In her first book, the book of her life, St. Teresa describes prayer and the spiritual life in terms of a garden and of water, using four types of receiving water to describe the stages of prayer life. St. Teresa developed this description of prayer based on her own experiences with mystical prayer. It is a path that we all must follow each in our own way as we make our journey home to God.
The first stage is illustrated as the dipping of a bucket into a well because learning to really pray requires much effort, and can seem to be a slow process. We must keep working though, and work to detach ourselves, with God’s help, from everything that distracts us from prayer. We also must have courage and continually work on this detachment, because once we begin this path, evil will try to distract us and keep us from following the path of prayer and reaching the goal, eternity in heaven with Christ. We must also remember that the work we do in learning detachment is only our cooperation with God’s grace. It is Christ who completes the work in us, pulling out the weeds in the garden of our soul. We also must work so hard so that we can see that by ourselves we can do nothing, and to show us just how valuable the graces received are.
The second water is represented by the water wheel, whereby the gardener obtains more water with less effort. The soul begins to see beyond its own misery and gets glimpses of God’s glory, which Christ uses to increase virtues within the soul Prayer becomes more quiet and recollected, though vocal prayer is not to be shunned, and may still be necessary and helpful to the soul. We continue learning detachment, even from the consolations we have already received, so that we will not be tricked by false consolations or fear that if we do not receive consolations that Christ has stopped working in us.
The third water is pictured as a river or stream. The soul is advancing enough that Christ steps in to help water the garden and does most of the work Himself, even as prayer can become more difficult. We must unite our miseries to the Cross and carry them willingly. We can become even more quiet and recollected, like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. We may also become more lie Martha, able to work out in the world while remaining recollected in prayer. It is here, I feel, that we can think we are “stuck” and not progressing at all. We have made strides in practicing detachment, though we are by no means perfect. We have come to believe that Christ is indeed working in our souls, even though we feel nothing, and we can find ourselves feeling even more miserable than we did at the beginning. But we must never give up, we must pick up our cross in prayer and continue to follow, trusting that He who has begun the work will surely complete it.
The fourth water is described as rain. It is the highest stage, where the soul does not control its senses, but for a short time is lost in contemplation and rejoicing. This prayer is generally very short, lasting only a moment or a few minutes at most. When this happens, we are abiding in Christ, in a way that we know, but cannot explain. We also have no memory of what happen during this time, whether we are reading, or recalling an event in Christ’s life, or engaging in vocal prayer.
St. Teresa also makes clear that we must never abandon this way of prayer, or let go of the Cross, but embrace it with humility. We may be unworthy, still sinning, but we must never flee the light or the Cross of Christ, which is our sure help and support. We must continue to pray as the Spirit directs us, vocally or in quiet, so that Christ may continue to work in us.
Copyright 2015, Carol Ann Chybowski