A priest friend once confessed to me that he had been years out of seminary before he realized that, throughout his life, he had spent all of his time talking about God rather than to God. He had been excited by the idea of God, by all the accoutrements around worship, and by the call to justice. In all his excitement, it took some time before he realized that he had missed the central piece.
I don’t think this is an unusual situation, whether we are ordained or not. The excitement of religious life only sometimes begins with an intimate meeting of God. Much of the time, we become interested in spirituality only after using the young adult group as a dating pool, faithfully pew-sitting as a surrogate for family, delighting in the beauty of song and light and architecture as a gateway to somewhere outside of ourselves. Stuff about God, rather than listening to God, often attracts us first.
That’s not bad! We go on a date because we read the profile first, or because we saw someone across the room, or because a friend of a friend thought it might be a good match. But it certainly is insufficient if the relationship stops there, talking about rather than talking to.
Making the shift from ‘talking about’ into ‘talking to’ also changed Teresa of Avila’s life, and we remember her witness today. Also known as Teresa de Jesus, Teresa lived in 16th century Spain. Teresa’s reflection on that shift from ‘about’ to ‘to’ colors all of her writings. She found the methods of prayer taught in her context insufficient. She claims to have spent decades of her life as a mediocre monastic, unable to connect with the prayer-styles on offer: intellectual theorizing about God, or simple recitation of the words of prayer even without understanding (which was often encouraged for women). She later stumbled onto richer ways of paying attention directly to God in scandalous books, some of which were banned by the same Spanish Inquisition that later threatened her life. In order to pass this wisdom of speaking to and not only about God along to her monastic communities, she began to incorporate it into her texts.
Teresa’s genius is that she hopes to coach/cajole/woo her reader into talking (and listening) to God. She’s not talking about the spiritual life. She spins whole conceptual paradigms that allure rather compartmentalize, and then collapse, revealing that we don’t need more complex conceptual schemes—we need God. She wants us to cross the dance floor and take a risk. She describes prayer as the first moment we enter our own interior richness in order to meet God, and what stands in the way is our anxiety about how we look; the paucity of courage so carefully trained into us by our culture (and especially trained into women); and our obsession with status rather than genuine love of our neighbors and ourselves. We are, Teresa says, going to have to get over ourselves. We need courage and a great deal of perseverance. We may be helped by learning to pay attention to God. But most of all, we are going to need to get started with a real relationship!
If you’re interested in reading Teresa, most people start with Interior Castle, her most mature book on prayer (it’s fantastic), but I’d start with The Way of Perfection. She spends many, many chapters digressing on all the things we’d have to do before we could possibly have interior prayer—not least her wandering reflections on the numerous possible interpretations of ‘water’ for spiritual people—so that by the time we’ve pulled out our hair waiting for the real talk on prayer to start, we experience the way that ‘prayer’ describes a holistic process and not some words said on a particular bench. As a writer, she’s conversational and sometimes funny, and she’s can be a real joy to read (as always, choose translations with care).
If all of this prayer sounds a little navel-gazing, allow me to close with this. Teresa is adamant that we see our growth in prayer only in the way we treat our neighbors—not in the special feelings we have. She lived at a time of political instability, intense racism, and intractable cultural division. She was under threat by the Inquisition, and for years, the spiritual directors who controlled her life kept her locked away and under guard for fear she had a demon. In the face of incredible opposition, she created something beautiful—not perfect, surely, but profound. She navigated a misogynistic culture and church to create spaces of safety, small communities where women could live together and pursue their vocations. What offered a pathway through this time of anxiety was, she assures us, God—prayer alone, she notes, gave her the strength, courage, and peace to continue.
I won’t speak for you, but I could use a little of that prayer today.
One of Teresa’s more famous prayers:
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
Everything is passing away.
But God is not lessened.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone is enough.
[Image Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Teresa’s Superior, Father Jerome Gracian, commissioned this portrait by a lay Brother named Juan de la Miseria. It is said that when the Teresa saw it, she laughed and said to the artist, ‘God forgive you, Brother John; after making me go through no one knows what, you have turned me out ugly and blear eyed’.]