Posted May 1, 2005
Understanding the Depths of Meditation
Taken from The Dark Night of the Soul [Posted on our website]
The first way of prayer, the drawing of the bucket from the well, is meditation. The work of meditation involves using the faculties and dealing with distractions [keeping the senses recollected]. Teresa was very flexible about the form meditation should take. It might be reflecting on scripture passages or imagining events in the life of Jesus. Or it might involve looking at works of art or scenes in nature. She herself advocated a gentle practice of the presence of God very like the one Brother Lawrence popularized a century later. This was a simple attempt to remember God’s presence in all that she did. She also described trying to create an internal imaginary picture of Christ. Overall, she said people should practice whatever works best, “whatever is most helpful.”
When one feels as if everything relies upon one’s own effort, even the simplest ways of attentiveness in meditation can take a lot of energy. Teresa says one may become so tired drawing water from the well that no one can “no longer move one’s arms.” And often the well seems dry; the meditation yields little or no gratification [consolation]. But the work must go on regardless, because it is “all we can do.” Teresa says the work is its own reward because it is a labor of love. It is a way of taking up one’s cross, an expression of one’s desire for God, and God deeply appreciates it. It is our prayer in action, the only way “we can make progress on our own, of course with the help of God.”
Consolations, the good feeling of prayer, come in meditation during moments that Teresa call active recollection. These are times when the work of meditation quiets the mind and brings one’s awareness into the immediate moment. The content of the consolation varies; one may experience deep stillness and peace, be overcome by gratitude or beauty, or be moved to tears by powerful emotion. Whatever the content, the experience is delightful, and it always encourages one’s desire of God.
Teresa uses the word contentos for these conditions that occur in meditation. She says that because such experiences seem partly due to our own efforts, we are “quite right to feel satisfaction at having worked in such a way.” But she immediately points out that we cannot take all the credit — without God’s grace such good feelings would be impossible. She also emphasizes that the contentos of meditation are like other good feelings that happen naturally in normal life, as when one is reunited with a loved one or is successful in a difficult business undertaking. Thus the contentos of meditation have a physical quality. Teresa says they arise within a person’s senses, and the pleasure they cause encourages the person