To begin the adventure of spiritual life, according to St. Teresa of Avila, it is to begin a garden on infertile soil, with lots of weeds, so that the Lord may delight in it. He is the one who pulls out the weeds and the one who plants the good seeds. But it is in our hands to water the garden and to take good care of it, so that those seeds may grow giving flowers and fruits. And we water the gardens of our lives through prayer.

There are 4 kinds of prayer, 4 ways of watering the garden. The first one can be compared to drawing water from the well. This kind of prayer consists in acting with our reasoning and understanding. It takes a lot of effort to gather, first of all, our senses: not to pay attention to what we hear or see, to stay in solitude, apart from the world, meanwhile we consider our past life. It means to „tire” our understanding by thinking in the life of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes we will receive the gift of tears and special consolation, this feeling of tenderness while we pray. Unavoidably, we will also (and for the most of the time) experience dryness when we begin this journey because we are not used to it, it is all new and totally different. How to act in this situation? We need to always bear in mind that WE DO ALL OF IT TO SERVE GOD, NOT TO OURSELVES. We need to learn to find joy in being able to work a little in this garden, so that to show God that we are happy just to work for him, even when we feel nothing. Because at the beginning there is a strong temptation to leave the prayer. We can help ourselves by imagining that through these difficulties we are helping Jesus to carry his cross. All we have to do is to keep trusting in the goodness of the Lord who does everything for our good. He will be testing our determination and disposition to continue on the journey even when everything goes wrong and we cannot find any pleasure. In our ordinary life, we are inclined to look for what we like, what is easy, pleasant, comfortable, for what makes us feel good. But this kind of inclination is the first enemy of the spiritual life. And it is the great way of learning how little we are, how fast we give up when not everything goes as we planned.

It seems too much to ask for someone who is just beginning… But maybe it is the only way we may learn that it is not us who are „doing a favor” to God because we decide to have some time of prayer and take care of our spiritual life. It is the Lord who calls us to this encounter, this journey, this adventure, and He gives us the grace to persevere in it. It is already his grace that we feel invited to pray. The important things don’t come easy, sometimes we need to strive for what is really worth. We need to remain firm and determined in spite of not finding content. The essential thing on this path is TO WANT to spend time with the Lord and to leave behind all the things that can distract us from this purpose.

One of these distractions consists in comparing with others. It is easy to forget that each one of us has his/her own way, own journey. We belong to God, and he guides each one of us on the way that suites each one the best. It shouldn’t matter if another person seems to receive different graces. To trust in the goodness of the Lord means to rely on him, rely that he knows the best what is good for us.

Something similar may also happen when we begin religious life or a new mission. At the beginning we feel very animated when we imagine how it will be. But when we already begin, we lose all content, everything seems difficult, flavourless. Not necessarily it is a sign that this vocation, this mission, is not for us. It is only that our determination needs to be tested, and so the purity of our intentions. Why do I choose to stay? Why do I choose to serve? Am I searching for God or for myself?

This journey „through thick or thin” has one powerful effect in us: FREEDOM OF SPIRIT, that can be translated as being owners of ourselves. We learn how to respond to the calling of God independently of our feelings. All becomes based on the free decision to do everything God asks of us, no matter how we feel. How to achieve it? Saint Teresa gives some hints that can be useful. First of all, from the very beginning of our journey, we need to „embrace the cross”, meaning to say, to decide to maintain ourselves in disposition to suffer and not to always „feel good” if that’s what happens. Our INTENTION is what really matters: free decision to remain in dryness, wanting to love and serve even though sometimes it doesn’t go well.

The wisdom of teresian experience teaches also that we are much affected by the state of our body. Women we know very well how much affected we get by hormones and moods shifting on monthly bases. The advise of St. Teresa is that in moments like these sometimes it is better to leave aside the mental prayer (although we need to discern it well so that we won’t be just doing what is easy with no effort) and to occupy our head with some works of charity or reading, or even good conversation or walking. The truth is that sometimes we just need to serve our bodies giving it what it needs because in so many other times the body is the one that serves our souls.

All these things of dryness, weariness, distractions are totally normal, and in majority they don’t depend on us. Sometimes the best we can do is just to „let it be” remaining firm in our decision to be only for God and not for ourselves. What we can do to help in these first steps is to think of the great love of God, of what he had done for us, in good things that are still awaiting us. We can keep growing in determination of „doing much for the Lord” and never force things to happen. It can be bad for our spiritual growth to desire these feelings of happiness, these consolations, and making our own forced efforts when they don’t come naturally, when they don’t come from God. It is totally counter-productive and can only increase our weariness and dryness. The worst is to act according to our EXPECTATIONS because soon we will experience frustration. We need to learn to stay open to what God has planned for us. And in given time, we will understand it all.

Therefore, how in a concrete manner can we proceed in prayer to water this garden of our life? Teresa gives us some pieces of advice. We can begin by imagining that we are in the face of Jesus in his human body. We should imagine him as handsome as possible, gathering in himself all the perfections we can think of in a man. This will help us to slowly fall in love with him. We can imagine ourselves always staying at his side, talking with him as if he was our best friend, fiancée, our spouse. In these encounters with him, we learn to listen to him in all his joys and pains. From there we can begin spontaneous prayers accordingly to what we feel in every moment. There may be moment when we don’t feel like meeting with him, and this can be also a valid topic for conversation with Jesus: to explain to him why we feel like this about him. All topic is valid, as long as we keep showing up to these moments of encounter. Some people may find it easier to have „higher” considerations about God, angels, heavens, the truths that our faith is presenting to us. All that serves to the growth of love, serves for prayer.

Obviously, when we begin this journey we will encounter some temptations. The first of them is related to the image of holiness we may have. Sometimes we think that a saint is a very serious person and that we need to leave aside all the joy of life to become saints. In teresian spirituality, „to walk with joy” and freedom are necessary because these two things make us go back to prayer stronger than before.

Another temptation is to have small desires. It is necessary to have courage, strong motivation and great confidence that what we begin is really possible, that it is true that by ourselves we can achieve very few, but there is nothing impossible with God. It is essential on this adventure to have great desires with humility. It also means not to worry to much if we may lack of something, if we may suffer, if we may experience some pain. We need to learn to desire but we also need to make concrete work, to put means to not allow that the care of wordily things may become an obstacle for us to fly and achieve heaven.

Yet different temptation comes from our fear for health. Sometimes we think that to live the life of penitence, to abstain from certain things or relationships, to make a little of fasting or kneel down to pray may cause negative effects on our body. This happens when we don’t have our priorities clear. St. Terese encourages us to try first to pray and serve not paying too much attention to all the demands of so-called good health that many times is only our own will disguised in robes of so-called bigger good.

When we already enjoy the sweet fruits of prayer for some time (because not all is dryness, discomfort and temptation), we may fall into willing that everyone around us enter through the same door and become spiritual like we are. We need to remember that before trying to „convert” others, we ourselves have to grow in virtues so we won’t scandalize or make others confused about the effects of the prayer. First of all, we need to take care of ourselves as if there was nobody else in the world. We preach better through the example of our life than through demanding of others to be same as we are. If we are more concerned for others in this aspect than for our own spiritual growth, soon we may experience another temptation: to suffer for the sins of others without taking care of our own fails. That’s why it is necessary to stop caring for other people and other things seeing their imperfections. It is much more beneficial for us and for them to see good in them and to cover their falls with our own sins considering others better and more advanced in spiritual life than we consider ourselves.

At the beginning it is usual to employ our reasoning, imagination, understanding during the time of prayer. And here is also the last temptation mentioned by St. Teresa: to think too much. She encourages us to simply stay with Jesus, to spend some quality time with him, to „look as he is looking at us”. That’s enough.

The last thing, but not the least, is the insistence on the need of good ACCOMPANIMENT, of having teachers who are prepared and experienced. And, of course, never stop knowing ourselves, as „it is the bread with which we ought to eat all other delightful meals”.


Prepared by: Aleksandra Nawrocka CMT