The great saints and writers of the Christian church all have much to teach us. I embarked upon reading some of the classic writings of the historic church some years ago and my only regret is that it took me this long. One such writer is St. Teresa.
Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515 – 1582) was a prominent Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun. She was a theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer. She is considered to be, along with John of the Cross, a founder of the Discalced Carmelites.
One of St. Teresa’s most important contributions to the spiritual life of the church came though her teaching on mental prayer. This is how I discovered her writings to be so truly helpful in my journey.
But what is mental prayer?
Mental prayer is a form of prayer in which one loves God through dialog and by meditating on God's words. It is a time of silence focused on God. It is distinguished from vocal prayers which use set prayers, although mental prayer can proceed by using vocal prayers in order to improve dialogue with God. St. Teresa put it this way: "Mental prayer [oración/mental] is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us." Since the emphasis is on love rather than thought, modern authors recommend that it be called interior prayer.
Mother Theresa wrote of mental prayer: "We must never forget that we are bound to perfection and should aim ceaselessly for it. The practice of mental prayer is necessary to reach that goal. Because it is the breath of life for our soul, holiness is impossible without it. It is only in mental prayer and spiritual reading that we cultivate the gift of prayer. Mental prayer is greatly fostered by simplicity—that is forgetfulness of self and of the body and of the sense, and by frequent aspirations that feed our prayer.
St. Teresa says that mental prayer is really “friendly intercourse and frequent solitary converse with Him who we know loves us.” By this St. Teresa reveals the affective spirit of mental prayer, which I believe is its special characteristic. It is, as she rightly says, “friendly intercourse” with God—intimacy rooted in an awareness of divine love. Thus it is the fruit of love. The soul speaks, in listening and quietness, to the one who loves and is loved.
But Teresa says the soul that enters into mental prayer must “know” God’s love. This means mental prayer involves the intellect as well as the spirit. The intellect will seek to convince the soul that God loves him/her and wishes to be loved in return. This is the part of the mind and will responding to the divine invitation.
One of the first books on prayer that I was ever given was written by a Baptist fundamentalist who said that prayer was only two things: asking and receiving. Everything else, including all forms of contemplation, were simply not prayer. It didn’t take me long to realize how wrong, and inadequate, this answer really was. But I didn’t know what to replace this type of thinking with until later in my life. (Yes, I read many good books on prayer and continued to struggle with it and pray as best I could.) When I discovered this teaching about mental prayer I realized, over time, that there really was no clearer and more comprehensive concept of prayer. But how does this concept work in practice? I’ll say more about this tomorrow.