An old woman practicing mental prayer.

An Old Woman Praying by Maes (Wikimedia Commons).

 

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:

  1. Prepare by focusing your mind and heart on Christ, setting aside distractions.
  2. Select material to meditate on, preferably a short passage from the Gospels.
  3. Consider the who, what, and why of the passage, and what does it mean to me?
  4. Converse with Jesus about your reading.
  5. 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.

Connie Rossini

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Written by Connie Rossini
Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

    9 Comments

  1. Margaret January 6, 2015 at 9:05 am Reply

    I noticed on the posted image a skull. I’ve also seen a skull on pictures of St. Teresa – could you give information as to why and if the skulls are real, where would they get them? I would think that the reason would be to remind them of their death but is there more?

    • Connie Rossini January 6, 2015 at 10:15 am Reply

      Maragret, you’re right that the skulls are to remind them of the reality of death. They are called “momento mori” in Latin. In art I believe the skull is largely used as a symbol to signify that Teresa (or the old woman here) recognizes the vanities of life and that her ultimate goal is seeing God face to face. So the people pictured probably would not have had an actual skull in their possession–although in some case they may have.

  2. Marilyn January 6, 2015 at 10:01 am Reply

    Thanks for this post. I discovered your blog recently. I have never been interested in reading the lives of the saints, up until a few weeks ago, I thought they were too complicated and boring. I was reading a book by Fr. Jacques Philippe that brought me to St. Therese and eventually lead me to your blog. I’ve already read your free eBook and your prayer book and I am reading your new book Trusting God with St. Therese. I also bought Interior Castle as an audio book and I have started to listen to it. I just wanted to let you know how God is using you, I love your writing and you have inspired me so much! Thanks!

    • Connie Rossini January 6, 2015 at 10:17 am Reply

      Wonderful, Marilyn! Fr. Jacques Philippe is a great writer to start with, because he is completely solid and deep, yet puts things in a modern and simple way. I am trying to do something of the same. Thanks for the encouragement.

  3. Alyosha January 6, 2015 at 2:30 pm Reply

    In Buddhism, there are many different methods of meditation. What you describe as Christian meditation, is similar to what a Buddhist would call analytical meditation (je gom in Tibetan) or contemplation. It involves preparation and then a close reading of a typically short dharma text, followed by dedication of merit to others. For example, you might take a text from teh Kadampa lineage such as “Victory to others, loss to myself” or “Drive all blames into one[self]” and try to understand it in personal terms — seeing how our habits are oriented toward competition toward or blaming others — and contemplating how this is a source of suffering.

    I am not saying that this is the same as Christian meditation. It is likely that there are meaningful differences arising from the different views of the two religions. It is generally not recommended to mix methods from different traditions. But I do appreciate the parallels — we are all human beings, so in that sense it is not surprising that we find similar inspirations and obstacles.

    • Connie Rossini January 6, 2015 at 2:55 pm Reply

      Thanks. Alyosha. The main difference I see is one we have talked about before. For Carmelites, it’s not the meditation–in the sense of the pondering–that is the focus, but the conversation with Christ. In Carmel I learned to spend 3/4 of my mental prayer time talking to Jesus and only 1/4 divided among preparation, meditation, and conclusion. We try not to be too cerebral about it. The reading and the reflection are both aimed at engaging our hearts, minds, and imaginations in prayer.

  4. Kay Koehler March 8, 2016 at 10:02 am Reply

    Connie, Thanks so much for this site. I have been in Contemplative prayer for a year now!! You’d think I’d know a thing or two about it. I am still A BEGINNER! I only know today that I am more determined that I was a year ago to get to the Mansions! I pray all day long, in conversational style with Jesus, and in my ‘CP’ time each morning and night. I am finding it hard ‘not to grow weary in doing good’ which is what this seems like. You’d think I would know if I had been in a Mansion, but I don’t. Is this crazy? Being tenacious about this only STRENGTHENS my desire to get there. The longer I’m at this, the stronger the pull toward these Mansions, praise the Lord!!! Any comments would be appreciated.

    • Connie Rossini March 8, 2016 at 6:12 pm Reply

      Kay, praised be Jesus Christ! You can never go wrong with praying all day. I’m thinking “CP” means “contemplative prayer” in your comment? I use that abbreviation for Centering Prayer, which is not orthodox. Perseverance is one of the most important things you can do to continue to grow. Spiritual growth is a life-long process. It does not usually happen over night. Most people spend many years in mansions 1-3, then things start to accelerate. Try to be content with where you are, to the extent that you can’t change it. That does not mean to be luke warm. As long as you are doing the best you can where you are at, you are doing all God requires. Be patient with yourself. Try to practice relying completely on God and His grace, not your own strength. Try hard to find a spiritual director, if at all possible. He or she will keep you on the right path and help you grow. God bless!

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