I am finally going to undertake the task of writing about St. Teresa of Avila's uses of doves as metaphors in her writing about prayer, as I said last week. I do so with some fear, because it is not possible to write about her use of metaphors without also writing about her explanations of the experience of prayer. I hope that this attention to one of her figures of speech may be helpful to a few people.
For anyone who wants to buy a copy of the writings of St. Teresa of Avila in English translation, I will recommend the translations published by ICS Publications. In this series of posts, I am using a different translation that is in the public domain to avoid having to ask any of the friars to look at it or to figure out how much to charge me for the use of lengthy quotes. The dovecot picture shows the dovecot from the Lost Gardens of Heligan, from Wikipedia.
St. Teresa's Dovecot Image:
One of St. Teresa's earliest uses of a dove as a metaphor is also one of her most unusual ones. Here, she uses doves to explain the faculties of will, intellect, and memory and the prayer of quiet.
Here is the dovecot story, from The Life, Chapter 14, shown in context with the dove reference in boldface:
This is a gathering together of the faculties of the soul within itself, in order that it may have the fruition of that contentment in greater sweetness; but the faculties are not lost, neither are they asleep: the will alone is occupied in such a way that, without knowing how it has become a captive, it gives a simple consent to become the prisoner of God; for it knows well what is to be the captive of Him it loves. O my Jesus and my Lord, how pressing now is Thy love! It binds our love in bonds so straitly, that it is not in its power at this moment to love anything else but Thee.
The other two faculties help the will, that it may render itself capable of the fruition of so great a good; nevertheless, it occasionally happens, even when the will is in union, that they hinder it very much: but then it should never heed them at all, simply abiding in its fruition and quiet. For if it tried to make them recollected, it would miss its way together with them, because they are at this time like doves which are not satisfied with the food the master of the dovecot gives them without any labouring for it on their part, and which go forth in quest of it elsewhere, and so hardly find it that they come back. And so the memory and the understanding come and go, seeking whether the will is going to give them that into the fruition of which it has entered itself.
If it be our Lord's pleasure to throw them any food, they stop; if not, they go again to seek it. They must be thinking that they are of some service to the will; and now and then the memory or the imagination, seeking to represent to it that of which it has the fruition, does it harm. The will, therefore, should be careful to deal with them as I shall explain.
Much of her explanation is in the following chapter, which is Chapter 15.
First of all, it may be useful to say something about what a "dovecot" is, and about what one would have meant when she was writing. There is a page with some pictures in Wikipedia. A "dovecot" is a building, or part of a building, or a birdhouse, for pigeons or doves, which historically were kept for food. In medieval Europe, according to the Wikipedia page, it was a status symbol to have a dovecot. Medieval manors had them. Each pigeon hole ("boulin") is built for one pair of birds. Some dovecots were built with 2000 or more boulins, while others were much smaller, like the one shown here from the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall.
St. Teresa's description of a dovecot appears in the course of her descriptions of a garden to illustrate different forms of prayer. The dovecot that she had in mind might have been a small dovecot in a garden or a much larger one on a castle or manor house nearby.
Here, she is writing of the second stage of prayer in The Life, in which the pray-er begins to recollect the faculties, and only the will is active. However, that is an easier thing to say than to do, as anyone who has tried to avoid distraction in prayer can well attest! The memory is constantly stirring up thoughts of one thing or another that is going on in our lives, and the intellect is constantly finding something to analyze or an idea to further explore. In St. Teresa's illustration, the memory and will are like two doves that go off in search of food (for thought), so that if we follow them, we will be constantly distracted in our efforts at the prayer of quiet.
Yet, she sees, the will cannot fully control them. When the memory and intellect do not help the will in recollection, she wrote, "they hinder it very much: but then it should never heed them at all, simply abiding in its fruition and quiet." But rather than trying to force the intellect and memory to be silent by force of will while we pray, St. Teresa says, "if it [the will] tried to make them [the memory and intellect] recollected, it would miss its way together with them."
Recollection, she explains, is not something the will can readily impose on our minds. In its complete state, recollection is a gift from God. However, in these chapters 14 and 15, St. Teresa is writing about a state of prayer that everyone can reach. The level of recollection that she has in mind here is not an advanced state of prayer, but merely the level of silent prayer that anyone can learn.
I might do well to provide a more contemporary definition of "recollection." The Anglican expert in mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, wrote, in Practical Mysticism, "Recollection . . . is in essence no more and no less than the subjection of the attention to the control of the will. It is not, therefore, a purely mystical activity. In one form or another it is demanded of all who would get control of their own mental processes; and does or should represent the first great step in the education of the human consciousness." Yet, unless people are moved toward recollection by a passion for something they do, people "seldom learn the secret of a voluntary concentration of the mind."
Two Illustrations of Recollection:
I have thought I might add to what St. Teresa wrote a couple of additional illustrations that I think might help to explain recollection by will and recollection as a gift from God. The two illustrations that I will offer are about a whitewater rafter and a commercial airline pilot.
When I was younger, I sometimes found whitewater rafting to be one of the most relaxing of week-ends because it took my mind completely off of whatever was occupying my mind at the office. It did not depend on my will to do so. Rather, there is nothing like a level IV rapid to completely engross one's attention! When I returned to work the following Monday morning, I would feel as if I had been gone for a week, because my memory and intellect did not spend the week-end thinking about this or that problem to be solved at work. No one in whitewater is analyzing the hydrology, except to the extent entailed in actually navigating around a rock or avoiding a hole. No one's mind is wandering to the quart of milk they need to pick up on the way home. Everyone's intellect and memory are cooperating with the will to get through the challenge of the rapids without falling out of the raft!
In the case of rafting, it is the river that draws our attention to one point and holds it there. It comes from outside of ourselves, and not from the pure force of will. In prayer, it is God Himself whose spark of love draws our attention to Himself and holds it there. It is then a gift, and not an act of will.
Yet there is a way of quieting our minds, and a way of at least ignoring the "doves" of intellect and memory when they continue to run here and there, that will allow us to pray better at any time.
We cannot wait for such perfect recollection to happen before we begin to pray. So I offer, as another illustration, an airline pilot who may be completely engrossed in what he is doing -- recollected -- at times while flying the plane. He has surely developed skills of concentration over the years that will enable him to pay attention to his instruments while preparing for take-off, despite the noise of the jet engines and whatever sounds from the passenger cabin that reach the flight deck. However, if the captain did not want to take off until he was fully engrossed in his flying, he would never get the plane off the ground!
We have to be able to pray despite the distractions posed by intellect and memory. We cannot choose to do nothing until God draws us into perfect recollection, on the one hand; nor can we let memory and intellect draw us off into one tangential thought after another, on the other hand.
Using bees as another metaphor for the mind when it is drawn toward one tangential thought after another, St. Teresa says, "if no bees entered the hive, and each of them wandered abroad in search of the rest, the honey would hardly be made."
The Meaning of the Dovecot Example of Recollection:
We have to be able to pray despite the distractions offered by memory and intellect. That is the lesson of the will that carries on in prayer while the two doves of intellect and memory fly off in search of food other than that given by the Master.
The "food" that the Master gives in the dovecot is what God may say to us in prayer. To hear what God has to say, we have to listen, and we have to wait silently. Eli told Samuel to answer, if he heard God call him, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." (I Samuel 3:9) "Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for Him." (Ps. 37:7). We can make use of our will to be silent in prayer and to listen and wait for God. When God has something to say to us, or some sense of his presence or other grace in prayer, that is the "food" that the Master gives the doves at the dovecot in prayer.
The Master's food is not there on our command; the master feeds the doves in a dovecot on the master's schedule and not on the doves' request. The memory and the will then, in Teresa's example, will stop flying to and fro if the Master feeds them. If not, they will go and seek again for some "food" outside of the dovecot. That "food" is the thoughts that keep popping up in our minds unwanted in prayer. They may be analytical thoughts, even theological thoughts, but if they are drawing our minds away from the personal encounter with God himself, we need to learn to ignore them and to go on with prayer.
That is where the will comes in. Although the memory and intellect continue to function, the will brings them back to recollection a little at a time. Although not totally absorbed in God at this early stage of the prayer of quiet, the will is occupied enough in prayer that it can choose to avoid being drawn off course by the thoughts suggested by the memory and intellect.
Steps toward Recollection by the Will:
Here are some basic concepts based on Chapter 15 of The Life:
1. Once you go beyond vocal prayer and you want to begin contemplation, stop actively looking for words of confession and thanksgiving. St. Teresa says, "What the soul has to do at those seasons wherein it is raised to the prayer of quiet is nothing more than to be gentle and without noise. By noise, I mean going about with the understanding in search of words and reflections whereby to give God thanks for this grace, and heaping up its sins and imperfections together to show that it does not deserve it." Our efforts to use words involve the memory and intellect, so we need to stop looking for words.
That does not mean that anyone should stop confession and thanksgiving as part of their prayer life. Silent prayer, including the "prayer of quiet" discussed here, is never meant to become the entirety of anyone's prayer life. It is always done in addition to the basics, and not instead of them. There is time for morning and evening prayer, time for Mass, time for meditation on Scripture, time for pouring out my heart to God in petitions, and time for silent prayer. The advice to stop looking for words of confession and thanksgiving only pertains to the time for silent prayer.
2. Don't try to force God's gift of complete recollection by an act of the will. St. Teresa wrote, "Let the will quietly and wisely understand that it is not by dint of labour on our part that we can converse to any good purpose with God, and that our own efforts are only great logs of wood, laid on without discretion to quench this little spark; and let it confess this, and in humility say, O Lord, what can I do here?"
In a similar vein, Abbot Joseph Chapman taught people to accept the prayer God gives them, and not to try to force themselves into feelings of any kind (letter XII); stop trying to do the impossible, and take the kind of prayer that is possible for you (letter XXII); "I must wish for exactly the state God wishes me to be in, whether it means distractions, or discouragements, or sleepiness, or merely emptiness" (letter LXXIII). Abbot John Chapman, Spiritual Letters.
3. Although the memory and intellect may offer thoughts, don't run after them. Remember what St. Teresa said about the bees that would never get their honey made if they kept chasing after the other bees. It is possible to remain quiet on one level while the intellect and memory wander on another.
From my own experience, I would add that we become conscious of a memory only when it is already in progress, and conscious of an idea when it has already begun to form. The person who is trying to completely control these thoughts is really trying to control the past, retroactively, because the thoughts are already there when we first become conscious enough of them to begin to exercise the will. But we can stop ourselves from running after them when we do become aware that they have led us off course.
There are no lockable barn doors on dovecots. The doves will fly in and out, regardless of what is done to keep them there. And once the dove is soaring over the Grand Canyon, it serves no purpose to wish it had remained in the dovecot. But you don't have to follow it there. Instead, go back to the Master and continue to wait in silence for the food He will bring.
4. Occupy your mind with wordless thoughts such as caring for souls in purgatory, and with simple thoughts of love for God, to draw the mind away from analytical thoughts. St. Teresa wrote, "Let the will stir up some of those reasons, which proceed from reason itself, to quicken its love, such as the fact of its being in a better state, and let it make certain acts of love, as what it will do for Him to whom it owes so much,—and that, as I said just now, without any noise of the understanding, in the search after profound reflections."
5. Separate times for prayer and times for study. St. Teresa wrote, "And though learning could not fail to be of great use to them, both before and after prayer, still, in the very time of prayer itself, there is little necessity for it . . . ." And, "So, then, when the soul is in the prayer of quiet, let it repose in its rest—let learning be put on one side. The time will come when they may make use of it in the service of our Lord—when they that possess it will appreciate it so highly as to be glad that they had not neglected it even for all the treasures of the world, simply because it enables them to serve His Majesty; for it is a great help."
The analytical interest that occurs to us in prayer can be set aside for later analysis. A contemplative can be an intellectual, as was the case for St. Edith Stein, but it is necessary to try to keep each in its place. That won't work entirely, as a contemplative will sometimes wonder into prayer when she is supposed to be doing her homework, or start thinking about her homework when she is trying to pray. But when she becomes aware of it, it is the task of the will to set it aside for later and pay attention to the task at hand, keeping each in its own time. And thoughts of work to be done later can pass without destroying the quiet awareness of God's presence if we don't chase after them.
A practical suggestion I learned long ago was to keep a notepad in the place where I usually pray. If a thought comes to mind in prayer that really must be dealt with later, it can be quickly written down and set aside for later. Once written down, the thought may go away.
St. Teresa concludes her discussion of this level of prayer by saying that this prayer of quiet "is the beginning of all good; the flowers have so thriven, that they are on the point of budding."
This image of the doves and the dovecot is St. Teresa's key metaphoric use of doves in The Life. Elsewhere, she describes seeing doves in visions in The Life and The Relations. I will probably write about those last, after writing about her other metaphoric uses of the dove image in Interior Castle. It is Interior Castle's use -- the journey of the dove -- that I think may have been influence by John Cassian, as I mentioned last week. In writing about that, there will be more to say about the stages of prayer as seen in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila.
For more on dealing with distractions during silent prayer, see Silent Prayer in a Not-So-Silent Church.