I remember a faithful, prayerful person telling me that late in her life she had realised that whenever she began to pray, in her imagination she saw the garden of her childhood home. The beautiful image had long been so familiar as to be hidden, as it were, by the absence of any other experience against which to assess what was normative.
This has precedents. In Scripture, the vineyard is often the preferred image of encounter with the people of Israel. The garden is the place of encounter with individual souls: Adam and Eve, or Mary Magdalene. Perhaps Gethsemane was a favourite place for Jesus to encounter his Father in prayer. We are all in the garden when praying, but the garden is also within us. Scripture calls the human heart a “hortus conclusus”. “You are a garden enclosed, my sister, my spouse,” sings the lover in the Song of Songs. It is a powerful image for the unique identity of every human heart made in the image of God, and its capacity for intimacy. The deepest recesses of this sacred, fragrant place are meant only to be a dwelling place for God and for spousal love whose entry is by consent and consecration. Access to any part of the enclosure belongs only to those who honour the place.
For St Teresa of Ávila, whose feast day falls on October 15, all prayer takes place in a garden. Or rather, she compares the task of prayer with that of a gardener whose job it is to care for and water a beautiful garden planted by a great king. This image does justice to the truth that prayer is already itself a response to what God has done for me.
Prayer is caring for the garden and so I have first to draw from a well. This image emphasises that prayer is the response to graces already given. St Teresa says that it is especially important to remember this truth when prayer is difficult. For there are times, she says, when the well will run dry. These are the times when my enthusiasm for prayer is waning because I am disappointed by my emotional experience of prayer and lack what her contemporary, St Ignatius of Loyola, would call “sensible consolations”.
This praying without feeling God’s presence may last any length of time. On speculating why God allows it, St Teresa says that perhaps it is to make time to search for what we can do ourselves; that is, redouble our commitment and perseverance to the gardening.
One touching way she suggests we can cope is by watering the garden with our tears. I think she means tears of compunction, because she also urges us to stand to our task by an attitude of devotion and tenderness towards the God who seems far away. It’s like being the king’s gardener and consoling oneself with the thought of what a privilege it is to be allowed to spend one’s working life there and to resolve to carry on doing one’s duty, even though your Lord hasn’t been seen there for some while. He, God, will preserve the flowers, even without water, St Teresa assures us, so that we need not fear that our efforts hitherto have been in vain.
We must be full of faith that if God doesn’t give us consolations it’s because they are not what we need at the moment. Her advice is wholly practical: check for a physical, bodily affliction affecting our prayer life. Go for a good walk or do some spiritual reading instead of trying to force our prayer. Above all, don’t fuss. Begin again, she says, and crucially don’t be afraid of the Cross.