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Teresian Characteristics and Attitudes


Next we look at some characteristics of Teresian prayer. The first thing to note is that for Teresa prayer must be mental to be prayer at all. She means that our exercise of prayer needs to be attentive. She is realistic enough to give plenty of space to the subject of natural distractions, but on the level of conviction and effort she wants us to pray carefully and attentively. Often she uses the term mental prayer, so common in her day, to designate private or personal prayer. She explains that mental prayer is a matter of being aware and knowing that we are speaking, with whom we are speaking, and who we ourselves are who dare to speak so much with so great a Lord. Without such awareness and attention to what we say, our prayer is mere gibberish (Way, 25, 3). So prayer demands presence to ourselves, to what we think and say, and to Christ to whom we speak in response. Teresian prayer is mental, presence to presence, and the essence of this presence is the memory of Christ.


Teresian prayer is characteristically affective. Everybody knows Teresa's insistence that the important thing in prayer is not to think much but to love much (Castle, 4, 1, 7; cf. Foundations, 5, 2). In the same place St. Teresa gives us her primary principle: Do what best stirs you to love. The primary reason for praying is affective communion with God. Everything moves in Teresian prayer toward affective rapport with Christ and his Father in the Spirit. The strong affective orientation she gives to prayer has contemplation in mind; through affective simplicity one best disposes oneself for the gift of contemplation.

Affective prayer is communion with God, a communion leading to union. Union with God is the goal of prayer for Teresa. Affectivity opens the way to communion and union. Teresian prayer is essentially affective, and the essence of affectivity is desire, the desire for God. Whether or not it is felt on an emotional level, true affectivity lies in the desire for personal union with the beloved.

Christ and the Virtues.

Teresian prayer is characteristically Christ-centered. Christ is the direct object of both the mental and the affective dynamics of Teresian prayer. Teresa prays with, to, and through Jesus Christ. Her Christ is the Christ of the Gospels; Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life is her constant focus. That focus must be learned by the beginner, retained by those advanced in prayer, and refined into a loving gaze by the contemplative (see Life, 12 and 22, and Castle, 6, 7 for Teresa's classic treatment of the essential role of Christ in every stage of the ascent of prayer). Some of her principles in this area are that: 1) meditation s best subject and object is the biblical Christ in his life, death, and resurrection; 2) one s prayer is best habitually (though not exclusively) centered on Christ; 3) the sacred humanity of Christ is the most adequate mediation for initial growth in prayer and the best assurance of and preparation for the gift of contemplation; and 4) any other opinion is gravely suspect and harmful.

Teresa, our teacher, knows how important the figure of Christ is to the one who prays. Christ is a friend and companion at prayer (see Way, 26, 1). Christ addresses the loneliness of the meditator. He fills the void, thus turning loneliness into solitude and access to God. Furthermore, the Christ of Scripture is the model of all the virtues that we desire to learn. After all, Christian perfection lies in the virtues. We pray to be transformed; transformation is brought about in the first instance by the acquisition of the virtues, which then open us up to the further deification of contemplation and the states of union. We need Christ to train us in the theological and cardinal virtues. Unless we strive after the virtues we will always be dwarfs (Castle, 7, 4, 9). And since charity and humility give birth to all the other virtues, we desperately need the living model of Jesus Christ, the humble one, to show us the way. This whole building ...has humility as its foundation, and to build Christian humility we must fix our eyes on the Crucified (Castle, 7, 4, 8). With Christ as our friend and teacher we will be drawn all the way into the bosom of the Blessed Trinity (see Castle, 6, 7, 7).[4]

The Contemplative Dimension.

Teresian prayer is oriented toward contemplation. This is another essential quality to appreciate. For St. Teresa, meditation is ascetical prayer; that is, it depends on our efforts as we exercise our faculties with the help of ordinary grace. Contemplation cannot be produced by our efforts; it is completely gratuitous. We can dispose ourselves for it by the virtues and by praying in a very simplified affective way. But contemplation is an infused experience of the presence of God that gives light to the soul and warmth to the heart. As a habit it begins in the fourth dwelling-places with the experience of passive recollection; it then flowers into the prayer of quiet.

Nonetheless we can say in a certain sense that all Teresian prayer is contemplative. What we mean is that Teresa always has her mind s eye on contemplation even if she is giving the very first lessons in the attentive recitation of vocal prayer. Teresa teaches us to desire contemplation explicitly; we learn even to ask for it while surrendering the outcome to God. But when we pray in the Teresian spirit, we pray open to contemplation. We learn to listen to the Word of God, receptive to God s action of love and light, gently dwelling on the presence of Christ found in Scripture. We do not work hard at it; we leave much room for God to work. We learn to be still in the presence, to return to our source in Christ, as we chew the Word of God. That leisurely attitude, when coupled with sincerity, opens our depths to the mystical action of God. At times a person experiences the very meaning of the words he or she is saying. At times one is flooded with understanding, with new energy or resolve, with a fanned flame of love for God and neighbor. That type of prayer is clearly received, so effortless and elevating that it qualifies as contemplation. Contemplation is given prayer, the Spirit praying in us. Contemplation is seeing beyond believing, as Augustine once put it. Contemplation is being pulled into the mind and heart of Christ who knows the Father in the clarity of the Spirit and surrenders all to him. Contemplation is supernatural prayer, according to Teresa, for it cannot be acquired by effort or diligence, however much one tries, although one can dispose oneself for it which would help a great deal (Spiritual Testimonies, 58, 3). Why desire it and why pray in such a way as to be sensitive to its calling? Because contemplation is a short cut to the perfection of the virtues and to union with God (See Castle, 5, 3, 4). In summary, Teresian prayer is contemplative in that it desires contemplation, aims at contemplation, is open to contemplation. In this sense even Teresian meditation is contemplative.


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