in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Teresa of Avila, Mindfulness and Mental Prayer

Interestingly enough I have been asked from two quarters today about the relationship between 'mindfulness' and 'mental prayer' in Teresa of Avila's writing. The first came from the sisters of the Discalced Carmel at Ware where I led a day on Teresa today. (for more information on this beautiful place see )

There we looked at the passage I wrote below where I emphasised that this may be one way of throwing light on Teresa's definition of mental prayer as an association of friendship, frequently practised on an intimate basis, with the one we know loves us. The second comes from Christopher Howse who reviews this section of my book in today's 'Daily Telegraph'. I think as always he is judicious in his assessment of my writing and especially when he emphasises that I am not claiming that Teresa is a closet Buddhist (see the whole review on ) . However what he doesn't mention in the article is that one of the main reasons for my preferencing the term (not least because of contemporary interest in it) is that I believe it corresponds well with Teresa's desire to move the centre of attention of our prayer to 'the heart'. However, as at Ware today, it is wonderful to see Teresa's writings still exercising interest and debate 500 years after they were written. I quote the whole passage from 'Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul' below for those interesting in seeing what I wrote.

best wishes

Teresa’s first account of oración mental in her writings is an extended account in The Life, Chapters Eight to Ten. Here she contrasts the peace she receives from this activity with the ‘war so troublesome’ where she would frequently ‘fall and rise’ (V: 8.2 con estas caídas y con levantarme) as her passions came and left her. Her mental prayer ‘drew her to the harbour of salvation’ (V: 8.4 a puerto de salvación). She refers to it here and later as her ‘trato con Dios: Que no es otra cosa oración mental, a mi parecer, sino tratar de amistad, estando muchas veces tratando a solas con quien sabemos nos ama’ / ‘For mental prayer is none other, it appears to me, than an association of friendship, frequently practised on an intimate basis, with the one we know loves us.’[1] The pivotal word ‘Trato’ that Teresa uses to convey the intimacy and immediacy of mindfulness causes the most variation in translation. Allison Peers, in his usual robust fashion stays with ‘intercourse’, whilst Kavanaugh and Rodriguez opt for the ‘intimate sharing between friends’. Of her older translators Matthew chose ‘straight commerce with God’, Woodhead ‘conversing in prayer’ and Cohen ‘communion’.[2]
          Where Teresa’s method of prayer differs so clearly from the Buddhist mindfulness detailed above is the role that visualisation and symbolic representation of Christ plays in her meditations (See, for example, V: 9 1-4). Even though the gustos and regalos we discussed in Chapter Four will be a necessary part of her Mental Prayer the symbolic function discussed in the previous chapter plays an even more important role. However where Teresa’s account of mindfulness converges with the Buddhist accounts above is the importance of drawing attention away from intellectual and mental activity to the location of what she calls ‘the heart’. As we discussed in Chapter Six, this is not an anti-intellectual move but rather a consequence of the strategy of the Medieval mystical theology to which she is heir. To overcome the whirring discourse of the intellect we will need to concentrate on the mindful ‘trato’ with the beloved. This is why I feel the term ‘mental prayer’ can be misleading and why I preference ‘mindfulness’ as a translation of oración mental. ‘Mental’ seems to have the contemporary association with the mind and intellectual activity whereas, I would suggest, Teresa is advocating something closer to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness outlined above, and certainly closer to the contemporary practice of mindfulness discussed by commentators such as Kabut-Zinn. As she says later in Chapter Thirteen: ‘Ansí que va mucho a los principios de comenzar oración a no amilanar los pensamientos, y créanme esto, porque lo tengo por espieriencia’ / ‘Therefore it is of great importance, when we begin to practise prayer, not to be intimidated by thoughts, and believe you me, for I have had experience of this’ (V: 13.7).[3] Or as she later puts it in Chapter Seventeen, rather poetically translated by Matthew, the thoughts are like ‘unquiet little Gnatts, which buzze, and whizze by night, heer and there, for just so, are these Powers wont to goe, from one to another’ (V: 17.6)

[1] Again, a tricky passage to translate and preserve the sense of intimacy Teresa wants to convey here. Allison Peers retains this sense with his translation: ‘Mental prayer, in my view, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him Who we know loves us.’ Kavanaugh and Rodriguez give a more distant: ‘Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing less than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.’
[2] Matthew, for example, translates the passage above with: ‘For Mentall prayer, is no other thing, in my opinion, than a treatie, about making friendship with Almightie God; and a frequent and private Commerce, hand to hand, with him; by whome, we know, we are beloved.’
[3] Matthew: ‘It is therefore of great importance, for them, who beginn to hold Mentall Prayer, that they doe not subtilize too much, with their thoughts.’ Kavanaugh:  ‘not to be intimidated by thoughts.’ Allison Peers: ‘not to let ourselves be frightened by our own thoughts.’ Lewis: ‘not to let our thoughts frighten us.’

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