October 15th is the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church. A 16th century Carmelite who worked to bring reform to that religious order, she is a well-known mystic who was blessed with intimate union with God. In 1577, she was encouraged by a superior to pen a book on prayer in order to instruct her fellow sisters. As a result, the Interior Castle, one of the greatest theological works of all time, was written. St. Teresa writes, “I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle . . . in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions. . . The door of entry into this castle is prayer and meditation.”
It is important to note that while St. Teresa’s words were originally intended for those living a consecrated religious life, her teachings have meaning for each of us. Few of us will ever reach the summits of union with God that Teresa experienced. Those of us who live in the world are called to a different way of life and have different obligations. Yet, all of us are invited into a deep relationship with God. Our entire reason for being is to know, love, and serve God. Everything else: our relationships with others, the work of our hands, and the mark we leave on the world, flows from that. Prayer is the key to that relationship with God.
St. Teresa shares what she had been told by a very learned man – “Souls without prayer are like people whose bodies or limbs are paralyzed: they possess feet and hands but they cannot control them.” Without God’s assistance, we are truly powerless. St. Teresa offers great encouragement to the person beginning to pray in earnest. “All that the beginner in prayer has to do . . . is to labor and be resolute and prepare himself with all possible diligence to bring his will into conformity with the will of God.” She also knows that there will be times when we fail in our efforts. “If, then, you sometimes fall, do not lose heart, or cease striving to make progress, for even out of your fall God will bring good. . . .Provided we do not abandon our prayer, the Lord will turn everything we do to our profit.” However, it is important to acknowledge that we can never deserve anything from God. We can never earn His favor. All of His gifts are freely given. We need to love God without any selfish motives. We should not desire to receive consolations in prayer. Yet, “where there is true humility, even if God never grants the soul favors, He will give it peace and resignation to his will.”
She also offers encouragement to those of us who get distracted while praying. “Do not imagine that the important thing is never to be thinking of anything else and that if your mind becomes slightly distracted all is lost.” It is still important to struggle through and keep praying. It is only through such dedication that God will give us “the strength which fits us for service. . . The Lord leads each of us as He sees we have need.”
As we celebrate St. Teresa’s feast day, let us reflect on the way she pointed us to God, and invited us into deeper communion with Him. Through her teachings on prayer, she helps instruct us on how to progress in the spiritual life.