“For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned towards heaven; it is a cry of recognition and love; embracing both trial and joy.” – Saint Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul
Therese’s quote offers a truly profound insight into prayer.
At the same time however, it also raises interesting questions such as ‘where is the mind in this description?’ When Saint Therese prays, it seems that there are no texts or words going on at all. Is the mind silent? Is the mind of no regard?
Interestingly, Therese’s autobiography, Story of a Soul, is an extended reflection on her relationships, especially her relationship with God. What’s more, her mentor, Saint Teresa of Avila, puts a lot of emphasis on reflection as an important part of prayer. Why then doesn’t this figure in Therese’s description of prayer?
To answer this question we need to consider her interest in the role of emotions in prayer. All the aspects of prayer that Therese mentions, “surge of the heart” or “a simple look towards heaven” or “embrace of trial or joy” are emotional responses. Our emotions are always reactions to what is happening to us at the moment. If someone compliments you, you are glad. If someone criticizes you, you are hurt. If someone threatens you, you are afraid. If someone bothers you, you are angry etc. So just what is Therese reacting to in this emotion-filled description of prayer?
Simply put, she is reacting to God. Yet, God is not mentioned in her description at all though one might say that God is implied when Therese mentions “heaven” and “love.” Another observation is that, the word ‘God’ is used less and less the more and more any true mystic gets closer to God. This is because the closer we are to God the more we realize that the ideas we had about God were wrong. So the mystics start to substitute other words for the word ‘God.’ For example, Saint Teresa of Avila talks about the ‘Great King’ and ‘Beloved’ or Saint John of the Cross will talk about the ‘Beloved’ and will go so far as to say God is nothing (nada). Without explicitly saying so, Saint Therese is saying the same thing.
Ultimately, Therese recognizes that God is in everything, so everything leads us to prayer. That’s easy to say when everything is going smoothly and well, but what about when things are rough? Saint Therese reminds us that we can still pray then, because real prayer “embraces both trial and joy.”
And so we arrive back at the original question: “Just what is Therese reacting to?” She is simply reacting to a deeper Therese! It is not enough to know that God loves us; we’ve got to feel that God loves us. Feelings are deeper than knowings – much deeper. The heart is much deeper than the head. And Saint Teresa of Avila tells us that ‘the Great King’ (aka, God) is found in the center of one’s heart. That’s what Therese’s description of prayer is telling us, and that is why it is truly amazing; this description comes straight from the center of her heart.