Editor’s note: Monsignor Pope takes up the topic of humility in prayer as St. Teresa of Avila presents it in her treatise The Way of Perfection:
In setting forth her teaching, I have substantially reworked the order of her reflections. St. Teresa was able to see the “whole rose” of the topic, jumping from petal to petal without effort. I, being of a vastly inferior intellect and of far less purity of soul, must look to the individual petals in a certain order to understand.
Following is my presentation of her teaching as best I am able. In effect, St. Teresa summons us to trust in the Lord’s answer to our prayers rather than insisting on our own preferred outcomes and worldly measures of success.
Let’s look at her teaching in five stages. St. Teresa’s teaching is presented in italics while my remarks are shown in plain red text. The passages below are taken from the book The Way of Perfection by Saint Teresa of Avila, virgin (Obras de la gloriosa madre Sta Teresa de Jesus, Tomo 1, Madrid, 1752: 30:1-4 pp. 526-528).
The Prayer Plan – Therefore, the good Jesus bids us repeat these words, this prayer for his kingdom to come in us: Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. See how wise our Master is! Our good Jesus placed these two petitions side by side … But what do we mean when we pray for this kingdom? … It seems to me that this point deserves serious attention.
Many conceive of prayer as a time to tell God what we need. Intercessory prayer surely has its place, but it ought not to dominate. As St. Teresa reminds us and the Our Father teaches, we ought to acknowledge more consistently the holiness and wisdom of God and seek His kingdom and will in our lives.
Hence, prayer is seeking God’s will, not announcing our own. We all have our preferences in life. We would rather be healthy than ill, financially well off than destitute, in peace than at war. Our ultimate goal, though, is to trust that what God wills or allows is what is best.
Is God holy for us, or is he just a butler who should fetch what we want? Do we love the God of all consolation or merely the consolations of God? To pray, then, is to disclose our heart and seek to conform it to the Kingdom and to the will of God.
The Perfect Picture – O Eternal Wisdom, between you and your Father that was enough; that was how you prayed in the garden. You expressed your desire and fear but surrendered yourself to his will.
St. Teresa points to Jesus Himself as the perfect picture. His human preference is for the cup of suffering to be taken away, but His deepest desire is to be conformed to His Father’s will:
And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39).
We are saved by the human decision of a divine person. To be freed from suffering is appealing to Jesus, but not so appealing as to cause Him to violate His Father’s will. Nothing could do that.
Jesus is the ideal picture of prayer. His heart is perfectly united to the Father and His lesser human desire to avoid suffering is subjugated to His ultimate desire: to do whatever the Father wants. It is for us to journey toward this perfect picture. As we grow in the grace and love of God, we increasingly want what He wants, even if it is challenging, even if it leads us to martyrdom.
The Persistent Problem – But as for us, my Lord, you know that we are less submissive to the will of your Father …. You see, the gift our Lord intends for us may be by far the best, but if it is not what we wanted we are quite capable of flinging it back in his face. That is the kind of people we are; ready cash is the only wealth we understand.
Nothing plainer or more accurate could be said. It is normal to have certain preferred outcomes in life and in general it is not wrong to petition God for these things, but we are often very particular about what we want and so quick to become crestfallen and resentful if we do not get what we want, when we want it, and in just the manner. In addition, our desires are too easily worldly and vain.
So often our Lord must repeat what He said to James and John: “You do not know what you are asking” (Mt 20:22). St. Paul also reminds us, For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. (Rom 8:26).
Thus, we must ask humbly, realizing that God knows what is best. He sees a more complete picture and understands that simply giving us what we want often leads to troublesome results. Despite our momentary disappointments, we often come to realize that some of God’s greatest gifts have been the times when he said no or gave us something other than what we sought. It is interesting, for example, that no matter how many times God warns about wealth in the Scriptures, most of us still want to be wealthy. Our desires can be obtuse and close us in on worldly and fleshly things.
Recall the words of Jesus to the crowds who wanted another free meal after He multiplied the loaves and fishes: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you (Jn 6:27). Jesus was speaking of the Eucharist, His very self, but they just wanted ordinary bread. They were behaving like the ancient Jews, who tired of the miraculous manna, calling it wretched (Num 21:5), and pining for the melons and leeks of their slave years in Egypt (Num 11:5).
Yes, indeed, all we understand is “ready cash,” as St Teresa observes. How we must wear God out!
The Particular Petition – My Lord, could you not have included all in one word by saying “Father, give us whatever is good for us?” After all, to one who understands everything so perfectly, what need is there to say more?
For our prayer to grow, and our desires to be purified, a simple and filial trust of the Father is the key:
Whatever you want, O Heavenly Father, I want it too. I know it will be best. Even if my first emotional response is less than happy, I know that my truest happiness will be in whatever you will for me.
While the Lord Jesus directs us to present our needs to Him and to persevere in our prayers, it does not follow that we should give God detailed instructions. Doing so would be controlling, not trusting. It is enough to say, “Here are my needs, my concerns. I know that you will do whatever is best. Whatever you want, Lord, I will be fine knowing that you have heard and answered in your own way.
Indeed, there is no safer or better place in the world than inside the will of God. St. Teresa reminds us that humility in prayer comes finally to this: “Father give us whatever is good for us.”
Of course, whatever is good for us is that which will best lead us to Heaven. Hence, St. Teresa concludes with a vision that should always be before us.
The Palliative Perception – Of the many joys that are found in the kingdom of heaven, the greatest seems to me to be the sense of tranquility and well-being that we shall experience when we are free from all concern for earthly things …. Loving him is the soul’s one concern. Indeed it cannot help but love him, for it knows him. Here below our love must necessarily fall short of that perfection and constancy, but even so how different it would be, how much more like that of heaven, if we really knew our Lord!
I use the word palliative here to mean healing. We must look to Heaven to see our prayers and desires healed. There is an old saying, “The end is the beginning.” If we know our destination, then every other decision we make is directed toward that destination.
For example, if I am driving from Washington, D.C. to New York City, I can freely disregard signs for roads that lead south or west, knowing that they will not help me to get there. Even if I have to wait in heavy traffic, drive through heavy storms, or pay tolls, I am not overwhelmed because I know that every mile north and east gets me closer.
In our spiritual journey, we must meditate often on our destiny. Our goal is to be with the Lord forever. Our destination is Heaven, that beautiful place beyond description or imagination, where we are at peace in the presence of our God, lost in wonder and awe, and caught up into the great trinitarian dance of love. Looking into the beautiful face of God for which our soul yearns, all our lesser and often petty desires of this world will be gone.
As St. Teresa notes, however, all this doesn’t have to wait for Heaven. Even here in this world, as we grow to know the Lord more deeply our desires become purer and our prayer more humble. Increasingly, we come to be able to say what St. Thomas Aquinas did when asked by the Lord what he wanted: Nil nisi Te, Domine, nil nisi Te (nothing but You, O Lord, nothing but You). St. Teresa adds her hearty amen