Teresa of Avila on Silence in Prayer
Part II of III
In part I of this series, I spoke about some ways that Centering Prayer and yoga propose sitting silently as a form of meditation or contemplation. Today I want to focus on St. Teresa of Avila’s teaching about silence during prayer. Did she teach the same thing as Fr. Thomas Keating and other Centering Prayer advocates, as they maintain?
Silence is an indispensable aspect of mental prayer. But the Carmelite saints speak of a different type of silence than that promoted in Centering Prayer. They also speak of specific times in our prayer when we should cultivate silence, and stages when we should be silent.
Some of the writings of St. Teresa about prayer do sound close to Centering Prayer, so it is no wonder that people are sometimes confused. Take this passage, for instance:
“All one need do is go into solitude and look at Him within oneself, and not turn away from so good a Guest but with great humility speak to Him as a father. Beseech Him as you would a father; tell him all about your trials; ask Him for a remedy against them, realizing that you are not worthy to be His daughter.” (Way of Perfection 28, 2)
Centering Prayer also talks about retreating within oneself, but fails to properly distinguish between the self and God. Teresa always sees the Holy Trinity dwelling in the hearts of the baptized as Someone other than ourselves. For her, prayer is always a conversation with God (although at times this conversation is beyond mere words). She counsels us to enter into the presence of God, setting aside distractions. She is teaching us to follow the words of Jesus:
“When you pray, go into your room and close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” (Mt 6:6)
Whenever possible, we find a quiet place and time to pray. We take a moment to collect our thoughts, to place any preoccupations aside. Then we turn immediately to Christ, addressing Him with our mind and heart. In contrast, Centering Prayer would have us focus on repeatedly checking to make sure the door is closed and we are alone, never progressing to talking with Jesus.
Let’s take a look at the traditional Christian teaching about stages of prayer and how they relate to silence.
The first stage of Christian prayer is vocal prayer. We recite words that others composed. It is by definition a wordy prayer. We don’t usually sit silently for very long during vocal prayer. Still, at its best it can be a stepping stone to contemplation.
The next stage of prayer is discursive meditation. We read a passage from a devotional book, ideally Sacred Scripture, and we ponder its meaning briefly. The goal is not to become theologians, making prayer into study, but to let our reflections lead us to speak to God from the heart. Here we might have a little less talking, and more “listening” to God’s voice in the text and our reflections on it. But our mind and our will are actively engaged.
Discursive meditation leads us to affective prayer. Affective prayer is a simpler meditation. Instead of taking ten minutes to read and ponder a Scripture passage, we might spend a minute or two picturing Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (a favorite subject of St. Teresa’s). Our will is moved to express its love for God almost at once. In affective prayer, we are sometimes moved to sit silently for a moment (or longer) to hear what the Holy Spirit would say to us. When our mind begins to wander, we return to our image or take up another and repeat the process.
The last stage of prayer that we can reach without special divine intervention is called by many different names. Teresa calls it acquired recollection. Here we begin to gaze at Jesus with love, saying a few words now and then, but mostly soaking in His presence. We might, on the other hand, have to return to discursive meditation or even vocal prayer at times.
Teresa speaks of the tension between movements of the intellect and will and silence:
“We should make our petitions like beggars before a powerful and rich Emperor; then, with downcast eyes, humbly wait. When He secretly shows us He hears our prayers, it is well to be silent, as He has drawn us into His presence; there would then be no harm in trying to keep our minds at rest (that is to say, if we can). If, however, the King makes no sign of listening or of seeing us, there is no need to stand inert, like a dolt, which the soul would resemble if it continued inactive. In this case its dryness would greatly increase, and the imagination would be made more restless than before by its very effort to think of nothing. Our Lord wishes us at such a time to offer Him our petitions and to place ourselves in His presence; He knows what is best for us.” (Interior Castle, Fourth Mansion, Chapter 3).
In this passage, she is actually talking about infused recollection, the first stage of infused (also called supernatural) contemplation. But the instruction on when to remain silent, waiting for God to speak, and when to make acts of the will, applies to earlier stages of prayer as well. We follow the prompting of God and the movement of our hearts.
Recollection often alternates between something the soul produces through grace, and the pure act of God. It is difficult to distinguish between the two at first.
Then God begins to take over our prayer time more and more. He brings us to the prayer of quiet. Here, the will becomes God’s captive, but the mind sometimes races around wildly, not knowing what to do with itself.
If we continue on the path of prayer and virtue (one cannot grow without the other, in Teresa’s teaching), we will eventually be brought to the prayer of union. Here, God suspends the operations of both the intellect and the will. Total absorption in God casts out all distraction. We expend no effort at all. God does everything.
We return then to our original question posed in Part I: should we sit quietly in prayer? The answer depends on what stage of the spiritual life we are at, and how God is working in our soul.
Forcing the intellect to be still is completely foreign to Teresa’s teaching. We try by gentle means to overcome distractions. We fix our mind and heart on Christ and speak to Him in love, sometimes in words, other times with a look of love. Silence is not the goal of prayer. It is a means to invite God in. He will come when He wills. We must be content to wait for Him.
In Part 3, I’ll wrap up this series with various other observations on silence.
Art: Mirror of Teresa of Avila, Peter Paul Rubens, 1615, PD-US; Mirror of Modified Casa de Alonso Berruguete en Villatoquite (Palencia, Castilla y León), House of Alonso Berruguete in Villatoquite [Palencia, Castilla and León–Spain] summary description: conserved mansion from years 1548-1557 [Teresa of Avila lived from 1515 to 1582], Jlaso, 1982 own work, CCA-SA; both Wikimedia Commons.