This week, on October 15, we remembered one of our contemplative ‘Soul Sisters’: St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). During her lifetime Teresa set about the difficult task of reforming Carmelite convent life. She entered a Carmelite convent in 1535. In 1562, as part of the reform, Teresa founded the first of several convents for her Discalced (barefoot) Carmelite nuns at Avila in Spain.
Teresa was a mystic who simply wanted convents dedicated to the seeking of and the experience of God.
In about 1565 Teresa began writing a book for her fellow nuns of the reform called The Way of Perfection. In Chapter 31 of this book Teresa attempts an explanation of what is meant by the Prayer of Quiet. She uses the analogy of a baby at its mother’s breast in her attempt to describe what the experience of this prayer is like:
The soul is like an infant still at its mother’s breast: such is the mother’s care for it that she gives it its milk without its having to ask for it so much as by moving its lips. That is what happens here. The will simply loves, and no effort needs to be made by the understanding, for it is the Lord’s pleasure that, without exercising its thought, the soul should realise that it is in his company, and should merely drink the milk which His majesty puts into its mouth and enjoy its sweetness. The Lord desires it to know that it is He Who is granting it that favour and that in its enjoyment of it He too rejoices. (94).
What is being described here is the grace, or gift, of the soul’s experience of sweetness, of sustenance which can emanate from the mysterious event of our attention being lost in God. It is grace in that we don’t make it happen, nor do we have any control over if and when it happens. I suspect that it can happen more than we realise. We don’t have to be in a convent or monastery; we don’t need to be a monk or a nun. We simply need to be a human being who is practicing the daily art of attending in the ordinary of life.
Most mornings I sit outside as I have breakfast. It is a simple joy to be with the birds and the squirrels as they wake with the sun and begin their morning routines. We have a fountain and pond at the bottom of the yard and sometimes I see pigeons, magpies, finches all taking their turns to bathe in the fountain. It is delightful. It is a delight that takes me over, a delight that has the fragrance of the eternal imbued within it. This is something of the sweetness, the mother’s milk, of which Teresa speaks. This delight is helped along by our three times a day practice of meditation, or the giving of attention to God. With regular attendance to the divine within comes a feel for, a sense of, just where this divine life is in each day. Life becomes prayer.
During this Prayer of Quiet Teresa says that “the will simply loves” and that “no effort needs to be made by the understanding”, that is, no thought needs to be exercised. This thoughtlessness is what we grow in as we meditate. Attention to the mantra, when done faithfully and in growing thoughtlessness, has us growing in the Love life that we are practicing attention to. Love is about the experience of love. Lovers simply enjoy each others company. Think too much about the experience and we can miss out on having the experience.
Teresa goes on to say:
But it is not His will that the soul should try to understand how it is enjoying it, or what it is enjoying; it should lose all thought of itself, and He Who is at its side will not fail to see what is best for it. If it begins to strive with its mind so that the mind may be apprised of what is happening and thus induced to share in it, it will be quite unable to do so, and the soul will perforce lose the milk and forgo that Divine sustenance. (94).
I’m not out the back each morning taking detailed notes on what I am experiencing, nor theorising as to how it might be happening. I am simply in the experience (more or less) without thinking much about it. If I do think about it as it happens, then the thinking can get in the way of the experience itself. More than that, the thinking becomes a distraction to the experience of delight and the delight stops. My attention is elsewhere.
Each event of love invites our attention. Whether meditating, in the backyard with the birds and the squirrels, having a coffee with a friend, in a lover’s embrace, or being present to another’s pain – Love is in all the happenings of life, all the darkness and light of life. As our attention grows into God and is refined by the experience of God, we begin to see that nothing happens without the divine life being in and with it. It is us who lose touch with this.
During meditation we are practicing the sustained art of giving attention to the mantra. This practice, in effect, gives our mind the mantra to focus on while the mantra itself falls into the silence of God at our depths. As this happens the mind grows quiet because its attention is on the mantra as it falls into this silence. Grace has its own gravity. The mantra simply falls with this gravity of grace, bringing our attention and our quietening mind with it into the Being of God. As this happens we “lose all thought” of ourselves.
To lose all thought of ourselves means attention is becoming naked, losing the garments given it by a mind attempting to understand. Garments like thought, image, and emotion. What naked attention ‘looks’ like we do not know because naked attention can no longer be used by the mind to perceive. All the clothing of perception and sense have been set aside. Only naked attention can be in silence. Teresa’s Prayer of Quiet is experienced with naked attention.
During meditation, if attention attends to understanding then attention is distracted; it is being re-clothed by the mind with thought, image, emotion. When this happens we gently re-give attention to the mantra so that the clothing of the mind can, once again, be set aside.
With regular meditation we walk through each day with attention lightly clothed. With less and less to distract us we experience Divinity more and more in the ordinary of life. Like Teresa we grow in the experience of the Divine roots of life’s delight.