What does St. Teresa of Avila have to say about sleep and human frailty? Find out in today’s excerpt and reflection from 30 Days with Teresa of Avila.
Toledo, about November 1576*
To Father Gracian, Seville
Father Gracian’s enemies. His need of sleep.
I sent a letter last week by the courier of Toledo in answer to what Paul says about the tongues. When I was speaking to Joseph, he told me to warn Paul that he has many enemies, visible and invisible, and must guard against them. That is why I do not wish him to trust so implicitly in the “Egyptians” or the “owls.”
. . . On reading Paul’s letter again, I find that he says that he sacrifices his sleep to “think things over,” and I believe he means on account of transports of prayer. He ought not to accustom himself to neglect so great a treasure except for the sleep that his body requires, for God bestows most precious gifts at such times and I am not astonished at the devil’s trying to deprive Paul of them. As this favor cannot be enjoyed at will, we must prize it when God bestows it. His Majesty then gives us more light as to how to serve Him than our intellect could obtain if it forsook the favor it is enjoying, to search on its own account. But believe me, I have spoken the truth: follow my advice about sleep unless you have business of such importance on hand that it would keep you awake; but if sleep comes, there will be time enough afterwards to think about your work.
I read in some book that if we leave God when He seeks us, when we seek Him, we shall not find Him.
Teresa de Jesús
Human Frailty and Limitations: We have already commented on why “sufficient rest” is important for the spiritual life. What happens, however, when there are special graces of prayer, graces so intense that we seem transported beyond the limits of space and time? The Carmelite doctor calls these graces “transports of prayer,” spiritual treasures which ought not be neglected except “for the sleep that the body requires.”
The adversary tempts the fervent to neglect their personal needs, suggesting that union with God was not something achieved through our frail humanity but despite it. He suggests to fervent souls that the way forward is to surmount our natural limits, as if God were not aware of these when He gave us the gift of His sanctifying presence. The evil one wants us to rely on our own spiritual achievements and to be distracted by experiences in prayer. He knows that when we seek such experiences, we are distracted from the divine intimacy that we otherwise might know. God, however, is not thwarted by this diabolical effort. He presides over all and uses even Satanic deception to purify and intensify our friendship with Him. This is why He mysteriously permits the adversary to test us, even to the point of mimicking sublime favors. For our part, it is the safer route not to rely on what we can achieve or what we feel in prayer, no matter how sublime the experience. Instead, we overcome every spirit who might stand in our way through humble faith animated by patient love. On this point the great Carmelite mystic is inviting us to share with her a deep spiritual truth. Living faith knows that sleep as well as wholesome forms of recreation are not in themselves opposed to the glory of God. Such faith also knows that there are blessings greater than even what would seem to be the sublimity of mystical experience. The Lord is prepared to give such blessings when we address our physical limitations as creatures. It is the first degree of love for God to show our gratitude to Him by patiently addressing our bodily needs, including the need for proper rest. Teresa of Avila is confident that the Lord pours out gifts on those He loves even as they slumber (cf. Ps 127:2).
Is there a theological justification for St. Teresa’s insistence that Fr. Gracian should attend to his need for proper rest even before his desire for spiritual experiences in prayer? By becoming flesh, the Word of the Father reveals to us how the Holy Spirit prefers to work within the limits of human nature to manifest the limitlessness of God’s nature. Thus, not only did the Lord work wonders and preach and pray through the night, He also ate and slept. And in all that He accomplished, He acted with all His soul and might for the glory of the Father.
Against this theological reality of Christ’s own example we can understand St. Teresa’s admonition to put rest before pursuit of mystical experience. Once we have set our hearts on serving the Lord, we must humbly recognize our limitations and renounce allowing ourselves to be driven by any spirit other than the Holy Spirit, who does not drive but draws. He loves us in our humanity, and wants nothing more than for us to thrive—to live life to the full in and through this humanity animated by His love.
The Father pours out His blessings whether we are asleep or awake as long as we are faithful to the responsibilities entrusted to us. Any other spirit (arising from one’s own psychology or outside it) that opposes this Divine Munificence deceives, thwarts, and oppresses. These spirits promise lesser goods so that we will neglect the greater blessing the Father yearns to give. When such a spirit provides a transporting experience that seems to lift us above time and space, it is not given to help us thrive, but only to deprive us of the Father’s blessing of a good night’s sleep.
*Teresa of Avila, Letters, vol. 2, fragment of a letter.
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When Melissa Elson and I spoke about this letter, we particularly reflected on the meaning of human frailty as well as these topics and questions:
- Does God grant special graces? What is a special grace?
- How can we know if God has granted us special graces?
- Does God work on us through our human frailties?
- How does good spiritual direction help us recognize what is, and what is not, a grace from God?
- What is the proper response to a gift from God?
- How does the enemy disguise his temptations?
- Some clues to help recognize the work of the enemy.
- The enemy varies his attack based on the spiritual state of the subject.
Teresa of Avila’s signature courtesy of Carmelite Monastery, Terre Haute, Indiana.