Dan Burke is an award-winning author, writer, and speaker on Catholic spirituality. He has written and/or edited nine books on faithful Catholic spirituality and is the Executive Director and writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register. Dan is the president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and the creator of Divine Intimacy Radio and SpiritualDirection.com.
It's tempting to give up on prayer, especially when we aren't seeing results or when the results we do see aren't what we want. St. Teresa's answer, though, is that we shouldn't ever give up on prayer.
In the following excerpt from 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, you'll read Teresa's advice for all of us. If you'd like to hear more discussion about this topic, be sure to listen to Melissa Elson and I discuss this letter on Divine Intimacy Radio.
And if you find yourself wanting to know more about St. Teresa of Avila, you'll want to be sure to register for my next webinar, "On the Road to Holiness with St. Teresa of Avila."
Segovia, July 3, 1574*
To Don Teutonio de Braganza, Salamanca
The Saint rejects a title of honor. The foundation at Segovia. Trials of prayer. Father Pedro Hernandez.
May the grace of the Holy Spirit be with your Lordship!
I declare that if you address me again by such a title I will not answer your Lordship. I do not know why you wish to inflict on me the pain such titles always give me, although I never felt it so keenly as I have today. Inquire of the Father Rector how to style me**; what you wrote is entirely opposed to the spirit of our Order. I am glad to hear that he is in good health, as I was anxious about him. Will you kindly remember me to him.
This seems to me a very unsuitable season in which to begin your cure. God grant it may succeed, as I pray that it may! May His Majesty also grant a safe journey to your attendants. But I wish you were not so concerned about the matter. How can that benefit your health? Oh! If we only realized such truths, how few things on earth would trouble us!
I sent your letters at once and wrote to the Father Rector, telling him that it was important for the affair to be settled immediately. I owe much to him: he found us a house which we have already purchased, thank God! Will you tell the Father Rector this? It is a fine, well situated building adjoining the one we are in. It belonged to a gentleman named Diego de Porras. Father Acosta will describe it to you. Will you give him my kind regards and say that his novices are better pleased every day, as we are with them. They and all the sisters beg to be remembered in your Lordship’s prayers. But how ill-mannered I am to give you such messages! However, your humility leads you to submit to whatever is done to you.
You should take no notice of the temptation to give up prayer and should thank God for your desire of practicing it. Be assured that your will wishes to pray and loves to be in God’s presence. Nature complains at the idea of using self-constraint. When you feel oppressed, you should move occasionally to some place where you can look at the sky and should walk about for a short time. This will not break off your prayer, and human frailty must be humored lest nature succumb. We are seeking God by such means since we take them for His sake, and the soul must be led gently. However, in this as in all else, the Father Rector will know better than I how to advise you.
We are writing to the Father Visitor who is travelling by slow stages, though the important matter is that you should interview him as he will visit your neighborhood.
I am in good health; God grant that you are and that the cure may benefit you greatly. Today is the third of July.
Your Lordship’s unworthy servant and subject,
Teresa de Jesus, Carmelite
Perseverance: The temptation to give up prayer is one that St. Teresa herself fell prey to, much to her dismay. She knows well that there are many reasons, all of them bad, that pilgrims on the way cease to pray.
In her case, she convinced herself that her desire for prayer was a lack of humility. It seemed obviously presumptuous to dare to approach God in prayer after having sinned. This kind of self-judgment is very dangerous. About this danger she says in her autobiography:
In this the devil turned his batteries against me, and I suffered so much because I thought it showed but little humility if I persevered in prayer when I was so wicked, that, as I have already said, I gave it up for a year and a half—at least for a year, but I do not remember distinctly the other six months. This could not have been, neither was it, anything else but to throw myself down into hell; there was no need of any devils to drag me thither. O my God, was there ever blindness so great as this? How well Satan prepares his measures for his purpose when he pursues us in this way! The traitor knows that he has already lost that soul which perseveres in prayer, and that every fall which he can bring about helps it, by the goodness of God, to make greater progress in His service. Satan has some interest in this.
Beyond this tormenting lack of trust that masquerades as humility, she also reveals a few more common reasons for abandonment of prayer. The first is the devil’s desire to convince us to break this holy commitment. The enemy’s work can bring us to question our right to be in the presence of God and cause us to question whether our prayer is having any effect or is just a waste of time. Regardless of the temptation, Teresa is very strong in her admonition against any gap in our daily commitment to prayer. She comes to see her own choice not to pray as a decision to throw herself “down into hell.”
Her letter also suggests that even our grace-filled but fallen nature is a source of temptation against the practice of prayer. Though divine life is beginning to unfold in us, Teresa knows that as yet unhealed inclinations and broken impetuses often incline us away from prayer. This is because the Holy Spirit is doing something new, unfamiliar, above what is merely natural. Thus, this movement of the Spirit is specifically supernatural. Our broken sense of self-preservation resists this supernatural work of grace. It is not comfortable to be vulnerable to the immensity of God’s goodness. Our need for control and security clashes against the Father’s desire to draw us into the orbit of His love and holiness. Yet, whether the source of resistance to prayer is merely human frailty or diabolical craftiness, the answer is always the same: persevere, persevere, persevere.
This perseverance is not complex. It is simply an active rejection of any feeling or thought that would lead us to abandon prayer on any given day. This renunciation is spiritual warfare. It sets itself firmly against the wiles of the devil and refuses to allow the rancor of its insecurities and natural impulses to cause it distress. The decision to deny anything that would oppose prayer makes space in one’s life for God to heal and make whole, to restore and raise up.
St. Teresa is ever grounded in a practical understanding of human nature and its frailty. What makes us worthy to pray is not our success in surmounting weakness. Instead, it is always right and just to pray because of the surpassing humility of God who never abandons us. She knows He is always waiting to reveal His merciful love in unexpected and new ways. Behind her teaching, one finds the unfathomable love of God as the justification for our effort to persevere.
On this basis and in this letter, she instructs her reader in a very simple tactic: when oppressive thoughts of unworthiness threaten our prayer, get up, walk outside, and look at the stars. When tormented by “would haves” and “could haves” or anything else that might lessen our devotion to prayer, gaze on the wonders He has fashioned. She points to the divine love letter: the beauty of creation.
For contemplatives, the immensity of the heavens and the inexhaustible number of stars are so many divine invitations to forsake “self ” and to lift up one’s heart to the Lord. The very splendor of even the visible world is a great help when it comes to persevering in prayer, especially when we feel weak or oppressed by our own pettiness. One of her more powerful maxims uttered on perseverance is worth taking to heart: “God withholds Himself from no one who perseveres.”
*Teresa of Avila, Letters, vol. 1, complete letter.
**To “style me”: how to address letters to me. Teresa does not want to be addressed in a way descriptive of another kind of living and status that fails to adequately reflect the humble spirit of poverty, chastity, and obedience of the Order—Editor.
Want to learn more about St. Teresa of Avila?
On August 26, I'm presenting a webinar that will offer a brief journey into the life and wisdom of this great mystic. Register now to attend "On the Road to Holiness with St. Teresa of Avila!
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