Teresa of Avila
“Vocal prayer must be accompanied by reflection. A prayer in which a person is not aware of Whom he is speaking to; what he is asking; who it is who is asking and of Whom, I don’t call prayer – however much the lips may move.” - Saint Teresa of Avila, from The Interior Castle
Saint Teresa’s best known quotation about prayer comes from her book, The Way of Perfection. There she says, “Prayer is a close sharing between friends.” But what does she mean by “close sharing”? This is why this longer quotation about prayer, “Vocal prayer must be accompanied by reflection,” from her book, The Interior Castle, is a favorite quotation on prayer. It explains in detail what Teresa means by “sharing between friends.” There is a lot in this quotation.
On a fundamental level, she’s pointing out how prayer is tied to reflection, and reflection is tied to prayer. Yes, we know that friendship means spending some ‘quality time’ with friends, but it’s more than just spending time. What makes it ‘quality time’ is that there is real listening and real understanding going on. When sharing some quality time with friends we often need to think about what they’re saying even as they’re saying it – reflection. We understand our friends better as they reveal themselves more and more; and we understand ourselves more as we reveal more of ourselves to them. Our friendship with God is exactly the same. No reflection, no friendship. That’s why Teresa can say anything less “is not prayer however much the lips may move.
On a deeper level, this brings us to how important self-understanding is in prayer. In fact, this strong emphasis on self-understanding is the hallmark of Carmelite spirituality. Of course, self-understanding is an element of any spirituality, but Carmelite spirituality’s stress on it is particularly strong. Teresa goes so far as to say, “The path of self-understanding must never be abandoned.” The non-reflective person is almost like a mannequin – all show on the outside and only plastic inside. The more we understand ourselves, the less we are like mannequins (all for show) and the more real we become (living out of deeper values of honesty, fidelity, goodness, and truth).
Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, Teresa’s quotation about prayer stresses that prayer must be going somewhere. Sharing and reflection means friendship. Deeper sharing and reflection means deeper friendship. And it goes on and on. How many times have we heard long-married couples say, “I love him/her more today than when I married him/her 50 years ago” (or 60 or even 75). There seems to be no maximum to our love. And, of course, there is no maximum to God’s love. The only obstacle to all this is fear, and the more we understand ourselves, the less impact fear can have. So where is all this prayer going? If we practice prayer like Teresa recommends, it allows us to receive God’s infinite love; but most amazingly, allows us to give almost infinite amounts of love ourselves. Yes, prayer is pretty amazing.