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Saint Teresa of Avila, part 4

1 July 2024

Saint Teresa of Avila, Part 4 | The Year of Prayer

By Joey Belleza, PhD (Cantab.)
This instalment will sum up our mini-series on Saint Teresa of Avila. Thus far, we have examined the first three stages of prayer, which she compares, sequentially, to drawing water from a well, to drawing water from a mill or windlass, and to drawing water from a stream or river. Each stage represents an increasing facility in watering the garden of one’s prayer life. Finally, in the fourth stage of prayer, the garden is watered by rain that pours down from the heavenly Father himself. Here, the labour of the first three stages gives way to the pure gratuity of God’s grace, such that the Christian might even be flooded by the love of God to the point of a rapture. This is where “the faculties of the soul” remain “in a state of suspension,” and “all outward strength vanishes, while the strength of the soul increases so that it may better have the fruition of this bliss” (The Life of Saint Teresa, ch. 18). This temporary abstraction from sensible or intellectual experience, as Teresa describes it, seems similar to Saint Paul’s own ascent to “the third heaven” as recounted in 2 Corinthians 12. However, we should remember that such an experience of rapture is a special gift of God, and that the Christian who does not receive this gift is no less capable of union with God. In fact, Teresa distinguishes between the “elevation” or “rapture” of the soul, on one hand, and the union with God which one may experience in the fourth stage of prayer. Rapture is often a sign of a special union, but union with God is also manifested when the soul actively knows and loves God. Indeed, the benefits enjoyed after rapture continue to manifest the soul’s union with God. Such a soul, “without knowing it, and doing nothing consciously to that end, begins to benefit its neighbours, and they become aware of this benefit because the flowers now have so powerful a fragrance as to make the neighbours desire to approach them” (The Life of Saint Teresa, ch. 19). The garden of the soul flourishes without the fatigue of the first two stages, and this flourishing comes from the rain which God himself sends down. Let us see discover further what the saint means when distinguishing rapture from union.
In these raptures the soul seems no longer to animate the body, and thus the natural heat of the body is felt to be very sensibly diminished: it gradually becomes colder, though conscious of the greatest sweetness and delight. No means of resistance is possible, whereas in union, where we are on our own ground, such a means exists: resistance may be painful and violent, but it can always almost be effected. But with rapture, as a rule, there is no such possibility. Often it comes like a strong, swift impulse, before your thought can forewarn you of it or before you can do anything to help yourself. You see and feel this cloud, or this powerful eagle, rising and bearing up up with it on its wings.
Notice how Teresa distinguishes union as occurring “when we are on our own ground.” This passage also suggests that, while rapture consists of a certain disjunction of body and soul, union occurs when the body and soul are once again in active harmony, when we are possessed of our normal faculties, and thus when we are fully free to even “resist” union. Thus, rapture is never the end or purpose of mystical experience, but is only a further means toward the union wherein the entire human creature, in body and soul, participates actively in the life of virtue. As we close our reflections on Saint Teresa, let us not be discouraged if we never experience the extraordinary transverberations, ecstasies, and levitations granted to exceptional saints like her. Even for such famous mystics, such experiences were never everyday occurrences but gifts given by God at times and places of his choosing. Rather, let us enter the fourth stage of prayer by being mindful of all the graces which God already pours down abundantly on us, and to unite ourselves to him not only in moments of solitary prayer and contemplation, but also in every act of perfect charity toward our neighbours. Thus the fragrance of God’s grace will continue to attract more souls to the garden of heavenly delights. In the next three instalments, we will shift our focus to another high medieval Doctor of the Church and contemporary of Saint Thomas Aquinas: the Franciscan theologian Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio.
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Saint Teresa of Avila, part 3

15 June 2024

Saint Teresa of Avila, Part 3 | The Year of Prayer

By Joey Belleza, PhD (Cantab.)

Proceeding along in our focus on St Teresa of Avila, we come to her third stage of prayer, which she likens to watering a garden from a river or spring. Unlike the first two stages—drawing from a well and using a water mill—in this stage, the difficulty is taken away almost completely, since a natural source of water supplies the garden by its own power. Here, the faculties of intellect and will are almost in complete harmony and union with God, receiving his consolation in greater measure while expending little effort. The soul reaches a level of humility surpassing that gained in the Prayer of Quiet, for “it sees clearly that it has done nothing at all of itself save to consent that the Lord shall grant it favours and to receive them with its will” (The Life of Teresa, ch. 17).

This third stage of prayer corresponds to the fifth of the seven mansions described by Teresa in The Interior Castle. The fifth mansion, marked by the “prayer of simple union,” is marked by the realization that a greater peace is bestowed when the soul no longer competes against God, but comes to work in cooperation with God, even if the soul does not understand the full extent and measure of God’s wisdom and love. In The Life of Teresa, this means that the memory and imagination remain free but operate in conjunction with God’s goodness, such that the mind continues to work toward contemplation of God throughout the experiences of life. Whereas in the previous stage, the soul rests in the “holy repose which belongs to Mary [of Bethany],” in the third stage this holy repose “can also be that of Martha” (The Life of Teresa, ch. 17). The active life is brought up into the contemplative life, and the synthesis of these two states represents a true flowering of the garden. “Already the flowers are opening: they are beginning to send out their fragrance” (The Life of Teresa, ch. 16).

Notice that, for Teresa, an increasing mystical union with God does not mean forgetting one’s place in the world in a flight from everyday existence, but in a virtuous growth that allows one to live well, no matter one’s state of life. Fortified by the life of prayer, the virtues are made incarnate in our own daily deeds, and the mind does not cease contemplating the things of God through the works of creation. In this mystical union, “the soul realizes that the will is captive and rejoicing, and that it alone is experiencing great quiet, while, on the other hand, the intellect and the memory as so free that they can attend to business and do works of charity” (The Life of Teresa, ch. 17). This description corresponds to the sixth mansion in The Interior Castle, wherein the gift of heavenly contemplation given to Teresa is poured forth and continues during her daily labours and tasks in the monastery.

In this Year of Prayer, let us consider what Teresa teaches us in this third stage. The mystic’s ascent to God through prayer involves the concretization of the life of virtue. Mysticism is not merely a heightened sense of self-awareness, nor an abstract emotional or affective state, nor elevation into a state of rapture alone. Instead, the life of prayer, fed directly by streams of living water flowing from the side of Christ, brings forth its flowers and fruit in the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. By doing so, we follow Christ’s own synthesis of the Law and Prophets, expressed in his two great commandments: to love God above all, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

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Saint Teresa of Avila, part 2

28 May 2024

Saint Teresa of Avila, Part 2 | The Year of Prayer

By Joey Belleza, PhD (Cantab.)

In the previous instalment, we introduced the four stages of prayer according to Saint Teresa of Avila, which she likens to four ways of watering a garden. The first stage, compared to the laborious act of drawing water from a well, requires the most effort: perseverance in the habit of prayer requires a habituation to its discipline and a concurrent struggle against the acedia or laziness which might hinder our ascent to God. One must face this initial stage of difficulty with courage and with joy, knowing that our endurance in the present will reap rewards in the future.

In this reflection, we consider the second stage of prayer, which Teresa likens to drawing water from a windlass or water mill. Once the trials of the first stage are passed, one advances in prayer with a little more ease, making use of a machine that draws water by harnessing the forces of nature. Here, the Lord grants more supernatural consolations as a recompense for the struggles of the first stage. The soul is now permitted to enter what Teresa calls “the Prayer of Quiet” or “Devotion of Peace,” a state which she describes as

a recollecting of the faculties of the soul [i.e., the intellect and the will], so that its fruition of that contentment may be of greater delight. But the faculties are not lost, nor do they sleep. The will alone is occupied in such a way that, without knowing how, it becomes captive. It allows itself to be imprisoned by God, as one who knows well itself to be the captive of Whom it loves. (The Life of Saint Teresa, chapter 14).

In other words, the intellect is no longer struggling to understand the reason why one ought to pray, as it may have done in the first stage. Rather, the intellect “rests” in its understanding of the new consolations which it enjoys in the present stage. The will, on the other hand, continues to love God, and this desire for him never ceases. This unceasing reach toward God is no longer a laborious struggle but a contentedness in recognizing that one’s humble position before God. Indeed, the will of human person becomes so completely conformed to the will of Father in imitation of Christ, that the Christian no longer struggles with competing desires. Rather, by uniting one’s desires to the desires of God, the false allure of competing desires is erased, and the soul more efficiently draws from wellspring of salvation.

In our prayer lives, let us seek the consolations gained by uniting our will to the will of God. As Christ taught to pray “thy will be done” in the Lord’s prayer, we live out that petition concretely by actively discerning God’s will and ordering our desires according to his heart. In doing so, we might enter the Devotion of Peace, and realize the truth which Dante Alighieri came to recognize in Paradiso: E ‘n la la sua voluntade è nostra pace—“in His will is our peace.”

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Saint Teresa of Avila, part 1

18 May 2024

Saint Teresa of Avila, Part 1 | The Year of Prayer

By Joey Belleza, PhD (Cantab.)

In the next four instalments, we will look at prayer through the eyes of another great Doctor of the Church, the Spanish mystic and founder of the Discalced Carmelites, Saint Teresa of Avila. Born in 1515 and died in 1582, Teresa lived in a time wherein the Church in Europe was shaken by both the Protestant Reformation and by internal crises, and was in desperate need of reform. Such external tumult is often the sign of a severe spiritual malaise, and Saint Teresa responded to the crisis of her era through a deep attachment to the power of prayer, understanding this to be the only effective counter to the spiritual needs of the Church.

She considers prayer in her two major works, namely, the autobiographical Life of Teresa of Jesus and her devotional-mystical work The Interior Castle. In the following reflections on Saint Teresa and prayer, we will focus principally on insights from The Life of Teresa, with occasional references to the Interior Castle.

Particularly, we will look at the analogy Teresa offers in her autobiography of the development of the life of prayer. She considers four ways to water a garden, which are likened to four stages through which one’s life of prayer grows.

It seems to me that the garden can be watered in four ways: [1] by taking the water from a well, which costs us great labour; or [2] by a water wheel and buckets, when the water is drawn by a windlass (I have sometimes drawn it in this way: it is less laborious and gives more water; or [3] by a stream or brook, which waters the ground much better, for it saturates the ground more thoroughly; or [4] by heavy rain, when the Lord waters it with no labour of ours, a way incomparably better than any of this which have been described. (The Life of Teresa, Chapter 11)

The first stage, like drawing water from a well, is like the first stage of prayer. Put very simply, Teresa is saying that beginners in the life of prayer must work hard to make a habit of its practices, “because they have become accustomed to a life of distraction.” Distractions in prayer are familiar to all of us, but this can perhaps be understood at a deeper level too: the less one prays, the less one is focussed on the spiritual realm and the more one’s mind is occupied by the earthly. We are therefore not only more distracted when we come to pray, but we are also less motivated, insofar as we have not convinced ourselves sufficiently of the importance of prayer by the fact of not putting it into practice. Building up this habit of doing something that is not yet deeply embedded in our psyche as a necessary part of our daily life is hard work.

Indeed, for many days, one may experience “aridity, dislike, distaste, and so little desire to go and draw water that he would give it up entirely.” Yet, just as Christ endured the suffering of the Cross, the Christian is called to endure the little crosses of this first stage, confident that such labour is pleasing to God and thus truly important. As Teresa says of her own experience, “it is quite certain that a single one of those hours in which the Lord has granted me to taste of Himself has seemed to me a later recompense for all the afflictions which I endured over a long period while keeping up the practice of prayer.” Similarly, we can be confident that the fruits of prayer, especially those that emerge later on, will make the earlier struggles entirely worthwhile. And what greater model is there for this perseverance than Christ’s Passion, without which the fruits of Easter and Pentecost, which we have only just finished celebrating, would not have been possible.

Our present day also has crises of its own, and the Church is in no less need of faithful witnesses supported by steadfast prayer in order to enlighten a world that seeks solutions in human wisdom alone. Let us also persevere in our own lives of prayer, so that the difficulties we endure and the struggle we engage in presently might lead to the same future recompense granted to Teresa.

In the following instalments, we will focus on the successive three stages of prayer according to Saint Teresa.

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The Spanish Mystics

Saints, Scholars & Spiritual Masters
#6 Saints Teresa of Avila & John of the Cross

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The sixth talk of Saints, Scholars and Spiritual Masters looks at two giants of the interior life: St Theresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. The profound mysticism of these two well-loved, Spanish saints did not detract from their pragmatic determinedness. Together, they reformed the Carmelite order in Spain, founding no less than 23 monasteries between them and effectively establishing the order of Discalced Carmelites. The hardships and difficulties they both endured in pursuing their vocation and in reforming their order were only met with a strength that was founded on their deep love for Christ, which was also the foundation of the great friendship between them.

About the speaker:

Fr Matthew Blake is a Carmelite priest. Originally from Ireland, he has lived and worked  in the UK for more than thirty years. His ministry has mainly involved retreat direction, for which he is well-known in the UK, and he has also worked in many different parishes.


Other videos in the series: