St. Teresa of Avila – On Love

On October 15th we celebrate the Memorial of the great Spanish saint and the first woman declared a “Doctor of the Church” – Teresa of Jesus, also known as Teresa of Avila.

Saint Teresa grew up in the early 1500’s and at the age of 20, entered the Carmelite convent in Avila. She freely admitted that for twenty years she had a very difficult time with prayer and distractions. Compounding the problem was the lifestyle of her fellow nuns. In the 16th century, Spanish convents were very relaxed places since a festive, vain, and worldly attitude was prevalent. The idea of strict discipline, contemplative prayer, and living a life of poverty and service was not a priority.

At the age of forty, Teresa’s life suddenly changed. While she was praying she had a profound religious experience. She fully realized the depth of the sacrifice God’s Son Jesus had made for humanity and vowed to pursue a life of spiritual perfection, centering on poverty and developing the art of mental prayer known as contemplation.

She realized that the Carmelite convent that she was living in was not contributing to her spiritual life; and with characteristic energy, she decided to break away from it. With her friend St. John of the Cross, she founded a reformed Carmelite order for friars and nuns known as the Discalced Carmelites. Her new order met with great hostility both from within the Church hierarchy, the regular Carmelite Order, and from the local parishioners, yet, she didn’t give up on her vision of reformation from within the Church.

What does her witness have to say to us today?

First she teaches us the value of perseverance. Both in prayer and in the vision we have been given by God to do whatever He asks us to do. Getting up, going to work every day, reforming a religious order or providing a home for your loved ones, completing your work for the Church – all of this – no matter how mundane or important, is fulfilling the will of God and is evidence of your love for Him.

Second, her life was a model of charitable patience. St. Teresa of Avila received a great deal of verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse by fellow Catholics. This woman suffered both from physical and mental pain. The physical pain was caused by numerous ailments, however, her emotional pain was caused by people, fellow Catholics, that should have known better, yet, sadly, were far from practicing the cardinal virtues or willing to see the need for internal reformation.

But most importantly, her experiences give us a wonderful description of the art of contemplation and love of God.  In one of her books she says, “Mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing other than an intimate sharing between friends – between Jesus and ourselves; it means frequently taking the time to be alone with Jesus whom we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much about saying a lot of words, but to love much, and do those actions which best stirs you to the love of our Lord. [What is this spiritual love?] Love is a desire to please God in everything.”

Saint Teresa of Jesus died in 1582 at the age of 67. She disliked gloom and always attempted to radiate joy, cheerfulness, and good spirits. In spite of her many physical ailments and emotional sufferings she kept her sense of humor and her vision of reformation: of self and of her beloved religious community. Her books are filled with optimism as well as a profound understanding of prayer, human nature, and spiritual warfare. We would be wise in applying to our own restless spirits the advice she gave to her fellow nuns, she said:  “Let nothing trouble you, let nothing make you afraid. All these things pass away. God never changes. Patience obtains everything. God alone is enough.”

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved.   Notes on the painting: The above painting is by one of the great painters of the early 19th century – Francois Gerard. Gerard, who died in 1837, painted this masterpiece of St. Teresa of Avila ten years earlier. It was commissioned for a hospital and before its placement was shown in the salons of Paris. It is one of the great masterpieces of French Romanticism. It is painted in oils, on canvas, and measures approximately 3 feet by 5.6 ft.

The Artist As Contemplative – Part 4 – A Meditation on the Scourging of Christ

In this series on the Artist As Contemplative it is my hope that you are exposed to some different techniques that may assist you in your prayer relationship with Our Lord.

The last post in this series specifically mentioned that we do not need to use many words during prayer. This may be uncomfortable for us at first since we have developed into a species that appears to constantly need some type of noise, talk, music, or in some cases, cacophony going on inside our mind. I am not a social psychologist so I will not venture a reason for such a trend within American society, other than to say that it may be an attempt to buffer the anxiety that people, especially the young, feel.

We must reduce the amount of noise, superfluous talk, and loud dissonant music that hammers our nervous system. We have to do this in order to allow sacred silence the opportunity to blanket us with its warmth so we can settle into a comfortable conversation with Christ.

St. Teresa of Avila is very helpful in this regard. Fr. Peter-Thomas Rohrbach, O.C.D.  clearly states in his wonderful book Conversation With Christ that the prayer doctrine of St. Teresa is clear: “Prayer does not consist in involved, complicated reasoning, but in thought which is productive of conversation with Christ.” So prayer, productive prayer, is conversation with Jesus.

Fr. Rohrbach then goes on to provide an actual demonstration of true meditation provided by St. Teresa of Avila in her own autobiography.

She says: “We begin to meditate upon a scene of the Passion – let us say upon the binding of the Lord to the columns. The mind sets to work to seek out the reasons, which are to be found for the great afflictions, and distress, which His Majesty must have suffered when He was alone there.

It also meditates on the many other lessons, which, if it is industrious, or well stored with learning, this mystery can teach. This method should be the beginning, the middle, and the end of prayer for us: it is a most excellent and safe road until the Lord leads us to other methods, which are supernatural…   it is well to reflect for a time and to think of the pains which He bore there, why He bore them, Who He is that bore them and with what love He suffered them.

But we must not always tire ourselves by going in search of such ideas; we must sometimes remain by His side with our minds hushed in silence. If we can, we should occupy ourselves in looking upon Him Who is looking at us; keep Him company, talk with Him; pray to Him; humble ourselves before Him; have our delight in Him, and remember that He never deserved to be there. Anyone who can do this, though he may be but a beginner in prayer, will derive great benefit from it, for this kind of prayer brings many benefits; at least, so my soul has found.”

The beauty of this approach is that it is completely natural for us to do what she directs in prayer. If we look again at the passages that I have highlighted in bold face you will see that this prayer behavior is the same we would express if we were with a close friend or relative experiencing a troubled or stress filled moment in their life.

So the watchwords here are sensitivity, awareness, and humility. Sensitivity because we need to be willing to listen, and humility in knowing we don’t have all the answers, and the awareness to know that sometimes it is necessary just to keep someone company, and quietly talk to them, without trying to provide solutions.

But it is more than that, isn’t it; because in our prayer we are talking to God. We are talking to the Son of God who suffered for us, because it was the Father’s desire, which He willingly accepts in order to accomplish the salvific act of our Redemption. Our ability to keep ourselves humble before God, delight in His Divine Presence, and remember His Life and Death is critical for a healthy prayer experience.

Our intellect and will working with the faculty of our memory of scenes from Sacred Scripture provide us with the ability to soak ourselves in the meaning of Christ’s great sacrifice. For this is who we are as Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants – people who bring the images and truth of Scripture and the saints of our traditions into our prayer life.

Does any of this apply to sacred art? Yes, as sacred artists, St. Teresa of Avila would probably say, “Paint and use the best quality and Scripturally correct icons, paintings, sculpture, etc as prayer aids. We need these aids to help the entire person: mind, heart, soul, and body to be focused on Him.”

I’d also venture to suggest that she would say “If you are a sacred artist produce a piece of sacred art that correctly portrays the Scriptural Jesus, the Blessed Mother, His angels, and saints. Remember, a sacred artist must be a person of deep prayer.”

St. John Damascene (Damascus), thirteen hundred years ago, in his writings and teachings very clearly stated that when we do this it is not idol worship. We believe that the Son of God became man; therefore, He became the iconthe image – of God for us to see, hear, touch, scourge, and crucify – “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

This is not idol worship, just as it is not idol worship when you have a picture of your deceased parents on your bureau – you are not making an idol of them – your are not worshipping them – rather, you are remembering them through a celluloid image – an image which helps you relive what they taught and how they loved you – and still do from beyond the grave. So never fear your imagination – or images of the Lord – as long as you guard yourself with images and imagination that are focused with correct theology, semantics, and aesthetics.

I’ll let Father Rohrbach have the last word, he says: “St. Teresa presents us a crystal-clear picture of meditation: the mind furnishing matter for the heart’s talk with Christ. And above all, her fundamental rule that prayer consists not in thought, but in love.”

The above image of St. Teresa of Avila is considered to be the closest likeness to her. It was painted in 1576 when she was 61 years old.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Artist As Contemplative: Part 2: A Simple Step Into Prayer By St. Teresa of Avila

In our last post, The Artist as Contemplative – Part 1: The Proper Approach, we discussed the need to have the proper approach to prayer. One of the assumptions that I have is that if you are reading these posts you are a creative person. You may be an actual working artist, or, you may be attracted to art in one of the various forms it takes and are considering taking the first step in its exploration. Even if you are just beginning to explore a specific art form it is important for you to consider yourself an artist. This is not a fraudulent act. It is the perception of yourself as you truly are as a creation of God – a naturally creative person.

The Lord has made all of us creative beings, and regardless of our job or profession we should make time in our life to develop this creativity and allow it to be expressed. If we have no time for prayer and personal creative growth then we may be in a situation that is truly unhealthy for us. Our Sacred Scriptures tell us that our God is a jealous God – He specifically said that He wants “no other gods before Him” – that is a very sobering thought. So, quiet, prayer time – even if it is only thirty minutes a day – is critical to our spiritual, physical, and creative health.

If we make time for prayer, God’s grace and energy will cascade over into our creative life.  This is very important to artists, regardless of what media or medium we work in, since it demands that we focus our attention on one thing: talking to God in a natural way – talking to Him as we would talk to a close and intimate friend. 

This is difficult for many people. Childhood ignorance or anxieties may still be with us. There may have been bad influences from teachers, members of the clergy and religious life, and others (including, at times, parents) who took a limited view of prayer and taught a specific prayer style to the detriment of other approaches.

By remaining positive we see that a key idea in the prayer process is to remember that when we have a conversation with someone our intellect is remembering ideas and images. We are using those ideas and images in our actual conversation. This allows the conversation to proceed from one point to another and allows ideas or issues to be shared. This is also true in conversation – that is, our prayer – with God. Our intellect, memory, and silent conversation skills within our mind cooperate together to naturally express ourselves to God. Just like the story, in my preceding post, of the little girl receiving her first Holy Communion. She expressed her prayer to God in a natural manner, which made sense and allowed her to share the concerns or ideas with the Lord that were on her mind at that time. Her prayer was a perfect natural prayer.

In examining the teachings and prayer process of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1585), the Spanish Carmelite, Father Peter Thomas Rohrbach, O.C.D. breaks her basic prayer technique into a simple step formula. He says the goal of prayerful meditation is conversation with Jesus. You achieve  this by engaging your visual memory  with a specific spiritual passage. This con-versation with Jesus about the passage moves to consideration of events within your own life. This process is actual conversation with Jesus in which He, like a good friend, is quietly listening to you.

St. Teresa of Avila (seen above in the portrayal by Gérard) is not promoting a prayer life which is filled with complexities, intellectual knots, and unnatural irritations, rather, she is presenting a style which reminds us of a wise old person who has no need of thinking about numerous paragraphs of words to say to God in prayer. The wise one enters their prayer time thinking about God, and specifically His Son, Jesus – the true icon (image) of God. They then allow their love of Him to take over – and fill the blessed silence of that present moment – not with many words – but with much love. You see this is the goal: to move from quiet conversation to quiet meditation – in love – of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty.

In my next post I will provide you with a meditation taught by St. Teresa of Avila. With  this Lenten meditation you should easily exercise your spiritual muscles. Also, it will help you take some time to reflect on St. Teresa of Avila’s approach and application to other moments in Jesus’ life and yours, too.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved.  Thanks to avila.com for the image of St. Teresa of Avila by artist François Gérard (1770-1837).