Not all advice from the 16th century is helpful today, but St. Teresa of Avila’s instruction on contemplative prayer is as relevant for Christians now as when she wrote it 500 years ago, according to Catholics who have studied her teaching and practiced it in their own meditation.
On the occasion of the quincentenary of Teresa’s birth this month, they talk about the great saint and mystic and how she encourages us to seek God in prayer.
St. Teresa was born in the province of Avila in Spain, on March 28, 1515, at a time when the Spanish ground was moving. Twenty-three years before her birth, Spain had emerged for the first time as a united Catholic kingdom and was expanding as an empire in the Americas and around the world.
At the same time, priests and religious created spiritual tremors as they rediscovered contemplative prayer and the Scriptures with renewed fervor.
As a young Carmelite nun, Teresa experienced the Lord’s presence mystically as she prayed. After 20 years, she left her convent in Avila to start a reformed one under stricter, revived Carmelite rules. She later reformed her first convent and founded 16 more throughout Spain, while suffering from frequent illness.
In the midst of this, the Lord instructed her to write about her experiences in prayer, including her ecstasies and other mystical experiences, for the benefit of her Carmelite sisters.
‘Doctor of Prayer’
Her instructions and experiences, collected into a number of volumes, are considered master works on prayer. Declared a doctor of the Church in 1970 by Blessed Pope Paul VI, she is known as the “Doctor of Prayer” for her spiritual insights and clear, down-to-earth wisdom, now part of the Church’s patrimony of prayer.
“I would never want any prayer that would not make the virtues grow within me,” she said.
Prayer is a relationship and union with God, and Teresa’s prayer animated all of her actions, said Dan Burke, executive director of the Register and co-founder of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation.
Teresa was motivated by love for God through his direction in her interior life to found her monasteries and pursue the mystical life.
“What is uniquely colorful about her is that she experienced the greatest heights of contemplation that we know of any of the saints, and she was able to communicate it in a very powerful and compelling way that, in turn, lights the path for all of us who desire union with God,” Burke said.
But that doesn’t mean her life was easy.
Teresa had difficulties, said Carmelite Father Kieran Kavanaugh, a teacher of prayer who is known for his widely read translations of Teresa’s major works, “but, ordinarily, her prayer is what made her strong enough to do this work and meet all these trials that she had. That was God’s way of fortifying her, strengthening her for the task that she had. Her prayer led to union with God.”
Though originally directed toward her sisters, Teresa’s writings, along with her grace to persevere in prayer and the Christian life, are available to everyone, said Anthony Lilles, professor and co-founder of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation and academic dean of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Calif.
Lay readers can learn about detachment, determination, right friendships and avoiding favoritism from her, according to Lilles: “As you read and reread, you discover that the people she’s intending to write to are those who are hungry for intimacy with Christ, and if you share that hunger with her, you find something very beautiful every time you go back to the text.”
An example of this wisdom from Teresa: “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.”
To begin at Teresian prayer, Father Kavanaugh recommends spending 15 minutes a day silently present to Jesus and gradually increasing to a half hour per day. “Start by remembering God is present everywhere, always with you … and he loves you, so you have to give him a little time in return for his love for you, and you want to love him in return.”
Prayer is meant to open us up to the mystery of God, said Carmelite Sister Mary Colombiere of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, who contributes to the sisters’ blog on Carmelite spirituality. “God is at the very core of our being, and he is there waiting for us patiently,” she said. “We have to put forth our human effort and listen to what God is trying to say to us.”
Sister Mary added, “We can get overly introspective in a certain sense and enmeshed in some of the difficulties and everyday things that come our way,” she said. “I think that [Teresa’s] way of prayer is a help to letting us surrender and put our trust, our reliance back on God.”
As Teresa said, “You pay God a compliment by asking great things of him.”
Pray Like Teresa
Many souls are searching for deeper intimacy with Christ, but contemplative prayer in the Church has been neglected and sometimes misunderstood, Lilles said.
As the Lord begins working in our hearts, prayer becomes second nature, though we advance because of the Lord’s divine pleasure, not by mastering a technique, Lilles said, “so that the movement of prayer begins with him and ends with him, and it only makes progress because of him.”
Living in union with God in prayer leads to a deeper understanding of him and his mission for us, Father Kavanaugh said. Christians united to Christ will come “to know better their vocation in life, how he wants them to live for him and what he wants them to do.”
Kathy Gjengdahl and her mother, Barbara Davis, of West St. Paul, Minn., practice Teresa’s teaching on prayer from different places in life.
For Gjengdahl, who has nine children, prayer is sometimes for the grace to say “Yes” to daily challenges. Teresa’s works have shown her how to sit quietly with the Lord and listen to him.
Gjengdahl, a Carmelite of the Third Order, said she has studied Teresa’s books, and she sees her as a real person who persevered through struggles: “She was very real, and she knew the Lord so well she could be completely herself with him.”
Davis, who belongs to the same Carmelite group, has found in her retirement that she has more time for prayer and spiritual reading.
“Being more aware of God’s presence with me, that he’s right here with [me], and trying to practice that” is her focus.
Above all, Teresian prayer is about focusing in love on the interior presence of Jesus, Father Kavanaugh said. “She’s not emptying the mind, but filling it with the presence of Jesus. And then Jesus is the one who leads her to the Trinity. ... That’s the Christian way.”
Christian meditation opens us to hope, borne in the new and unexpected things God wants to do in our lives, Lilles added.
“Our efforts, Carmelite writings in general and Teresa’s writings specifically, make space, room for God to do something beautiful inside us,” he said. “He is the principal actor, and we assist him.”
Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.
Recommended Books on St. Teresa of Avila and Prayer
30 Days With Teresa of Avila by Dan Burke and Anthony Lilles
Fire Within by Father Thomas Dubay
Teresa of Avila: The Way of Prayer by Father Kieran Kavanaugh, who has translated many of St. Teresa’s works
The Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin