Smooth Transitions: Teresa of Avila’s Focus on Prayer

Teresa of Avila

By Thomas Palanza, Jr.

Have you ever heard about people who give birth to babies in bathtubs – on purpose?  What’s up with that?  The American Pregnancy Association describes water births as occurring in large tubs of warm water, carefully supervised by qualified healthcare providers.  “The theory behind water birth is that since the baby has already been in the amniotic fluid sac for nine months, birthing into a similar environment is gentler for the baby and less stressful for the mother.”  Well, that seems like a fair thought to me.  But I’ll leave it to my doctor friends to argue about the benefits and risks of water births; it was the idea of making the transition from one stage of life to another smoother, easier, more familiar that interested me.  For a theology student (or maybe just for me) the transition INTO the world almost always makes you think of the transition OUT of it as well.  Smooth births got me thinking about smooth deaths.

This is what I was thinking about during class the other day.  We were talking about The Way of Perfection by Teresa of Avila when, towards the end of class, our professor asked us, “So, why talk about prayer so much at all?  Why does it matter?  What is this discussion of prayer doing for the reader besides just learning how to pray?  What does learning how to pray serve?”  My answer (and that’s just the opinion of a casual Teresa reader) is that learning how to pray helps with the transition from one stage of life to another, from life through death to eternal life.

What are the implications of this?  This means that prayer life and eternal life are not so different.  Teresa is trying to teach us how to pray well with the ultimate goal of uniting our will with the will of God while still on earth.  But this is just what eternal life is like.  Whether you call it contemplation (Augustine), or the beatific vision (Aquinas), or the prayer of quiet (Teresa, Way of Perfection, Ch. 31) we humans are seeking to emulate, to somehow attain the eternal life we hope for with God in the here and now.  The prayer that Teresa is helping us learn is what she believes eternal life with God is like.  She thus is seeking to prepare us in this life to live with God in the next and make the transition from one to the other easier for us.

Yet, I suggest that we can go a step further than saying that learning to pray makes the transition “easier.”  It seems to me that there is good reason to say that unless one learn how to live the life of prayer now (at least somewhat), then one will not be able to live it in the future.  Let’s consider our initial image again, water births.  Imagine babies that could talk – what would they say at birth?  I imagine they would complain, “It sucks out here.  I have to eat?  I have to poop?  It’s cold, noisy, and Aunt Ida smells like moth balls when she holds me.  I don’t like this, I want to go back.”  Something like that, right?  Now imagine that those babies are us and the transition we face is death.  But instead having no choice about our fate, this time we do get to make one very basic choice once we die: to live with God or not to live with God.  What are we going to choose?  If we find ourselves faced with a life we are unfamiliar with, that is foreign to us, then are we going to choose it?  If we are not used to being with God now, are we going to choose to be with God in the future?  Or will we complain and choose a different way?