I think Teresa of Avila might have made a great blogger. I read her Interior Castle this year, and while it was sometimes tricky reading, her organization style and penchant for lists would have made for some catchy titles:
The 7 Mansions of the Soul (and How to Get There)
3 Signs Your Locutions are Actually from God
Spiritual Jewels: The Top 3 Gifts Jesus Gives His Bride
It’s Not in Your Imagination: 5 Reasons to Believe the Lord is Speaking to Your Soul
I just spent the entire summer petitioning God for one thing after another. Could You keep my children safe? Could we please have nice weather today? Could this please be the last child in our family to catch Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease? But I also asked Him for less tangible consolations: Could You please make me less anxious? Could I please feel You near? Could please You reveal Your will (in a super specific and undoubtable way)? If God were anything less than ever-patient and totally understanding, He would have grown weary of my constant demands.
St. Teresa of Avila, my patron saint for the year, also would have been shaking her head at my constant begging for spiritual favors. For a woman who received pretty public consolations from God (from visions to visits from Mary herself, and levitating raptures that literally swept her off her feet), she never grew to long for this spiritual comfort from God, and in fact, often begged Him not to favor her in such a way. And in the fourth chapter of her Interior Castle, she gives five reasons why we shouldn’t strive for the comfort that comes from spiritual favors.
Although we might not be hoping for, striving for, or desiring the gift of visions, visits, or levitation, we can all learn something from St. Teresa of Avila’s humble approach to prayer, and the five reasons she gives to not strive for spiritual favors and consolations:
- We should pray without an ulterior motive
“The most essential thing,” says Teresa about prayer, “is that we should love God without any motive of self-interest.” When we come to prayer as an act of love, not as an act of need, we can set our own desires, motives, and will aside.
- We should pray humbly
Teresa advises us never to think that our prayer automatically qualifies for us for the answers and graces we think we need and deserve. “There is some lack of humility in our thinking that in return for our miserable services we can obtain anything so great,” she says. How do we know when we are praying humbly? “The first sign… is that you do not think you deserve the favors and spiritual delights from the Lord…”
- We should pray with a desire to suffer
“The true preparation for receiving these gifts is a desire to suffer and to imitate the Lord, not to receive consolations,” counsels Teresa. The first and greatest desire we should be bringing to prayer, before our list of petitions, before our aspirations for virtues and holiness, before even our desire for grace, is the desire to imitate Christ, particularly in his suffering.
- We should pray reminded that God knows best
Not only should we pray with the humility that whatever our petitions, God knows best what we need. As Teresa says, whatever our petitions, “His Majesty is not obliged to grant them to us… and He knows better than we what is good for us.”
- We should pray patiently for God’s will
Teresa reminds us that spiritual consolations don’t come to those who ask for them or desire them the most, nor to those who pray the longest prayers, make the hardest sacrifices, or cry the most tears. Instead, “it is given only to whom God wills to give it and often when the soul is not thinking of it at all… may He do with us as He will and lead us along whatever way He pleases.”
As a mother, I have a long list of petitions for my children; as a mother of teenagers, that list is longer still! But St. Teresa reminds me, every once in a while, to pause my petitions, to set aside my motives, and to try to pray with a humility that does not demand from God a quick reaction, an immediate response. “The language God best hears is silent love,” says St. John of the Cross, and so I silence my pleading heart, and offer my prayer as a free gift of love to God, demanding nothing in return, no answers, no swift solutions, no consolations.
But as Christ says in the Gospel, “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great….” (Lk 6:35) This is the great contradiction of humble prayer: that in demanding nothing, we receive so much.