Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

St. Teresa of Avila: Doctor of Prayer

St. Teresa of Avila provided the world with one of the greatest tomes on prayer, Interior Castle. To honor the Holy Spirit and its work within her, I have put some thoughts together on Catholic spirituality. At the end, I have also summarized the Teresian Mansions.

What is Spirituality?

Spirituality is the natural bloom of a life steeped in prayer.  In the broadest sense, spirituality refers to “any religious or ethical value that is concertized as an attitude or spirit from which one’s actions flow…In the strict sense of the word, the only authentic spirituality is a spirituality centered in Jesus Christ and through Him to the Trinity.  Christian spirituality is therefore a participation in the mystery of Christ through the interior life of grace, actuated by faith, charity, and other Christian virtues.”[1] Spirituality finds its foundation rooted in a dual wellspring – the living Tradition of the Church and prayer. [2]

Any spirituality that contradicts and opposes the teaching of the Magisterium is clearly in error.  Error by its very nature is insidious and many times difficult to see.  Like a weed, error usually prevents growth.  Unchecked and untreated, it will eventually strangle the life out of its victim.  Authentic spirituality necessarily must be rooted in the instrument that Jesus chose to safeguard truth— the Magisterium.

Rooted in Prayer

Likewise, we must be equally rooted in prayer.  Prayer is the direct action of the Holy Spirit inspiring a response of loving affection to the Father from who all blessings flow.

Prayer is the lifeline of the Christian.  We would do well to recall our Lord’s admonition in John 15:5, “…apart from me you can do nothing.”  Many of us live in the illusion of self-reliance.  Others of us live in the illusion of entitlement.[3] In the end, it is the individual who steeps his/herself in prayer and waits to be refreshed and directed by the one in “whom we live, move, and have our being” who truly lives the authentic Christian life.

As we briefly look at tendencies, modes, methods, and mansions of prayer, this short paper should be used only as a reference guide.  Choose appropriate books and read them.  If possible, read them in conjunction with a competent spiritual director who can assist you in understanding and assimilating the information that will encourage holiness.  May God bring to completion that which He begun in our baptism.

Christian Prayer

Christian prayer traditionally emphasizes four orthodox tendencies.  An individual runs the risk of falling into disordered or heterodox prayer, and consequently spirituality, when they over-emphasize or suppress a particular spiritual principle or teaching.

At different times in Church history, one or another tendency has been emphasized- usually to combat heterodox views of spirituality and theology.  Interestingly, there is a significant correlation between personality and the tendency of spirituality.

Four Traditional Tendencies

  1. Speculative:  The emphasis is on the ordered progression of thought from cause to effect.  While the focus is on the intellect, it moves from observable facts to first principles. The intellect informs the will so it may not only love but love deeply.  This has been instrumental in priestly formation for the past 400 years i.e., Dominican or Thomistic spirituality.
  2. Affective or Emotive:  This Affective or Emotive form directs prayer with emphasis on acts of the will and experience i.e., Franciscan.
  3. Apophatic: This emphasis is going beyond thought and images, by way of the “via negative” and/or the application of Scripture to ones life (Key Word: Transposition).  Thus, instead of understanding who God is in relation to who we are (anthrotypology), it focuses on who God is not (We may be wise but God is not wise, He is Wisdom) i.e., Carmelite and Augustinian traditions.
  4. Kataphatic: The emphasis is using images through the sensible imagination (Key Word: Projection).  This is the most popular among the laity and statistically for the general population i.e., Ignatian prayer.

Four Heterodox Tendencies

  1. Encretism: Extreme discipline, discipline for its own sake.
  2. Rationalism: Using the intellect as a hyper-measure of all reality.  Whatever does not appeal to the mind, reject.
  3. Quietism: The rejection of discipline and ritual because the individual(s) are so “in the spirit” i.e., Montanism/Protestantism
  4. Pietism: Religiosity.  An extreme need for externals without the corresponding continual internal transformation.  Also, typified by an individual(s) who liturgically participates without knowing why they do what they do.

St. Teresa of Avila

St. Teresa of Avila developed a mystical theology that provides valuable insights into the progression and obstacles an individual confronts in his/her prayer life.  These “grades” of prayer are points of reference to assist the individual in understanding and overcoming the particular associated difficulties.  She consistently emphasized that these “grades” are not like that of rungs on a ladder but a fluid progression of ebbs and flows in the spiritual life.  While each inferior “grade” gives way to the next, the individual will use those “skills and structures” they have learned, particularly in arid times.

St. Teresa’s castles or mansions may be divided into two categories: ascetical and mystical.  The first four grades may be said to belong to the ascetical and the remaining five to the mystical.  The essential difference is that the ascetical prayer may be attained through one’s own effort and ordinary grace while the mystical is infused prayer, which properly belongs exclusively to the action of the Holy Spirit by means of His gifts.  While the latter are the work of the Holy Spirit, these grades are still the natural progression of the Christian in growth in holiness in prayer.

The past 100 years has seen a return to the traditional teaching of spiritual theology that embraces both the ascetical and mystical states of the Christian. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. was the principle champion of this approach.  The separation of these two areas of the spiritual life created an artificial and quite damaging view of the spiritual life.  Consequently, the mystical state was improperly relegated for those chosen saints.  This in itself is not completely erroneous.  What some deemed to be the logical end was.

Vatican II reminded the Church of the Universal Call to Holiness, which includes the laity progressing in prayer and holiness to the heights of sanctity.  The following is a summation of each mansion and purgation as understood by St. Teresa:

Ascetical States

First Mansion: Vocal Prayer

  • Any prayer expressed in words whether written or spoken
    • Three reasons for vocal prayer
      • Arouses interior devotion
      • Homage to God with our body as well as the mind and heart
      • Gives expression to the spiritual sentiments that floods the soul in prayer
    • Two requirements
      • Attention: Total awareness of what you are doing here and now (intellect)
      • Devotion: Purposeful direction of our will towards God (will)

Second Mansion: Discursive (Reasoned) Meditation

  • The reasoned application of the mind to some supernatural truth in order to penetrate its meaning, love it and carry it into practice
  • The most important element is the act of love aroused in the will due to the presentation of the truth by the intellect

Third Mansion: Affective Prayer

  • The type of prayer in which the operations of the will predominate over the discursus of the intellect
  • The method of St. Ignatius is not conducive to affective prayer as it emphasizes method and imagination and not the spontaneous movements of the heart

Fourth Mansion: Prayer of Simplicity

  • A simple loving gaze upon a divine object whether on God Himself or one of His perfections
  • Affective prayer gives way to a simple loving gaze towards God
  • Also known as Acquired Recollection and Simple Contemplation

Dark Night of the Senses (St. John of the Cross)

  • Purgation of habitual sin, human efforts aided by grace

Mystical States

Fifth Mansion: Contemplative Prayer (Prayer of Union)

  • Two Stages
    • Prayer of Quiet
      • Principally affects the intellect
        • Intellect and memory are tranquil
        • They are still free to realize what is occurring
      • The will is captivated and God’s presence fills the soul with ineffable delight
      • The other faculties are free and thus able to continue with the duties of life
    • Prayer of Union
      • All interior faculties are captivated including memory and imagination
      • Only external bodily senses are free
      • Signs of the Prayer of Union
        • Absence of distractions
        • Certitude of being intimately united to God
        • Absence of weariness and tedium

Dark Night of the Spirit (St. John of the Cross)

  • Purgation of involuntary and spiritual sin, divine effort

Sixth Mansion: Conforming Union (Mystical Espousal)

  • All interior and exterior faculties are captivated
  • Complete ecstasy
  • The difference between conforming and transforming union is a matter of degree of intensity

Seventh Mansion: Transforming Union (Mystical Marriage)

  • The essential difference is that God’s will and the individual’s will may no longer be distinguished
  • Heaven on earth
  • Attainable by every baptized Christian

[1] Aumann, Jordan, Spiritual Theology (Sheed and Ward, 1980) p.17-18

[2] Christian spirituality is preeminently Trinitarian through the person of Jesus the Christ.  There are two particular distinctions that set Christianity and Judaism apart from other world religions.  The first is that Christianity and Judaism are the only two religions where God instigates the relationship and actions.  The second is that both religions are totally responsive.  God acts – we respond.  These two movements are clearly exemplified in the Liturgy.  God speaks, we respond in affirmation.  God offers Himself in the Eucharist and we take and eat.  All other religions act in order for their god(s) to respond.  Unfortunately, this is very prevalent in Catholicism today by enculturation.  We have become a childish society demanding what we want and when we want it- especially spiritually.

[3] The illusion of entitlement rears its ugly head typically in one of two ways.  The first is the unfounded notion that all good people go to heaven.  Goodness, a trait that all would agree saints possess, is not the key to heaven.  What is the key?  Grace!  Grace makes us holy.  Holiness is the action by which the Holy Spirit, in the context of a willing response of our cooperation, forms us into the image of Christ.

The second is a quote out of context.  “Life is a prayer.”   St. Francis’ life was undoubtedly a prayer.  That is not to say he did not pray.  There is a prevalent illusion that says that as long as we do those duties that are required of us, prayer is optional.  Prayer is our primary duty!  Our vocations, and those actions that are related to living out our calling, flows forth from prayer.  Should one examine the teachings of the spiritual masters and the lives of the saints, one would find that those who emphasized life as prayer were the same ones that spent hour upon hour in prayer, several times a day.

One Response to St. Teresa of Avila: Doctor of Prayer

  1. rose says:

    Thank you so much! God bless you!!!
    Now I know were to get theology for my simple mind.

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