In being attracted to solitude and prayerful meditation, Thérèse was following in the foot-steps of her founding Carmelite saint, St. Teresa of Avila. The great reformer of the order had not only brought its religious back to a lifestyle of true poverty, work, and prayer but had, along with fellow Carmelite St. John of the Cross, further developed the concept of mental prayer.
Teresa and John were both what we would call natural mystics. They used vocal prayer—that is, prayers of the regular liturgies and of the Divine Hours—but much of their most profound spiritual formation and communion with God happened during times of silence, solitude, meditation, and deeper contemplation. Their writings, with which young Thérèse was quite familiar as a Carmelite, testified to the kind of union with God that happened when a person was alone and focused simply upon God’s presence.
Thérèse was also a natural for mental prayer. In fact, traditional modes of prayer were often difficult for her.
“I feel then that the fervor of my sisters makes up for my lack of fervor; but when alone (I am ashamed to admit it), the recitation of the rosary is more difficult for me than the wearing of an instrument of penance. . . . I force myself in vain to meditate on the mysteries of the rosary; I don’t succeed in fixing my mind on them. . . .” When she felt so arid that it was “impossible to draw forth one single thought to unite me with God, I very slowly recite an ‘Our Father.’” Though no more conscious of what was occurring than she had been conscious of praying in the old days [as a child] when she sat behind her bed and thought about God, Thérèse’s difficulty with conventional forms signaled, according to the teaching of John of the Cross, the call to contemplation.
Not only did Thérèse have trouble with vocal prayers, she didn’t take easily to spiritual direction either. She was willing, but with the exception of one priest she had known briefly, but who subsequently moved away, she had difficulty connecting spiritually to a confessor:
I went to confession only a few times, and never spoke about my interior sentiments. The way I was walking was so straight, so clear, I needed no other guide but Jesus. I compared directors to faithful mirrors, reflecting Jesus in souls, and I said that for me God was using no intermediary, he was acting directly!
For Thérèse, as with most mystics, her spiritual nature tended toward solitude and a fellowship with the Divine that was as profound as it was uncomplicated.
Still, contemplation was not merely a matter of sitting around and allowing thoughts of God to float to the surface. Often a person would use an image to focus upon—for Thérèse it was sometimes a picture of the Holy Face of Jesus. Sometimes she used a prayer such as the “Our Father.” Thérèse mentioned that this was at least a beginning point.
But what most commonly informed Thérèse’s long hours of mental prayer were the Scriptures, and more specifically, the Gospels. This aspect of her life is discussed later, but it’s important to connect it here with the mental prayer she practiced. Without the Gospels—without God’s revelation as a foundation—any sort of contemplation would have been meaningless to Thérèse—as it would have been to Mother Teresa of Avila, whose own words were a regular part of the young nun’s life.
For Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, and others, mental prayer has served as a powerful spiritual discipline for placing themselves in God’s presence with few, if any, outer trappings. Most mystics don’t seek this kind of relationship; rather, it is their most honest and natural mode of being with their God.