Today the Church remembers St. Teresa of Avila, 16th century Spanish monastic, prioress, and mystic, who exercised amazing influence during her life in Spain—a surprising level of influence given her background and her being a woman. Along with her contemporary and friend, St. John of the Cross, she was of converso lineage: her grandfather had converted from Judaism to Catholicism when Spain offered its resident Jews the “choice” of conversion or expulsion.
Like many female medieval and Enlightenment-era saints, she struggled with ill health throughout her life, and yet a remarkable life she lived nonetheless, traveling widely and being sought out for advice. Before entering the convent, she had been a noblewoman and attracted to comforts and worldly pleasures by her own admission; she pivoted in her religious life toward asceticism but led her sisters with moderation in many things and a wisdom regarding human foibles. Teresa was blessed with both a sharp wit and trenchant gift for observation—one of her remarks that I can most relate to is this: “May God protect me from gloomy saints.” Anyone who has grown up in the Bible-belt can relate to that one.
The quote of hers that speaks to me most today, as anxiety over so many real and perceived threats loom large in our hearts, is this one: “Prayer is an act of love; words are not needed.”
Teresa’s observation may be seen as describing the third level of prayer. The first level of prayer is words from us to God, a one-way listing of wants, needs, and intercessions. The second level of prayer includes silence as well as words, listening as well as speaking: as you can imagine this one is much more difficult to many people than the first, since it so hard for us to still ourselves and adopt an attitude of reception and conversation with God. Yet that is exactly what Teresa herself aimed for, as she lived through so many of the spiritual struggles so many of us face..
This third level of prayer, suggested by Teresa, involves prayer as action, and a specific action, at that: love. Teresa reminds us in this that love is NOT an emotion—it is an action and an attitude of grace. Teresa speaks of love– love that seeks the flourishing of the neighbor as if they were dearer to us than our own skin. Love that realizes its power—a power for good and beauty that should be obvious to everyone. After all, why else would despots throughout time have been so threatened by Jesus’s insistence on love as the key to his Way, and sought instead to use division and hatred as a way to seize power?
How can we pray as an act of love?
By standing with those who are oppressed.
By rejecting the mockery of the weak or the elderly, or the differently abled.
By listening with open hearts to those who share their pain or fear.
By practicing empathy and compassion in even small opportunities throughout each day.
By remaining present in each moment, mindful of the gift of breath and hope.
By looking for God’s never-failing sustenance of our spirits in the beauty of community.
By reminding ourselves that we are never alone.
St. Teresa also said, “The feeling also remains that God is on the journey, too.” We can pray as an act of love by accompanying each other in our joys and sorrows, by turning aside from the contempt the world around us may revel in.
You are our Rock and our Hope,
Our Ever-present help in times such as these:
receive our prayers and praises,
as we proclaim your steadfast lovingkindness in our lives.
When our words fail us,
let our love be a prayer to You,
O Precious Savior,
and a witness to your grace.
As we meditate on your many blessings to us,
may we ever employ our reason and obedience
in the service of your reign over us–
a reign marked by tenderness
and a call for us to grow in faith.
Strengthen us in joy and gratitude
for carrying your light within us
for the sake of your Beloved Community.
Spirit of Devotion,
kindle within us a thirst for wisdom
that we may drink deep of love’s commandment,
and be a blessing to each other in God’s Holy Name.
Envelop all who seek you, O God,
in mercy and resilience,
and grant your peace to these beloveds.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.