In an attempt to fulfill my New Year’s resolution to improve my prayer life, I’ve returned to St. Teresa of Avila. She’s a wonderful guide to all things related to prayer. Despite her fearsome reputation and formidable intellect, she writes in very a approachable way, especially in her book The Way of Perfection, which she wrote at the request of the Carmelite sisters in the monastery of St. Joseph, who wanted St. Teresa to put down on paper “some things about prayer,” as she phrases it.
I’ve highlighted a number of passages throughout the book, but Chapter 27 particularly stood out because in it she dissects, phrase by phrase, the Lord’s Prayer. I think one reason this struck me was that several years ago in one of my classes we were assigned The Aquinas Catechism, in which St. Thomas Aquinas dedicates 50 pages to that same prayer (and, given who the author is, the treatise is surprisingly readable).
Reading Teresa and remembering Aquinas, I decided to compare the two saints’ take on the words that Jesus himself taught us to pray, and found that my understanding of that prayer was immeasurably deepened – for me, Aquinas teaches my head while Teresa speaks to my heart.
Both saints start by encouraging the reader to pray. In her homey style, Teresa tells us that if we follow her advice “your gain will be so great that even if I wanted to explain this to you I wouldn’t know how.”
Aquinas, being Aquinas, describes three benefits of prayer: it remedies evil, obtains that which we desire, and establishes friendship with God.
The stage set, Aquinas then outlines using points and subpoints the reasons we call God ‘Father’ and what we owe God as our Father. In point A number 3, Aquinas notes that “We call God Father because he has adopted us. For he endowed other creatures with trifling gifts, but to us he granted the inheritance, because (as the Apostle says) we are his sons ‘and if sons, heirs also. You have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons whereby we cry Abba (‘Father’).’” [Rom 8:17, 15]
Teresa, being Teresa, praises Jesus for making himself our brother, and by extension his father our father. Therefore, God “must bear with us no matter how serious the offenses. If we return to him like the prodigal son, he has to pardon us. He has to console us in our trials. He has to sustain us in the way a father like this must. For, in effect, he must be better than all the fathers in the world because in him everything must be faultless.”
Sitting with these two passages side by side, I see that both saints have the same message: God, through Jesus, has adopted us, and because we are his children we are worthy of inheritance and receiving the Father’s love.
It isn’t until Aquinas discusses the phrase “who are in heaven” that he gives instruction on how a person should prepare for prayer. Teresa, on the other hand, devoted previous chapters of The Way of Perfection to advice on this matter, such as considering “whom we are going to speak with, and who we are, so as to know how to speak to him.” Therefore, while examining the Lord’s Prayer, Teresa takes the opportunity to discuss how “the kingdom of God is within you,” although she doesn’t use that specific quote. Rather, she writes, “All one need do is go into solitude and look at him within oneself, and not turn away from so good a guest but with great humility speak to him as a father. …”
Aquinas, too, speaks of how near God is to us, quoting several Scripture passages, including 1 John 4:16 – “He that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him.”
Reading the two saints’ in-depth exploration of the Lord’s Prayer gave me a profound appreciation for that which Aquinas called “the most perfect of prayers.” Other saints as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church undertake similar analyses; perhaps I’ll make a project of comparing as many as I can find. It’ll be interesting to see the similarities and differences, and might even benefit me in other ways: when a novice asked St. Teresa how to become a contemplative, the Spanish mystic replied, “Say the Our Father, but take an hour to say it.”
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.