According to St. Teresa of Avila—one of the Church’s great spiritual masters—prayer is a matter of coming into living contact with Jesus; it is not just recitation and repetition. Simply going through the motions doesn’t deserve the noble title of “prayer,” and it won’t lead to the union of our souls with Jesus. It was only through her living contact with Jesus that St. Teresa began to love him.
Before she started praying with sincerity and devotion, St. Teresa was typically preoccupied with waiting for her allotted prayer time to end and listening for the striking of the clock. (This is reassuring for those of us who find that prayer challenges our attention spans.) St. Teresa actually spent more than eighteen years struggling in her prayer, pulled between conversing with God and being caught up in the activities of the world.
But eventually she recognized the need to focus on whom we are praying to with our minds, not just our mouths. In Interior Castle she wrote, “If a person does not think [of] Whom he is addressing, and what he is asking for, and who it is that is asking and of Whom he is asking it, I do not consider that he is praying at all even though he be constantly moving his lips.”
And in the book she wrote especially for the young sisters of her order, The Way of Perfection, she begs them not to address God while they are thinking of other things.
Teresa also compares a person’s relationship to Jesus with a woman’s relationship to her husband. A good wife knows her husband. She understands him, cares for him, and is attentive to him. When he speaks to her, she listens. And when she speaks to him, she knows the person she’s talking to. Because of their personal knowledge, their conversations have the potential to be more than just empty exchanges of words. Similarly, if a soul knows Jesus, understands him, cares about him, and is attentive to him, prayer can be truly meaningful. At the root of prayer is a relationship of love.
St. Teresa warns against reciting the Our Father or attending Mass without thinking about the encounter with Christ. Staying focused in prayer requires effort and discipline; it’s often easier to daydream. But the soul will begin to experience the presence of Jesus in a deeper way when it engages him directly. St. Teresa refers to the early stages of prayer as “frequent solitary conversation with Him who, as we know, loves us.”
Tasting the sweetness of loving conversation with Jesus, even in its simplest form, makes the soul yearn for more. However, this doesn’t imply that prayer will always be easy. St. Teresa refers to the four stages of prayer in terms of “the four methods of watering.”
The soul’s effort to unite with Jesus in prayer is sometimes like drawing water from a well: it involves a lot of muscle power and labor. At other times, by God’s grace, the efforts are less difficult, like collecting water from a water wheel. Occasionally a soul will be able to simply draw water from a “river” that God provides in his goodness. And if God sees fit, he can even send a heavenly spiritual rain that requires no action from the soul.
Since God’s wisdom and timing—not our power—bring the heavenly showers, we are to simply focus on that which is in our power. We draw water from the “well” by staying dedicated to our prayer time and keeping our attention focused, until God should lead us somewhere else. But even this stage, with all its effort, can be a joy because it is an expression of love for Jesus.
The stronger this loving relationship becomes, the more perfectly united the soul is to Jesus.
St. Teresa’s prayer life did culminate in the “spiritual rain” of mystical union with Christ. Evidence of her celestial transports is present throughout her writings. She sometimes interrupted everything to converse with Jesus in the eloquent language of prayer. Yet she remained remarkably down-to-earth for a woman who experienced divine rapture on a regular basis. At her more advanced stages of spiritual life, Teresa’s union with Jesus was so profound that she was aware of his presence in her soul every minute. This is why she thought nothing of pausing to speak with him every now and again. By sharing these intimate moments in her writings, St.Teresa has left us a beautiful testimony to the fruits of loving Jesus with the whole soul.