Prayer: To Ask God for What He Needs! (St. Teresa of Avila on Prayer)

Most of us think of prayer, as asking God for what we need. In this post, I’d like to explore prayer as asking God for what He needs! To ask God for what we need, and want, is indeed authentic prayer, and Jesus even tells us to do this in Mt 7:11, and elsewhere. However, this is not the type of prayer that we need to do to become a mature disciple of Jesus. To be a disciple of Jesus, is to allow him to teach us. It is to share in his mission. His mission gives us a mission (purpose or vocation). To find our mission, instead of asking God to give us what we need/want, we need to offer to give God what He wants! The prayer of a mature disciple is to be taken on a journey, a journey that changes us, and leads to ways of serving God we would not have chosen. Our personal prayer is the vehicle by which we are transformed into Christ-likeness, and led to serve God’s Kingdom in ways God directs, that is to discover God’s will for our lives. One author describes prayer this way; “To set out on the road, drawn by a source we only vaguely know, to a destination we can scarcely imagine!”

The Catholic Church’s tradition is rich. One of our greatest treasures is the teachings on prayer and spirituality by our Saints. St. Teresa of Avila gives us a beautiful metaphor for prayer.  She says, that we are a garden. God chooses us. Even our desire for God is God’s gift. God chooses the soil. God takes out the weeds. God plants the flowers. God does almost all the work. We are asked to assist by watering the garden. We are like the assistant gardener, whose job it is each day, to water the garden. We water the garden, by our daily prayer. The water helps the flowers grow. The flowers are the virtues. St. Teresa stresses the following virtues that the Lord wants to grow in our garden;
1. Faith
2. Hope
3. Love
4. Humility
5. Self-forgetfulness
6. Sensitivity to the needs of others, and
7. Zeal for the Glory of God and the extension of His Kingdom.

The water of daily prayer is to make the virtues grow. Sometimes in prayer we feel “consolations”. These are supernatural moments where we are given a glimpse into a greater reality beyond us, and are filled with joy. These “consolations” however, are not the reason for prayer. They are not the measure of how fruitful our prayer is. The only measure of the fruitfulness of our prayer, is the growth of our virtues. To complete St. Teresa’s metaphor: what is the purpose of the garden?  St. Teresa answers that like any garden, it is so that the Gardener (and others) can come and take delight in it. As our garden grows, the Lord Himself desires to come and be in the garden, and enjoy its beauty. This indwelling, continues His presence in our world.

St. Teresa’s four stages of Prayer; stage 1
St. Teresa describes four stages of prayer, likened to four ways to water the garden. The four stages of prayer, are likened to four ways of watering the garden; by hand, by pump, by a stream flowing though the garden, and by a downpour of rain. In the first stage of prayer, it requires much effort and progress is slow. St. Teresa likens this stage to going to a well with a bucket in hand, and slowly and with much effort, bringing buckets of water, one by one, to our garden. This image stresses the reality that in the beginning, our “work” in prayer is much, and its effectiveness seems small. The “work” of prayer includes; the discipline of setting aside time, the need to quiet ourselves and to detach ourselves from things and activities. It includes our need to look honestly into our past and our present and acknowledge our sins and failings. It includes our need to read scripture, especially the Gospels, and struggle to learn more about Jesus. Christian prayer requires that we learn both more about the life of Jesus, and ourselves, so to be able to submit our lives to the life of Jesus who changes us. This “beginning stage” of prayer continues for quite a while. It is laborious, and it often feels like we are getting nowhere, or making very little progress.

St. Teresa’s Second Stage of Prayer
With perseverance, one day we enter stage two of prayer. That is, drawing the water by a pump. The type of pump that St. Teresa is referring to is a mechanical pump, that requires a person to move a lever up and down until water starts to flow. In this stage, we still do work, but as we have advanced in the knowledge of self, and the knowledge of Jesus, a time comes when our work quickly gives way to a “flow of water”. It is usually in this stage, where water is flowing more abundantly and more easily than at first, that we sometimes experience the joyful feelings of “consolations”. This stage of prayer usually lasts many years. During this time, we see much growth of the virtues, and prayer is mostly joyful. However, as we continue to pray for many years, there usually comes the experience that the consolations become less frequent, and the joy and ease of prayer becomes fleeting. Most pray-ers by this time have begun to associate the “consolations” with the fruitfulness of prayer. So, when after time we feel fewer “consolations”, we naturally think that our prayer is not as effective. We begin to feel discouraged and frustrated, because our prayer is no longer what we have grown accustomed to, and we feel like we can’t pray anymore. This time has been referred to as a “Darkness” by St. John of the Cross, and a time when “The well runs dry” by St. Teresa. Assuming this “Dryness” is not due to any grave sin we have committed or our neglect of prayer and charity, this time of “Dryness” is an important part of our spiritual growth. Why is this? It is because the true purpose of our prayer is to grow the virtues, not to receive “consolations”. Recall that the virtues include; Faith, humility, self-forgetfulness, etc. If one prays for the “consolations”, or to feel good, that really is the opposite of the virtues that prayer is seeking to grow. Seeking the “consolations” is selfish, not self-less! The “consolations” are given to us at first to encourage us. But as we mature, we continue in the transformation of ourselves into Christ-likeness, by what is referred to as a “death to self”. This is a death to our self-will, and death does not feel good! Thomas Green, in his book “When the Well Runs Dry”, likens this stage of prayer to the “regular days of a marriage”, when, after the honeymoon wears off, a couple then learns how to “truly love” one another, even without the romantic feelings. Prayer during stage two usually begins with much joy and “consolations”, then alternating periods of consolation and dryness, and eventually becomes mostly dry. The temptation is to stop praying, because it seems like it is a waste of time. But, this is when the time of prayer is the most fruitful! This time is inviting us to die to self-will. We should embrace this “waste of time” in Faith that God is still growing the virtues even without the feelings of “consolations”. The dryness is purifying our motives. Are we willing to still trust the Lord when we can’t see (or feel) what He is really doing? Are we willing to persevere through feelings of frustration because of our Love of Him? These attitudes are the very ways that prayer helps us to grow. (The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing gives us a good image of a way to pray during these times: fashion a cloud of unknowing above us, and a cloud of forgetfulness below us. Sit in loving and longing for the unknown above, and send all distractions and frustrations into the cloud of forgetting below.)

St. Teresa’s stage Three of Prayer
Continuing with St. Teresa’s metaphor we find that one day, after years of perseverance in love through the dryness of prayer, we discover a stream of water flowing through the garden. We wake up one morning and start to go to the well of prayer for our water, and behold, we notice a stream all around us! Throughout our entire day, we see God’s presence flowing throughout all areas of our lives. His Grace guiding us, and through us, His Grace is reaching others. This is when the words of St. Paul, “to pray always” (1 Thes 5:17) becomes understandable. Our entire lives seem to become our prayer. More importantly however, we see (and hear) and follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance throughout the day, much more so than we used to, and we become an instrument in the hand of God. We more perfectly fulfill our baptismal vocation: “To share in the Ministry of Christ; as Priest, prophet and King”. Life can still be difficult and stressful, but there is usually a prevailing peace, and sense of God’s presence. Thomas Green in his book “When the Well Runs Dry”, offers his own metaphor. He says that the pray-er in this stage is like a swimmer who has learned instead to float. With little effort, the floater follows the flow and currents of the water, gracefully taking them where the water flows, instead of working against the current using their own strength. The water is the Holy Spirit, sent by God to guide our lives. The goal of the pray-er is to follow that flow, united with God’s will, and be part of God’s life-giving stream for the world. However, after time, a dryness and a darkness sets into this stage of prayer also. Just as in the latter parts of stage two we can experience a dryness in our prayer life, so too in our ministries and active life, we can often feel a dryness (or darkness) in the form of frustrations, failures, suffering, etc. We are called to embrace this dryness (or darkness) also, and know that God is still causing the flowers of the virtues to grow, especially those of love, humility, and self-forgetfulness.

The one who ministers in the world as Thomas Green describes as “a floater”, or in Teresa of Avila’s “a stream of water”, is referred to as an “Active-Contemplative”. In the Church, we speak of various charisms amongst its members, but also amongst the different forms of consecrated life. Some Religious Institutes consist of Priests, Brothers or Sisters, that identify themselves with an active ministry or apostolate. Some are Monks or Nuns who are cloistered and focus on a contemplative spirituality. Franciscans Friars, among a few other charisms such as the Jesuits, see themselves as “Active-Contemplatives”. The metaphor of “a floater” describes the “Active-Contemplative”. They are one who are in the world as a tool in the hand of the Lord, docile and responsive to God’s will, executing His work like a scalpel in the hand of a surgeon. I like to refer to a Franciscan Friar as a “Monk in the World”. Learn more about the prayer described in this post by reading Thomas Green’s books Opening to God and When the Well Runs Dry. These books can guide a pray-er throughout their life. Also learn more about our Franciscan Spirituality on our next Come and See Experience, July 17th, through 21st. Click here for more information.

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