Teresa of Avila’s Struggles to Pray

Monday, October 15, 2012 — Week of Proper 23, Year 2

Teresa of Avila, Nun, 1582

[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 989)

Psalm 1, 2,3 (morning) // 4, 7 (evening)

Micah 7:1-7

Acts 26:1-23

Luke 8:26-39

From Teresa of Avila by Shirley du Boulay:

They say in Spain that to understand Saint Teresa one must look at Castile. Its windswept plains, its granite boulders, its bitter winters and sun-scorched summers were the womb that nourished the ‘undaunted daughter of desires’ of Richard Crashaw’s poem. A gentler landscape would not have produced a woman of such courage and determination…

Though Teresa was, for the most part, able to appear calm, even cheerful, beneath the surface she lived in torment. Her writings show clearly that her inner life was deeply troubled and difficult. In fact she describes the first twenty years at the Convent of the Incarnation as a time when she constantly failed God and was buffeted on ‘that stormy sea, often falling in this way, each time rising again, but to little purpose, as I would only fall once more.’

She was generous and scrupulously honest in her writing, and it is this first-hand knowledge of her inner life, particularly during this period, which enables us to identify with her as a fellow human being and as a woman. She experienced spiritual apathy, aridity in prayer and a sense of failure common to so many. Had we only known her as the recipient of extraordinary experiences, as a mystic as gifted in prayer as was Rembrandt in art, Beethoven in music or Shakespeare in literature, we would not be able to identify with her so closely, nor would she have touched so many lives…. The conflict which obsessed her for twenty years was that she was torn between God and the world.

Anyone who has ever tried to pray will have experienced difficulties; yet there tends to be an unspoken assumption that for saints and mystics prayer is easy. The open and totally honest way in which Teresa admits to her own problems in prayer is one of her most valuable legacies; that she, too, found prayer difficult is not only endearing but also immensely reassuring. She writes of her trials:

Over a period of several years, I was more occupied in wishing my hour of prayer were over, and in listening whenever the clock struck, than in thinking of things that were good. Again and again I would rather have done any severe penance that might have been given me than practice recollection as a preliminary to prayer. Whenever I entered the oratory I used to feel so depressed that I had to summon up all my courage to make myself pray at all.

She felt imprisoned and alone, unable to believe her confessors, who treated so lightly the shortcomings in her prayer life which she knew, in her heart, were a failure in her obligation to God. But one of the ways in which she is set apart from most people is in the courage and determination with which she persevered; she battled and fought against her problems in prayer as fiercely as any soldier fights his enemy. Through her twenties and thirties she endured boredom, aridity, frustration, disappointment and an acute sense of failure. This period, too often glossed over, was the soil from which the flower of her mysticism was to grow. It should never be forgotten that it lasted from her novitiate until she was about forty years old. (about twenty years)

Shirley de Boulay, Teresa of Avila, London, 1991, pp. 1, 29-35 (abridged), quoted by Robert Atwell in Celebrating the Saints, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 1998, p. 609-10.

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