St. Teresa of Avila, Mystic, Doctor of the Church, and Monastic Reformer
1 Samuel 3:1-18
I am a bit embarrassed to admit this, but for a long time, the story of the calling of Samuel struck me as adorably tender and precious, even childish.
Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” […] The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”
One has to admit, there is something warm and domestic about a young boy thrice mistaking the voice of God for the voice of his (sleeping) instructor and guardian, Eli.
Now, these are not bad qualities. Something captivates us in a story where even a child sensitive to God’s presence. To be sure, we doubtless recognize this as a community that comes together to pray the words of another child sensitive to the presence of God—“be it unto me according to your word,” the words of Mary of Nazareth.
But as we remember the life of the sixteenth century Spanish mystic, reformer, and Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Ávila, there is another dimension to this precious, childish story that should never escape us. The sweet, childish back-and-forth between Eli and a mistaken Samuel is followed by something much more “adult.” For the boy Samuel receives not a consolation or sweet feeling from God’s revelation, but instead the seeds of a call to purge and reform the religious establishment of Israel.
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.”
It is easy to mistake the spiritual life as something ultimately dependent on our own good feelings when at prayer—I know I certainly used to. But both Samuel and Teresa came to know by experience that the spiritual life cannot be grounded in feelings and consolations, for both found themselves called by God to the prophetic cause of reform. For Samuel, it was the religious establishment of Israel; for Teresa, it was the Carmelite Order to which she belonged.
Teresa writes of the struggle she endured as she came to realize this fundamental law of the spiritual life. Her years as a postulant with the Carmelites were marked by weakness and sickness. This was a time when she found the life of prayer difficult and wanting. “I don’t know what heavy penance,” she writes, “could have come to mind that I would not have gladly and frequently undertaken rather than recollect myself in the practice of prayer.”
Blessed Teresa’s life witnesses to a difficult truth: if we turn to prayer for the reward of nice feelings and consolations, we will often be greatly disappointed. Yet, like Teresa, we can mature in our walk with God by remembering a key insight named by our own late brother, Robert Greenfield in the catechism found in our own Book of Common Prayer. Responding to the question, “What is prayer?” Greenfield answers, “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.”
For Teresa, as for us, this fundamental reality of the nature of prayer can free us from a dependence on receiving consolations and feelings from our prayer life—not only because we will not always experience them (some of us may go long periods without experiencing them), but because prayer does not ultimately begin with us.
Whatever we pray, in whatever capacity, is ultimately a response to something already initiated by God in the depths of our hearts. To know this—as Teresa knew—is to rest in the faith that, whether we feel anything or not, God has already initiated something within us whenever we pray.
And for me, dear brothers, this is good news indeed.
 The Collected Works of Teresa of Avila, Vol. 1 (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 19756), 98.
 The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 826.
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