(Introduction to the Article: Prayer is an essential part of Christian life. Achieving consistency in prayer is not easy. Let’s look at how St Teresa of Avila overcame this hurdle and experienced God through prayer.)
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
Jesus gives us an open call to go to him in prayer at all times. He desires that we take our daily struggles and joys to him. He wants us to be open to this connection with God at all times. We in response take up our deep sighs, grunts, petitions, songs of praise and words of gratitude lifted up to our Maker in prayers. Even during the darkest hour, clinging on to faith is prayer. At times when one is unable to pray, where all things are dark, in the bleakness of mind, when there is a loss for words, where all promises of God are forgotten – the desperate cry that arises out of one’s lips is a prayer. Often we fail to understand this connection. We are left bereft, at the depths of our hearts because we forget Jesus’ invitation. We are bewildered in the middle of the storm, because we do not see Jesus standing with us. We do not go to Him; in whom we can find rest.
We are not alone in experiencing these fleeting moments of happiness and misery, hope and despair, courage and fear, hate and love. The saints of God, who have been through similar situations have perfected the acts of holiness and charity. They have given us roadmaps in our journey with Christ. St Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church, has given us important precepts about strengthening our relationship with God through and in prayer, during all circumstances.
St Teresa struggled with saying her prayers for a long time. Even after she entered religious life, she had not perfected her personal prayer routine. Other work and social get-togethers took precedence over prayer. In the Bible, we see the act where God turns our weakness into his strength. Abraham did not have a child for a long time. God made him the father of nations. Joseph, the patriarch in the Old Testament, was detested by his own brothers. God used his abandonment to exalt his position so that he could help his family when famine struck. Thus ensuring the family of Jacob that would become Israel. Simon Peter was an impulsive fisherman. Jesus turned him into a fervent leader of his Church. Paul persecuted Christians. Jesus turned him to be the person, through whom many learned about Christ. So, he did for St Teresa too. Through she who had been neglecting prayer, Jesus made the one who would draw others to consistency in prayer. St Teresa became the epitome of contemplative prayer. The numerous graces she received through prayer, along with the visions and revelations made her pen beautiful recommendations for a life with God.
St Teresa expostulates that prayer is a conversation with the One, whom we know that always loves us. The act of prayer finds and maintains a holy friendship with our maker. There may be instances where due to our human nature, we become weak and overwhelmed. At these times, one must remember his great love and “rise above the pain of being so much in the company of One who is so different from you.” It is important for us at these moments, to let go of ourselves and rely on God completely. Once we take an effort to show this love towards God, there are countless blessings open to us. God loves each and every person and wants to bestow immense blessing upon each individual. In the book of Revelations (3:20) we hear Jesus say, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” St Teresa likens prayer to be the door to great favours; the entry to our soul. Pope Francis too calls prayer the door to the Holy Spirit. Prayer opens our mind to deeper faith. Strong faith in turn opens our minds to deeper truth leading to a profound knowledge of God.
One of the first hurdles, many encounter in their journey with God, is constancy in prayer. When an individual who has entered a life with Jesus fails, the first temptation is to give up on that day’s prayer. Out of guilt and false assumption of humility, the individual thinks that one is not holy enough to approach God. St Teresa writes that prayer “is the means by which all may be repaired again, and without it amendment would be much more difficult.” Jesus illustrates this in the story of the prodigal son. When the youngest son repented, his father was only too glad to welcome him back, no questions asked. God looks at the inner condition of our heart. Like St David says, “a broken and contrite heart O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). With this confidence, it is better to surrender our faults to God, than stay away from him due to guilt. “You take into account, O Lord, the times they loved You, and for one moment of penitence forgot all their offences against You” (St Teresa of Avila).
This confidence in God puts at rest fear too – the fear of not having lived up to the mark and the fear of not being able to keep up. St Teresa says that this is one of the trickeries of the devil – to create a fear of whether we are holy enough to be favoured by God; to remind us of how we have displeased God, who had taken up the cross to save us. So that entering into a clear conversation with God would become difficult. At these moments, total surrender makes our prayer all the more fruitful.
St Teresa, in order to achieve this recommends imaginative prayer. She used to picture Jesus during the moments, when he was completely alone. She used to contemplate his agony at the garden of Gethsemane. By being with him during this time of untold misery and despair, we understand his love for the world. We remember here that the Saviour had become one of us in all things but sin. Here he said, “I am deeply grieved, even to death” (Matthew 26:38). When we are faced with similar situations, what do we do? Jesus gives us a solution soon after. He says, “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (Matthew 26:41). St Teresa, thus asks us to dwell with Jesus during the moments of his agony and passion. Setting aside some time for understanding what he had endured, St Teresa says we should also spend some time “to remain there with Christ, in the silence of the understanding.”
After she had resolved to tell her prayers regularly, St Teresa was initially full of despair when she entered the chapel to keep her appointment with God. She writes that during these times when she did not feel like telling her prayers, she turned to Jesus for strength. And God never failed. During those times, “I found greater peace and joy than at some other times when I have prayed because I wanted to.”
St Teresa reminds us that prayer also is the constant connection we have with God – each moment, when we tell him of our joys, sorrows, and fears. Like St Paul says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:16). We must also take care that joy doesn’t make us so complacent that we cease to pray. Rather, moments of joy should also be surrendered in gratitude to the Creator. And what greater way of thinking of the Saviour than among his creation. The trees, the fields, the plants, the flowers, the water, the wind, the breeze, the gale, the sun and the moon bring to mind the great works of God. They help us see his sovereignty over all things visible and invisible. They help us realise how powerful he is and how great his authority over our lives. Only if we let him in, he will shower us with graces and give us the strength for our everyday life. Pope Benedict XVI urges us to follow St Teresa, “May the example of this Saint, profoundly contemplative and effectively active, spur us too every day to dedicate the right time to prayer, to this openness to God, to this journey, in order to seek God, to see him, to discover his friendship and so to find true life.” Persistence in prayer is not easy but let us seek the intercession of St Teresa of Avila to assist us in our journey towards God.