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Teresian Methods

Vocal Prayer.

Let us attempt at this point to name the major methods and activities of meditative prayer that St. Teresa discusses for our instruction. First on our list is vocal prayer. This is an important subject. Teresa clearly sees that vocal prayer can sustain any kind of meditative effort. And in this she joins company with the monastic centuries that based prayer on biblical texts, as Teresa does on the Lord s Prayer in the Way of Perfection. The first lesson in prayer for Teresa is learning to say vocal prayers well with attention, and identifying with their sentiments. We shall see that the rediscovery of monastic lectio would reinstate the biblical word as the basis of Christian meditation. Somehow Teresa remains in touch with that basic methodology. She is clear that vocal prayer serves not only meditation but contemplation as well: I know that there are many persons who while praying vocally...are raised by God to sublime contemplation . It's because of this that I insist so much, daughters, upon your reciting vocal prayer well (Way, 30, 7; cf. Way, 24, passim).


Second, we list reading. Apart from the practice of following a book with meditation outlines, Teresa also treats of praying with a book for the whole time of prayer. She asserts that it is a great help to take a good book written in the vernacular in order to recollect one s thoughts and pray well vocally (Way, 26, 10). But she goes even further, reaffirming again the whole monastic tradition of prayer: I have always been fond of the words of the Gospels and found more recollection in them than in very cleverly written books (Way, 21, 3).[5]

It is the Bible that provides the best book for private prayer. The best way to feed prayer is to ponder the words of Scripture. Carmelites (in fact, all Christians) make a great mistake in trying to practice the presence of God without sustaining it by the word of God. We need to learn to pray over God s word. Let s not miss the relation between Teresa's teaching on vocal prayer and her thoughts on praying over a book. St. Teresa uses the words of Scripture for vocal prayer. The Our Father is given as one example, not to limit the use of other passages. Any sentence or phrase or word of scripture, repeated over and over or recited very carefully, is vocal prayer; and that word or vocal prayer is drawn from her favorite book, the Gospels. In short, Teresa's teachings on vocal prayer and on the use of the Gospels come together in the practice of praying over the Scriptures. This makes for a most substantial prayer life.


The recollected use of sacred images comes next on our list of prayer methods. Teresa encourages us to look at an image or painting of this Lord that is to our liking so as to speak often to Him (Way, 26, 9). Here we have a helpful method for practicing the presence of God. The use of good images and icons (which the Orthodox venerate so devoutly) is an excellent practice. Fortified by the word of Scripture and the image of Christ we are ready to pray. Our senses must learn to serve our prayer rather than distract from it. In her Life (ch. 9) we see how images were especially helpful to Teresa because of her difficulty in picturing what she had never seen. The principle, however, is very broad. Sacred images are good for people with poor imaginations or good imaginations. But images must have an appeal to the person before they can be of inspirational value; some people do not profit from images, or do not need them. Sacred images can most certainly serve individual prayer, just as they serve liturgical prayer in our churches.

Imaginative representations must be named on our list. I strove to picture Christ within me, and it did me greater good in my opinion to picture Him in those scenes where I saw Him more alone (Life, 9, 4). A holy imagination enables us to really identify with scriptural scenes, as Teresa did. A playful but disciplined imagination is essential to the classical prayer tradition. Interior images can serve prayer as effectively as exterior ones. But images, like discursive reflections, must nourish affection. Images are means, and good ones when they feed the heart and the will. We would do well to allow images and feelings mature expression within us as we encounter them in the Scriptures and in other books and pious exercises that serve our prayer. Images can put us in touch with ourselves as few other things can. Biblical images have special power for this, and we need to trust our own spontaneous images triggered by the biblical images. Images help us to get in touch with feelings; our feelings need to be redeemed, purified, and elevated by the word of God. The prudent and inspired use of our faculties is enhanced and facilitated immensely when we are in touch with our images, memories, and feelings. We certainly have the impression that St. Teresa was in touch with hers. Mature images of nature and grace easily mediate the presence of God.

Reflection, Intuition, and Self-Knowledge.

Reflection has already been named as an element of Teresian meditation. We briefly include it here, and associate thinking, understanding, and evaluating with it.

There is a more right-brain kind of knowing called intuition that we must also mention; briefly, it involves dwelling on a biblical text or image with a loving gaze, gently looking at God, rather than studying or working with the analytical mind. The ability to dwell rather than dig is the heart of affective prayer, so characteristically Teresian. Simple intuition breeds the simplicity of love. Teresa explains herself very clearly here; she advises us to stop working so hard, to take a Sabbath, some time off. She tells us not to tire the intellect, but just to speak with and delight in Him and not wear ourselves out in composing syllogisms. Such acts, she assures us, contain a great amount of sustenance (Life, 13, 11). In this sense she leads us to simply look at him who looks at us: I m not asking that you draw out a lot of concepts or make long and subtle reflections with your intellect. I m not asking you to do anything more than look at Him (Way, 26, 3). This looking is intuitive.

While speaking of thinking and intuiting, we ought to include reference to the meditative asceticism of self-knowledge, to which Teresa devotes so many pages. She clearly perceives the importance of walking in self-knowledge all the days of our life (see Castle, 1, 2, 8). Teresa does not advocate self-consciousness, but she most assuredly wants self-awareness; not self-centeredness, but transcendent self-presence (to steal a notion from Father Adrian van Kaam). This is but a matter of humility for Teresa; otherwise we cannot walk in the truth (Castle, 6, 10). We need to understand our own inner powers (see her interest in the natural workings of the imagination in Castle, 4, 1), as well as our own temperament (see what she says about the melancholy person in Foundations, 7). We need to compare the inner darkness (the demonic or shadow self) with the light and brightness of our Lord (see Castle, 1, 2). Humility and self-knowledge are one and the same for Teresa (see Castle, 1, 2). Unless we walk in the radical truth about ourselves we will not know the truth about God either. And unless we walk in truth we are not pleasing to God. With a precision like that of Thomas Aquinas, Teresa perceives that unless we cultivate self-knowledge (which again is humility) we will never really be charitable persons. She writes: I cannot understand how there can be humility without love or love without humility (Way, 16, 2). Mature prayer and self-knowledge enable us to see that truth in charity and charity in the truth must constitute a life program. Charity of any depth at all requires that we know ourselves.

An important point about Teresian self-knowledge is that it is not introspective or centered in the incomplete self; rather it is God- and Christ-centered. From learning to look at God in truth we discover the truth about the self. By gazing at [God s] grandeur, we get in touch with our own lowliness; by looking at His purity, we shall see our own filth; by pondering His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble (Castle, 1, 2, 9). Only in the benevolent presence of the redeeming Lord can we safely descend into the compulsive, wounded, and sinful self. In humility we then find healing, for the Lord is the Master of both the conscious and the unconscious self and can touch the very core of the person, drawing us up into salvation and liberation from all that is contrary to truth and charity. Love of God and love of neighbor both radically depend on authentic self-knowledge. Self-knowledge sees through behavior to its deeper motivation. The genuine desire for such insight leads us to pray to the God of light and to seek out spiritual directors, confessors, and good friends who will tell us the truth about ourselves and keep our prayer life in the light (see Life, 13, last part).

Thus self-knowledge is an integral dimension of prayer. We cannot know God without knowing the self and we cannot know the self without knowing God. The fallen self cannot acquire authentic self-knowledge by its own unaided powers. Seeing ourselves in the truth is an aspect of liberation from the fallen self. Again, we need to roam the mansions of self-knowledge all the days of our prayerful lives. Teresian prayer is self-knowing in the light of Christ.

Briefly we should also mention existential reflection, i.e., prayerful reflection on life-situations so that we can see and cope with them in the light and love of God. We learn to take our more pronounced states of mind to prayer with us, whether they be due to external or internal causes. It is not that we are encouraging problem-solving at prayer; rather, we learn from Teresa how to draw the presence of Christ into our states of mind and heart. We go to prayer as we are. If you are experiencing trials or are sad, behold Him on the way to the garden . He will look at you with those eyes so beautiful and compassionate, filled with tears; He will forget His sorrows so as to console you in yours (Way, 26, 6).

Affective Prayer and Resolutions.

Affective activity is characteristic of Teresian meditation, as we have seen. In the Teresian system, affective prayer is meditation, and all meditation feeds affectivity. Teresa wants the will to desire God, to resolve to serve him, to move toward union with him. Together with ready- made prayers, she wants us to learn to freely express ourselves with words that come from our own heart (Way, 26, 6). Stronger and stronger becomes Teresa's emphasis on affective prayer as she outlines the spiritual journey. For those in the first three dwelling-places she writes: They would be right if they engaged for a while in making acts of love, praising God, rejoicing in His goodness, that He is who He is, and in desiring His honor and glory. These acts are great awakeners of the will and are more important than just following one s usual meditation (see Castle, 4, 1, 6).

Teresa wants us to move progressively toward affective simplicity because it best prepares for contemplation. (And since in the Interior Castle we find no warning about the passive night of the senses, it may be that Teresian simple affectivity cuts through into initial contemplation without the great adjustment treated by St. John of the Cross.) Teresian affectivity is one of the greatest strengths of her doctrine on meditation.

Let us not neglect resolutions as we construct our list of Teresian methods. Resolutions are very clearly meditative acts that she highly valued. Though Carmelites sometimes spurn this seemingly more Ignatian emphasis, Teresa herself is a woman of will. She wants a very determined determination to keep on praying all of one s years (see Way, 13). And she wants as strong a resolve to grow and pursue virtue as we can manage. We need to cultivate great desires for God, and a strong will, a will that will not give up prayer for absolutely anything and that will pursue virtue at all costs. Certainly, Teresian prayer does not require a resolution at each prayer session. But we need to realize that resolutions are a dimension of Teresian affectivity that very concretely relate prayer to real life.


Last of all we list the prayer of recollection. We refer here to the active prayer of recollection, i.e., recollection or rapport with the inner presence of God due to our own meditative efforts. (Important references include Life, 4, 7; 40, 5 6; Way, 28 29; Castle, 4, 3.) Teresa confesses that until she learned to find the presence of Christ within herself she never knew satisfaction at prayer (see Way, 29, 7). This prayer is called recollection because the soul collects its faculties together and enters within itself to be with its God. And its divine Master comes more quickly to teach it and give it the prayer of quiet than He would through any other method it might use. For centered there within itself it can think about the Passion and represent the Son and offer Him to the Father and not tire the intellect by going to look for Him on Mount Calvary or in the garden or at the pillar (Way, 28, 4). This inward focus is Teresa's favorite orientation for the work of meditation.

So far, then, we have placed Teresian meditation within the larger tradition of monastic prayer, called lectio divina, and have looked at some basic Teresian notions: mental prayer, vocal prayer, and meditation. We noted that meditation in a broad sense is the first category of prayer for Teresa, an active or ascetical stage of prayer just short of contemplation. We have also reviewed the basic characteristics and attitudes underlying Teresian prayer (attentiveness, affectivity, Christ-centeredness, the contemplative orientation of her prayer, the importance of self-knowledge) as well as various Teresian methods of praying (e.g., vocal prayer, meditative reading, the use of sacred images for focusing, the employment of interior images, reflection and intuition, affective prayer, resolutions, and active recollection). Now we are ready to apply all these things to the actual practice of prayer, in the context of the rediscovery of Western monastic lectio divina.


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