The Counsel Of Teresa Of Avila: Part II-Turning from the Image


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

Turn Away From One Image and to Another

Teresa found that by directly resisting the distracting thought, one keeps it in place longer. For example: “Don’t think about the red horse. Don’t think about the red horse.” So what are thinking about? – a red horse. Focusing on an image without doing anything to change it didn’t make any sense because it kept the image in mind. Teresa decided to respond indirectly, i.e. to ignore it by turning away. She treated the distraction in a manner similar to parental advice to children when dealing with teasing or obnoxious behavior on the part of another, i.e. ignore the other person because responding to them only feeds their desire to tease. Without the desired response from the victim, the teaser loses interest and dissipates their efforts. Likewise, distractions will fall away when ignored.

Trying to turn back to the mental image of Our Lord and thus away from the distractions was quite effective to some degree. The focus upon the prayerful image occupied the mind and the distractions, like the teasing child gives up and falls from view. This critical action comes into play for people in many situations of daily life and most all forms of mental illness. The most severe being schizophrenia where one “hears audio hallucinations or “voices.” The principle in counsel in this situation is: “You may have heard these ‘voices,’ but you don’t have to listen to them.” One can turn away and not pay attention to them. It is like being in an apartment and the neighbor is playing their stereo loudly that the sound is coming through the walls. The object of hearing is sound, and thus the sense of hearing is stimulated by the sound. However, one does not have to listen for the lyrics, what the guitarist is playing, how the sounds from the base, drums, and other vocalists might be contributing, etc.

One can literally “tune out” what is being said. Every parent of a teenager knows whether it is possible to tune someone out when being spoken to. We also see this in the case of the disinterested student who is preoccupied with some other thought and doesn’t pay attention to anything the teacher is saying. On the positive side, it is common to “tune out” distractions when we focus on something else. This practice is very common as we all have situations where we tune out sounds and words of others in order to concentrate on something whether it is in class, at a movie, watching TV with others talking, being in a restaurant and talking to the people at your table while the room is full of chatter. Parties, nightclubs, restaurants are among the many common public situations where this selective listening is practiced. It is a remedy used by Teresa, and it is a remedy for many things today.

Turn to a Sensible Aid

The practice of turning away from the distraction helped a great deal, but Teresa found that it remained difficult to do. Also, the distracting images stimulated various passions that created a sense of vitality, delight or pleasure, or some painful passions such as anxiety, fear, sorrow, or even anger. The sensible nature of these passions made it more difficult. The distraction always seems more interesting or more powerful than those thoughts and images related to the knowledge of the truth and God because of that sensible nature.[i]

Through experience in dealing with both the mental distractions and physical or emotional maladies as well, Teresa discovered that it was easier to form and maintain a mental image of Our Lord if there were some sensible object to aid her imagination. If she could turn to an object that could hold her attention and feed her imagination, it was easier to meditate. In her autobiography, she relates this to the wandering mind.

For it was not usual with me to suffer from aridity: this only came when I had no book, whereupon my soul would at once become disturbed and my thoughts would begin to wander. As soon as I started to read, they began to collect themselves and the book acted like bait to my soul.[ii]

In the Way of Perfection,[iii] she said:

“Those of you whose minds cannot reason for long or whose thoughts cannot dwell upon God but are constantly wandering must at all costs form this habit.”[iv]

“I myself spent over fourteen years without being able to meditate except while reading.”[v]

Since it was easier for the imagination to hold on to an image if it was aided by the senses, Teresa would not go to prayer without a book, a picture, statue, or Scripture of some sort. Rather than struggling to imagine Our Lord, she would look at a picture or statue of him. Or she would read from a book or Scripture about some scene and allow the words she was focusing upon to help her form the images in her imagination. This is the counsel she gave her daughters:

“You will find it very helpful if you can get an image or a picture of this Lord—one that you like—not to wear round your neck and never look at but to use regularly whenever you talk to him, and he will tell you what to say.”[vi]

Giving her attention to the images provided by these sensible aides facilitated and hastened the dissipation of the distractions without direct effort on her part to repel them. These physical aids to prayer assist the imagination’s retention of the sense data related to the object of the meditation.

This method of turning to aids to prayer and away from distraction is common knowledge to all those in the Carmelite community. I first encountered Teresa’s method when it was the subject of a presentation made by Father Anthony Morello, OCD, more than twenty-five years ago at a Carmelite conference in San Jose, California.[vii] The perspective gained through study of the philosophic psychology of Thomas Aquinas helps understand the impact of Teresa’s insight.

In the Thomistic view, Teresa used the physical aid to allow her imagination to find sensible data to focus on. Reading or looking at the picture or statue allows images based upon that sensible information to form in the imagination. The sensible data that came from the reading, the pictures or the statues that were all descriptive and visual, by their very nature, made it easier for the imagination to form a conceptualization and to hold or maintain it. Ask yourself: “Is it easier to close your eyes and imagine something that is not present or to look at a picture of that thing and focus upon it?” It is much easier to imagine what Uncle Joe looks like if you are looking at his picture. In this light, Teresa instructs the sisters: “It is also a great help to have a good book, written in the vernacular, simply as an aid to recollection. With this aid, you will learn to say your vocal prayers well.”[viii]

The act of the imagination is to hold the sense impression made on the external senses long after stimulation has ceased.[ix] So Teresa would focus upon the external aid until a strong impression formed in her imagination. She would then close her eyes and imagine as much as she could about the people, the scene, the sounds, colors, and sensible information. She would think about where everyone was positioned including self, what was being said, and think of what she would say to Christ. When her mind would wander, she would simply open her eyes and return to gaze upon the physical object or continue reading.[x] In this way, she made it easier for the imagination to retain the impression and conceptualizations from the senses. This focus left no room for the distracting thoughts, and they simply diminished and fell away. The reason is that the soul can only have one intention. Thus, while the focus was upon the sensibly aided images, the distracting thoughts were left on the outside and slipped away. For St. Thomas, this represents “regal control” of the passions in that we can deny them the image of their object in the imagination by replacing it with a different image that does not contain the object that stimulates the passion.[xi]

This comprised the first way of changing an image in that one simply gets rid of it and in Teresa’s method a sensible aid is used to replace it. This practice applies to the majority of cognitive behavioral experience[xii] that enters counseling. It also applies to all distractions to one’s focus and mental discipline from cases of attention deficit to the discipline of maintaining focus during a lecture or discussion within an academic educational setting.

Training the cognitive faculties can be facilitated by the use of sensible aids. In the case of AD/HD, the child’s focus can be increased by emphasizing a sensible object. Consider how a piano lesson involves sheet music for the eyes to focus on, keys for the hands to feel, manipulate and hold in place. And of course, sound that the ears will eventually hear as “melody.”  Even dangling feet and body posture may spontaneously come into play. The teacher says: “Keep your eyes on the paper, look at each note without looking at your hands.” “Keep your hands in place with the fingers on the proper keys by feeling the key.” “Keep your feet still.” This will be repeated many times, and the parents will be encouraged to watch for these things at home and repeat the same commands. On day one, a six-year-old boy may not make it through a single measure without moving hands, feet, and eyes. However, within six weeks, all these might be still for the entire eight measures of the little piece of music that he is learning.

Another example would be the common technique of a teacher calling a student’s attention to something she has written on the board. Then, when she notices the student’s attention start to drift, she reemphasizes what is on the board by point to it, tapping it, or drawing a circle or arrow or by asking him what she has written. Each time this is repeated, the focus is reestablished. Another common technique is for the teacher to move her hands with gestures related to the topic or move by walking around the room or into the rows to make it easier for the student to keep eye contact on her and to listen to what she is saying. Also, in the class, the student can be aided by simply taking notes and thinking of questions to ask or by writing down what is most important and essential. Thus the student is training himself to focus on the words that are being stated by writing them down and thinking about their meaning.

All impure thoughts come into the area of need to change the image to diminish their emotional potential. Due to the vehemence of the pleasure related to such images, the sensible aid of something totally different is of great benefit. Impulsive thoughts and behaviors lose their vitality when one turns from them and focuses upon something else. This is the basis for the long history of giving holy cards to children or telling them about short ejaculations (brief phrases, such as “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me,” the name of “Jesus,” or turning to a crucifix). So when resisting impurity, as well as any temptation, one can turn to a crucifix and by reflecting upon it allow the temptation to dissipate.

The experience of depression can be assuaged by turning from the image that is causing the sorrow and thinking of another image that brings hope. Depression is an effect of pain where the will has little or no hope to end it. This is why hope will assuage the pain and diminish the depression. This is also one of the reasons the counsel of a priest assuages those in sorrow or depression when he provides them with some hope of the future good and the present consolation of faith. The priest counselor or even friend can also help the person to see things differently. This leads us to a second way to change an image and Teresa discovered that one as well. It proved to be even more profound than her first discovery.

[i]  Moral habits will obviously affect this dynamic.

[ii]  Autobiography, ch. 4.

[iii]  This is the book that Teresa wrote in response to her daughters’ requests.

[iv]  Way of Perfection, K. Kavanaugh, ch. 26.

[v]  Ibid, ch. 16.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] It was this conference for Secular Order Carmelites with the various presentations on Teresa of Avila that moved and inspired this author to compose the Partita Teresiana, solo for the classical guitar that was performed and recorded for the centenary of St. Teresa in 1982. It is the subsequent work that followed that conference that has lead to the educational formation throughout these past thirty years.

[viii] Way, Ch. 26.

[ix] Fr. Chad Ripperger, FSSP, Introduction to the Science of Mental Health, Vol. 1, ch. 3, p. 32 (Denton NE: Sensus  Traditionis Press, 2007).

[x] The physical imagery has a great deal to do with passions that follow the images. In the negative fashion, we see how most young men who struggle with impurity begin with impure pictures. Thus, Teresa’s approach offers the remedy for such things and a means of strengthening the imagination and will.

[xi] Summa Theologica, I. q.81 a.3, ad 2; ST 1-11, q. 9, a. 2, ad 3.

[xii] Cognitive therapy teaches you how certain thinking patterns are causing your symptoms. Behavior therapy helps you weaken the connections between troublesome situations and your habitual reactions to them.

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