The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

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The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

Chapter 8

Treats of the great benefit which she derived from not entirely giving up prayer lest she should ruin her soul. Describes the excellence of prayer as a help towards regaining what one has lost. Urges all to practise it. Says what great gain it brings and how great a benefit it is, even for those who may later give it up, to spend some time on a thing which is so good.

It is not without reason that I have dwelt upon this period of my life at such length. I know well that nobody will derive any pleasure from reading about anyone so wicked, and I sincerely hope that those who read this will hold me in abhorrence, when they see that a soul which had received such great favours could be so obstinate and ungrateful. I wish I could be allowed to describe the many occasions on which I failed God during this period through not having leaned upon this strong pillar of prayer.

I spent nearly twenty years on that stormy sea, often falling in this way and each time rising again, but to little purpose, as I would only fall once more. My life was so far from perfection that I took hardly any notice of venial sins; as to mortal sins, although afraid of them, I was not so much so as I ought to have been; for I did not keep free from the danger of falling into them. I can testify that this is one of the most grievous kinds of life which I think can be imagined, for I had neither any joy in God nor any pleasure in the world. When I was in the midst of worldly pleasures, I was distressed by the remembrance of what I owed to God; when I was with God, I grew restless because of worldly affections. This is so grievous a conflict that I do not know how I managed to endure it for a month, much less for so many years. Nevertheless, I can see how great was the Lord's mercy to me, since, while I was still having intercourse with the world, He gave me courage to practise prayer. I say courage, because I know nothing in the world that needs more of this than to be dealing treacherously with the King and to know that He is aware of it and yet never to leave His presence. For, although we are always in the presence of God, it seems to me that those who practise prayer are specially so, because they can see all the time that He is looking at them; whereas others may be in God's presence for several days without ever remembering that He can see them.

It is true that, during these years, there were many months -- once, I believe, there was as much as a whole year -- in which I kept myself from offending the Lord, devoted myself earnestly to prayer and took various and very careful precautions not to offend Him. As all that I have written is set down in the strictest truth, I am saying this now. But I remember little about these good days, so there can have been few of them, whereas the bad ones must have been numerous. Yet not many days would pass without my spending long periods in prayer, unless I was very ill or very busy. When I was ill, I was nearer to God; and I contrived that the persons who were around me should be near Him too and I begged the Lord that this might be so and often spoke of Him. So, not counting the year I have referred to, more than eighteen of the twenty-eight years which have gone by since I began prayer have been spent in this battle and conflict which arose from my having relations both with God and with the world. During the remaining years, of which I have still to speak, the conflict has not been light, but its causes have changed; as I believe I have been serving God and have come to know the vanity inherent in the world, everything has gone smoothly, as I shall say later.

Now the reason why I have related all this is, as I have already said, to make evident God's mercy and my own ingratitude. Another reason is to show what great blessings God grants to a soul when He prepares it to love the practice of prayer, though it may not be as well prepared already as it should be; and how, if that soul perseveres, notwithstanding the sins, temptations and falls of a thousand kinds into which the devil leads it, the Lord, I am certain, will bring it to the harbour of salvation, just as, so far as can at present be told, He has brought me. May His Majesty grant that I may never again be lost.

The blessings possessed by one who practises prayer -- I mean mental prayer -- have been written of by many saints and good men. Glory be to God for this! If it were not so, I should not have assurance enough (though I am not very humble) to dare to speak of it. I can say what I know by experience -- namely, that no one who has begun this practice, however many sins he may commit, should ever forsake it. For it is the means by which we may amend our lives again, and without it amendment will be very much harder. So let him not be tempted by the devil, as I was, to give it up for reasons of humility, but let him believe that the words cannot fail of Him Who says that, if we truly repent and determine not to offend Him, He will resume His former friendship with us and grant us the favours which He granted aforetime, and sometimes many more, if our repentance merits it.[99] And anyone who has not begun to pray, I beg, for love of the Lord, not to miss so great a blessing. There is no place here for fear, but only desire. For, even if a person fails to make progress, or to strive after perfection, so that he may merit the consolations and favours given to the perfect by God, yet he will gradually gain a knowledge of the road to Heaven. And if he perseveres, I hope in the mercy of God, Whom no one has ever taken for a Friend without being rewarded; and mental prayer, in my view, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him Who we know loves us. If love is to be true and friendship lasting, certain conditions are necessary: on the Lord's side we know these cannot fail, but our nature is vicious, sensual and ungrateful. You cannot therefore succeed in loving Him as much as He loves you, because it is not in your nature to do so. If, then, you do not yet love Him, you will realize how much it means to you to have His friendship and how much He loves you, and you will gladly endure the troubles which arise from being[100] so much with One Who is so different from you.

O infinite goodness of my God! It is thus that I seem to see both myself and Thee. O Joy of the angels, how I long, when I think of this, to be wholly consumed in love for Thee! How true it is that Thou dost bear with those who cannot bear Thee to be with them! Oh, how good a Friend art Thou, my Lord! How Thou dost comfort us and suffer us and wait until our nature becomes more like Thine and meanwhile dost bear with it as it is! Thou dost remember the times when we love Thee, my Lord, and, when for a moment we repent, Thou dost forget how we have offended Thee. I have seen this clearly in my own life, and I cannot conceive, my Creator, why the whole world does not strive to draw near to Thee in this intimate friendship. Those of us who are wicked, and whose nature is not like Thine, ought to draw near to Thee so that Thou mayest make them good. They should allow Thee to be with them for at least two hours each day, even though they may not be with Thee, but are perplexed, as I was, with a thousand worldly cares and thoughts. In exchange for the effort which it costs them to desire to be in such good company (for Thou knowest, Lord, that at first this is as much as they can do and sometimes they can do no more at all) Thou dost prevent the devils from assaulting them so that each day they are able to do them less harm, and Thou givest them strength to conquer. Yea, Life of all lives, Thou slayest none of those that put their trust in Thee and desire Thee for their Friend; rather dost Thou sustain their bodily life with greater health and give life to their souls.

I do not understand the fears of those who are afraid to begin mental prayer: I do not know what they are afraid of. The devil does well to instil fear into us so that he may do us real harm. By making me afraid he stops me from thinking of the ways in which I have offended God and of all I owe Him and of the reality of hell and of glory and of the great trials and griefs which He suffered for me. That was the whole extent of my prayer, and remained so for as long as I was subject to these perils, and it was about these things that I used to think whenever I could; and very often, over a period of several years, I was more occupied in wishing my hour of prayer were over, and in listening whenever the clock struck, than in thinking of things that were good. Again and again I would rather have done any severe penance that might have been given me than practise recollection as a preliminary to prayer. It is a fact that, either through the intolerable power of the devil's assaults or because of my own bad habits, I did not at once betake myself to prayer; and whenever I entered the oratory I used to feel so depressed that I had to summon up all my courage to make myself pray at all. (People say that I have little courage, and it is clear that God has given me much more than to most women, only I have made bad use of it.) In the end, the Lord would come to my help. Afterwards, when I had forced myself to pray, I would find that I had more tranquillity and happiness than at certain other times when I had prayed because I had wanted to.

Now if the Lord bore for so long with such a wicked creature as I -- and it is quite clear that it was in this way that all my wrong was put right -- what other person, however wicked he may be, can have any reason for fear? For, bad though he be, he will not remain so for all the years I did after having received so many favours from the Lord. Who can possibly despair, when He bore so long with me, merely because I desired and sought out some place and time for Him to be with me -- and that often happened without my willing it because I forced myself to seek it, or rather the Lord Himself forced me? If, then, prayer is so good, and so necessary, for those who do not serve God, but offend Him, and if no one can possibly discover any harm that prayer can do him which would not be much greater if he did not practise it, why should those who serve and desire to serve God give it up? Really I cannot see any reason, unless it is that they want to endure the trials of life by adding more trials to them and to shut the door upon God so that He shall not give them the joy of prayer. I am indeed sorry for such people, for they are serving God at great cost to themselves. But when people practise prayer the Lord Himself bears the cost: in exchange for a little labour on their part, He gives them such consolation as will enable them to bear their trials.

As I shall have a great deal to say about these consolations which the Lord gives to those who persevere in prayer, I am saying nothing here: I will only observe that prayer is the door to those great favours which He has bestowed upon me. Once the door is closed, I do not see how He will bestow them; for, though He may wish to take His delight in a soul and to give the soul delight, there is no way for Him to do so, since He must have it alone and pure, and desirous of receiving His favours. If we place numerous hindrances in His path, and do nothing to remove them, how can He come to us? And yet we wish God to grant us great favours!

In order that it may be seen what mercy He showed me and what a great blessing it was for me that I did not give up prayer and reading, I will now describe something which it is very important should be understood -- the assaults which the devil makes upon a soul in order to conquer it for his own, and the art and the loving-kindness with which the Lord endeavours to bring it back to Himself. My readers will then be on the watch for the perils for which I was not watchful myself. And, above all, I beg them, for the love of Our Lord, and for the great love wherewith He is continually seeking to bring us back to Himself, to be on the watch for occasions of sin; for, once- we are in the midst of these, we have no cause for confidence, being attacked, as we are, by so many enemies and being so weak when it comes to defending ourselves.

I wish I knew how to describe the captivity of my soul at that time. I fully realized that I was a prisoner, and yet I could not see how, nor could I really believe that things which my confessors did not represent as being very serious were as wrong as in my soul I felt them to be. One of these confessors, when I went to him with a scruple, told me that, even if I were experiencing high contemplation, such intercourse and such occasions of sin were not doing me any harm. This was at the end of that period, when, by the grace of God, I was withdrawing farther and farther from grave perils, though I did not altogether flee from the occasions of them. When my confessors saw that I had good desires and was spending my time in prayer, they thought I was doing a great deal. But in my heart of hearts I knew that I was not doing what I was bound to do for Him to Whom I owed so much. I regret now all that my soul suffered and the scant help it had from anyone save God, and the numerous opportunities that were given it to indulge its pastimes and pleasures by those who said that these were lawful.

Sermons, again, caused me no small torture, for I was extremely fond of them, so that if I heard anyone preach a good, earnest sermon, I would conceive a special affection for him, without in any way trying to do so: I do not know to what this was due. A sermon rarely seemed to me so bad that I failed to listen to it with pleasure, even when others who heard it considered that the preaching was not good. If it were good, it was a very special refreshment to me. To speak of God, or to listen to others speaking of Him, hardly ever wearied me -- this, of course, after I began to practise prayer. In one way I used to find great comfort in sermons; in another, they would torture me, because they would make me realize that I was not what I ought to be, or anything approaching it. I used to beseech the Lord to help me; but I now believe I must have failed to put my whole confidence in His Majesty and to have a complete distrust in myself. I sought for a remedy, and took great trouble to find one, but I could not have realized that all our efforts are unavailing unless we completely give up having confidence in ourselves and fix it all upon God. I wanted to live, for I knew quite well that I was not living at all but battling with a shadow of death; but there was no one to give me life and I was unable to take it for myself. He Who could have given it me was right not to help me, since He had so often brought me back to Himself and I had as often left Him.

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