March 5, 2009

Teresa of Avila

Teresa of Avila wrote an autobiography (Life or La Vida) which offers powerful descriptions on the life of prayer. I find this work especially suited to those just beginning the spiritual life because it validates so many of those early experiences that one questions at first. The first nine chapters are about her life - up to the time of her conversion. In chapter nine, she speaks about a definitive experience, one that set her in a direction from which there would be no turning back. By this stage of her life, she was a middle aged nun living a mediocre prayer life and motivated a little more by her desire for friendship and to impress others than she was her love of God. On her way to chapel to pray the psalms with her community, she was thinking about this very thing, and felt disturbed by it. That is when "it" happened.

She glanced at a statue and the statue seemed to be staring back at her. She experienced the look of Jesus through the eyes of the statue. The statue itself depicted Jesus as he stood before Pontius Pilate - scourged for our offenses, beaten and mocked in a purple robe and a crown of thorns. She was not looking at her with disappointment or anger - a look she thought she deserved. Instead, he was gazing at her in love. His gaze of love pierced her to the heart and she fell on her knees and began to cry. What she experienced was a gift. The ancients called it "the gift of tears." It is really a gift of prayer. This experience was so strong she will go on to develop a description of growth in prayer in terms of these kind of tears.

She descibes prayer in terms of watering a garden. The garden is that place in our hearts where we encounter Christ and she explains we must cultivater virtues there so that this encounter will be more beautiful. The water she has in mind is the gift of tears. There are four ways she experienced this gift. For her, each of the ways marked another stage in her growth of prayer.

The first way of prayer she describes in terms of drawing water from a well. One draws this water by thinking about one's life and the life of Christ. In thinking about the life of Christ, she refers to a practice the Society of Jesus identifies as composition of place - imagining oneself in various scenes from the Scriptures. Honestly looking at one's life and thinking about Christ for long periods of time (she recommends two hours a day - but thirty minutes is a good start) is hard work, takes determination, perseverance and confidence in the Lord.

The second way of prayer is to use a windlass to pump the water out of the well. This kind of prayer is an awareness of a quieting presence of God in the soul. She calls it Prayer of Quiet. This prayer does not take as much effort. In fact, it cannot be forced because the soul does not do it as much as simply recieve it. Spiritual theologians well say that the difference between the first and the second kinds of prayer is that one is ascetical - a cooperation with God's grace, while the other is mystical - the operation of God's grace which the soul can produce but can only sanction.

The other two kinds of prayer are also mystical- intensifications of this quiet experience. They are called the sleep of the faculties and the prayer of union. The former she describes as a canal or river that flows through the soul. This flow is so great that the soul experiences the urge to break forth in praise and jubilation. The prayer of union she likens to a gentle rain storm and it involves the total surrender of one's will to God.

Seeing prayer in this way is directly related to her experience on the way to chapel. For her there is a primacy of grace. Because the Lord breaks into our lives and pierces our hearts, we find the motivation to be determined in the beginning and to become more and more open as we mature. Her whole teaching on prayer is centered on this encounter, a true encounter with Christ crucified - Risen from the Dead.