Teresa of Avila on silence in prayer (Part 2 of 3)

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 14
File:Maria Taferl.Wallfahrtsbasilika24.jpg
Teresa of Avila, painting in Maria Taferl, Lower Austria (Wikimedia Commons). In prayer we should not force ourselves into artificial silence, nor should we think we must always be talking.


Before we dig into St. Teresa’s of Avila’s teaching about silence in prayer, I want to clarify something important from last week’s post on sitting quietly in prayer. I originally planned to write only one post. As it grew longer, I decided it was too much information for one day, plus it was taking too much of the time that I should have been spending on my vocation. So I cut the post off after explaining some of the problems with Centering Prayer. But I think doing so gave some readers the impression that we should never sit quietly during mental prayer. I did not mean to imply that, and I apologize for the confusion.

Silence is an indispensable aspect of mental prayer. But the Carmelite saints speak of a different type of silence than that promoted in Centering Prayer. They also speak of specific times in our prayer when we should cultivate silence, and stages when we should be silent. Today I’d like to examine St. Teresa’s take on the subject.

 Starting our prayer in silence

Some of the writings of St. Teresa about prayer do sound close to Centering Prayer, so it is no wonder that people are sometimes confused. Take this passage, for instance:

All one need do is go into solitude and look at Him within oneself, and not turn away from so good a Guest but with great humility speak to Him as a father. Beseech Him as you would a father; tell him all about your trials; ask Him for a remedy against them, realizing that you are not worthy to be His daughter.” (Way of Perfection 28, 2)

Centering Prayer also talks about retreating within oneself. Teresa always sees the Holy Trinity dwelling in the hearts of the baptized as Someone other than ourselves. For her, prayer is always a conversation with God (although at times this conversation is beyond mere words). She councils us to enter into the presence of God, setting aside distractions. She is teaching us to follow the words of Jesus:

When you pray, go into your room and close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” (Mt 6:6)

Whenever possible, we find a quiet place and time to pray. We take a moment to collect our thoughts, to place any preoccupations aside. Then we turn immediately to Christ, addressing Him with our mind and heart. In contrast, Centering Prayer would have us focus on repeatedly checking to make sure the door is closed and we are alone, never progressing to talking with Jesus.

Silence grows as prayer matures

The first stage of Christian prayer is vocal prayer. We recite words that others composed. It is by definition a wordy prayer. We don’t usually sit silently for very long during vocal prayer. Still, some people who are unable to practice meditative prayer find vocal prayer to be their stepping stone to contemplation.

The next stage of prayer is discursive meditation. We read a passage from a devotional book, ideally Sacred Scripture, and we ponder its meaning briefly. The goal is not to become theologians, making prayer into study, but to let our reflections lead us to speak to God from the heart. Here we might have a little less talking, and more “listening” to God’s voice in the text and our reflections on it. But our mind and our will are actively engaged.

Discursive meditation leads us to affective prayer. Affective prayer is a simpler meditation. Instead of taking ten minutes to read and ponder a Scripture passage, we might spend a minute or two picturing Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (a favorite subject of Teresa’s).  Our will is moved to express its love for God almost at once. In affective prayer, we are sometimes moved to sit silently for a moment (or longer) to hear what the Holy Spirit would say to us. When our mind begins to wander, we return to our image or take up another and repeat the process.

The last stage of prayer that we can reach without special divine intervention is called by many different names. Teresa calls it acquired recollection. Here we begin to gaze at Jesus with love, saying a few words now and then, but mostly soaking in His presence. We might, on the other hand, have to return to discursive meditation or even vocal prayer at times.

Teresa speaks of the tension between movements of the intellect and will and silence:

We should make our petitions like beggars before a powerful and rich Emperor; then, with downcast eyes, humbly wait. When He secretly shows us He hears our prayers, it is well to be silent, as He has drawn us into His presence; there would then be no harm in trying to keep our minds at rest (that is to say, if we can).  If, however, the King makes no sign of listening or of seeing us, there is no need to stand inert, like a dolt, which the soul would resemble if it continued inactive.  In this case its dryness would greatly increase, and the imagination would be made more restless than before by its very effort to think of nothing.  Our Lord wishes us at such a time to offer Him our petitions and to place ourselves in His presence; He knows what is best for us.” (Interior Castle, Fourth Mansion, Chapter 3).

In this passage, she is actually talking about infused recollection, the first stage of infused (also called supernatural) contemplation. But the instruction on when to remain silent, waiting for God to speak, and when to make acts of the will, applies to earlier stages of prayer as well. We follow the prompting of God and the movement of our hearts.

Recollection often alternates between something the soul produces through grace, and the pure act of God. It is difficult to distinguish between the two at first.

Then God begins to take over our prayer time more and more. He brings us to the prayer of quiet. Here, the will becomes God’s captive, but the mind sometimes races around wildly, not knowing what to do with itself.

If we continue on the path of prayer and virtue (one cannot grow without the other, in Teresa’s teaching), we will eventually be brought to the prayer of union. Here, God suspends the operations of both the intellect and the will. Total absorption in God casts out all distraction. We expend no effort at all. God does everything.

Should we sit quietly in prayer?

We return then to our original question. The answer depends on what stage of the spiritual life we are at, and how God is working in our soul.

Forcing the intellect to be still is completely foreign to Teresa’s teaching. We try by gentle means to overcome distractions. We fix our mind and heart on Christ and speak to Him in love, sometimes in words, other times with a look of love. Silence is not the goal of prayer. It is a means to invite God in. He will come when He wills. We must be content to wait for Him.

In Part 3 (God willing, next Friday) I’ll wrap up this series with various other observations on silence.

Connie Rossini

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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.

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14 Responses

  1. Michelle

    “In contrast, Centering Prayer would have us focus on repeatedly checking to make sure the door is closed and we are alone, never progressing to talking with Jesus.” That is an excellent analogy.

  2. Theresa

    Amazing post Connie! It really helped me to understand things better since you summed it up beautifully.

    “If, however, the King makes no sign of listening or of seeing us, there is no need to stand inert, like a dolt, which the soul would resemble if it continued inactive.”

    I think the above is the tough part. How does one discern if the King is making a sign of listening or not?? How do we know we are not just putting ourselves into an empty state without Him??


    • Connie Rossini

      If we are talking about acquired recollection or earlier stages of prayer, I’d say that you sit quietly as long as your will is fixed on God. When it begins to wander, it’s time to revisit our meditation/image. You shouldn’t feel a total blank as you sit in prayer. I have to edit that a bit. Here is where things get sticky. If you are making the transition to infused contemplation, you may at times experience what feels like a complete blank, but not of your making. You try to meditate and can’t. You try to picture God and can’t. Even acts of the will seem difficult. For that prayer period, sit quietly, even if you feel nothing or darkness. Then make an appointment with your spiritual director. These kinds of things can’t really be discussed well in the combox. You need to discuss it with someone who is familiar with the state of your soul, face to face.

      • Theresa

        I understand. I guess it was too complicated of a question for me to throw to you…sorry! It is something I do discuss with my spiritual director…I like to hear other’s thoughts too though. Thanks!

  3. Alyosha

    This is very interesting to me. There are parallels here to Buddhist meditation. We recite — sutras or aspirations or invocations. We also have analytical meditation (je gom in Tibetan). This is what we would call contemplation — using the intellect to explore a textual passage. Then there are heart practices to cultivate compassion (such as tonglen — or exchanging self for other) and devotion (such as guru yoga) that sometimes use visualization of sacred images. When the mind is settled enough, there can be sense that the meditation comes to you as opposed to being something that you do — a subtle shift from mindfulness to awareness. This can lead to a giving up or surrendering that may allow an experience of ____ that is uncreated. There are different words for that (emptiness is one) — but it is beyond thought. Part of the training is not to reify or grasp at that as an experience or an attainment but to let it be. Kind of like ringing a bell — to grasp it deadens the sound. There is nothing to do. And that moment is naturally suffused with joy and compassion. “Emptiness without compassion is never taught, water will always be wet.” It is not even your compassion.

    I don’t think it is necessary or helpful to say that aspects of different traditions are the same. And blending traditions (and Centering Prayer may be a blending — I don’t understand it well enough) is probably not helpful for either tradition. It is natural and probably necessary to feel that the tradition you are engaged in is superior (or at least worth pursuing to the exclusion of others).

    I just think we are human beings and because we have hearts and minds we find some similarities when we begin to reflect and engage in introspection.

    • Connie Rossini

      Thanks for the comment, Alyosha. I agree with what you said about different traditions. They have some similar aspects, and I think it’s really interesting to hear about beliefs different from one’s own. And I think that if a person doesn’t think his tradition is superior, maybe he should look for one that is, or has something to offer that others don’t, if you want to put it that way. But in the end it is a matter of seeking truth and embracing it once we’ve found it.

  4. Mari Kate

    Hello Connie: How much I enjoy your blog. It is refreshing as I too have a long history in Carmelite Spirituality and it is good to be reminded while drinking my morning smoothie before Holy Mass. What I particularly like is your simplicity of what can be a difficult message. Too often blogs get so cerebral about the mystical that it can be misleading to the reader that if they just think their way through the spiritual life, they will “achieve” Union with God. These sorts of blogs can do more harm than good as they increase the ego’s need for knowledge instead inviting the soul to littleness and receptivity through humility by waiting on the Lord. This is how I see your approach and want to encourage you to continue. The paragraph you shared with us as pasted below seems to me one of the best reasons as to why centering prayer can so mislead souls on the path to true Union with God:
    “If, however, the King makes no sign of listening or of seeing us, there is no need to stand inert, like a dolt, which the soul would resemble if it continued inactive. In this case its dryness would greatly increase, and the imagination would be made more restless than before by its very effort to think of nothing. Our Lord wishes us at such a time to offer Him our petitions and to place ourselves in His presence; He knows what is best for us.” (Interior Castle, Fourth Mansion, Chapter 3).

    • Connie Rossini

      Mari Kate, thanks for your encouragement. It’s a fine line to walk, between over-intellectualizing our spirituality and saying we shouldn’t use our minds. I have read many blog posts about contemplation that make my eyes glaze over; even though I know what they mean, I don’t understand the terms they use, if you get me. So those posts are helpful for people pursuing higher education and learning to be spiritual directors, etc., but offer very little to the average Catholic who knows nothing about authentic contemplation. I’m still learning myself, and trying to make the Carmelite saints understandable to people of our day. Pray that I don’t make too many mistakes!

      • Mari Kate

        That you are already looking for the balance demonstrates how much you are listening to the Holy Spirit-but I will pray for you in all your needs. As a trained spiritual director who will probably be in some sort of higher learning till God says no more, I too struggle and strive for the balance. And yes, my eyes often glaze over making my head ache! Teresa, John and Therese have such a beautiful simplicity in their brilliant illuminations. I find that, after the Bible, the saints are the best compass as they write from authentic experience. Their humility allows for the model of simplicity required for the interior life. Have you read anything by Archbishop Luis M. Martinez? Have recently discovered him and really love his simplicity as he describes the interior life. Prayers for your ministry.

  5. Brother Gabriel

    Hi Connie, your blog is a nice beginning point for those who are interested in attaining a basic understanding of Carmelite Spirituality. It provides an opportunity to learn, share and discuss with others, like yourself, how to deepen ones prayer life, leading to the ultimate goal – a Loving union with the Beloved. Just a humble suggestion, though, you might try to be a bit more careful in some of your interpretations of Mystical Theology and spirituality, since even for the trained theologian, like myself, one must be judicious in how one understands, represents and applies its principles to souls.

    To that end, I am pleased to see that you have “clarified” and “expanded” on some of your statements, made in a response to a commentator (Lisa Marie) in your recent article in “California Catholic Daily” concerning the danger for beginners to sit quietly in prayer. You stated there, “We should avoid making blanket statements about things like sitting quietly, which are NOT prerequisites for authentic Christian prayer.” As I shared with you then, sitting quietly and “re-collecting” our thoughts before starting prayer, especially for beginners, actually IS a prerequisites for authentic Christian prayer. Clarity is important, so as not to create confusion, especially for those just entering into a serious prayer life.

    Again, keep up the good work, my sister in Carmel. Pax Vobis.

    • Connie Rossini

      Thanks for visiting, Brother Gabriel. Sometimes I shoot off comments too fast without thinking it through. That’s kind of the nature of the combox. It’s kind of like talking to someone in person. Afterwards you think, “That really didn’t come off the way I meant it to,” or, “I should have thought a bit more before I spoke.” I try to be more careful in actual posts, but what seems very clear to the writer, is often confusing to or misinterpreted by readers. It’s hard to see one’s own writing objectively. When having people review my book in the pre-publication phase, I was surprised by the passages people didn’t understand. It’s easy to skip steps or make assumptions when you’re writing. And then sometimes I just plain make mistakes. Anyway, “If a good man strikes or reproves me, it is a kindness.” So thanks for the corrections.

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