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Teresa of Avila on Silence in Prayer (Part II of III)

August 24, 2015 by  
Filed under Connie Rossini, Prayer, Silence

Teresa of Avila on Silence in Prayer
Part II of III

TeresaofAvilaMirrorIn part I of this series, I spoke about some ways that Centering Prayer and yoga propose sitting silently as a form of meditation or contemplation. Today I want to focus on St. Teresa of Avila’s teaching about silence during prayer. Did she teach the same thing as Fr. Thomas Keating and other Centering Prayer advocates, as they maintain?

Silence is an indispensable aspect of mental prayer. But the Carmelite saints speak of a different type of silence than that promoted in Centering Prayer. They also speak of specific times in our prayer when we should cultivate silence, and stages when we should be silent.

Some of the writings of St. Teresa about prayer do sound close to Centering Prayer, so it is no wonder that people are sometimes confused. Take this passage, for instance:

“All one need do is go into solitude and look at Him within oneself, and not turn away from so good a Guest but with great humility speak to Him as a father. Beseech Him as you would a father; tell him all about your trials; ask Him for a remedy against them, realizing that you are not worthy to be His daughter.” (Way of Perfection 28, 2)

Centering Prayer also talks about retreating within oneself, but fails to properly distinguish between the self and God. Teresa always sees the Holy Trinity dwelling in the hearts of the baptized as Someone other than ourselves. For her, prayer is always a conversation with God (although at times this conversation is beyond mere words). She counsels us to enter into the presence of God, setting aside distractions. She is teaching us to follow the words of Jesus:

“When you pray, go into your room and close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” (Mt 6:6)

Whenever possible, we find a quiet place and time to pray. We take a moment to collect our thoughts, to place any preoccupations aside. Then we turn immediately to Christ, addressing Him with our mind and heart. In contrast, Centering Prayer would have us focus on repeatedly checking to make sure the door is closed and we are alone, never progressing to talking with Jesus.

Let’s take a look at the traditional Christian teaching about stages of prayer and how they relate to silence.

The first stage of Christian prayer is vocal prayer. We recite words that others composed. It is by definition a wordy prayer. We don’t usually sit silently for very long during vocal prayer. Still, at its best it can be a stepping stone to contemplation.

The next stage of prayer is discursive meditation. We read a passage from a devotional book, ideally Sacred Scripture, and we ponder its meaning briefly. The goal is not to become theologians, making prayer into study, but to let our reflections lead us to speak to God from the heart. Here we might have a little less talking, and more “listening” to God’s voice in the text and our reflections on it. But our mind and our will are actively engaged.

Discursive meditation leads us to affective prayer. Affective prayer is a simpler meditation. Instead of taking ten minutes to read and ponder a Scripture passage, we might spend a minute or two picturing Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (a favorite subject of St. Teresa’s).  Our will is moved to express its love for God almost at once. In affective prayer, we are sometimes moved to sit silently for a moment (or longer) to hear what the Holy Spirit would say to us. When our mind begins to wander, we return to our image or take up another and repeat the process.

The last stage of prayer that we can reach without special divine intervention is called by many different names. Teresa calls it acquired recollection. Here we begin to gaze at Jesus with love, saying a few words now and then, but mostly soaking in His presence. We might, on the other hand, have to return to discursive meditation or even vocal prayer at times.

Teresa speaks of the tension between movements of the intellect and will and silence:

MirrorOfCasaAlonso“We should make our petitions like beggars before a powerful and rich Emperor; then, with downcast eyes, humbly wait. When He secretly shows us He hears our prayers, it is well to be silent, as He has drawn us into His presence; there would then be no harm in trying to keep our minds at rest (that is to say, if we can).  If, however, the King makes no sign of listening or of seeing us, there is no need to stand inert, like a dolt, which the soul would resemble if it continued inactive.  In this case its dryness would greatly increase, and the imagination would be made more restless than before by its very effort to think of nothing.  Our Lord wishes us at such a time to offer Him our petitions and to place ourselves in His presence; He knows what is best for us.” (Interior Castle, Fourth Mansion, Chapter 3).

In this passage, she is actually talking about infused recollection, the first stage of infused (also called supernatural) contemplation. But the instruction on when to remain silent, waiting for God to speak, and when to make acts of the will, applies to earlier stages of prayer as well. We follow the prompting of God and the movement of our hearts.

Recollection often alternates between something the soul produces through grace, and the pure act of God. It is difficult to distinguish between the two at first.

Then God begins to take over our prayer time more and more. He brings us to the prayer of quiet. Here, the will becomes God’s captive, but the mind sometimes races around wildly, not knowing what to do with itself.

If we continue on the path of prayer and virtue (one cannot grow without the other, in Teresa’s teaching), we will eventually be brought to the prayer of union. Here, God suspends the operations of both the intellect and the will. Total absorption in God casts out all distraction. We expend no effort at all. God does everything.

We return then to our original question posed in Part I: should we sit quietly in prayer? The answer depends on what stage of the spiritual life we are at, and how God is working in our soul.

Forcing the intellect to be still is completely foreign to Teresa’s teaching. We try by gentle means to overcome distractions. We fix our mind and heart on Christ and speak to Him in love, sometimes in words, other times with a look of love. Silence is not the goal of prayer. It is a means to invite God in. He will come when He wills. We must be content to wait for Him.

In Part 3, I’ll wrap up this series with various other observations on silence.


Art: Mirror of Teresa of Avila, Peter Paul Rubens, 1615, PD-US; Mirror of Modified Casa de Alonso Berruguete en Villatoquite (Palencia, Castilla y León), House of Alonso Berruguete in Villatoquite [Palencia, Castilla and León–Spain] summary description: conserved mansion from years 1548-1557 [Teresa of Avila lived from 1515 to 1582], Jlaso, 1982 own work, CCA-SA; both Wikimedia Commons.

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About Connie Rossini

Connie Rossini gives whole families practical help to grow in holiness. She is the author of several books, including "Trusting God with St. Thérèse". Besides her blog Contemplative Homeschool, she has started a new site discussing errors concerning prayer, named after her book Is Centering Prayer Catholic? She has written a spirituality column for the diocesan press for nearly ten years.

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  • Luis Eduardo Barriga

    Here are a few sentences of Thomas Keating of his book “Open Mind, Open Heart”:
    “We see then that this prayer is a journey into the unknown. Is a call to follow Jesus aside all structures, safety symbols and even spiritual practices that may be serving as support to the ego. . . . . For Christians, the personal union with Christ is the way to reach divine union. The love of God will do the rest in the day.”

    I do not understand, your predisposition to this author and “Centering Prayer”.

    God bless you,

    Eduardo Barriga

    • Connie Rossini

      Eduardo, thanks for your comment. It is not a predisposition, but a studied position. There are, indeed, many isolated sentences in Open Mind, Open Heart that sound orthodox. However, there are many serious errors as well, not only about the life of prayer, but on fundamental doctrines, such as Original Sin. After this series is complete, I will have an in-depth review of his book posted here, detailing some of these errors. I also just wrote a book called, Is Centering Prayer Catholic? God willing, it will be available as an ebook on Amazon within the next day or 2.

      In the meantime, even the passage from Open Mind, Open Heart that you quote is problematic. The way to union with God is not “setting aside all structures, safety symbols,” etc. Intimacy with Christ comes through a life of love and obedience, coupled with faithfulness to prayer. The saints and the Catechism tell us that meditating on Sacred Scripture is the best way to grow in prayer. The meditation cannot make us contemplatives, but it can prepare us to receive God’s gift of contemplation. Meditation on Sacred Scripture employs the mind and heart in prayer. Fr. Thomas Keating urges us to set aside use of the mind and heart in prayer. So in that way, his recommendation is the exact opposite of the recommendation of the saints and the Church herself. God will suspend our faculties when He wills and as He wills. That is not our job. We cannot advance by trying to suspend them ourselves. Instead, we must use them to get to know and love Him.

      Blessings on you too.

    • Dan Burke

      Eduardo – I can affirm Connie’s position. Fr. Keating will make an orthodox statement on one hand and then contradict it on another. To say that these contradictions are trivial or minor or subject to interpretation (which many assert) would be a profound error. In fact, many of Fr. Keating’s positions fall squarely into the realm of serious error that some might call heresy.

  • cottelpg

    Great article. Thanks!

  • Renee C

    Thank you for this well written article Connie. I have to say the spirituality of Teresa of Avila has not been of much interest to me. I find St. Francis more captivating. However after reading your clearly written and succinct article I was finally able to gain more of a grasp of Teresa’s teachings and may read more in the future. Very nice article, great job!

    • Connie Rossini

      Thanks, Renee! Teresa of Avila is not as accessible to the average Catholic as some other saints. However, her teaching about the life of prayer is unparalleled in the history of the Church. It helps to have a trusted guide to her writings. You could start with Dan Burke’s latest book.

  • marybernadette

    ‘We do not ‘ find and assent’ to God, it is this ‘Amazing Incomprehensible God’ who finds and graciously allows us to ‘find’ Him. I believe this is basicly what St. Theresa is saying in her teachings. Thank you for this, Connie people need to know the ‘Truth.’ I remember attending a retreat where the priest introduced ‘centering prayer.’ I was uneasy with it and was thinking of saying something, hopefully not to sound disparaging, when another person spoke up about his ‘uneasiness’ with it. He said something to the effect that, it could open the door to evil spirits. I believe that is what the Holy Spirit was saying to me.

  • Connie Rossini

    Rose, normally we would not allow a comment like this, because it violates the rules of the site, but I asked the editor to let yours through so I could address it. I will ignore the testy tone of your comment and address the substance, because it might help others.

    1) Where am I getting my ideas about Centering Prayer? From the writings and public statements of Fr. Thomas Keating, one of the 3 Trappist priests who created the Centering Prayer method. A simple internet search reveals many unorthodox statements by him, even including a YouTube video where he says that God is not something “Other” than the soul. Yes, it is that bad. But my main source is his book Open Mind, Open Heart. As I said in another comment, I will have an in-depth review of that book posted here in a few weeks.

    2) “The God within you” is a New Age concept, not a Christian one. God does dwell in every soul as its creator and sustainer, and in a fuller way in the soul of a baptized Christian. But God is not the same as the soul, nor is the soul a part of God. Otherwise we could not have a relationship with Him.

    3) Your words seems to contradict themselves and show the very problems that I am trying to illuminate. If God is the same thing as the soul, then how can focusing on God be different than focusing on oneself? The distinction is meaningless, unless we preserve the distinction between God and the soul that Fr. Keating and his followers blur.

    4) About the Desert Fathers, I find it ironic that while many Centering Prayer practitioners say, as you do, that they created the method of Centering Prayer, Centering Prayer “masters” have commented on my blog that this is a distortion of what they teach. They claim that Centering Prayer is “in the tradition” of the Desert Fathers, but was created by Fr. Keating and his companions. Others claim that The Cloud of Unknowing is the originator of Centering Prayer. The truth is, the Desert Fathers emphatically did not teach or practice Centering Prayer. Most Centering Prayer practitioners have not read the Desert Fathers, or have read them only after being convinced that they taught Centering Prayer. Simply put, they misunderstand the Desert Fathers because of lack of proper Christian formation. I realize this is often not their fault.

    5) I have learned to distrust most things people tell me were recommended or taught to them by a “wise” or “holy” priest. I have found that unorthodox statements usually follow. Of course God can be displeased by actions we take when we are sincerely trying to follow Him! Sin always displeases Him. It keeps us from intimacy with Him. We need more than a good intention to please God. We need knowledge of God’s will. Sadly, many well-intentioned people have been and are being led astray. I leave the judgment of their souls up to God. But only invincible ignorance is an excuse. We need to try to discover what the truth is.

    6) Rather than judging the “wonderful people” who are practicing Centering Prayer, I am trying to help them. I want them to find what they seek–intimacy with God. They will not find it in Centering Prayer. They are asking for fish and being given a snake. I am offering them a fish instead. I pray for them daily–literally.

    God bless.

  • Dan Burke

    Rose – Regarding this quote, “A wise priest once told me there is no way God is displeased with anything we do that is about sincerely seeking him” – You might be surprised that Jesus himself contradicted this priest as He taught in the gospels something very clearly and specifically contrary to the misinformation you received. I am sorry that you were confused by this priest but Jesus pointed out that there are means of prayer that are a waste of time and that there are forms of worship that are invalid regardless of the sincerity of belief.

    Regarding Connie’s response, the insights she has provided, and her kind response to your uncharitable protest, is completely consistent with my own multi-year research into Centering Prayer. Unfortunately your response also reveals a pattern with those who practice Centering Prayer. For folks who claim to be close to God, as a group, Centering Prayer practitioners frequently lack any manifestation of peace, they are regularly belligerent and attack others when faced with authentic Church teaching on prayer. I pray you find your way of this false prayer to a place of authentic prayer and union with God.

  • Warwick Onyeama

    Thank you for this very clear essay on the differences between mental prayer of St Teresa’s spirituality and the centering prayer proposed by Fr. Thomas Keating. Some of the comments you have provoked demonstrate how deep rooted these misunderstanding can be. I had been practising a form of mantra meditation for over forty years before giving it up to return to more Catholic methods of prayer. My experience was that after all those years I had not advanced spiritually one whit or jot! Secondly, although the “Christian meditation” promoted by John Main and now taught by a Benedictine monk as a valid spiritual practice bringing us to God, and quoting exactly the same sources you have mentioned (John Cassian, The Cloud… etc), I began to find that the syncretic mix of Eastern philosophy {Buddhist, Hindu etc) and Christianity did not lead to any real clarity. However, I am bound to suggest that these New Age “spiritualities are very popular with a surprising number of otherwise decent and well intentioned people so any clarity that people like Dan and yourself can shed on the matter is of great value to those of us who are easily misled.

    • Connie Rossini

      Praise God that He has shown you the truth, Warwick! It’s so sad that you were lead astray for so long, but God can make up for lost time.

    • marybernadette

      I have to say Warwick, that a few years ago when I had therapy for severe depression, I discovered that the ‘professional team of psychiatrists and therapists’ were using a variety of ‘healing’ methods. I left the therapy worse of than I was before. However, I sensed the protection of the Lord as I prayed for him to be with me. It wasn’t till years later when the Lord himself helped me understand what was going on. (I believe I was hypnotised, as I began to have flashbacks) Some words came into my mind which I did not know the meaning of, one was ‘theosophy a blend of Buddhism and Hinduism and ‘demonology’ the study of demons. This made perfect sense to me as like ‘centering prayer’ a person can be opened up to ‘evil spirits.’ Modern psychiatry by not believing in God can put people in ‘grave danger.’ I needed to be ‘delivered’ of the ‘spirits’ that had harmed part of my mind. (Actually, I am still going through this and have felt tremendous Peace from the Holy Spirit) I did read that Pope emeritus Benedict warned that certain ‘therapies’ can cause a ‘schizophrenia of the mind’ or words to that effect. Of course, these people act in ignorance and need our prayers.

      • Warwick Onyeama

        Thank you for your remarks Marybernadette. My impression is that modern psychiatry has badly lost its way and might in many respects be considered no longer fit for purpose.

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  • Connie Rossini

    For those of you awaiting my ebook on Centering Prayer, it’s now available on Amazon, with a detail review by blogger Leila Miller. The paperback is coming soon. Liz Est, if you don’t want me to link to it here, just let me know. Otherwise, here it is.*Version*=1&*entries*=0

    • LizEst

      Thank you, Connie. Much appreciated.

  • Leila Miller

    Thank you, Connie! This is so clear and convicting. Keep doing the great work you are doing! We need it!

  • Liz G

    Thank you for your explanations on quiet in prayer. By reading these exerts, I am gaining a better understanding of what is acceptable and what is not in truly enriching my prayer life.

    • Connie Rossini

      You’re welcome, Liz G!

  • Kelly

    May I ask what you think of the book “Into The Silent Land, The Practice
    of Contemplation” by Martin Laird? Martin Laird, incidentally is a
    priest. The contemplative practice it recommends seems very similar to
    what you describe as Centering Prayer yet the author does not call it Centering Prayer. This book was recommended by my spiritual director,
    who is a priest, so while I have been very uneasy while reading it, I
    felt compelled to read it and try to find the truth that he and
    hopefully God is wanting me to see in it. Thoughts?

    • LizEst

      Thanks for your question, Kelly.

      As Dan discussed in his answer to a similar question on our site a while ago, after some research into Martin Laird’s works, we do not recommend them. Our advice is to stick with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the tested wisdom of the spiritual Doctors of the Church and those that know and teach of them. Here is the link:
      Hope this helps…and God bless you.

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  • Petrus

    Hai Connie,thank you for this artikel..I’m sorry to bother you with this small question: what about the Jesus prayer? The method that used in eastern church? I’ve been practicing it for some years now. Is this method opposed to st.Teresa and the Church teaching? Thanks. ..

    • Connie Rossini

      Petrus, great question! This is one I get a lot when I write on Centering prayer’s errors. There are significant differences between the Jesus Prayer and Centering Prayer. First, the Jesus Prayer is truly a traditional Catholic form of prayer, stemming from antiquity. Second, it cannot be divorced from a life lived in conformity to Christ. It is directed towards and flows out of true submission to Him. Third, it uses not a random word as a means of concentration, but a repeated prayer to Jesus. And it does not try to make the mind blank, but seeks to center one’s mind on Christ. The Jesus Prayer is an excellent prayer method, so long as it is used in conformity with tradition, and not deformed to be a kind of Centering Prayer that just happens to use the name of Jesus as one’s “sacred word.”

      • Petrus

        Thank you Connie…one more thing,I hope you understand: sometime when I practice the Jesus prayer I feel so comfortable that I just focus on my breath and stop saying the prayer…is this bad? Or dangerous? And sometime my mind just can not calm it run everywhere. .is this good or bad? How can I stop this? (Please forgive and be patient to me because my English is not good…thank you so much…may God bless you)

        • Connie Rossini

          You’re English is great! No problems there. The Jesus Prayer is meant to lead toward a more simplified prayer and prepare the heart for infused contemplation. If you feel moved to sit silently in God’s presence, that’s exactly what you should do. Distractions are a problem in any kind of prayer. Sometimes they come from our attachments. Sometimes from lack of sleep, ill health, or a bad choice of activities before prayer. Other times, they may even signal the beginnings of infused contemplation. Do your best to prepare well for prayer and live a life that facilitates prayer. Then if you still have constant problems you may need to consult a spiritual director. I know good ones aren’t easy to find, but the beginnings of infused contemplation are so subtle, one cannot easily tell if that’s what you are experiencing without knowing in great detail about your spiritual life. At any rate, if you are truly doing your best, you should not be anxious over distractions. That just makes the situation worse. God bless!

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