2012-01-09

Are You Praying, or Just Thinking?

In her book "The Foundations", which tells the story of the establishment of her monasteries, St. Teresa also takes many opportunities to teach on the spiritual life. Although she has many other works on prayer which go into more detail, there is one section in the book where she pauses in recording the history of her doings to talk about prayer in a way which is very helpful to those whom God calls to an active (as opposed to a contemplative) life.
2. First, I want to treat, according to my poor understanding, of the substance of perfect prayer. For I have run into some for whom it seems the whole business lies in thinking. If they can keep their mind much occupied in God, even though great effort is exerted, they at once think they are spiritual. If, on the contrary, without being able to avoid it, they become distracted, even if for the sake of good things, they then become disconsolate and think they are lost. Learned men will not fall victim to these misconceptions, although I have already met learned men who have had some of them. But it is fitting that we women receive advice with regard to all these misunderstandings. I do not deny that it is a favor from the Lord if someone is able to be always meditating on His works, and it is good that one strive to do so. However, it must be understood that not all imaginations are by their nature capable of this meditating, but all souls are capable of loving. I have already at another time written about the causes of this restlessness of our imagination, I think (cf. Life, ch. 17, nos. 5-7; Way of Perfection, ch 31, no. 8; Interior Castle, IV, ch. 1, no. 8); not all the causes -- that would be impossible-- but some. And so I am not treating of this now. But I should like to explain that the soul is not the mind, nor is the will directed by thinking, for this would be very unfortunate. Hence, the soul's progress does not lie in thinking much but in loving much.

3. How does one acquire this love? By being determined to work and to suffer, and to do so when the occasion arises. It is indeed true that by thinking of what we owe to the Lord, of who He is, and what we are, a soul's determination grows, and that this thinking is very meritorious and appropriate for beginners. But it must be understood that this is true provided that nothing interferes with obedience or benefit to one's neighbor. When either of these two things presents itself, time is demanded, also the abandonment of what we so much desire to give God, which in our opinion, is to be alone thinking of him and delighting in the delights that He gives us. To leave aside these delights for either of these other two things is to give delight to Him and do the work for Him, as He Himself said: What you did for one of these little ones you did for Me. (Mt. 25:40) And in matters touching obedience, He doesn't want the soul who truly loves Him to take any other path than the one He did: obediens usque ad mortem (Ph. 2:8, "Obedient unto death").

4. Well, if this is true, from where does the displeasure proceed which for the greater part is felt when one has not spent a large part of the day [or even a small part] very much withdrawn and absorbed in God, even though we are occupied with these other things? In my opinion, there are two reasons for this displeasure: The first and main one is the very subtle self-love that is mixed in here. This self-love does not allow one to understand what it is to want to please ourselves rather than God. For, clearly, after a soul begins to taste how sweet the Lord is, it is more pleasing for the body to be resting without work and for the soul to be receiving delight.

5. ....It would be a distressing thing if God were clearly telling us to go after something that matters to Him and we would not want to do so but want to remain looking at Him becuase that is more pleasing to us. What an amusing kind of progress in the love of God it is, to tie His hands by thinking that He cannot help us except by one path!

From The Foundations, by St. Teresa of Jesus, chapter 5, numbers 2-5, with my emphasis and brackets.

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