Music and the Difficulty of Language

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

How can a life that is so mysterious and bright be seen when it is blinding by nature? How can man express what is inexpressible? A consideration of the difficulty of man expressing himself and the things of God with words may be appropriate.

It is understood by poets and philosophers alike that our words are limited when it comes to expressing the profound experience of human life. Lovers cannot fully express their love. The slighted cannot fully express their anger. So many of the secrets of our intimacy remain secrets because of their inexpressibility. However, there is nothing that goes so beyond our capacity with words as the experience of the transcendent God in the mystical life. Here even the literal words which come from the mouth of Our Lord contain meanings and depths that remain only partially understood and ultimately a mystery. His ministry was one of parables in which so much remained hidden from the wise. So much so that the apostles repeatedly asked Jesus to explain Himself. How many times did He tell them of His death and they would not understand?

Just as Jesus gave His parables to bring the mysteries into a form that could be reflected upon, He also lived within the heritage of the Jewish people who had come to praise God with song and instrument. Basil Cole lists a number of such references from the Old and the New Testaments.[2] The recitation of Scripture within the temple took the form of a chant; the psalms were all expressed in music.

The place of metaphors and allegories are rich in the Jewish tradition. Music is pure metaphor. It makes us think of or imagine something, and when it is true, it sounds like something beautiful.

[1] DiVietri, Patrick J. Ph.D., A COMMENTARY ON THE CANTATA CARMELITUM, Dissertation presented to the faculty of the Graduate School of the Humanities, American Commonwealth University, San Diego, 1997, Pp. 11-12.

[2] Cole, Basil OP. Music and Morals. (New York: Alba House, 1993,) pp. 15-21.

Contingency, Entelechy and Teleology

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS[1]

Just prior to the life of Teresa of Avila (March 28, 1515 to October 15, 1581), according to R. S. Peters, the success of the sciences led to an overemphasis on mathematics and a rejection[2] of the Aristotelian system of entelechy.[3] Aristotle held that within the nature of being all human action moves towards an end. The final end is union with God which brings happiness after death. Another Aristotelian principle which was brought into peril was with the contingency of all creation. F. J. Sheed explains contingency when he discusses how everything exists because of something else which preceded it. The child exists because the parents married. The parents married because they met. They met because he got off the bus at the wrong stop and bumped into her, etc. Everything therefore existed because of God and only God exists independent of any other being, for He is the source of all being, the Prime Mover as the Pre-Renaissance Man would say. “Therefore the reason for His existence must be in Himself…there is something in His nature that demands existence…God must exist. This, then is the primary Truth about God. It was the crowning achievement of Greek philosophy in the fifth century before Christ.”[4] The conclusions that all things are contingent upon God for existence and all human actions are predicated upon man’s essential nature moving to a specific end or good which ultimately is life in God provides the greatest insights of natural reason.

By the 16th century, however, although God remained as philosophically tenable, the principle of all things moving towards Him did not. We will find that this is the essential goal of Teresa of Avila. She sought nothing else but union with God at all costs to herself. It was a movement of her total person from the core of her soul.[5] She also saw that all things were dependent upon His grace. In the mansions of the mystical life this contingency is absolute. For Teresa the discernment, guidance and protection of these movements toward God and all human activity were dependent upon the Church.

[1] DiVietri, Patrick J. Ph.d., A COMMENTARY ON THE CANTATA CARMELITUM, Dissertation presented to the Graduate School of the Humanities, American Commonwealth University, San Diego, 1997, Pp. 25-26.

[2] R. S. Peters, Ed. C. A. Mace, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. & the Free Press, 1972), Vol. 7 p. 6.

[3] Entelechy is “the internal specifying principle that actively directs a nature to its specific good or end; hence, substantial form.” Bernard Wuellner, S.J., Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1956), p. 41.

[4]Frank J. Sheed, Theology and Sanity (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 1978), pp. 23-25.

[5] It is interesting to note that Antonio Moreno, in his critique of Freud points out that his psychic dynamism lacks finality for only efficient forces are accepted by Freud. The dynamic theory of psychoanalysis, however, demands teleology…since it cannot be explained without finality. Antonio Moreno, Lecture: Criticism of Freud, Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, 1987.


Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

We fast for three reasons:

To check the desires of the flesh.

So St. Paul says in fastings, in chastity (2 Cor 6:5), meaning that fasting is a safeguard for chastity.  As St. Jerome says, “Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus would freeze,” as much as to say that lust loses its heat through sparseness of food and drink.

That the mind may more freely raise itself to contemplation of the heights. 

We read in the book of Daniel that it was after a fast of three weeks that he received the revelation from God (Dn 10:2-4).

To make satisfaction for sin.

This is the reason given by the prophet Joel, “Be converted to me with all your hear, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning (Jl 2:12).

And here is what St. Augustine writes on the matter, “Fasting purifies the soul.  It lifts up the mind, and it brings the body into subjection to the spirit.  It makes the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of desire, puts out the flames of lust, and enkindles the true light of chastity.”

There is a commandment laid on us to fast.  For fasting helps to destroy sin, and to raise the mind to thoughts of the spiritual world.  Each man is then bound by the natural law of the matter to fast just as much as is necessary to help him in these matters.  Which is to say that fasting in general is a matter of natural law.

The Counsel Of Teresa Of Avila: Part III-Reformulation

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

Turning Into the Image

We have discussed turning away from distracting thoughts and painful images. Experience shows that if the distraction is related to personal suffering, either emotionally or physically, the difficulty of turning away from it increases proportionately. Everyone knows how hard it is to concentrate when one has a severe headache or other physical ailment or has received some very bad news.

Teresa provided a way of dealing with emotional or physical suffering. In this case, she did not necessarily turn away from the suffering but changed the image that relates to the sorrow by turning into it through the use of reason. That is, by looking at it in relationship to the suffering Christ:

“If you are suffering trials, or are sad, look upon Him or His way to the Garden. What sore distress He must have borne in His soul, to describe His own suffering as He did and to complain of it! Or look upon Him bound to the column, full of pain, His flesh all torn to pieces by His great love for you. How much He suffered, persecuted by some, spat upon by others, denied by His friends, and even deserted by them, with none to take His part, frozen with the cold and left so completely alone that you may well comfort each other! Or look upon Him bending under the weight of the cross and not even allowed to take breath: He will look upon you with His lovely and compassionate eyes, full of tears, and in comforting your grief will forget His own because you are bearing Him company in order to comfort Him and turning your head to look upon Him.”[i]

Teresa made it easier for the imagination to deal with emotional or physical pain by turning one’s focus upon the suffering of Our Lord.[ii] This identifies the suffering of the individual with that of Our Lord’s and changes the perspective on the suffering itself.[iii] The person will have little difficulty empathizing with the passion of Christ during such times. The more vehement the suffering the more sensibly aware the person is of the experience of pain and sorrow. They possess active knowledge of pain and in that knowledge they find some identification with the knowledge of Christ’s suffering and thus become aware of being united with him in pain. They can see it in some proportion to his suffering. To be clear, nothing in the sensible world can bear any proportion to God, who is spirit. Thus, the “feeling” that God is present has absolutely nothing to do with his true presence. It is the knowledge that he is omnipresent that is reliable, not our feelings. One would ignore the feelings and turn to faith in the knowledge of the truth confirmed by the Church and Scripture. This is a hard and fast principle that is the foundation for Teresian spiritualities’ prudent approach to the mystical life.

However, it remains that the human sensible experience of suffering can find some proportion in the sufferings of Jesus Christ and his passion. Since Jesus shares our humanity, he suffered the way our humanity suffers. Though his suffering was so great, there is some proportion to it in every pain we suffer. It is precisely his sacred humanity that we can identify with and draw ourselves into the mystery of his passion.

“Take no heed of what they say to you; be deaf to all detraction; stumble and fall with your Spouse, but do not draw back from your cross or give it up. Think often of the weariness of His journey and of how much harder His trials were than those which you have to suffer. However hard you may imagine yours to be, and however much affliction they may cause you, they will be a source of comfort to you, for you will see that they are matters for scorn compared with the trials endured by the Lord.”[iv]

Teresa changes the meaning of the suffering by reforming the images related to it to include the images of Christ’s suffering. This brings consolation to the person but also empathy with Christ.

“He will look upon you with His lovely and compassionate eyes full of tears, and in comforting your grief will forget His own because you are bearing Him company in order to comfort Him and turning your head to look upon Him.”[v]

Imagine, meaningless human suffering now becomes a means of comfort to the suffering Christ.  Who, among those who love God, has not wanted to be there with him to console him in his suffering? Teresa shows that it is possible today. Compassion of friends assuages pain according to St. Thomas because one sees oneself loved by the Beloved, and the Beloved sorrows for the friend. One sees the sorrow in the face of the Beloved who loves them, and it feels as if they are sharing the burden and it becomes lighter. That is the meaning of compassion. Teresa is showing how one may be compassionate to Christ through suffering as they look to him, and he looks at them as they co-suffer with him. Now there is great meaning to this suffering. Christ gives it his identity and his meaning.


Viewed in the terms of the psychology of St. Thomas, this second way to change an image is through reformulation. Rather than turning away from an image, reformulation involves turning to the image and altering it through reason. It involves changing the image to present a particular good. Reformulation can be a healthy or unhealthy action depending upon whether the image is changed to an apparent good or a good in truth. The former is a means to every sin or mental illness, and the latter is a means to virtue and mental health.

Through her reflections upon the scenes of Christ’s suffering to aid in meditation amidst one’s own suffering, Teresa was using the images of Christ to reformulate the images of the individual’s sufferings.

“It is desire for good, for love, for the integrity and happiness of the things or persons that we love that is at the root of sorrow, as love is at the root of hate.”[vi]

Contemplation of the truth is one of the remedies for pain and sorrow.[vii] Compassion of friends is another.[viii] All pleasures also assuage pain.[ix] Teresa’s remedy was to look at a picture of Christ’s passion and contemplate the truth of it. She brings the person into a compassion for Christ and his compassion for them. Therefore the person no longer suffered alone but with Christ. Their suffering was no longer meaningless or indicative of their own evil, but it took on the meaning of Christ’s suffering through union with him in truth. That suffering is the means of salvation and grace to the world. The person now has the hope that comes from such a union. There is also a pleasure to pain that we see to be for good purpose. Even physical pain can be diminished by the thought of good that can be derived.

“We can, and often do, undergo these exterior pains joyfully, even eagerly, in the name of a higher good desired by our will-like caring for a sick baby or having gallstones removed.”[x]

Teresa brought the consideration of this higher and noble good and the vehemence of pain, not only diminished but also a consolation. Here she did not fight against the sensible experience but used the sensible experience as a means to identify with Jesus Christ and find oneself united to the actions of his sacred humanity. The presence of the physical pain is no longer a distraction from the image of God but now an aid to identify with him, console him, and hope in the good that he draws from all things.

Consider the possible effect of this within counseling.

A woman enters counseling with great sorrow and depression. In listening to her story, it is clear that she has many reasons for being in this state—many of which may be well beyond the scope of a counselor. She may have been deserted by her husband, have Lupus, cancer, or some other physical malady. She could be suffering from injuries from her family or problems with her children, rejection, lack of affirmation, or have a multitude of wounds that can happen to any human being.

The counselor tells her to consider how she is feeling and to imagine that she is united to Christ on the cross. She is told to envision Christ saying to her: “If you want, I will take away all your pain and sorrow immediately, and it will not return.” Christ continues: “However, if you choose, you may keep this suffering throughout all your life. If you do, not only will I remain with you, share all you endure, and bring grace to the world through it, I promise you that not one of your children will be lost; and they will be with me for all eternity.”

What do you think would be the response to this question? Without exception, as a response, any one would choose to remain in their suffering and would feel the same relief. We all would experience hope in the meaning and consolation of these thoughts. Are these just thoughts or are they based in fact? Teresa of Avila saw all her actions united to those of the Lord. Is it not possible, then, for all of us to be united to him in the same way?


Teresa of Avila has made many practical contributions to the science of psychology and understanding the operations of the human person in their struggle for health and virtue. This article has considered one very important example of these contributions. It requires a larger enterprise to begin to explore them. At this time, it is worth the reader’s effort to consider Teresa’s counsel on changing the images in the imagination by turning away from them  and how that can be facilitated through the use of a sensible aid. One should also consider how the images can be changed by reformulation through reason. That consideration will lead the reader to begin to see how commonly this counsel enters into the daily life experiences related to mental health and illness.

[i] Way of Perfection, ch. 26.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] A predominant theme for Teresa was that her human experiences were united to the experiences of Christ. Therefore, her obedience was united to his obedience on the cross and took on the purpose and meaning that Christ gave to obedience to his Father’s will; i.e., the redemption of mankind. Her actions to teach would be united to his actions as a teacher and take on his purpose. This extended to everything including pain and sorrow, daily actions, all virtues. Thus, the simple daily events of Carmelite life took on infinite proportion. The profound insight into spirituality was manifest in Thérèse, the Little Flower and her “little way.” Everything, no matter how small, is united to the actions of love of the sacred humanity of Jesus Christ and the infinite love of the Father.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Farrell, Walter, O.P., A Companion to the Summa: II: The Pursuit of Happiness, (Correspnding to the Summa Theologica IA II AE), New York: Sheed and Ward, 1959, p. 122.

[vii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, II, a. 4.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

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.

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.