Four Waters of the Soul

“A beginner must think of herself as one setting out to make a garden in which her Beloved Lord is to take his delight[1]

St. Teresa of Avila was a Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic who was an affectionate extrovert of great joy and determination. By her own admission, she tells of her exploits as a teenager with a great attraction to fashion, perfume, and boys! Her poor widowed father in exasperation and fear for her virtue sent her to an Augustinian nunnery, and once there her life found a different kind of fertile soil.

Often sick in her early years she did not labor in gardens as required of the other Sisters, but she did convalesce in them and found them a source of meditation and insight. It wasn’t until she was around forty and having regained her health that her spiritual development really began to take root and at forty-seven she began writing about the practice of prayer.

Part of her early writings on spiritual doctrine depicts different stages or grades of a life in prayer in metaphorical terms taken from watering a garden, known as The Four Waters. The water being how God reaches the soul and our soul is the garden to be grown for his delight. A very simple description of prayer is that God plants the garden that we grow through prayer which is equated with different ways of irrigation:

  • We draw the water from a well using a rope and then carry the water to our garden; this is an active form of praying, using one’s faculties and reaping what benefits one can through ones own efforts. We work at this and with diligence unless what God had planted withers and dies.
  • Next, to simplify the flow a water-wheel is used which has dippers. As the wheel turns the water is poured into a trough that hydrates our garden. St. Teresa describes this stage as a point when the faculties of the soul begin to recollect itself, bordering on the supernatural, and this enjoyment brings greater delight. Here we have learned to increase the flow of prayer and are aware of our growing with God.
  • The flow of irrigation is then expanded by means of a stream. This form of prayer is more mystical, requiring little human effort with all the faculties focused on God. At this third way of watering the garden of our souls, we have a flow of prayer that moves steadily throughout our day. We can dip into the stream when needed to water an area of our garden that the Holy Spirit has brought to our attention.
  • In the final method of watering our garden we accept the rain God sends without our own effort. This is called the Prayer of Union and is totally infused by God, a mystical action taking place in varying degrees. It is the ecstasy of prayer, those brief and unexpected moments when the beauty of our garden is so pleasing to God that our senses are overwhelmed as God rains upon us to cool our fervor and enhance the flowering soul.

In her book, The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa gives a much more expansive and beautiful explanation of the gardens of our souls.


[1] Teresa of Avila, The Book of my Life, Part Two, The Four Waters. There are many translations available on St. Teresa’s writings.

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