St. Teresa of Avila Speaks on Mental Prayer
Searching God. “We need no wings to go in search of God, but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.” These words were written by St. Teresa of Avila in her book The Way of Perfection.
St. Teresa of Avila learned as a small child that one had to die in order to see God. Little Teresa wanted to see God. Practical and courageous by temperament she devised a scheme. She and her brother, Rodrigo, would go to the land of the Moors. There they would surely be martyred and Heaven would receive them. Very early one morning the two children stole away from their home and crossed the bridge leading out of Avila. But the plan soon ran into trouble. An uncle who happened to be entering Avila at the time, met the children, heard their fantastic plan and unceremoniously returned them to their parental dwelling.
Later on in life St. Teresa realized that one does not have to die to see God. “We need no wings to go in search of Him,” she wrote, “but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.” These words of the saint contain three essential steps for fruitful mental prayer. First, we must be searching for God; second, we must be willing to be alone with Him, and third, we need but look upon Our Lord Who is present within us.
At first sight, this advice might seem too general or too obvious to be of practical help in mental prayer, but the three steps go to the heart of the matter. St. Teresa is the antidote for those who can’t see the forest for the trees. With a woman’s intuition she cuts through the accidental and points out the essential conditions for mental prayer. Let us look at each of these principles in some detail.
First, we must be searching for God. If God is just a name, if His love for us is an abstract truth which we believe but do not realize, we will hardly search for Him. Mental prayer is too difficult for that. It will lack appeal. If, on the other hand, we are convinced that God is in Teresa’s words “a better prize than any earthly love,” if we realize that we actually have within us something incomparably more precious than anything we see outside, then we will desire to enter within ourselves and to seek God. When we are convinced that He cares for us and waits for us, we will have the security and the courage to love Him in return.
The second principle of St. Teresa’s advice. The willingness to spend time alone with God. For this saint, prayer is the way of perfection, the door to God’s great favors. “Once this door is closed,” she writes, “I do not see how He will bestow His favors for though He may wish to take His delight in the soul and give the soul delight, there is no way for Him to do so since He must have it alone and pure and desirous of receiving His favors.” Teresa herself closed this door for one year of her life, during the long 18-year period of mediocrity which she describes as a struggle to reconcile these two contradictory things: the life of the spirit and the pleasures of the senses.
St. Teresa’s third principle is the answer. Simply look upon God present within your soul. The saint repeats this suggestion in many different ways. We are to fix our mind on the person of God, cultivate the sense of His Presence, have the realization of Whom we are addressing. This is her secret. You will find no new method of mental prayer in St. Teresa, no structuring of preludes and points. She is silent on these matters not because she is against them, but because she reduces mental prayer to its simplest terms. To certain nuns of her convent who objected that mental prayer was beyond their ability she wrote: “I am not asking you now to think of Him or to form numerous conceptions of Him, or to make long and subtle meditations with your understanding. I am asking only to look at Him.” It is as simple as that.
“Beginners,” she says, “do well to form an appealing image of Christ in His Sacred Humanity. They should picture Him within themselves in some mystery of His life.