock to me, on examining the two parcels from the Mother Prioress, to find no letter from you: you can imagine what I felt. But things were soon put right. Will you always let me know which of my letters you receive, for you often write without answering my questions and also forget to give the date. In your last two letters you asked me how I liked Don?a Juana although I had already told you in the letter sent by the courier of Toledo. As I expect your reply will arrive in those you tell me are coming by way of Madrid, I suppose that there is not much amiss.
I am well and my Isabel furnishes us with recreation: her content and happiness are wonderful. I wrote to Don?a Juana yesterday. All are well.
I have thanked God from my heart for the way in which our affairs are progressing. I was astonished at what Fray Alonso tells me is being said about your Paternity. God bless me! How necessary your journey was! Had you done nothing else I think you were bound in conscience to do this for the honor of the Order. I do not know how they could publish such calumnies: may God enlighten these fathers. Had your Paternity someone whom you could trust, it would be a very good plan to give them another prior, but since there is no one else, I was astonished at hearing who made that suggestion, which would have no result. It would be a great thing to have someone there who was not opposed to us in every way, if you thought well of the idea. Great difficulties might arise if the present prior should refuse to resign. These fathers do not appear to wish to be slighted, which is not surprising.
I am more surprised at Paul, busy as he is, being able to fulfill his obligations towards Joseph so peacefully: I thank God sincerely for it. Will your Paternity tell Paul to be satisfied at last with his prayer and not to be concerned about using his intellect when God grants him a favor of another kind; say that I am much pleased with what he wrote to me. As regards the interior things of the spirit, the most acceptable and effectual prayer is that which produces the best results. By this I do not mean a number of desires at a time which, although good, are not always what our self-love paints them, but effects manifested by deeds and desires for the glory of God shown by the soul’s seeking it sincerely, so that the memory and understanding are employed in pleasing Him and in proving our love for Him to the uttermost.
Oh, what genuine prayer this is! But not so a sweetness which ends in our own enjoyment. When prayer is accompanied with such sweetness, it leaves the soul feeble and timid and very sensitive to human respect. I wish for no prayer that does not make me grow in virtue. If it were accompanied by violent temptations, aridities, and trouble, and left me more humble, I should consider it a good prayer, for the more it pleases God, the better the prayer in my opinion.
May He deign to preserve your Paternity for us as I desire,
Teresa de Jesus
Reverent Discretion Concerning Spiritual Things:The “Paul” to whom St. Teresa is offering a word of consolation regarding progress in prayer is her canonical superior in the reform, Fr. Gracian. We see in other letters that she uses code names to protect the privileged content from being abused by anyone who might intercept her message. When it comes to the intimate details of another’s spiritual life, every Christian has the responsibility to observe careful discretion so that sensitive details do not become a matter of gossip or character assassination. Spiritual matters of this most intimate kind should be treated with great reverence and sensitivity.
Transition to Contemplation:Teresa counsels Fr. Gracian “not to be concerned about using his intellect when God grants him a favor of another kind.” Teresa knows that Fr. Gracian is beginning to emerge beyond discursive meditation to a deeper kind of prayer. She knows this because the letter indicates that Fr. Gracian has struggled with how to respond to mystical graces he is receiving in prayer. She wants to address his anxiety over whether he is properly participating in prayer if he is not using his intellect during prayer. We know from The Interior Castle (particularly in chapter four) that Teresa counsels against utilizing methods to suppress thoughts or the imagination during prayer. She forcefully argues against all deliberate efforts to empty the mind in prayer.
Teresa teaches that when one begins to be called by God beyond meditation, the Blessed Trinity will engage the mind in such a manner that its natural operation can be momentarily suspended or elevated. The Holy Spirit performs a supernatural work that lifts the mind and soul where no natural effort could ever take it. The Word of the Fathertouches the mind, completely captivating it and bathing it in such wonder that it is difficult to think or finish a meditation.
Sometimes these moments of wonder and ecstasy continue even while the soul does not realize what has happened to it. It can also be the case that the soul feels a certain frustration during this disruptive but transformative change in prayer. It is common that the soul feels it might be unproductive and wasting its time because the soul does not recognize that these sparks of mystical prayer are a transitional call into even deeper encounters with the Lord. Because this new and unfamiliar kind of prayer is such a great work in the soul, those that experience it need to patiently yield to the Holy Spirit and try not to force themselves back into a discursive mode of prayer.
Discerning Authentic Contemplative Prayer:The great mystic of Avila then explains how to determine whether “favors” or what seem to be contemplative graces are authentic.
It is clear from St. Teresa’s inference that these kinds of experiences can emanate either from our imagination or from the deception of the enemy. Souls that are addicted to sweetness and satisfaction in prayer are vulnerable to grave deceptions. Her wisdom offers a more reliable standard for discernment.
The central question when discerning whether or not “sweetness” in prayer is from God concerns what St. Teresa calls “the results.” The fruit that remains afterward is the primary determining factor, not the consolation itself.
Do these experiences inflame the heart to self-giving to God and others or do they produce pride and confusion? Any breaking forth of affections that bind us more deeply in service to Christ and His Mystical Body following from prayer, even when the intellect feels unproductive and reason remains unsatisfied, can only come from the Spirit of Love Himself.
In contrast, false mystical graces will leave the soul self-centered, lacking in peace (usually after an initial good feeling), and generally disposed to self-interest with a focus on the experience rather than self-forgetfulness and self-giving.