Teresa of Avila and the psychology of prayer

Formidable woman

One of the great joys of Carmelite Sprituality is the works of the great 15th Century Spanish mystic, Teresa of Jesus, or Teresa of Avila.  She , her works and her reform of the Carmelite Order marked both a continuity and a major development from its origin in the Latin Hermits on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. And today, tens of thousands of people find her insights, and those of the many Carmelite writers she attracted and shaped,  salient, valid and real.

Teresa was a formidable woman. Rowan Williams’ study of her is an incredible read. I’ve now read it so many times the binding and pages have fallen apart.

Teresa was a woman of Jewish descent in a Spain obsessed by limpieza de sangre, purity of blood from Islamic and Jewish origin.  She was a religious who dared to write on prayer and mysticism during the height of the Inquisition, when not only mystical prayer was frowned upon, but at a time when the validity of women as people of theological and spiritual wisdom and insight was itself a thing of suspicion by the inquisition, if not near derision.  She and some of her work was denounced to the Inquisition.

And in spite of this, she delivered a reform of the Carmelite Order which saw her travel the width and breadth of Spain in the most hostile geographic, political and theological climate; and is one of the 33 Doctors of the Church.

A visit to Avila, her home City, is both inspiring and humorous. One thing about Teresa, and her ally in the Carmelite reform, St John of the Cross, is that there is some seriously mediocre art about them. This is, though, in many ways quite fitting. I have a love-hate relationship with Bernini’s statue of St Teresa in Ecstacy in Rome. He captures in some ways the encounter with the divine, but in other ways I can’t help chuckle because I think Teresa would have hated it. The mediocre, rough, worn and frankly wonky array of second rate portraiture of Teresa in the museum of the Saint in Avila capture far better the  drive, determination and sheer fire of this women than Bernini’s – admittedly profound – capture of Teresa’s moment of being utterly caught up in ecstacy.

Those of us in the Carmelite family (Friars, Sisters and us Secular/lay Carmelites), even us baby neophytes, are preparing for the fifth centenary of her birth in 2015.  As part of this we are reading once again through her works and listening to her.

The website here  http://www.iwasbornforyou.com/ is a major guide to this process. And you can read about the Carmelite Secular Order here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_Order_of_Discalced_Carmelites

There are so many books on Teresa that I have added links below, rather than suggest one single book. Or you can register with www.cibi.ie for the Carmelite Institute’s excellent distance learning courses on her.

But to get to the point, I think we need to fundamentally re-examine our approach to using different schools of Psychology to understand and dialogue with Teresa, and as we prepare for her 2015 I think it’s about time we started with listening to her, really listening to what she has to say, as a starting point.

Her works on prayer

The teachings on prayer are those I keep coming back to, being challenged and inspired by.

Teresa gives us a great discourse on prayer in Chapters 11 – 22 of  her book The Life, with Chapter 8 being almost a prelude to this.  The restatement of this in another of her works The Interior Castle is essentially meant for the more advanced. Teresa is writing from her own experience.  The discourses on prayer in The Way of Perfection are equally challenging.

Prayer and the four ways of watering a garden

She talks about the ascent of the Soul in prayer as being like four ways of watering a Garden. The stages progress by the Soul feeling it does most of the work at the beginning to God doing the work and the Soul enjoying the presence and gift of God rather than having to work laboriously at it. (Though Teresa says in The Life that prayer is a gift and when we look back we see God doing and giving, not us just working.)

The first method draws water from a well to water the garden by buckets. It is laborious. This is vocal prayer as well as the discursive prayer of meditating on something. It is difficult to focus attention on God, and easy to be distracted.

The second type is less work for the person, but still needs more effort. It is a waterwheel with hoppers/dippers. The wheel turns by human work, water flows into a conduit which takes it to the garden. St Teresa says this stage means “the soul begins to recollect itself, borders on the supernatural. . . . This state is a recollecting of the faculties within the soul, so that its enjoyment of that contentment may provide greater delight” (The Life, chap. 13). It is less difficult to focus on God than in the well.

The third and fourth types require decreasing human effort and no human effort respectively, unlike the first two. But there is a continuum between two and three.
The third type is a running stream irrigating the garden through an aqueduct. This stage says Jordan Aumann OP, is mystical; that is, all the faculties are centered on God” and Teresa says it’s a “union of the soul” with God. She describes this kind of prayer as a “sleep of the faculties” because God completely enthrals them. This kind of prayer makes it difficult to not focus on God, rather than be distracted.

The fourth type is irrigation by rain. The soul simply enjoys the rain, produced by God and delivered by God. Aumann says “This stage of prayer is totally mystical, meaning that it is infused by God and is not attained by human effort. It is called the prayer of union, and it admits of varying degrees. “

A friend of mine once introduced me to the plays of Lorca, where water is used as an erotic metaphor, and also a spiritual metaphor. And I find the use of water as a metaphor for prayer instinctively connects with me. It raises the memory of prayer at its best and the desire for relationship with God , as a thirst which only God can quench. So I find I drink up what Teresa says here, and keep returning to it to try and understand it.

I find this first stage immensely reassuring because Teresa says this type of prayer is something we never abandon. And my experience is that prayer is sometimes very hard, thirsty work. And that reassures me when I find prayer hard work and feel I’m not getting where I want to be in relationship with God.

Further, the notions of embracing the cross, living as God wants us to, preparing for conversation and trying to build a relationship, along with the practical tips on staying with it are immensely helpful. And Teresa here sometimes makes us laugh at ourselves.

It also reassures me that I am not wrong to desire for better prayer and better relationship, but keep my feet on the ground with this type of prayer, and the hoping has to come from love of God, not being in love with prayer. Finally, feeling one is going backwards is not always a bad thing.

The psychology of prayer and Teresa

Over the years I have often been asked to talk, lead workshops and lecture on the relationship between Psychology and Theology.  I’m no expert on psychology and theology, so don’t assume I am an infallible guide. 

Equally I am no expert on Teresa. The best guide to Teresa I have met remains a 70+ year old Secular Carmelite who taught me more about Lectio Divina in four sentences over a coffee than I learned from several years of exhausting, frustrating and sometimes duff attempts. 

I just happen to be someone trying to dialogue psychology with theology and in the process seem to have amassed a library.

And naturally, the psychological dialogue with Teresa has captured my interest along the way.  I have seen, and read, piles of the work on various schools of psychology and Teresa: depth psychology, Jungian psychology, Freudian psychology and several other psychology schools which seem to be oft used by people studying spirituality. An awful lot of it seems to come from that 1970s over-emphasis on counselling and psychotherapy that after Vatican II sent some clergy and members of religious orders into counselling ministries as if it were sometimes seen to be the primary expression of pastoral theology.

Now don’t get me wrong. Counselling and therapeutic ministry is hugely important. I wouldn’t have spent over twenty years volunteering in the fields of bereavement, human health and lately working with the church on responding to sexual abuse by clergy if I didn’t. And one time in my life when I went off the rails big time, well I benefited from wise listening by a religious sister.  So I am not rubbishing this whole set of schools.

What I am saying is that if we are honest – and when it comes to pet insights on psychology we rarely are – one single Western twentieth century set of schools focused on therapy do not begin to encompass adequately the antropological insight of Christianity. It’s not a case of supplanting psychological insights from the Christian and pre-Christian centuries with  the ever-changing fads of that odd collection of methods, disciplines and schools we inadequately try to encapsulate with the term “psychology.”  It is a case of dialoguing and retaining the valid from our tradition.  Drink from the well of secular wisdom by all means, but don’t let’s forget the riches we have.  And if you read some of the recent works on psychology and Catholicism, any historical perspective realises that purely approaching someone like Teresa from a purely psychodynamic or depth psychology perspective is a narrowing of the relationship between Catholicism and Psychology, not a flourishing.

 I often seem to find people studying the Church and its mystics from the light of one or other early to mid twentieth century intrapersonal psychology schools. Their choice of psychology schools seems  sometimes to be limited to the point of cliché, while ignoring the riches of experimental and other areas of psychological science. Thomas Aquinas, for example, still has much to teach us in that amazingly complex area between psychology and philosophy we call either the psychology of consciousness or the philosophy of mind. And for that matter, Teresa has too.

And we should always bear in mind that just because one person  feels Freudian and Jungian psychology are salient areas for study of Christian spirituality, there are still those who would dialogue with or dispute  the insights of those schools of psychology, and wish to widen the debate. 

And this leads me to venture that the Catholic Church ought recover a relationship with psychology which is a little more discerning, a little less uncritical, and a bit more aware of its own riches.

This overdependence on forms of psychology akin to counselling and therapy, and especially the psychodynamic, I think puts too many limits on our ability to receive Teresa’s writing on spiritual life and the psychology of spiritual life and religion without putting on filters which sooner or later can become unhelpful. The point is seeing Teresa, not Jung or Adler or Rogers through Teresa.

It’s entirely understandable we might want to dialogue psychology and Teresa, but the psychology and theology debate is far wider than schools of psychology which are essentially aligned to Jung, Rogers, Klein, Freud or others of what one could call a broad existential/symbolic/theory driven stream of psychology. Indeed there are some psychologists who would claim that Freud and Jung simply cannot be classified within the group of disciplines which make up psychology, claiming they are more akin to esoteric philosophy. So those of us dialoguing Teresa with psychology have a duty not to make truth claims or superiority claims about one bit of psychology in this debate. Because it’s usually the bit of psychology we like. And this narrowness is in danger of doing those who want to read Teresa a disservice.

And I’m not making a case here for empirically driven experimental insights as supreme, before someone jumps to that hoary old chestnut. I’m talking about being open to a wider world of psychological insight than that offered by one particular set of schools. 

Sources of dissatisfaction

I have found that so far many of the attempts from this school to dialogue with Teresa sooner or later become problematic, for several reasons.

Firstly, most of these schools (especially Jung and Freud) part from a Christian anthropology at some point or another. That is not Teresa, even someone of my limited understanding of her can see that. There comes a point where you have to concede, in my view, that the anthropologies of Freud and Jung – however valuable some of their insights for therapy – simply cannot be reconciled with a Christian view of what it means to be human, and in particular the doctrine of grace and the significance of Christ without watering down the latter and heading for some rather dated faddish Semi-Pelagian or Gnostic nonsense.

Secondly, Teresa’s psychology  strikes me the more I read and reflect as being actually stunningly profound. So in a dialogue with Freud or Jung or Rogers or Adler, the latter can become pretty limited dialogue partners, or even redundant. Do we need Jung to understand what Teresa has to teach us about the human condition? Teresa remains clearly and sometimes painfully relevant and insightful.  Sometimes the obsession with the modern method of dialoguing too strongly contemporary insights with the teachers from another era can actually dilute the strength and salience of what the previous era has to offer. Nowhere is that more strongly present for me than in the four waters of prayer, and the first water particularly. A cognitive psychologist, a psychologist of memory and a neuropsychologist could all bring insights to this debate which can shape and help our understanding.

Thirdly, some of Teresa’s discourse on memory and intellect and imagination is about as spot on as you would get in a current cognitive psychology text. Teresa was no fool, and it strikes me that in listening to her we should bear this in mind before we start ransacking through any other discipline.

Teresa has much to be said in her own right as a psychologist of religious experience. Teresa is, in being a doctor of prayer, a profound psychologist of discipleship, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the four waters.

Widening the debate between Psychology and Carmel

So, if a lot of the psychology talked about Carmel has some value but  can be problematic and needs to be widened, how do we do that?

Well, in preparing for the fifth centenary, I’d like to suggest a very first start at some principles:

  1. Take Teresa as the starting point – after all, for Carmelites that should be the point. And there is nothing methodologically, scientifically or psychologically wrong in that. In fact, you find a lot more empirical evidence in bits of Teresa than you will in Freud – at least she tested her experience and theory with her community and her spiritual directors, which is more than Freud always did.
  2. Listen to her first before we dive headlong into other disciplines.
  3. Understand the breadth of what Psychology can bring to dialogue, not just one school. So don’t pretend or purport that one school of psychology is supreme in this project.
  4. Let’s not take ourselves too seriously – after all, she didn’t.
  5. Teresa is always in and for the Church. You can’t divorce a reading of Teresa from the context of living relationship within the Church, within community and with God. Hyper-individualism is not Teresian. Teresa’s anthropology is a relational one.
  6. Gift not guilt. Teresa makes much of our limits and propensity to go awry. But at the end of the day, the point is grace not guilt. Some schools of psychology are not methodologically or conceptually equipped to deal with a Christian understanding of forgiveness.
  7. If we can’t reconcile our reading of Teresa through psychology with principles like Humility, Detachment and Love of God and Neighbour, how can we claim it to be an authentic reading of her?
  8. If we can’t reconcile our reading of Teresa through psychology with the wisdom of the Church through the ages, how can we claim it to be authentic?
  9. Teresa’s Psychology makes no sense without a firm doctrine of the Grace of God and a God who wants relationship. That is not a perspective shared by all of the psychologies often used to try to read her. But more importantly, this starting point creates a whole context for a Christian psychology dialoguing from Teresa.
  10. Recognise that Teresa’s fundamental starting point is that to be fully human means to be fully open to God. In that sense, Teresa is probably one of the most authentic guides to Catholic understanding of the human we can have.
  11. Recognise that for us, psychology is one part of the knowledge that makes up a Christian understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to relate. This is often called theological anthropology. our reading of psychology needs to be in harmony with our understanding of the human person.

Time permitting, I’d like to develop these thoughts and principles. But so far her they are, and let’s see how far we get with them.

Some Readings and Links

C.Kevin Gillespie, Psychology and American Catholicism. Crossroad,2001.

Robert Kugelman, Psychology and Catholicism:Contested Boundaries. Oxford University Press, 2011

The best editions of Teresa’s works can be found at the Institute of Carmelite Studies Website, and the best bookshop on all things Carmelite is the Carmelite Book Service http://www.carmelite.org.uk/acatalog/index.html

 ICS publications has Amazon Kindle editions of some of Teresa’s works and other Carmelite works. http://www.icspublications.org/

Discalced Carmelites www.carmelite.org.uk

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