By Amanda Alexander
When she was nearly 40 years old, the great Spanish Mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, committed herself to a particular way of praying during the hours of her private prayer. She describes this momentous decision in The Book of Her Life: “Since I could not reflect discursively with the intellect, I strove to represent Christ within me, and it did me greater good – in my opinion – to represent Him in those scenes where I saw Him more alone” (9.4).
She later taught the nuns who joined the Discalced Carmelites to do the same. Her advice is recorded in The Way of Perfection: “Represent the Lord himself as close to you and behold how lovingly and humbly he is teaching you … I’m not asking you now that you think about him or that you draw out a lot of concepts or make long and subtle reflections with your intellect. I’m not asking you to do anything more than look at him” (26.1-3). The emphasis of this form of Teresian meditation falls in the attention we pay to Christ. What matters is not the act of imagining Christ, but rather remaining intentionally present to Christ in prayer without getting caught up in our own thoughts and reflections.
Those who have tried any type of meditation will immediately recognize just how demanding Teresa’s way of praying is. The most common complaint of those just beginning to practice meditation is that they cannot stop their mind from wandering. At first glance, it seems that using the imagination to picture Jesus would make praying easier. The challenge, however, is that the attention has to stay on Christ; the will has to remain focused on Christ. Teresa calls us to be present to Christ in prayer in a way that few of us are ever present to our family and friends: don’t think; don’t talk; just look and be fully present.
As it turns out, this kind of sustained focus, whether in prayer or in study, does remarkable things to our brains. The results from neuroscientific studies of those new to the practice of meditation, those with many years of experience, and even those who are studying to pass the infamously difficult London Taxicab exam are consistent. Focused study or meditation causes increases in the grey matter density of our brains.
It encourages unexpressed genes in our neurons to express themselves. It facilitates the creation of new connections between our neurons. It even increases the speed at which signals travel the length of a neuron and stimulates the growth of new neurons in the brain. Yes, by praying, we can grow new brain cells. By praying, we can unlock the God-given physical potential of our mind.
The fact that prayer, especially meditative forms of prayer, can change our brain for the better, makes sense. In the very first Psalm, we learn that those who meditate day and night on the law of the Lord are blessed. In the New Testament, St. Paul calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2). Given that we are body-soul composites, it seems obvious that, to renew our mind, our brains must change. And the way we are shown to do this, both in Scripture and our spiritual tradition, is to focus our attention in prayer on God, on God’s law, on God’s word in Scripture, or even, as Teresa did, on Jesus when he is most alone.
This Lent, why not take up Teresa’s advice: practice being present to Christ when he is most alone. Every day, try to remain present to him a little longer. When your mind wanders, bring it back to just looking at Jesus. Remember that, even if it feels like a waste of time, and like nothing is happening, God is working in and through you, transforming your brain, unlocking its potential, renewing your mind and expanding your soul.
Amanda Alexander is currently the Director of the Department of Ministry Formation Institute for the Diocese and a parishioner of St. Adelaide in Highland. She has a Ph.D. in systematic theology and has taught at numerous Catholic universities.