St. Teresa’s Garden Metaphor For Prayer

Nov 14, 2016

Years ago as I was still struggling to understand and to let go the hell-fire-and-damnation god of my childhood, I was led to read a number of the writings of the saints of the church from Julian of Norwich to John of the Cross to Catherine of Siena, but my real favorite was Teresa of Avila. The one passage I remembered for years from her autobiography was a garden metaphor for the prayer life. It sustained my journey with God for years, because it laid it all out for me in terms I could understand.

At first, it is very hard work. In the first stage you have to draw the water up from the bottom of the well and then carry it to each plant. It is exhausting and beyond belief how hard it is to get your mind to focus on God, to take your attention off the allure of the world and to put it on God. That’s the first stage.

In the second stage, you still have to draw the water up from the well, but you have fashioned a sluice or series of sluices to carry the water from the well to the plants. This is an easier, but still labor-filled stage. The world is holding somewhat less appeal for you, so to gather yourself before God is easier.

In the third stage a river runs through the garden and waters the garden. Now we don’t have to do anything; our prayer life is sustained by the river flowing from God.

And in the fourth stage the rains come as needed. No effort is required at all. The Source of the rains carries our prayer life.

The most difficult thing we will face in our lives with God will be to listen to the Indwelling Spirit of God and to forge a relationship which on the front end will cost us a lot of effort, but which progresses to no effort at all. That first step is so hard. To be still before God, we have to listen to our own thoughts and not run away from them. For this is the way of the world that we were taught: Do whatever you have to do to ignore your thoughts—even addicting oneself to drugs, alcohol, to video games, to having your nose in a book, to shopping and accumulating more stuff, to whatever in your life saves you from the influence of the repetitive, negative tapes in our minds and whatever suffering we have experienced. That is the world’s wisdom.

But God is asking us to listen to him, to his “still, small voice,” so that we might grow in our relationship with him and be less and less committed to the world’s ways. To do that we have to take away the power that our own thoughts have over us. We have learn to live with these thoughts, but removed from their influence over us, because they easily drown out God’s own Indwelling Spirit within each of us.

This is the process of conversion that God invites us into. As we step back from our ways of thinking, we become observers of our thoughts, not in any way beholden to them. If we’re having fearful thoughts, we just observe the fear but not become afraid. We might seek to understand the origin of the thoughts which come from our childhood and how we try to make up for what we perceived to be our weaknesses. For me, the pressure to be on time if not early for any appointment or event comes from my parents. I can be 10 minutes early and still anxious about getting someplace on time. A wasted emotional reaction.  Or the imperative of not spending anything extra comes from my parents as well as my Aunt Grace, all survivors of the Great Depression. Or the general demand to make sure people like me, that I give up who I am to meet their needs—that’s the general message women who were raised in the 40’s received.

It is important to understand the source of the negative tapes which were encapsulated in us in our childhood, so that we can step back from their ability to drive our behavior today. So that we can evaluate what action would be appropriate today, given that we’re years past the time when we need to make up for our childhood imperatives. As we step back from the influence of these old though patterns, the quieter voice of God and our soul can be heard. We can sit in stillness before God and hear what he is saying to each of us.

He wants us to come home to his arms. He awaits our arrival with bated breath, with celebration in his heart, with only love and forgiveness. It is enough for him if we will come back to our own true home with him. This is the message of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.

And what do we get in return? We get to relax, to allow our old negativity that took up residence in us in our childhoods, that toxic view of ourselves, to fade away. In place of the toxicity and negative attitudes towards ourselves, we learn how to view ourselves with love. We no longer carry the burden of giving up ourselves to placate the world’s view of us. We can give up all areas of guilt and shame. And God can transform them. We are free to just accept ourselves as we are, to rest in God’s arms, to follow his prescriptions for how we are to live and what purpose we are to fulfill. We are to come home not only to God himself, but to ourselves, the deeper, truer selves that God created us to be.

So when we are able to be still, not bothered by what is circling in our minds, then we can begin to hear God’s voice, to begin to be in communion with him. And we live in an expanded view of prayer, a prayer that is wordless, that allows him to pray within us, to bring forward our longing for our own true home. Being more attached to God than to the world highlights that gentle whisper and attaches great importance to what we hear from him. And as we listen to that “still, small voice”[I Kings 19], as we are quiet within ourselves, we will feel his presence in our lives, we will heed his direction for us and find that every single suggestion he makes is self-affirming of us, that is, of our deeper selves, not of the false self or ego.

The first and second levels of prayer in Teresa’s metaphor have to do with the hard work of stilling the mind so that we can hear God speak to us. And as we build a body of experience of God’s presence in following that voice, we learn to trust God in all things, not just in the superficial. We begin to depend on his intervening in our lives to heal the suffering that we have endured, to set right what is happening so that we can conform to his wishes, to ease the way for us to our own true agenda, which he set in us at our birth. We are still petitioning God for own growth and for others’ needs. But those prayers are a very small part of the time we spend in his presence. Mostly, prayer is just wordless communion and an ongoing dialogue.

With enough experience of the hard work of the early levels of the prayer life in God, we move into the levels where God is making things happen in us without any effort on our part. The river runs through the garden, the healing touch of water flows through us illuminating and then ridding us of the obstacles within. And then the rains come unbidden, again to wash and cleanse and conform us to the Lord’s ways and to grow us as we are meant to be from the beginning.



Questions to ponder over the week: What is the view of myself that I formed in my childhood which I hold onto to this day? What would I need to do to accept all that I am, all that I have done and all that I was created to do? Can I accept what is about me and still be present to the Indwelling Spirit of God? Will I listen to him, heed what he says and follow through?


Blessing for the week: May we be the people of God who are willing to do the hard work of the early stages of our prayer life, to quell our minds and hearts and to listen to God. May we do what he is suggesting to us. May we walk in his ways forever.



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