Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap
This year the Carmelite family is jubilantly celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of St Teresa of Avila, commonly known as St Teresa of Jesus. In his letter to the Carmelite Order which commemorates this special event Pope Francis aptly describes St Teresa as “primarily a teacher of prayer” (no.1).
The Holy Father recalled how St Teresa “was convinced of the value of continuous prayer, even if it was not always perfect” ( no 1). In her spiritual classic called The Interior Castle, the saint teaches us the various stages of mystical prayer. She says that growing in prayer is like journeying into seven apartments of a castle. As a seasoned spiritual teacher St Teresa humbly unravels the struggle she herself experienced throughout her prayer life. “It may be that I am contradicting what I myself have said elsewhere. This is not surprising, because almost fifteen years have passed since then, and perhaps the Lord has now given me a clearer realization of these matters than I had at first” (Fourth Mansions, chap. 2).
There are three characteristics which personally struck me in St Teresa’s quest for God through prayer. These three stages are pivotal for fruitful mental prayer. Firstly, the person has to be resolute in his/her search for God. Secondly, the person should be ready to spend time with God by himself/herself. Thirdly, the person must look for God as He is present within him/her.
In St Teresa’s words, God is “a better prize than any earthly love.” Hence, a powerful way of meeting Him is via mental prayer. For this Doctor of the Church “the important thing in mental prayer is not to think much but to love much.” And loving such an awesome God! Later on in her life St Teresa regretted the time when she did not recognize who this God really is. She confides: “I think that if I had understood then as I do now that this great King really dwells within a little palace of my soul, I should not have left Him alone so often and never allowed his dwelling place to get so dirty.” Thus, searching for God basically means being aware of who God is.
The second step within the mental prayer journey, as expounded by St Teresa, is spending time with God. And meeting Him as we are, happy or sad, certain or doubtful, optimistic or depressed. Let us not forget that for St Teresa true love “consists not in the extent of our own happiness, but in the firmness of our determination to please God in everything.” In her perspective the best prayer time we can spend with God is the one wherein we don’t feel like to pray, when we feel exhausted or tormented by self-pity and depression. It is our own will to be alone with God and communicate with Him that will eventually open our soul to savour God’s delight and receive his life-giving favours.
The last stage of mental prayer, which is an iter of “love and the formation of a habit”, is our loving answer to God’s love by looking upon Him who is inherently present within our soul. To some nuns of her own convent who were critical of her mental prayer and lamented that they were incapable of praticising it St Teresa wrote to them: “I am not asking you now to think of Him or to form numerous conceptions of Him, orto make long and subtle meditations with your understanding. I am asking only to look at Him.” Regarding beginners in mental prayer St Teresa writes: “They should picture Him (Christ) within themselves in some mystery of His life, for example, the Christ of the agony or theRisen Savior in His glorified Body Once they are conscious of Our Lord’s presence within their souls they need only look upon Him and conversation will follow. This friendly conversation will not be much thinking but much loving, not a torrent of words, much less a strained prepared speech, but rather a relaxed conversation with moments of silence as there must be between friends.”
If God is the best friend I can ever have why not spending time with Him everyday in prayer?