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Along the Journey  |  

Praying with Teresa of Avila

In my home, as in so many others, Wordle has taken hold. Each day we wonder what today’s 5-letter surprise will be.

As I sit down to write this reflection, still constantly counting to 5, I see a word for tomorrow, indeed, for every day – GRACE.


I have long been fascinated by ways people express in words experiences of grace – words that wonder over the timing of an encounter, words exploring an invitation that is rising within, words received as God’s gift for this moment, words that seek to communicate the unseen but deeply felt work of the Spirit.


Words reach for something that is beyond.

Mystics through the ages have written about such experiences.

Their writings, like our wonderings, leave a record of the many ways God meets us within the contours of ordinary experience and ways the faithful have tried to communicate the power of these encounters.

There is a striking consonance in the language and images they use to articulate experiences of grace.


Cognitive linguists offer tools and methods for studying these accounts (as well as our everyday language) and give us a glimpse behind the scenes in our minds at how they, and we, think about these experiences, reason from them, and ultimately take action.

Pioneered in the 1970s and 80s by linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson and developed in the decades since by an international team of scholars, conceptual metaphor theory holds that “metaphor is a matter of thought, not merely language.”

We understand one thing in terms of another, usually a more abstract idea in terms of a more concrete one. The process is so fluid and automatic that we may not recognize it for what it is.


Have you ever heard yourself saying you “felt moved” by something? This is metaphorical language.

Concepts of feeling moved by something outside yourself or feeling drawn to something come from the more basic experience in early childhood of being physically moved from one place to another, picked up, put down, pushed, carried, and so on.

Most complex realities – life, death, time, causation – are understood through metaphor, often more than one metaphor at a time.

Different metaphors foreground different dimensions of what a person is communicating.

Life is a Journey.

Difficulties are Burdens.

Change is Movement from one location to another.

Grace is a gift.

Metaphor, thus, is how we think. Perception is embodied.

Prayer, too, is embodied. It seems fitting, then, to seek in image and metaphor invitations to contemplation.


Sixteenth-century Carmelite mystic and reformer Teresa of Avila will be the focus of a seminar offered this fall through the Center for Lifelong Learning. In the year 1577 in Spain, Teresa’s religious superior directed her to write a book about her experiences in prayer.  Over a span of six months – only two of them devoted to writing – Teresa completed her spiritual and theological masterpiece, The Interior Castle.  She drew on her own profound, mystical experiences in order to guide her Carmelite sisters.  Her reflections represent the culmination of her teachings on prayer. Teresa makes space for readers to enter the castle as well.

Exploration of conceptual metaphor ushers us into the realm of mystery as we probe unconscious patterns of reasoning and consider the implications that flow from them.

The seminar will introduce the basics of conceptual metaphor theory and explore the significance of Teresa’s metaphors for the spiritual life. The theory gives us a framework (of more than 5 letters!) for engaging Teresa’s writings on prayer and reflecting on our own lived response.

Click here to register!

The Rev. Elizabeth Ford Friend, Ph.D., studies Christian spirituality and contemplative practice. A Presbyterian minister and spiritual director, she serves as a Senior Lecturer in the Doctoral Programs at Virginia Theological Seminary and this fall joins the Center for Lifelong Learning as an Instructor. In her free time, Beth enjoys hiking, trying new recipes, and embarking on outdoor adventures with her family.

Along the Journey