Between Friends: The Feast of St Teresa of Avila
For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.
St Teresa of Avila: The Book of Her Life, ch. 8, 5.
Although we might associate St Teresa’s spirituality with the extraordinary—with her numerous visions, locutions, and ecstasies—yet for her, these were never the main issue, much less the goal of her prayer. Even if paintings and sculptures tend to showcase the more dramatic elements of her mystical experience her focus always remained sharply fixed in one place: union or conformity with the will of God. Any prayer that fails to lead us into harmony with the Lord’s will disqualifies itself from being authentically Christian. The simple petition “Thy will be done” of the Lord’s Prayer, taken as seriously as Jesus intends it to be taken, cinches the point.
Anyone aspiring after prayer and perfection should read and reread what Teresa reminds her fellow Carmelites of:
The whole aim of any person who is beginning prayer—and don’t forget this, because it’s very important—should be that he work and prepare himself with determination and every possible effort to bring his will into conformity with God’s will. Be certain that … the greatest perfection attainable along the spiritual path lies in this conformity…. Don’t think that in what concerns perfection there is some mystery or things unknown or still to be understood, for in perfect conformity to God’s will lies all our good.1
When people embark on the spiritual life and the practice of prayer, many get temporarily sidetracked by taking the extraordinary for the norm, expecting their prayer life to develop (sooner rather than later) into a series of locutions, ecstasies, raptures, etc. Although some lives of the Saints give the impression of holiness equaling the unusual, these experiences remain the exception—given by God to some for a special mission in the Church. Such was St Teresa’s case.
And her mission teaches us that all Christians are called to a union with God that bears its own unique fruit. When we surrender to the will of God, actively trying to conform ourselves to it, the collaboration yields the gospel “thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mk 4:8). Although human hands sow, the Lord alone grants the increase—and He delights to “give success to the work of our hands” (Ps 90:17).
Saint Teresa, in fact, says this is the goal of even the highest forms of prayer. At the end of her classic Interior Castle, where you might expect her to end her exploration of the interior life ‘in the clouds,’ we find her heels dug firmly into the earth: “This is the reason for prayer, my daughters, the purpose of this spiritual marriage: the birth always of good works, good works.”2 Good works, the fruit of all authentic prayer, are the organic offshoots of union with God, of remaining in Him:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (Jn 15:4-5)
Between the union (the mutual abiding) and the fruit-bearing, a special bond must exist. Since people do not readily conform to the will of those whom they do not love, St Teresa makes clear that the conformity she describes has no other name than friendship. Yes, all authentic prayer must begin and end with God’s will, but we can only conform ourselves to His will if we know Him as our Lover. Love seldom factors into the balance of the master-slave or prisoner-warden relationships. Bowing to the will of another in such cases arises only out of some necessity or fear and is better called “compliance” or “submission.”
But what the Lord asks of us in conforming to His will is, above all, our trust and confidence—the main ingredients of friendship. St Teresa explains:
In order that love be true and the friendship endure, the wills of the friends must be in accord. The will of the Lord, it is already known, cannot be at fault; our will is vicious, sensual, and ungrateful. And if you do not yet love Him as He loves you because you have not reached the degree of conformity with His will, you will endure this pain of spending a long while with one who is so different from you when you see how much it benefits you to possess His friendship and how much He loves you.3
In 2015 when Carmelites all over the world celebrated the fifth centenary of the birth of St Teresa of Jesus, they chose as their jubilee theme not a teaching or saying from any of her classic mystical works, but rather “For You I was born”—a short verse from “In the Hands of God,”4 one of her most memorable poems It was as though her entire spirituality were summed up in this line, forming a part of the poem’s refrain: “Yours I am, for You I was born: What do you want of me?”
In this one verse conformity, union, and friendship dovetail. And indeed, throughout the poem’s 12 stanzas St Teresa sings of God’s will like one in love. Whether He gives dryness or consolation in the Saint’s prayer, whether He wills her to rest or to “die working,” whether He grants light or darkness, she is prepared to accept all from her “sweet Spouse.”
Although she lists many possibilities of what God may ask of her, St Teresa’s purpose in life is to do one thing, which in practice is many things: the will of God. Just as Jesus gives several purposes for His coming among us—e.g., to fulfill the law, to bear witness to the truth, to save what was lost, to serve—all is resolved in one thing: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 6:38). His Father’s will is, for Jesus, both His “food” and “work” (cf. Jn 4:34).
Likewise, the will of God for any of us is not something vague or far-off. It is as concrete as food and work, as unmistakable as sickness or health, peace or trouble, joy or suffering—or any of the other alternatives Teresa proposes in her poem. And this returns us to the goal of our prayer. Prayer can feel aimless, seem vague, look dark—yet the point of praying is not how it makes us feel, but what it makes us do.
For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Dt 30:11-14)
If prayer is in our mouths and hearts then it is not only an act of worship, it is also an act of love, even of friendship. It is, as St Josemaria says, “a very personal inner conversation between yourself and God” that yields a harvest of righteousness (Friends of God, no. 133).
1 Saint Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, tr. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez, vol. 2 (I.C.S. Publications: Washington, D.C., 1985), p. 301.
2 Interior Castle, Book VII, ch. 4, no. 6.
3 The Book of Her Life, Ch. 8, 5.
4 Saint Teresa of Avila, “In the Hands of God,” The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, tr. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez, vol. 3 (I.C.S. Publications: Washington, D.C., 1985), pp. 377-379.