How to Pray Like a Mystic in College

I’m sure that everyone reading this article wants to be better at prayer. Maybe you’ve heard stories of saints who had “mystical experiences,” and you think, “That’s probably not for me, at least not right now”.

Mystical graces, like those experienced by great saints, always originate in God. They are pure gifts of supernatural grace. This means that we can’t force God to give us these graces. But does this mean that only a few are called to be mystics? Not at all!

Take this quote from St. Teresa of Ávila, the sixteenth-century Carmelite mystic and Doctor of the Church:

Behold, the Lord invites all. Since He is truth itself, there is no reason to doubt. If this invitation were not a general one, the Lord wouldn’t have called us all. … I hold as certain that all those who do not falter on the way will drink this living water. May the Lord, because of who He is, give us the grace to seek this living water as it should be sought, for He promises it. (Way of Perfection 19.15)

St. Teresa is a great example for us, because she wasn’t born a mystic. She spent 20 years in a monastery as a rather mediocre nun before she even began to pray consistently. Even when she began to pray consistently, it was many years before she began to experience extraordinary graces.

However, Teresa tells us quite frequently that prayer really isn’t about extraordinary experiences like visions and ecstasies. For her, prayer is “nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.” (Life 8.5).

This is what praying like a mystic is all about. If it’s nothing else than having a deep friendship with Jesus, then a lot of what I’m going to share with you is pretty intuitive based on the friendships you’ve had in your life so far. In fact, because college is a time when we establish deep and meaningful friendships that will last our entire lifetime, now is the perfect time to begin praying like a mystic. Here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Prayer Is Relational and Down to Earth

St. Teresa is such a great spiritual guide because, even though she was a great mystic and experienced extraordinary graces, she always kept her spiritual guidance down-to-earth. Her focus in prayer was centered on the humanity of Christ. This means that when she prayed, she spoke to a human being in the Incarnation of Jesus.

She often found that the Gospels were helpful in keeping her centered upon Jesus’s humanity. She loved to read the passage of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). In the Gospels, Jesus walks the earth and speaks as a real human person. When we pray, this same real human person is with us. It’s only natural that we should be talking to this real human person like a real human person. This is ultimately what focusing on the Humanity of Christ is about. Through our ability to imagine, we have the capacity to do this.

Teresa found it helpful at times to pray with an image of Jesus to give her imagination something to work with. This is especially helpful when prayer is dry or distracted. By praying with an image of our Lord, we’re a little more intentional about making this time spent with a real person. It just so happens that this real person is also the Second Person of the Trinity and the King of the Universe. But don’t let that overwhelm or deter you. He is also your brother! Teresa writes to us: “Speak with Him as with a father, or a brother, or a lord, or as with a spouse; sometimes in one way, at other times in another; He will teach you what you must do in order to please Him” (Way of Perfection 28.3).

Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1899)

Don’t forget, too, that sometimes the best times spent with a friend are rather silent. A few years back, one of my closest friends was helping me move from Austin, Texas, to New York. Sure, we had a lot to talk about for the first three hours of our trip; but by the time we got through Dallas, the car was pretty quiet. And yet, we were both perfectly comfortable with the silence. Sometimes nothing needs to be said, and yet the relationship is growing. Being comfortable with silence is a sign of mutual trust. The relationship is strong enough that there is no more awkwardness with not being able to constantly keep a conversation going. This is the type of trust we should strive for in prayer — that even when we’re not saying anything to Jesus, we’re still perfectly content with sitting in his presence.

2. Make Time and Show Up (And Bring Your Friends!)

This is the most fundamental part of growing in prayer. You have to set aside time for prayer, and then you have to show up for the time you’ve set aside. Setting time aside is actually pretty easy. Let’s say a friend calls you and says, “Hey, let’s get lunch together on Friday.” You think to yourself, “Yeah, let’s do that.” Easy. You have to eat lunch on Friday anyway, so you might as well do it with a friend. You’ve just set aside time for that friendship. Friday rolls around and you were up late the night before. Let’s say you were “studying” and taking your regular 42-minute study breaks on Netflix. It’s a quarter to noon on Friday and your friend texts you, but you’re still in bed.

“Hey, we still on for lunch?”

“. . . “

We don’t grow in our relationships simply by making plans. We also have to show up and make choices that will allow us to show up.

In our friendship with Jesus, we have a tendency to treat him pretty badly. He’s always with us, right? So, he’ll be there when I have time. That’s a pretty toxic way to treat a friend. In her early life as a nun, St. Teresa really struggled with this showing-up part. She felt so guilty about repeatedly flaking out on Jesus that she eventually gave up on prayer altogether.

Remember what I said about how silence feels natural when accompanied by trust? Well, when we break that trust through sin and avoiding God, silence becomes excruciating. We no longer feel comfortable, because an awkwardness has entered into our relationship through a breach in trust. Fortunately, Jesus is a much better friend that we tend to be; and he waits for us and is always ready to repair the trust in our relationship when we return to him in faith and love.

If you want to get better about this showing-up part, Teresa has a practical solution. In the Discalced Carmelite monasteries all over the world, founded under the wisdom of our founders St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, friars and nuns pray their holy hours together in the chapel. St. Teresa insisted on this. Praying in common, with a community of fellow friends of our Lord, we support one another and hold each other accountable when showing up gets tough.

Adoration in a Church

The best way to get better at showing up is to have a community of people who show up together. When prayer becomes dry or distracted, we can take consolation in the fact that, by being present, I am also supporting the relationship that my earthly friends have with Jesus. There’s no doubt, too, that by praying together, you will form holier and more intentional relationships with your friends.

3. Remember That You Are a Work in Progress

So, you’ve made time for prayer and you are regularly showing up. Pretty soon one of two things happens: Either you get discouraged with your lack of progress, or you become complacent with your predominant faults and vices.

How does the mystic break this barrier? Simply by remembering that he or she is a work in progress. This means that, given our cooperation with his grace (and no complacency is allowed when it comes to grace), God will accomplish in us what he has begun in our Baptism. The mystics are especially good at keeping this eternal perspective on their lives. One way the saints did this is by writing down their story.

St. Teresa of Ávila by Peter Paul Rubens (1615)
St. Teresa of Ávila by Peter Paul Rubens (1615)

Many mystics write the story of how God profoundly rescued them from a trajectory of sin and death. St. Teresa wrote The Book of Her Life, explaining how God redirected her life as a mediocre nun into the founder of a religious order. St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote her Story of a Soul for her sisters, exclaiming how God’s merciful love permeated throughout her life. St. Edith Stein wrote Life in a Jewish Family to demonstrate how God sometimes interrupts our perfectly good plans for ourselves in order to draw us closer to him.

All these examples — and there are hundreds more — were more than just examples of a saint witnessing to God’s glory and mercy. Most of these saints during their lifetimes would have been horrified to see these autobiographies published by the hundreds of thousands. They weren’t showing off their holiness; they were trying to grapple with what God had done in their lives and where he was leading them next.

So, what’s your story? How has God intervened in your life? By recalling your story up until now, you can gain a better understanding of where God wants you to go next. This is an excellent thing to talk to Jesus about in prayer. God can seem supremely unpredictable. But in hindsight, the stories of his redirection and reorientation in our lives all foreshadow what he has planned for us — eternal life.

Your story is still being written; it’s in the first few chapters. God is the Author of this story, and just like you, the story is a work in progress. When you get discouraged by your lack of progress or become complacent in your stagnation, it’s helpful to remember that you need to work with the Author. Sometimes he wants to take what you think is your next chapter and place it later in your story. Don’t be afraid if your story takes an unexpected detour. Like the literary authors of our favorite stories, this divine Author will both surprise and delight you.

Fr. Pier Giorgio Pacelli, OCD
Fr. Pier Giorgio (Pacelli) of Christ the King, OCD, is a Discalced Carmelite Friar and managing editor of the Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications. He grew up in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York and graduated from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. In college, he was president and rush chair of his fraternity until Jesus dramatically changed his life. He currently studies Language, Literature, and Translation at UW-Milwaukee, and keeps careful track of how many days until FOCUS Summer Projects, where he serves as a chaplain.

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