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Invitation to Prayer

September 20, 2010

invitationThe moment you start out on the journey of transformation, you begin to feel better.  Already your decision to engage in the process of reformation will lift your spirits.

~ Adrian van Kaam and Susan Muto,  The Power of Appreciation, p. 31

In Heaven in Ordinarie (1979), Noel Dermott O’Donoghue writes with conviction that, “Freedom can only mean a free response to an invitation to be taken beyond oneself.”  The essence of our freedom “is vocational, the response or the refusal to respond, to a call.”  As free a person “can open himself more or less to this invitation, or he can at the beginning, or at any stage along the way, settle in within his present limits and refuse to go further.  He can attach himself to some finite goal that puts a term to transcendence; he can “enclose himself in pleasure or sloth or mere narcissism.” O’Donoghue goes on to say that although we are naturally at home in the finite realm, we are also a capacity for response to the infinite.  From the center of our finitude we open ourselves to the infinite.  It is by means of this response that we are able to find our center in the infinite pole of our being. (14 – 15)

    For O’Donghue, as for Teresa of Avila, the invitation to the infinite is an invitation to prayer.  It is a personal invitation “to the communication of love.” (Ibid., 15)  The relationship of love in the Trinity becomes the basis for an increasing expression of love and charity.  We recall the Saint’s constant requirement of the love of neighbor as the true test of one’s growth in prayer.  The soul’s union with God is attested to most assuredly in charity and service of neighbor.

    Recognizing however the inclination of souls to go only so far in the spiritual life, Teresa tirelessly encouraged her sisters and other good people to remain open to the invitation to ever-deeper union with the Lord.  In explaining the Third Dwelling Places of The Interior Castle the Saint observed that the complacent person might well choose not to continue the journey toward the center of the Castle where God dwells, preferring instead to enjoy the spiritual riches already attained.  Spiritual dryness at this stage further complicates a person’s desire for progress.  And incipient melancholy threatens to interfere with one’s best efforts to keep forging ahead.  Having lost fervor and beset by obstacles to advancement, one succumbs to subtle despair concerning things spiritual.  Why not just settle for what one already has, for the less demanding pleasures and routine of a conventional spiritual life?  Teresa understands these inclinations yet calls for renewed vigilance in the face of temptation and uncompromising generosity in our response to grace.  Teresa’s contemporary, St. John of the Cross, offered similar counsel to those struggling in the spiritual life:

You should never give up your works because of a want of satisfaction and delight in them, if they are fitting for the service of God.  Neither should you carry out these works merely because of the satisfaction or delight they accord you, but you should do them just as you would do disagreeable ones. Otherwise it will be impossible for you to gain constancy and conquer your weakness. (Precautions, #16)

    Teresa is aware that much of our suffering is the result of a lack of self-understanding.  She applies this insight over and over again to the conflicts we experience in the practice of non-discursive prayer.  She writes affectingly, for example, about our futile attempts to quiet the mind during prayer:

Just as we cannot stop the movement of the heavens, but they proceed in rapid motion, so neither can we stop the mind; and then the faculties of the soul go with it, and we think we are lost and have wasted the time spent before God.  But the soul is probably completely joined with Him in the dwelling places very close to the center while the mind is on the outskirts of the castle... We should not be disturbed; nor should we abandon prayer.  (The Interior Castle, Book One, ch. 2)

We should not be disturbed by the inevitable obstacles we encounter, nor should we abandon our prayer-response to the invitation to union with God.  Our desire for consolations and for a sense of steady spiritual advancement may obscure the true nature of progress on the path of prayer.  According to Teresa, we should persist because this is our life.  The spiritual life is not just a series of exercises; it is a way of life.  The goal is not perfection in human terms.  The ideal should not be to separate one’s prayer from life, but to join the lived reality of one’s life to the growing experience of personal unification in prayer.  Teresa wrote and counseled from the perspective of one who knew from personal experience that the struggles were well worth the effort, and that the rewards for persistence and faithfulness in prayer were great.

    During her lifetime Teresa wrote several little poems that apparently were not meant for publication.  Here we have her testimony to the soul’s growing union with the Lord, pictured as an arrow of love piercing and wounding the soul:

I gave all my heart to the Lord of Love,

And my life is so completely transformed

That my Beloved One has become mine

And without a doubt I am his at last.

When that tender hunter from paradise

Released his piercing arrow at me,

My wounded soul fell in his loving arms;

And my life is so completely transformed

That my Beloved One has become mine

And without a doubt I am his at last.

He pierced my heart with his arrow of love

And made me one with the Lord who made me.

This is the only love I have to prove,

And my life is so completely transformed

That my Beloved One has become mine

And without a doubt I am his at last.

~From God Makes the Rivers to Flow, Eknath Easwaran, p. 39

The experience recorded here is characteristic of the spiritual delights and raptures that occur beyond our striving in the advanced dwelling places of the Interior Castle.  Susan Muto writes:

In the eleventh chapter of the sixth mansions, Teresa describes a wound of love so deep that it transcends any category of physical pain and sears like a brand the soul’s inmost center.  This fiery arrow passes through her as swiftly as a flash of lightning.  For as long as it lasts the soul cannot think of anything concerning her own affairs nor for that matter is there any source of personal suffering comparable to it.  The arrow penetrates her body in a purely mystical way.  (Where Lovers Meet, 88)

This event occurred at a certain point in the Saint’s life, after many years of prayer and meditation.  It was “as if God’s love pierced her whole body, mind, and spirit, instantly transforming her in the depths of her being and drawing her indelibly closer to him.” (Ibid.)  Teresa knew that to receive the gift of union the soul had to be strengthened by grace, and that the gate of entry to “the paradise of the soul” was prayer.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.