The Counsel Of Teresa Of Avila: Part I-Distractions and the Wandering Mind

The Counsel Of Teresa Of Avila: Part I

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS

Teresa of Avila was the first woman to be declared Doctor of the Church.[1] For nearly thirty years, her works and those of St. Thomas Aquinas have had the greatest influence upon my life, education, and enterprises as an author, educator, and counselor. The richness of their works is inexhaustible. Yet, Teresa of Avila’s counsel concerning distractions to prayer has been of particular significant professional and practical value. It is simple and yet so profound that, in my opinion, its benefit to psychological well-being is beyond any insight from the entire field of modern psychology. Everyone can benefit from this counsel, especially those dealing with mental health and pastoral counseling.

Without the advantage of a formal education, Teresa had to grapple with the abstract complexities of her own psychology as she struggled to understand and explain the profound actions of the mystical life upon her soul and its faculties as well as the difficulties of living virtuously within the religious experience of Carmel. She created a language of similes and metaphors using hundreds of analogies in order to explain what she meant. Her grappling has produced wisdom and understanding of the human person that includes insight and practical application for personal health and well-being in a language that can be understood. It is not that the listener’s understanding was complete but that something could be grasped in some practical way so as to begin to understand something transcendent. It is similar to the experience of the parables. Our Lord told stories of everyday life that could be understood even though the depth of what he was saying went beyond our capacity. Teresa’s analogies serve a similar purpose.

A Book on Prayer

Teresa of Avila was asked by her daughters in Carmel to write a book that would instruct them in prayer. In her response, she discussed aspects of vocal prayer, mental prayer, and recollection.[2] Earlier in her life, Teresa had considered the question: “What does one do with the mind while reciting vocal prayers?” In her common-sense manner, Teresa concluded that while words are being spoken to God, one would turn their mind to focus upon him and what was being said. It seemed absurd to her that one would not think of the person to whom one was speaking and what was being said during the vocal prayer. It is foolish to pray words to God while the mind wanders to other things.

Teresa used the vocal prayer of the Our Father as she advised her daughters to imagine Our Lord as they prepare themselves for prayer.

As you know, the first things must be examination of conscience, confession of sin, and the signing of yourself with the cross. Then, daughter, as you are along, you must look for a companion – and who could be a better companion than the very Master who taught you the prayer that you are about to say? Imagine that this Lord himself is at our side and see how lovingly and how humbly he is teaching you.[3]

In her method, one begins by withdrawing to a place of solitude within oneself and the meditation follows as the imagination forms some conceptualization of the material or words. The intellect works to construct detail and imagery leading to discursive prayer.[4]

Distractions and the Wandering Imagination

Keeping this focus proved to be a great difficulty since the mind can be so easily distracted. These difficulties with mental prayer, forming and maintaining images as the problem of distractions and the wandering mind, were a part of Teresa’s own struggle. Teresa found that when she went to prayer, the imagination would run wild. It seemed to her that everything would rush to her mind when she sat to pray. These distractions could be spiritual, physical, emotional, or mental; and they would displace the images of Our Lord that she struggled to maintain. The distracting thoughts were so vivid and vehement that she could not push them back out of her mind. The stronger the vehemence, the more quickly the image of Our Lord that she had been trying to hold would diminish. By nature, all images fade; but the distractions exacerbated the problem of concentration to a point of futility.

[1]  Certain ecclesiastical writers have received this title on account of the great advantage the whole church has derived from their doctrine. With St. John of the Cross, she represents the first authorities on the doctrine of spiritual and mystical theology. In reforming the Carmelite Order, she became a leader of the Counter Reformation.

[2]  At the time Teresa was writing her first book, which was her autobiography, there was a conflict over the nature of mental prayer and vocal prayer. The predominant prayer form for centuries had been vocal prayer, but mental prayer was gaining more attention, some of which was unsettling. There was a great deal of distrust for mental prayer because of a moment of Quietism that was being promoted at the time by various sects. It does not add to the point of this article to expand on the difficulties for the important thing is that it was Teresa who resolved the conflict. Teresa resolved the difficulty by presenting one should be thinking about who is being addressed and what is being said in the vocal prayer. It was absurd that the mind would not be thinking of who was being spoken to and what was being said during the prayer. To pray words to God while the mind wanders to other things is totally foolish. Thus in Teresa’s opinion, mental and vocal prayer were inseparable. “… mental prayer has nothing to do with keeping the lips closed. If while I am speaking with God, I have a clear realization and full consciousness that I am doing so, and if this is more real to me than the words I am uttering, then I am combining mental and vocal prayer. When people tell you that you are speaking with God by reciting the Pater Noster and thinking of worldly things – well, words fail me” (ch. 22).

[3]  Way of Perfection, ch. 26.

[4]  Discursive prayer is the form of prayer in which the reflections of the mind are more active than the affections of the will. It is called discursive because discursion is the act of the mind that proceeds from one truth to the knowledge of another truth, either about the same object or about something else. Discursive meditation today is common among not only Carmelites but also most religious and lay communities. Since it was utilized by the Jesuits and Dominicans as well, I would imagine it is taught by most spiritual directors in some form or another.

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