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Teresa of Avila’s method of prayer

Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross are Doctors of the Church. They are THE experts on Christian prayer. So what method of prayer did Teresa teach? Are you ready to be surprised?


Let’s clarify that a bit. A passage in Teresa’s Foundations does explain briefly how her nuns should practice meditation. But you won’t find a word about this in her classics on prayer Interior Castle or Way of Perfection. Why not? Teresa was not concerned with methods of prayer, but with stages of prayer. She never taught that meditation was a necessary prerequisite to contemplation, let alone the same thing as it.
She had good reasons. In Way of Perfection she mentions a nun who was unable to meditate, but became holy by praying the Our Father slowly and reverently. Teresa herself spent years unable to pray unless she had a book to read, because constant distractions plagued her.

In other words, she knew that everyone was different and that one method of mental prayer would not suit all souls.
Don’t just take my word for it. Here are what others have said:

What we find in Ss. Teresa and John and in Scripture is a very different message… as far as I can find, not a single sentence … speaks of methodology as a means to deep communion with the God of revelation.” (Fr. Thomas Dubay, Fire Within, 111)

A few paragraphs later Fr. Dubay says:
While St. Teresa was well acquainted with methods of meditation and wished her young nuns to be instructed in them, she emphatically insisted that the primary need for beginners is not to find the ideal method but to do God’s will from moment to moment throughout the day.”

Pere Marie Eugene, OCD, writes in I Want to See God:
For Saint Teresa, mental prayer–the door of the castle and the way of perfection–is less a particular exercise than the very practice of the spiritual life…” (53 in the combined 2-volume work with I Am a Daughter of the Church)

Here are the words of Teresa herself:
Mental prayer, in my view, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse with Him Who we know loves us.” ( Way of Perfection)

Shortly after quoting this definition, Pere Marie Eugene explains further:
According to temperaments, the intercourse of friendship will assume an intellectual form, or an affective, or even sensitive one. The child will put its love for Jesus in a kiss, a smile sent to the tabernacle, a caress for the infant Jesus, an expression of sadness before the crucifix. The youth will sing his love for Christ and will encourage its growth by using expressions and images that strike his imagination and his senses, while waiting until his intellect can provide strong thoughts to form a more spiritual and more nourishing prayer.” (55)

Prayer is accessible to all

Do you see how important this is? If true mental prayer, the necessary preparation for the gift of contemplation, requires an elaborate method, it is elitist. Such a way bars the ignorant, children, and those of certain temperaments or psychological weaknesses from being contemplatives. It bars them from intimacy with Christ. It makes holiness the possession of the few who know enough and who have the right natural gifts. This is not the Gospel!

Children can become saints. Some have. For St. Thérèse of Lisieux, spiritual childhood was the way to reach the heights of holiness very quickly. And we are supposed to believe that she taught a form of prayer that was reserved for the few?
On the contrary, the essential element is not a method, but the loving friendship between the person praying and God.

St. Thérèse’s method of prayer

St. Thérèse speaks in a similar way as her patron saint and spiritual mother:
With me prayer is a lifting up of the heart, a look towards Heaven, a cry of gratitude and love uttered equally in sorrow and in joy; in a word, something noble, supernatural, which enlarges my soul and unites it to God…. Except for the Divine Office, which in spite of my unworthiness is a daily joy, I have not the courage to look through books for beautiful prayers…. I do as a child who has not learned to read, I just tell our Lord all that I want and he understands.” (Story of a Soul, Ch. 11)

Do you see any indication there of a method we should all follow? In contrast to this, those who want to learn Centering Prayer are encouraged to attend a retreat or workshop or take an online course. But the proponents of Centering Prayer still insist it’s not a technique! It doesn’t take a workshop or a class to learn to speak to God from the heart. Moses spoke to God “as a man speaks to his friend.” That is mental prayer.

Are methods useless?

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t practice any method of prayer. Methods help us stay on track. They help us not sit idly in our prayer time. Some methods are better than others. But the key is this: no one method of prayer is required to prepare us for contemplation. And no method at all can make us contemplatives.

Contemplation is the goal. And contemplation is not an altered state of consciousness. It is not peaceful feelings. It is a supernatural gift. It is God drawing the soul to Himself on His own initiative. It is a progressive union with Him.

Well, some are

So, why do I say that meditation is not prayer? Prayer can be practiced in many legitimate ways. One of them is meditation. But not Buddhist/Hindu/yoga meditation. Those have a different goal. They are not prayer at all! Christian meditation always centres on Christ. There are many traditional means of Christian meditation. Here is one example.

Do not look for God in pagan religious practices. The Church gives us all we need and more, without the dangers of dabbling in foreign religions.

As for Fr. John Main, the criticisms I have read of his method are very similar to criticisms of Centering Prayer. It too originated in pagan religions, trying to make their practices Catholic, and failing. Christ, not a mantra, is the focus of our prayer. Fr. Main’s organization has been accused of syncretism. He apparently learned his method of “prayer” from a Hindu Swami.

If you want to know what Carmelites mean by contemplation, read the two posts that begin here. God willing, I will speak about prayer further next week.

Connie Rossini

St. Teresa of Avila wrote, “Mental prayer, in my view, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him Who we know loves us.” St. Thérèse of Lisieux likewise wrote, “With me prayer is an uplifting of the heart; a glance towards heaven; a cry of gratitude and love, uttered equally in sorrow and in joy.”

Catholics are generally comfortable with vocal prayer, but mental prayer can leave us at a loss. How can you spend 20 minutes or more in prayer without a pre-written text? How can you keep your prayer from becoming mere rambling?

St. Teresa strives to make mental prayer simple and accessible to all. Since each soul is unique, each person’s prayer is unique as well. There is no one-size-fits-all model. The method of mental prayer takes 2nd place to the attitude of the heart. Still, for beginners especially, a general format to follow is helpful.

If you don’t know how to pray, try this

This method is taken primarily from St. Frances de Sales, but also incorporates other authors’ suggestions. Feel free to adapt it to your own situation and temperament.

St. Teresa of Avila. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia).

– Preparation. Place yourself in God’s presence. Think about His omnipotence or His residence in your heart. Quiet your soul and set aside distractions.
– Meditation. This is the key to the conversation. Read a short passage from Scripture or another spiritual book. Or, if you have a vivid imagination, visualize an event from the Gospels. You could even gaze at a holy picture. Although many subjects are suitable for meditation, you should most often focus on Christ. This is how we get to know Him and are inspired to speak with Him. Reflect on the passage or image. You may find it helpful to ask who, what, where, and why. How does your subject affect you?
– Conversation. This is the goal of your mental prayer and should make up 20 minutes or more of a half-hour prayer time. Speak to God from your heart about your subject. Thank and adore Him, asking His help in acquiring virtues you have thought about or overcoming related temptations. Examine your conscience. Think of concrete ways you can change your life, and make resolutions. Offer other petitions that are on your heart. If you run out of things to say, return briefly to your meditation for more inspiration.
– Conclusion. Thank God for the time you have spent with Him and the insights you have gained. Consider how to improve your prayer next time. You could add a heartfelt Our Father or Hail Mary or invoke the saints to whom you are devoted or who are connected with your subject. Ask them to help you keep your resolutions, to bring you back to prayer tomorrow, and to maintain a prayerful attitude all day.

Remember, as the Catechism says, “[A] method is only a guide; the important thing is to advance with the Holy Spirit, along the way of prayer: Jesus Christ” (#2707).
Connie Rossini

Share with us: How do you practice mental prayer?

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