One of St. Teresa of Ávila's gifts was the capacity to reflect on her experiences of prayer, write about the steps she went through, and pass them on to her sisters — and, eventually, to the rest of the world in the books she wrote. She liked to use everyday imagery that would help others to grow in prayer. Many find her metaphor of watering a garden to be helpful.
She wrote of four ways to do this: by taking water from a well; by obtaining water from an aqueduct; by drawing water from a stream near the garden; and finally, by receiving a gentle rain from heaven above. Each of these sources of water stand for a step in the progress of prayer.
Following her model, we see the effort to take a bucket, go to a well, and draw water. This is the active side of our beginning to pray (though at all times we are called and prompted to pray by the Holy Spirit). Jesus began the conversion to faith and prayer of the Samaritan woman at a well. As he led her to receive his revelation of himself as her friend and savior, he used the imagery of water that is like a fountain of grace rising up within her soul and leading her to burst forth with a prayer, "Sir, give me this water." (Jn 4:15)
Just as Christian life begins by being baptized with water and the Spirit, so prayer originates in a recognition of our thirst for God. Jesus thirsts for our union with him, and we thirst for the living God. The first stages of prayer are marked by our actions, then, as we become aware of our dry souls, in need of the living waters of Christ to "moisturize" them.
Teresa then calls for obtaining water from an aqueduct that brings water from the mountains, surging into our lives. There is comfort, security and confidence in knowing that the flow of fresh water from faraway heights comes to us in an unending flow. This period of prayer is like first love in which we experience the consolations of God's presence. We find it comparatively easy to rest in Christ.
In this state of prayer, we are nourished with divine joy that seems to come to us in an endless flow from the mountain of God. We realize that we are not producing this joy; it is a gift from Christ, who wants to draw us permanently to himself. In those effortless times, prayer seems easy, and we beg Jesus to remain with us always.
But dryness will come. Christ's call to discipleship involves denial of self, the carrying of our cross, and the challenge to follow him. The world finds these attitudes the least imaginable way to be happy, yet the saints show us there is no other path.
The stream of water
In the first three images, water comes to us from the well, the mountains and now, a flowing stream. In this third picture, we benefit from the stream with little effort; we are allowed to be at rest in God alone, who becomes the active presence in our life of prayer. At the same time, our energies on behalf of the kingdom can be prodigious. The stories of many active saints witness this truth. Such men and women, resting in God by his endless stream of graces in their prayer lives, were also creative and evangelizing activists, spreading the Gospel and planting lasting foundations around the world.
At the same time, we need to note members of contemplative communities, whose prayerful influence flows from their cloisters to neighboring churches, and, in fact, to the whole world.
The gentle rain
Teresa's fourth image, the gentle rain, describes those who are blessed with an enduring union with God. This stage is usually applied to those whom we call mystics. Certain people led by God into this privileged realm of friendship and union may at times become so absorbed in the divine presence that they feel drawn out of themselves into what we popularly call an ecstasy.
Teresa of Ávila received a gift of ecstasy that she described as follows:
It pleased our Lord that I should see the following vision a number of times. I saw an angel near me on the left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see except very rarely. . . . In this vision it pleased the Lord that I should see it in this way. He was not tall, but short, marvelously beautiful, with a face that shone as though he were one of the highest angels, who seemed to be all on fire. . . . I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron, there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust into my heart several times, and that it penetrated my entrails. When he drew out the spear he left me on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or my soul to be content with less than God.
— E. Allison Peers, Studies of the Spanish Mystics (London, 1927)
Father McBride has authored several well-known Catholic books and has lectured widely.
This is an edited excerpt from "How to Pray Like Jesus and the Saints: A Study Guide for Catholics."