St. Teresa of Avila’s experience as a beginner in mental prayer, and how good books helped her through it

November 2, 2021 • 3 min

From Life of St. Teresa of Avila written by Herself, page 22

And though men may attain more quickly to the state of contemplation, if they persevere, by this way of inability to exert the intellect, yet is the process more laborious and painful; for if the will have nothing to occupy it, and if love have no present object to rest on, the soul is without support and without employment—its isolation and dryness occasion great pain, and the thoughts assail it most grievously.

Persons in this condition must have greater purity of conscience than those who can make use of their understanding; for he who can use his intellect in the way of meditation on what the world is, on what he owes to God, on the great sufferings of God for him, his own scanty service in return, and on the reward God reserves for those who love Him, learns how to defend himself against his own thoughts, and against the occasions and perils of sin.

On the other hand, he who has not that power is in greater danger, and ought to occupy himself much in reading, seeing that he is not in the slightest degree able to help himself.

This way of proceeding is so exceedingly painful, that if the master who teaches it insists on cutting off the succours which reading gives, and requires the spending of much time in prayer, then, I say, it will be impossible to persevere long in it: and if he persists in his plan, health will be ruined, because it is a most painful process.

Reading is of great service towards procuring recollection in any one who proceeds in this way; and it is even necessary for him, however little it may be that he reads, if only as a substitute for the mental prayer which is beyond his reach. [Ch. xxvi. 6.]

Now I seem to understand that it was the good providence of our Lord over me that found no one to teach me. If I had, it would have been impossible for me to persevere during the eighteen years of trial and of those great aridities, because of my inability to meditate.

During all this time, it was only after Communion that I ever ventured to begin my prayer without a book—my soul was as much afraid to pray without one, as if it had to fight against a host.

With a book to help me—it was like a companion, and a shield whereon to receive the blows of many thoughts—I found comfort, for it was not usual with me to be in aridity; but I always was so when I had no book; for my soul was disturbed, and my thoughts wandered at once.

With one, I began to collect my thoughts, and, using it as a decoy, kept my soul in peace, very frequently by merely opening a book—there was no necessity for more. Sometimes I read but little, at other times much—according as our Lord had pity on me.

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