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Teresian Notions

Mental Prayer.

Teresa's understanding of prayer is a good place to begin. We may simply recall what she says about prayer in chapter eight of her autobiography: Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us (Life, 8, 5). [2]

This puts prayer in the category of friendship. Clearly, it is God who has initiated the friendship; thus personal prayer is a response to a love already shown us by the God of revelation. One goes to prayer as to someone whose love for us is assured; the one praying answers the voice of benevolence and love in return. This implies that prayer is an art to be cultivated, for it requires often setting time aside to attend to the friend. As we shall see, the friend is Jesus Christ, the center of the entire Teresian system.

The notion of prayer as a response to friendship gratuitously offered us by God through Christ is rooted in St. John s Gospel. It is important, as John teaches, that we not pray to win God s favor and love; God has already loved us most personally in Christ. What we need to do is answer that love. Thus prayer is an aspect of the life of grace. Graced prayer receives the love of God for the self and returns it in two ways: by loving God directly and by loving our brothers and sisters in God and for God. Prayer is agape received for personal transformation and then channeled back to God and out to neighbor. The very nature of evangelical and Teresian prayer spells out its goals. In sum, prayer is a loving exchange with Christ.

Vocal Prayer.

Now let us see what Teresa means when she speaks of vocal prayer. In a word, vocal prayer is nothing but formulary prayer, praying a pre-fabricated set of words and sentiments, like the Our Father or a psalm. The saint wants us to say our prayers well! She asks that we repeat the words with understanding. She wants us to say our prayers attentively. Reciting our vocal prayers well is already mental prayer; there is no distinction between mental and vocal prayer when vocal prayer is truly made one s own (see Way, 24). For Teresa the first lesson in learning to meditate is to say one s vocal prayers with attention and affection.


It is helpful here to take a look at the term meditation in the Teresian writings. Teresa uses the word in reference to several prayerful activities that all qualify as ascetical prayer or meditation. This is the first thing to note, that meditation for Teresa is a category of prayer. It is the prayer of effort, effort to think about and love the Lord. Meditation is all prayer this side of contemplation; it is the prayer of the first three dwelling-places of the Interior Castle and of the first waters of the Life.

With that understood, let us look at some specific applications of the term meditation in the saint s writings. At the outset of the Interior Castle we read that the door to the castle is prayer and reflection (Castle, 1, 1, 7). Reflection is the first meaning of meditation for St. Teresa, and she gives many examples of much discursive reflection with the intellect (see Castle, 6, 7, 10). The use of the imagination, reasoning, and will at prayer are all discursive meditative activities.

It is also meditation to devoutly follow the prayer outline of a meditation book. There are books in which the mysteries of the Lord s life and passion are divided according to the days of the week, and there are meditations on judgment, hell, our nothingness, and the many things we owe God together with excellent doctrine and method concerning the beginning and the end of prayer (Way, 19, 1). Teresa is open to this reflective use of a planned meditation book for those who find it helpful.

Teresa calls the active prayer of recollection an excellent kind of meditation (Castle, 4, 3, 3). It is a style of meditation that locates the presence of God within the self and centers all reflection and affection on God there. This was a favorite prayer method for Teresa (see, for example, Way, 29, 7), as we will indicate in more detail below.

A surprising reference to meditation is found in Teresa's treatment of a passive form of the prayer of recollection. She tells us that when we begin to experience the first degree of infused contemplation (i.e., the passive prayer of recollection), meditation, or the work of the intellect must not be put aside (Castle, 4, 3, 8). Here we are dealing with a mixed prayer in the Teresian system, a borderline state midway between meditation and the first really strong contemplative experience (the prayer of quiet). When one is given a less powerful form of contemplation in the passive prayer of recollection, he or she may gently continue to recite vocal prayers, repeat a biblical word, or quietly reflect, as a method of maintaining receptivity and responsiveness to the infusion. Such personal activity for Teresa is meditative, and could be applied to any form of contemplative prayer experience that leaves the faculties free.

To sum up, meditation is basically a category of non-contemplative prayer, the stage of prayer that presumes the ordinary use of our mental powers in searching for God, though always under the guidance of divine grace. [3]


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