January 29, 2011

Teresa of Avila and the Mystery of Deep Prayer

Teresa's discovery of deep prayer at about forty years of age not only renewed the society of 16th Century Spain, but it brought new life to the whole Church at a time when such life was most needed.   What was true then, is also true today:  Christianity will only remain a vital force in our culture to the extent that Christians enter into the depths of prayer.  

The world needs what is most authentically human - the tenderness, courage and greatness that comes to the fore in our hearts when we live life to the full.  The secret to the fullness of life is to know God. Only God can reveal the truth about who we really are.  Only He can restore the divine likeness which we are meant to have.

Teresa, although a pious religious, had come to dread deep prayer.  She was experiencing something that everyone experiences in varying degrees in their relationship with the Lord.  At a certain stage along the way, something in us resists the grace of prayer.  But to resist such a grace is to resist love, and to resist love, this is to resist our own humanity.  Always degrading, unchecked dark tendencies of which we are scarcely aware take hold.  In Teresa's case, these included pride, her desire to be in control, and the joy she placed in being highly regarded by others.   If the Lord did not intervene, her hard heart would limit his ability to show her the truth and restore the image of his glory He created her to be.

Thus, her experience on the way to chapel when she saw a statue of Jesus was a very important moment.  She had begun to glimpse her mediocrity and all the ways she had failed to fully follow the Lord, but how to move beyond the comfortable life she made for herself?  She had no idea.  She wanted a deeper devotion, a more authentic relationship with the Lord.  Yet such a friendship seemed impossible because she felt she had been unfaithful to his many generous and undeserved invitations.

The statue showed the Lord after the scourging that the pillar.  She had probably passed by it before and not even noticed it.  But this time, as she walked by - it was as if the statue was looking right at her, or better, as if Jesus was looking at her through the statue.  The look was not one of condemnation.  Rather, it was a gaze of love.  She suddenly realized that He who was scourged for her sake was gazing on her with love, and love alone.  He was awaiting her, searching for her heart, longing for her friendship.  This look pierced her to the core - it shattered her pride, made her surrender her desire to be in control, and made the esteem of others completely irrelevant.  She fill on her knees, tears flowed, and her heart surrendered.

This was the beginning of many profound encounters with Jesus.  She loved to return to his look of love again and again in her heart.  She would meditate on the Scriptures to try to find that look and to consider the inexhaustible depths of meaning it contained - those rich treasures of knowing Him and herself in relation to Him.  And for her humble efforts to find Him, He would entrust Himself to her in deeper and deeper ways.  It was out of this relationship that she had courage to lead a whole movement to deep prayer throughout Spain, and around the world.  Not everyone appreciated the new vitality she promoted through the contemplative life.  In prayer, however, she found so much courage and determination that even her worst critics eventually changed their minds and decided to live a life of prayer themselves.

Those who want to pray in a way that will change the world must allow Him to lead them into the deepest depths of prayer.  This means, they must allow Him to make them uncomfortable with where they are at in their lives.  It is a tremendous grace to be unsettled with the state of one's relationship with God.  It is pure gift to yearn for something deeper and more authentic in one's life.  This kind of discomfort is a special preparation for the most wonderful and beautiful encounters this life has to offer.  It is the threshold to the humanizing power of deep prayer.

The Life of Teresa of Avila, the sort of spiritual autobiography she penned under obedience, shows the kind of life and the wonderful fruits deep prayer produces.   In deep prayer, yet undiscovered potentialities of the human heart are constantly unlocked, and the world is given back a little hope it once lost.  This pilgrimage is one of love - where new and mysterious encounters of the Risen Lord are waiting to take place.