From the book: Dubay, Thomas. Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel—On Prayer.
(1) Read the Saints
Saints are the best exegetes we have of Scripture. Because men and women of heroic virtue are fully responsive to the Holy Spirit, they are the best exegetes of the divine word inspired by the same Spirit. While some saints write books of theology, all saints are books of theology: the living word enfleshed. Saints Teresa and John are Doctors of the Church because they lived and sang of the deepest immersions of the human spirit in the divine Fire. They are the Church’s mystics par excellence. They are unparalleled torchbearers of the Fire within.
(2) The 1st step of a serious prayer life – desire for perfection.
St. Teresa’s starting point is the absolutely basic condition for a serious prayer life: an earnest, continuing effort to rid oneself of sins, imperfections and attachments. Teresa does not focus on methods or techniques. Christic communion is a love matter before it is anything else. We begin a serious prayer life by practicing the ordinary virtues with extraordinary fidelity and entirety. Negatively – get rid of everything that does not lead to God. Positively – do all for the glory of God.
(3) The surest sign of genuine prayer is Gospel living.
Contemplation given by the Holy Spirit burns faults away and produces virtues. “From their fruits you will know them” (Mt 7:20). The surest sign of genuine prayer is the steady deepening of faith, hope, love, humility, patience, purity and all the other virtues. Contemplation is a purifying fire, “a dark, loving spiritual fire”. Contemplation, therefore, is NOT divorced from the rest of life. We pray in solitude, yes, but we return to our brothers and sisters with something rich to share, a far deeper, more loving, more giving self. It is noncontemplative people who fall short of living a full human life. What we find in Ss. Teresa and John is not a single sentence that speaks of methodology as a means to deep communion with the God of revelation.
(4) Vocal prayer is verbalized mental prayer.
For St. Teresa of Avila, vocal prayer is verbalized mental prayer. This is poles apart from rote recitation. As a result, vocal prayer should prepare the soul for contemplation. 3 tips based on this insight: (1) Active recollection – You must work hard & persevere to gather yourself together, to still wanderings of your mind and the restlessness of your heart. (2) Focus on the indwelling presence of the Trinity – Learn to find the Lord in the deepest center of your being. (3) Speak intimately and affectionately – Teresa says: “Speak with Him as with a Father, a Brother, a Lord and a Spouse—and sometimes in one way and sometimes in another” (Way, chap. 28, p. 184).
“If a person does not think Whom he is addressing, and what he is asking for, and who it is that is asking and of Whom he is asking it, I do not consider that he is praying at all even though he be constantly moving his lips.” ~ IC, mans. 4, chap. 1, p. 32; KR, no. 7, p. 286
“It follows logically enough that one vocal prayer, even so little as one petition of the Our Father, if well said, is better than many recited thoughtlessly or hurriedly” ~ Way, chap. 31, p. 209
(5) Meditate upon God’s works of creation & redemption
A serious prayer life normally begins humbly with small steps. John and Teresa consider meditative prayer upon God’s works of creation and redemption as the most important and indispensable way to begin preparing the soul for profound contemplative communion with the indwelling Trinity. We begin to pray in a human way and slowly are led by the Lord Himself into a divine way. Attempts to force the mind to be empty do more harm than good. We are not producing a neutral state of awareness; we are receiving light and love from God. We leave aside discursive reasoning when we notice the infused quiet from God. Extra tip: Profit from distractions during meditation by not being worried or fretting about it. Be optimistic. Be gentle with yourself – laugh it off, treat it as silly, and remain quiet.
(6) Leave all methods of prayer behind when God takes over.
When God begins to give this superior communion, leave behind all methods. With this in mind, Teresa notes that in this prayer of recollection it is not necessary to abandon meditation completely, for the infusion is not continual by any means. The saint advises the person here to be gentle and simple (utter a single word).
(7) Your sense life should spark prayer
Sense delights are beneficial only when they immediately raise one to God. God created our senses so that He can be more known and loved through them. Our sense life is properly oriented when it sparks prayer. Until we reach this degree of purification, we have to wage unrelenting war on our wayward pursuits of creation-centeredness.
(8) Prayer & detachment
We keep our thoughts constantly on the vanity of all things and fix them on eternity. As soon as we notice a fondness for even the smallest of created things we are to turn our thoughts from them to their Creator. There is a mutual causality between prayer & detachment – detachment furthers prayer and prayer furthers detachment. Growth in prayer gives us a realism about what is and what is not really important in life.
A sign of growth in inner freedom is the delight one begins to find in detachment ~ Way, chap. 13, p. 107; KR, no. 6, p. 87.
(9) Sanctify your work
Contemplation and action have a natural partnership. 1st basic principle: Fidelity to work does not hinder communion with God. Rather, the one furthers the other. Keep in mind though that this is not any of work but rather responses to charity and obedience.