What does St. Teresa of Avila have to say about challenges in prayer? Find out in today’s excerpt and reflection from 30 Days with Teresa of Avila.
Toledo, November 26, 1576*
To Don Luis de Cepeda, At Torrijos Acknowledgment of money received. Sister Beatriz of Malagón. Spiritual advice.
May the grace of the Holy Ghost be ever with your Honor.
I received your letters and the four ducats; the sum will be paid this week. May our Lord reward you for your care of our sister of the Incarnation, for she is in the greatest need of all. Sister Beatriz is now in charge of the convent at Malagón on account of the illness of the Mother Prioress. She manages it exceedingly well, thank God! I did not think she was capable of it.
You must not be surprised at being unable to be very recollected in the midst of all your worries: it would be an impossibility. I shall be quite satisfied if you return to your good rule of life when you are freed from them. God grant that you may follow it faithfully. Do not be much concerned as to whether your fortune is large or small, for even if it is very large, all will soon come to an end.
I ask the prayers of these ladies, and the Mother Prioress begs for yours.
Today is November 26.
Your unworthy servant,
Teresa of Jesús
Prayer in the Midst of Worry: The great doctor of prayer has much wisdom to offer regarding the practice of recollection. She knows that this simple effort to focus one’s attention on God is very beneficial and, under normal conditions, highly recommends the practice. She is obviously more concerned about the practice of this kind of mental prayer than she is about Don Luis Cepeda’s finances.
Always a realist who understands that we need to adapt our devotional practices as we confront life’s challenges, she approaches her cousin’s concerns about prayer with common sense. There are circumstances when it is impossible to be recollected, but even in the face of such challenges, it is possible to live a prayerful life. It is a matter of following and adapting the program of prayer and devotion to which one has committed oneself. This is what she means by “rule of life,” which is nothing else than a plan for loving God.
Teresa is not surprised that her cousin Luis is struggling to draw his heart past his worries to the heart of God. As the brother of Sister Beatriz, about whom she reports and two other sisters who are also Carmelites, St. Teresa knows she is addressing someone who is from an entire family dedicated to mental prayer.
He is himself obviously so accustomed to being recollected that it disturbs him, in the midst of his current anxieties, not to be constantly aware of the Lord’s presence. If he were not already a prayerful man, then his inability to recollect himself would not have caused him stress. He is, however, stressed and anxious that he has to struggle to rest his heart in the Lord’s presence. On this point, Teresa reassures him that under his present circumstances, maintaining a recollected state of mind would be impossible.
Rule of Life: Stewing over our experience (or lack thereof) in prayer becomes an excessive preoccupation when it distracts us from the love we owe God and those He entrusts to us. A self-centered approach to monitoring our spiritual state rarely if ever brings deeper peace and strength to the soul. This is why St. Teresa directs her cousin away from worrying about what is “impossible” and centers him on what can be done: his rule of life.
It is noteworthy that St. Teresa does not burden Don de Cepeda with new techniques and practices in prayer. Her goal is not to help him re-achieve the state of recollection to which he had been accustomed. This spiritual accomplishment is not the way forward for him as he deals with the business affairs entrusted to him as a layman in the world. Instead, she directs his attention to the rule of life to which he is already committed. She wants him to discover how faithfulness to spiritual discipline, rather than success in spiritual accomplishments, is the pathway to holiness.
Holiness subordinates material concerns to what is spiritual. Holiness also subordinates spiritual accomplishments and achievements to faithfulness. Faithfulness in the life of prayer is not about achieving states of consciousness or degrees of prayer. True faithfulness in our devotion to the Lord is about the observance of simple practices done with reverent humility and great love. Love alone maintains a discipline of life commensurate with the responsibilities that the Lord has entrusted to us.
Teresa’s counsel helps us to see that a personal plan of love or rule of life is a profound and useful secret for spiritual growth. Not only priests and religious but anyone who desires holiness can discern and develop this tool with the help of a good spiritual director.** It is simply a clear and specific daily plan regarding how we will express our love to God. It can be as simple as:
6:00 a.m.: Rise and make a Morning Offering. For example, make the Sign of the Cross, take a moment to thank God for a new day, pray Morning Prayer or a decade of the Rosary, or slowly recite a psalm; spend a few minutes in silent mental prayer, spiritual reading or Bible reading, and end by asking God for help in being faithful in your service to your family and to those with whom you work.
9:00 a.m.: Take two minutes to be mindful of the presence of God.
11:30 a.m.: Go to Mass.
3:00 p.m.: Take five minutes to remember the Passion of the Lord or pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
7:00 p.m.: Pray a family Rosary (even if just an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be with young children), Evening Prayer, or slowly pray the Magnificat.
9:00 p.m.: Examine your conscience and ask yourself how well you followed your plan of love (rule of life), make an act of contrition and entrust yourself to the Lord’s mercy, pray night prayer, or slowly pray a psalm before retiring for the evening.
The key is to establish a daily spiritual rhythm that works with the circumstances and obligations that are part of daily life. This plan develops and becomes more useful as it is carefully refined and adapted with the counsel of a good spiritual director or confessor over time. When prudently applied, this schedule of spiritual practices becomes a powerful remedy to all kinds of spiritual anxieties which we should not waste time fretting over.
*Teresa of Avila, The Letters of Saint Teresa, trans. Benedictines of Stanbrook (London: Thomas Baker, 1921), vol. 2, complete letter.
**Dan Burke outlines an effective approach to this practice in his book, Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God available at Emmaus Road Publishing.
Teresa of Avila’s signature courtesy of Carmelite Monastery, Terre Haute, Indiana.