How can we harmonize prayer and action in our life ? How can we live the tension which seems to exist, inevitably, between those two dimensions of our calling?
Let’s listen to Saint Teresa of Avila, a great contemplative and woman of action beyond compare, who will provide us with precious insights.
Setting the goal
As a good pedagogue, the Madre always takes care to recall the final aim of spiritual life and its foundations. So, in order to address the theme we are dealing with here, it is important above all to affirm that the goal of our existence is neither to become great praying people nor to carry out extraordinary apostolic deeds! What we must seek above all and in all is God Himself, the coming into our hearts and into the world of His reign of love.
So, prayer and action are not two juxtaposed realities that compete with each other; they are like two facets of one reality, the only one we have to take into account : to exercise love and to search for it… Every act of prayer and every apostolic commitment should be lived as opportunities of growth in love. Deprived of this internal dynamic, they would in fact have no meaning. Deprived of this bond which unites them one to the other, they risk being experienced as a permanent tearing apart.
« Martha and Mary have to join together » Teresa of Jesus tells us. (Seventh Mansions IV).
« Therein lies the aim of orison, therein Therein lies the aim of orison, therein lies the aim of this mystical unionlies the aim of this mystical union : to : to give birth to deeds, to deedsgive birth to deeds, to deeds » (Seventh Mansions IV Mansions IV ))..
The message of the Madre is cristal ssage of the Madre is cristal clearclear ! Orison is not an end in itself. Let ! Orison is not an end in itself. Let us remember the warning she us remember the warning she addresses to the sisters she considered addresses to the sisters she considered « snugly hooded« snugly hooded » to be on their guard » to be on their guard (cf Fifth Mansion III) because they were (cf Fifth Mansion III) because they were more centered on themselves and onmore centered on themselves and on the delights of orison than on a real gift the delights of orison than on a real gift of self. However, let us make no of self. However, let us make no mistake. If Teresa thus advocates mistake. If Teresa thus advocates deeds, it has nothing to do with an deeds, it has nothing to do with an unconditional praise of apostolate unconditional praise of apostolate endeavor as such, let alone putting endeavor as such, let alone putting orison in the background. orison in the background.
In Teresian langage, « deeds » are all the kinds of loving response we can make to the callings of God’s grace, both at the level of a life of faith, hope and charity, as well as in terms of moral behavior. Of course, apostolic action is part of it, but not exclusively, and it must also be driven by charity. We can therefore understand that what Teresa wants to cry out loud and clear is that prayer must serve the growth and spread of love. It also challenges the coherence of one’s life, as it were …
So, Teresa herself testifies that « orison is the door for choice graces to enter into the soul (Life VIII, 9) and the worst mistake she made in her life was to forsake it during a year at least and she states : « Believe me, it is not the length of time spent in prayer that benefits our soul ; its good use in action is of great benefit to us, and a few moments of work ignite us with love better than long hours of consideration. Everything must come to us from the hand of the Lord. » (Foundations V). What must be sought after, in prayer as in action or more broadly in deeds (obras), is to respond lovingly to the Lord’s love, to do His will, to draw from the source of His love in prayer in order to spread it in action, but also to draw from action a growth in love that will impact our prayer life. For if an apostolate endeavor is an overflow of a life of prayer, it cannot be reduced to that. Lived in God and for Him, it also acts positively on our prayer life.
« The apostle, while carrying on his ministery, grows in charity and returns to his prayer in secret, with a greater love of God. Charity is one and grows in turn through acts of love of God and neighbor » (…) « Perfection proceeds, therefore, « in a circular manner : from orison and spiritual exercises to the help of one’s neighbor and from there enters into a more perfect orison in order to help one’s neighbor » This circuit « will have to be constantly tightened, until both, orison and action interpenetrate each other for a perfect harmony, crowning triumph of grace in man whose action is entirely under the sway of divine action ». (Acting in the Spirit p.324.328)
So, what is there to be done while waiting for this perfect and so desirable harmony between prayer and action ? Apart from setting the goal and taking the love, that unites them as a compass? It seems that the key here is humble realism. It is indeed important, in our daily life, to give each of these two aspects a proper place. But how are we to define this rightful place? The benchmark here is simple and within everyone’s reach: to carry out one’s duty.
« The problem of our vocation and consequently of our duties being solved, any discussion becomes unnecessary on the value in itself of this or that act, on the excellence of contemplation or action. A vocation places us in a relative order that it commands and which therefore becomes the best for us. The acts, which it imposes, become for us the most sanctifying. The duties that it creates are for us the unique path to holiness (…) Alas, how many deviations, how many wasted time and energy result from false information on this point or from errors of perspective. (I Want to See God, pp. 379-380). To be clear, we must give prayer and action their rightful place in our vocation, according to the commitments we have made. Do not stray from this path… Do not reduce the energy and time given to prayer, and do the same with regard to the deeds to be carried out. And all this, in a humble lucidity about oneself, acknowledging our deviations, our infidelities, without dressing them falsely with virtue, generosity. And knowing how to rise up again as many times as it takes.
To conclude: whatever the tensions, to which our mixed life exposes us (both contemplative and active), let’s never lose sight of the beauty and richness of such a calling and ask the Madre to intercede for us and to lead us in the footsteps of this “woman who knew how to love”, according to the beautiful title of Pierre Lauzeral’s book.
Some chosen quotations…
- “It is fitting that when we are in action, we should not neglect to turn inwardly to God. » (Laurent de la Résurrection)
- “Wouldn’t it be strange if God clearly told us to go and do something he desires, if we would rather stay and contemplate Him, because we find more satisfaction in so doing ? Pleasant way, really, to move forward in the love of God, than to tie His hands, figuring that he has only one way to do us good ! ” (Saint Teresa of Avila, Founda-tions V)
- “His Majesty’s love for us is so great that in return for the love we have for our neighbor he will increase in a thousand ways the love we have for His Majesty: I cannot doubt it. ” (Saint Teresa of Avila, Fifth Mansions III).
« To love is the passion to act so that a soul loves God and is loved by Him. » Saint Teresa of Jésus
To go further…
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Find the previous articles in our “Life of prayer” series.
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