We like to place people in categories, don’t we? Is this person a thinker or a doer? A dreamer or a realist? Friendly or reserved? Even spiritually, we wonder if someone is a “Martha,” full of energy and drive to accomplish as much as possible, or a “Mary,” a contemplative soul who delights in quiet prayer and recollection.
St. Teresa of Ávila had the great distinction of combining the hardworking personality of Martha with the quiet prayerfulness of Mary.
Like Martha, she labored tirelessly toward the goal of reforming the Carmelite order and the Church as a whole. And yet for all her hard work, she is most remembered and revered for the deep spiritual insights she received as she sat with the Lord in prayer. In her greatest works, The Life, The Way of Perfection, and Interior Castle, Teresa spent the majority of her time teaching people how to come into God’s presence and experience the same intimacy with him that she had known.
According to Teresa, if we want this kind of relationship with God, the first thing we need to learn is how to place ourselves in the flow of his grace. We need to learn how to make ourselves available to God so that he can begin to sweep us off our feet. Since many of the nuns in her communities were illiterate, Teresa knew she couldn’t just tell them to read a book or study the Scriptures. She had to follow Jesus’ example and use illustrations and parables. So she used lively, memorable images that would fire their imaginations. She spoke of castles and diamonds and tar, of buckets and rivers and rain.
Of all these illustrations, one of Teresa’s favorites was that of a garden needing to be watered. She first used this analogy in her autobiography, then continued to refine it in her later writings. A methodical, careful thinker, Teresa spoke of a growth process in the spiritual life in which we learn how to increase the flow of God’s grace (the water) into our hearts (the garden). Let’s take a close look at this image and see how we can apply it to our own lives.
A Bucket and a Well
Teresa described the beginning of our spiritual journey with the concept of watering a garden with a bucket drawn from a well. As you can imagine, it’s hard work to lift a bucket filled with water from the bottom of a deep well and then lug it to a garden. It’s also painfully slow! It’s something we have to do again and again until every flower has been watered.
In this stage, Teresa called for a dedicated, structured time of prayer that involved first focusing our minds on the Lord, then singing some hymns, and then imagining ourselves at a biblical scene with Jesus. We could picture ourselves with the woman at the well (one of Teresa’s favorite stories) or at the Last Supper with the apostles or at the wedding of Cana with Mary and Jesus. The purpose of this structured approach to prayer was to help us replace all our worldly thoughts and concerns with thoughts about Jesus, his love, and eternal life. Teresa felt that the more we think about Jesus, the more water we are able to pour on our garden.
In the second phase of prayer, we learn how to make more progress with less hard work: “By turning the crank of a waterwheel and by aqueducts, the gardener obtains more water with less labor; and he can rest without having to work constantly.” Teresa called this the “prayer of quiet.” She called the first phase—the bucket—“ascetical,” because it is focused on the work we have to do in order to lay hold of God’s grace. The aqueduct, on the other hand, is “mystical.” We learn how to receive the grace that flows from God with less labor.
It’s at this phase of prayer that the “eyes of our hearts” are opened, and we are able to sense Jesus’ presence more clearly (Ephesians 1:18). Like the aged Simeon in the Temple, we see Jesus as more than just a good person. We see him as our salvation. We see him as Someone who loves us deeply and who has the power to release us from sin and lift our hearts to heaven. Seeing Jesus in this way fills us with peace and joy.
One of the best opportunities we have to experience this prayer of quiet is when we receive Communion. Very little work is required here. Jesus comes to us in the form of bread and wine, offering us his grace and his love. Receiving him humbly, our hearts can be ignited with his love. If only for a second, we may forget about the people around us and the challenges of our lives. We are focused only on honoring Jesus and thanking him for his love.
According to Teresa, entering into this prayer of quiet is more likely to happen to us after we have been using the “bucket” to draw water for a while. The first phase is much more effective in leading us to the second. For instance, we likely won’t experience this second phase if we receive Communion mainly out of routine and without expectation. We likely won’t experience it if we haven’t been doing the “work” of staying faithful to a structured time of prayer and Scripture reading.
Rivers, Rain, and the Third Heaven
Teresa described the third stage of prayer by talking about a garden that is watered not by a well but by a river or spring. “The Lord so desires to help the gardener here that he himself becomes practically the gardener and the One who does everything.” Then comes the fourth stage, which she compares to a garden being soaked with a constant rainfall. She speaks of it as a “heavenly water that in its abundance soaks and saturates the entire garden.” Hardly any effort is required, and the garden flourishes.
These two phases have a lot in common. Both have a steady flow of water that comes freely from God and moves us to go out and give this gift away to those who are spiritually dry. The primary difference between the river and the rain is that people who are experiencing heavenly rain are more fully drenched with God’s presence and more fully detached from the world—even to the point of occasionally having out-of-body experiences. At this point, Teresa described her own mystical experiences as well.
If this sounds a bit too eccentric, recall St. Paul’s words to the believers in Corinth:
“I know someone in Christ who, fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows), was caught up to the third heaven. And I know that this person…was caught up into Paradise and heard ineffable things.”(2 Corinthians 12:2-4)
Imagine what it must have been like for Teresa or Paul. They were so filled with the Lord’s presence that it felt as if they were in heaven. They even “heard” and “saw” spiritual truths that they struggled to put into words. These must have been glorious experiences!
Wouldn’t it be a blessing if we could have a similar experience? But neither Paul nor Teresa would say that this is the point of our prayer. We shouldn’t go looking for grand mystical experiences. Rather, all we should be concerned about is drawing closer to God. If we devote ourselves to seeking him out by drawing water with a bucket, we’ll find the garden of our hearts flourishing. As we become more faithful in carrying that bucket to our garden, he will gradually bring us to the stages of the aqueduct, the river, and the rain. But the most important thing is to keep our eyes fixed on him and not on the experiences we hope to have.
Don’t Give Up!
So keep using your bucket. Keep drawing from the well of God’s grace in your daily prayer time. Don’t try to force yourself to move from one phase to another. Instead, stay faithful to whatever is helping you now. Take heart in the knowledge that you are drawing divine grace into your heart, and that grace is constantly at work within you. Over time, you’ll find that prayer takes less and less effort as you build your own aqueduct and as the aqueduct gives way to a river, which then transforms into a constant, gentle rain.
If there’s one thing Teresa insisted on, it’s that God doesn’t want our prayer to be laborious. He doesn’t want it to be drudgery. So even if you are just beginning to draw water from the well, you can be sure that he will reward you with glimmers of his love and his peace. As Teresa herself taught, “Contemplating Jesus is nothing else than a close sharing between friends.” So all we have to do is be sure we are “taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.”