THE SPIRIT TOO HELPS US IN OUR WEAKNESS, FOR WE DO NOT KNOW HOW TO PRAY AS WE OUGHT. BUT THE SPIRIT HIMSELF ASKS FOR US WITH UNSPEAKABLE GROANINGS.Today as we commemorate St. Teresa of Avila we recall that she is a doctor of the Church whose specialty was prayer. The reading from the Epistle to the Romans. that I have just cited invites us to reflect on the nature of prayer and the action of the Holy Spirit within us. May the intercession of St. Teresa obtain that our meditation will assist us in our life of prayer.
First of all, there is a variety of ways of conceiving of prayer that are valid and helpful. But not all of them are as adequate as they might be. It appears that most people conceive of prayer largely as petition, asking for favors for our self and for others. This kind of prayer will always be important here on earth where we are never without needs of various kinds. But there are other kinds of prayer that are no less important; indeed, they are of a higher order and are all the more significant for us in that they will occupy us throughout all eternity. I refer to the prayer of thanksgiving, the prayer of worship and the prayer of praise. The liturgy schools us in all these forms of prayer. At the same time it teaches us to maintain a truly Catholic, that is to say, universal, scope in our prayer, interceding for the needs of the whole Church throughout the world.
Another way of conceiving of prayer was worked out by early generations of monks and further elaborated by their successors in the Middle Ages. It came to be known as Prayer of the Heart. It is not a public prayer, as is the liturgy, but rather confined to the interior and so is a form of private prayer. St. Teresa was especially gifted with this more private form of prayer. In fact, she developed her own manner of describing its nature and stages, taking a distinctive approach that amounts to a separate expression of spirituality within the larger Catholic tradition . She has rather little to say about the Liturgy, but she possessed a rare gift for describing the various stages of interior experiences that accompany progress in intimacy with The Lord. Her descriptions have been received as classic by the Church. But that does not signify by any means that her conception of the inner life exhaust the possibilities of contemplative experience and mystical prayer. Monks, already many centuries before St. Teresa, had evolved ways of prayer suited to their manner of life with its emphasis on the Bible, on lectio and the liturgy. Their private, interior prayer reflected this interaction with the inspired word , Teresa, in fact, contributed to further this monastic wisdom. She added to its understanding by her analysis of the progressive stages of prayer that is more detailed and organized that the earlier monastic writings display..
Rather than displacing the earlier tradition she gave its values and aims a fresh expression, adapted to the language and interests of her age. She lived in turbulent times, the Reformation period of 16th century Europe and also the newly emerging culture of Latin America, where the members of the Reformed Carmelites were to play so significant a role. Her work was soon to be carried to the Philippines, where the troops and missionaries sent by Philip II to save that country as a Spanish and Catholic colony against the encroachments of advancing Muslims Her writings and her life continue to stimulate and guide many in search of a more profound and intimate prayer, not only the cloistered nuns and monks of her Order but persons of all Orders and stations in life. One reason for this universal appeal is that she managed to unite in herself the activity of Martha together with the contemplation of Mary, both of whom today’s Gospel so vividly portrays. She achieved this balanced completeness by virtue of the strength and integrity of her character under the influence of her interior life. Indeed, it was only after her conversion to a fervent practice of prayer that she discovered her gift for effective action. Her achievement in reforming the Carmelite Order in the Spain of her time is all the more impressive for having been accomplished in the face of opposition and misunderstanding had placed her under confinement to her own monastery, to curtail her activity and influence. Yet she became the great model of cloistered contemplatives.
Teresa understood well what St. John Chrysostom had already taught concerning the relation of the active and contemplative lives: Martha and Mary are sisters, he noted, not opponents. Teresa herself observed that they needed one another properly to entertain the Lord with fitting hospitality. Similarly, she insisted that the graces of mystical prayer are given only to those who, by working at humble self-knowledge and service to others, purify their hearts. And, as she came to the end of her book on the Interior Castle, she pointed out that the gifts of contemplative prayer are of value only to the extent that they render us more dedicated to carrying out God’s will. Far from being abstracted from daily life and duty, she writes, this form of prayer, even in its highest stage, brings it about that “the soul is occupied much more than before with everything pertaining to the service of God” (7.8). This active service, however, is carried out with a consciousness of God’s loving presence. Interestingly, although she has stated in her preface that she intended to write on prayer in her "Interior Castle", yet after she had completed it, she refers to its theme as God himself. True prayer, in short, is not occupied with self, but rather loses self in the great mystery of God's infinite being and endless love. For true, pure prayer is not merely one activity among many; rather, it is a way of being in the world, united with God not only by intention but by conscious awareness. This prayer is more the action of the Spirit within us than our own effort. At the same time, we make it our own by our free and deliberate choice. Prayer, then, is participation with God in the work of transformation that makes us children of God and heirs of the kingdom.&
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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