Reading Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, we might find ourselves surprised. The Church has proclaimed Teresa a Doctor of Prayer, but the first part of her master work on the subject barely mentions prayer! If prayer is so vital to the spiritual life, why hasn’t she said more about it? How can we grow into the later stages if she doesn’t tell us what to do in the early ones?
The first thing we need to get clear is that for Teresa prayer and virtue grow together, no matter where we are in the seven mansions. Some people think that everyone can be contemplatives, regardless of their lifestyle. This is one of the basic problems with Centering Prayer, as we discussed a few months ago.
Real growth in virtue takes commitment to prayer
Others have the opposite problem. They think that if they are living a moral life, that’s all they need. Not committed to prayer, they think they are nonetheless spiritually advanced, so they see no reason to start praying more faithfully. This is a danger of the second mansions.
I grew up in a family where we prayed together daily and went to charismatic prayer meetings. My parents prayed daily. But I didn’t really form a habit of mental prayer.
On the other hand, I always strove to live a good life and thought myself pretty successful. So why did I really need to pray more? In young adulthood I did pray several times a week–much more than the once a month or so of the person in the first mansions. But I was unable to commit to daily prayer.
I had to be convinced of the necessity of prayer before I’d make the effort. If this is where you find yourself, please read Why should you pray?
All that the beginner in prayer has to do — and you must not forget this, for it is very important — is to labor and be resolute and prepare himself with all possible diligence to bring his will into conformity with the will of God. As I shall say later, you may be quite sure that this comprises the very greatest perfection which can be attained on the spiritual road.” (Interior Castle, Second Mansions)
This is one reason why Teresa does not talk about methods of prayer in these stages. She does not want us to think that methods are the ends. To recap, the beginner who wants to advance in prayer must do two things:
- be determined to persevere, come what may
- strive to do God’s will as much as possible
But this leaves us in a quandary. How can we persevere in prayer when we barely know how to pray? Does she mean we should just resolutely say the Rosary?
Meditating on Sacred Scripture
Here we must make a distinction. Although God can take someone who only prays vocal prayer and make him a contemplative, we shouldn’t stick to vocal prayers out of laziness or ignorance. There is a better way to pray for those who want to advance quickly, and most of us can practice it. Teresa writes about it in her earlier works: Christian meditation.
As I’ve pointed out many times, Christian meditation is almost completely different from eastern (Hindu/Buddhist) forms of meditation. Since they have different ends, they also use different means.
Why do the saints and most Catholic teachers on prayer prefer meditation to other forms of prayer?
Mediation on Sacred Scripture makes us intimate with Christ’s character. We want to know Him and love Him so that we can serve Him. Sacred Scripture informs our minds. It moves our hearts. When we learn about Jesus, we want to follow Him more closely!
Meditation is not Bible study. We don’t just want to learn facts, study the historical meaning of the text, or look at maps and commentaries. We want to encounter Jesus Christ. Elsewhere Teresa says:
The soul’s profit, then, consists not in thinking much, but in loving much.” (Teresa of Avila, Book of Foundations v.)
A simple method
There are many ways to meditate on Sacred Scripture, but they are not that different from one another. Here is “a simple method” proposed by Fr. Peter Thomas Rorhback in Conversation with Christ:
- Prepare by focusing your mind and heart on Christ, setting aside distractions.
- Select material to meditate on, preferably a short passage from the Gospels.
- Consider the who, what, and why of the passage, and what does it mean to me?
- Converse with Jesus about your reading.
- Conclude with thanksgiving and resolutions.
Here is an alternate (and more detailed) method of Christian meditation from an earlier post. Notice how similar they are.
How long should you pray? Beginners at mental prayer should aim for fifteen minutes daily. Anything less is giving God too little of your time. Try to gradually extend the time to thirty minutes.
And don’t worry! When you reach the third mansions, you will want to pray more than you have time for. It will be the most precious part of your day.
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