When I see people very diligently trying to discover what kind of prayer they are experiencing and so completely wrapped up in their prayers that they seem afraid to stir, or to indulge in a moment’s thought, lest they should lose the slightest degree of the tenderness and devotion that they have been feeling, I realize how little they understand of the road to the attainment of union. They think that the whole thing consists in this. But no, sisters, no; what the Lord desires is works. (Teresa of Avila: Fifth Mansions: Chapter Three)
But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray. (Luke 5.16)
Some of you may remember the B.J. Thomas song from the 60’s: Hooked on a Feeling. It may be a catchy song title, but it’s not a very good label for our spirituality. Teresa warns us about getting so wrapped up in our prayers and feelings of devotion that we neglect “works”. She gives examples of what she means by works:
- We should visit the sick and share in their pain. Don’t fear “your devotion will suffer” by taking time to do good.
- If someone receives praise, “be much more pleased than if they were praising you; this is really easy if you have humility”.
- If someone has a fault, “we should be as sorry about it as if it were our own”. And we should divert attention from their fault as if it were our own.
A prayer life centered on feelings falls short of the Prayer of Union. The Prayer of Union may produce ecstasy but it also includes loving our neighbor and aligning our will with Christ. This generates the good works Teresa talks about.
I certainly recommend withdrawing from the crowds to pray. Solitude, silence, and prayer are essential to spiritual health. But if the desire for spiritual feelings crowds out the central ethic of the Christianity, we need to rethink our approach to the interior life.