St. Teresa of Avila and Water - an article by Sr. Margaret Dorgan, DCM

First Published In:The Living Pulpit : Dedicated to the Art of the Sermon


Water in its purest form has no odor or taste and is wonderfully transparent. Of all the liquids on planet earth, it is the most abundant. It can solidify into ice and is present to us in differing quantities in the air we breathe. It is a dominant component in the physical bodies of animate creatures. St. Teresa of Avila, the 16 th century Carmelite nun who is one of Christianity’s foremost mystical writers, did not know the scientific analysis of water. But she recognized its importance in human living and decided to employ it as an image for prayer.

“I don’t find anything more appropriate to explain some spiritual experiences than water; and this is because I am so fond of this element that I have observed it more attentively than other things,” she wrote in her last major work The Interior Castle (IV, Ch 2:2). Why did she choose water? Partly because the nuns in her monasteries were 80 percent illiterate and she wanted to make sure they would understand what she was saying. Today we would consider Teresa’s own education very deficient, but in her time it was relatively advanced for a woman. Describing spiritual experience in terms of water to her nuns assured her they would readily grasp the teaching. Teresa so favored the example of water that she also used it when recording her personal prayer development for well-educated clergy in the earlier Book of Her Life.

Turning her pages, you see how she wants to approach her readers just where they are. She invites them to nod in agreement as she lays the foundation for her presentation based on their encounters with water. The busy Carmelite writes rapidly, not bothering to pause for capitals or periods. Her spiritual instructions, in the form we now have them, required male editors with more grammatical expertise than she possessed. They inserted the punctuation.

You May Draw Water From A Well

Beginners in prayer, she tells us, are “starting to cultivate a garden on very barren soil, full of weeds.” God helps us pull the weeds and God plants good seeds. We “must take pains to water them so they don’t wither but bud and flower.” Teresa has set the scene. “Let us see how the garden must be watered so that we may understand what we have to do,” she says. The watering is a joint effort by God and ourselves. The labor on our part is initially hard. “You may draw water from a well which is for us a lot of work.” She points out that later “you may get it by means of a water wheel and aqueducts by turning the crank of the water wheel. The method involves less work” ( Collected Works, The Book of Her Life , Ch 11).

But now beginners find themselves at a well with a bucket, like the Samaritan woman in Chapter 4 of John’s Gospel, a scene especially dear to Teresa. Those who are eager to deepen awareness of God in their lives take on a demanding task in drawing water for their interior garden. Hitherto they may have given most of their attention to worldly concerns. However a change has taken place in their motivation, and they want to occupy their minds with divine realities. Teresa calls this endeavor “recollection.” It is not a memory exercise. She means collecting our thoughts and reining in our desires. “Since these people are accustomed to being distracted, this recollection requires much effort,” she points out. (ibid) We have to take a bucket, go to the well, lower it, fill it with water, and use our muscles to lift it back up. Then we pour the water over our arid ground.

We are dealing here with prayer in a meditation format. Our mental processes are engaged in examining our life and where it is at this moment. We realize Jesus is calling us to deeper union with Himself. In order to focus upon the true meaning of existence, it is necessary to move our thoughts away from their too-great involvement with secular goals. The dry soil within us is lacking true growth. We need water . Getting it requires exertion. Going to the well with an empty bucket symbolizes withdrawal from the other concerns that until now have absorbed us.

First of all, we quiet ourselves and then water our consciousness with a mental flow of considerations relating to God. The process of working with the mind is for the sake of taking the heart to prayer. How do we do that? Assistance comes in many forms.

When we gather with others for a religious service, we come with a thirst for God. “The Lord said, ‘Bring the people together and I will give them water” (Num 21:16). We drink in the words of the preacher, hymns that arouse our feelings, the strengthening love of our fellow Christians. We enter into a sacramental awareness where everything speaks of Jesus. This is an especially fruitful time for praying. We are at a well which invites us to draw up its liquid, and we respond willingly.

Outside of church in the midst of daily demands, we take time to pause and find a prayer that refreshes us like “cold water to a thirsty soul” (Prv 25:25). Perhaps we recite lines from the psalms or other parts of scripture. We place ourselves in the presence of God and slowly recite the words, letting them sprinkle us drop by drop.

Tears As Another Form Of Water

We may reflect on where our desires have taken us and perhaps regret misspent time. With that regret, we ask for our Redeemer’s help. Teresa spoke of tears as another form of water. Sometimes these were tears that lamented her past failings. “Place a value, my Lord, upon these tears. Cleanse this water” ( Life , Ch 19:6).

I could choose to reflect on the incident of Jesus at the well of Sychar. I see the Samaritan woman coming with her empty bucket, walking alone, probably because she is scorned by her fellow villagers. How do I incorporate this scene? A method called “application of the senses” invites me to look at Jesus with the woman and observe how they interact. I listen to their dialog, smell the air, touch the solid rim of the well, and taste the water when it is drawn up.

I may prefer something less complex. I put myself in the person of the woman. Christ engages me in conversation. I speak to Him and ask Him to help me and to enter more fully into my existence. I am watering my interior garden.

Or I’m just an observer, watching the scene, seeing how God is waiting at the well for each of us. The Samaritan’s words, “Give me this water,” are my plea to Jesus. Then after the time of prayer, they sing like a refrain as the hours pass. “Give me this water.” I sip these words. The more often I do so, the more readily they moisten my lips.

Prayer in this meditation phase corresponds to what Teresa calls “the first water.” Our minds are at work, getting rid of worldly thoughts and putting in their place reflections about the eternal life Christ promises.

Our praying changes if we are earnest in its practice and try to make the ongoing hours more filled with consciousness of God. The divine presence becomes refreshing dew covering our dryness. Our trip to the well, signifying prayer in the meditation mode which uses many thoughts, gives way to something more simple.

I do not have to be so active mentally in seeking God. I look at Jesus at the well and I’m held there. It’s not necessary to bend over so far to pull up my bucket. Somehow God makes the water flow with a simple aspiration of mine that links me to Christ. “My God and my all.”

Centering Prayer

Now prayer has moved into a new simplified phase. What is called today “centering prayer” entails such a process. Other names applied to this development are “the prayer of simplicity,” “mindfulness,” “ the prayer of simple regard,” or the older monastic term “lectio divina,” which implies slow prayer-filled reading. We don’t activate the mind and imagination to the extent we did earlier. Focus on spiritual realities is more easily achieved as our hearts drink from the water. Prayer extends itself. Our eyes open to the image of God everywhere. This is an ongoing process, one that expands into contacts with nature, with people, and with our own physical being. Our dry appraisal of external things becomes moist with appreciation.

St. Teresa moves ahead to more advanced kinds of prayer and still links them to water, but water that is procured differently. “Let us speak now of the second way, ordained by the Lord of the garden, for getting water. By turning the crank of a water wheel and by aqueducts, the gardener obtains more water with less labor and can rest without having to work constantly.” What Teresa calls the second water is prayer in a more contemplative mode. “Here the water is higher, and so the labor is much less than that required in pulling it up from the well. I mean that the water is nearer to it because grace is more clearly manifest to the soul” ( Life , Ch 14). Less work is required to hold the attention. A kind of irrigation permeates the spirit with a continuing remembrance of God even apart from the times assigned to praying.

The Prayer Of Quiet

The second way of obtaining water opens us to the beginning of mystical experience which Teresa terms “the Prayer of Quiet.” But even if we are not brought into such mystic realms, the previous work involved in fetching water lessens. The bucket sometimes seems almost to fill up on its own. Being faithful to prayer each day, we establish a habit. Water is more easily available whenever our hearts reach for God.


  As we draw near the font of eternal life, another thirst rises within us. We see how much our brothers and sisters in the human family need this heavenly liquid. We long to bring them to the source of living and cleansing water that they may find refreshment and meaning in their lives. For Teresa, prayer never keeps us wrapped up in ourselves.

Infused Contemplation

She writes of a third water and a fourth water which deal with infused contemplation of a very high order. Some people reach the heights of holiness where prayer is watered from a river or spring and then in the final fourth stage by rain from heaven. Of such highly favored pray-ers, she writes, “Love is continually bubbling up in them. It cannot remain where it is, just as the spring-water seems unable to remain in the earth, but issues forth from it. Just so is it with the soul. It is already soaked in this water. It would want others to drink of its love so that they may help it to praise God” ( Life , Ch 30:19).

Teresa understands that Jesus issues a universal call, “Whoever thirsts, let that one come to me and drink” (Jn 7:37). We have heard the invitation and have drunk from Christ’s cup of salvation. We long to bring others to the banquet. We sense their dryness and see how they try to satisfy their basic human need with liquid that carries no real sustenance for their lives.

A line from Isaiah sounds in our ears. St. Teresa had no bible and if she had had one, it would have been in Latin, a language she did not understand. But undoubtedly she would have heard the preachers of her time proclaim this passage. At each word, we can see her smiling in wholehearted agreement. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water” (Is 55:1). Come. Do not delay.

    Sister Margaret Dorgan, DCM

(Quotations from St. Teresa are based primarily on translations of ICS Publications with some assistance from the translation of E. Allison Peers.)

Articles | contents