In the Carmelite tradition, St. Teresa of Avila compares our efforts to achieve prayerful recollection to watering a garden. In chapter 11 of her autobiography (The Book of Her Life), she tells us that there are four ways of watering one’s garden that illustrate the different degrees of recollection in prayer.
First, you have to take the water from the well and water the plants yourself; then, you can build a mechanical system with a water wheel, she tells us. Then, through channelization you can bring water from a stream, “The garden is watered much better by this means because the ground is more fully soaked, and there is no need to water so frequently—and much less work for the gardener. Or, the water may be provided by a great deal of rain. (For the Lord waters the garden without any work on our part—and this way is incomparably better than all the others mentioned)” (The Book of Her Life, 11:7).
Thus, the more one enters into contemplative prayer the less difficult the exercise of recollection is, and the more fruitful it is.
Therefore, spiritual tiredness and pain are not signs of fruitful prayer, because they are on the side of human effort: they testify to our commitment, which is already very important, but they are not the work of God in us. Rest and quietude, on the other hand, are signs of God’s work and his active presence because this presence fulfills our desire and we find in it a profound peace and joy: it is this rest in God that heralds eternity.
St. Teresa’s image shows us that we are headed toward an easier path. Desiring a measure of rest means desiring that the Lord himself should do the work that we can’t do, deep communion with him, and desiring that he should give us that which only he can grant—his grace. In a way, we’re waiting, for it to fall from heaven, just like the rain!
Certainly, before the rain falls, the gardener will look for water in one way or another, but what he hopes for is rain.
Thus, it is a matter of finding a method of recollection that allows us to arrive at this ease in our ability to welcome grace so that Jesus’ promise in the Gospel of the Samaritan woman may be fulfilled: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water [… that] will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (cf. Jn 4:10,14).
This is why the right method for prayer isn’t one that allows us to fill our prayer time without getting too bored, but one that will allow us not to miss the moment when the Lord passes by.
It isn’t a question of multiplying our occupations during prayer to fill the void. The methods we use to stay in prayer are at the service of our capacity to receive grace.
Our methods used for their own sake, like our worries, can become obstacles to communion with God: by being too attentive to what we can do, we can forget to welcome what is happening deep within.
Our efforts don’t create communion with God, which is a free gift; rather, it’s a matter of clearing away that which prevents us from welcoming this gift. It would be a pity if by being too attached to the means, we added difficulties to the natural obstacles to prayer.
Father Antoine-Marie Leduc, ocd
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Translation from the French text is the blogger’s own work product and may not be reproduced without permission.
Featured image: A Discalced Carmelite nun works in the garden at the Maryton Carmel near Liverpool, England. Image credit: Maryton Carmel Liverpool and the Association of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Great Britain (Used by permission)
Doesn’t it say somewhere in Scripture, “They that wait on The Lord shall renew their strength like eagles”? Something like that. Let’s ask search engine… Yes, it’s usuallly good for texts I half remember, or want context… “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isa. 40:31).
What a great Bible verse!