Hungry for God: Praying for Daily Bread with St. Teresa of Ávila

Reading Time: 13 minutes

By Esteban Crawford, Trinity School for Ministry

The following essay won second place, as well as Best Liturgical Essay, in the Summer 2022 Clarifying Catholicism Theology Essay contest. To view other category winners, click here.

Jesus’ disciples asked Him to teach them to pray as John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray (Luke 11:1). Jesus taught them to pray: “Our Father in heaven …” (Matt 6:9-13, ESV). St. Teresa of Ávila’s nuns asked her to teach them how to pray. St. Teresa taught them how to pray the Our Father. Jesus told His disciples to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt 6:11). St. Teresa told her nuns that Jesus Himself was their daily bread, the bread from heaven, who humbly comes to all who hunger for Him in the sacrament of Communion.    

The following paper will examine St. Teresa’s teaching on the Our Father’s petition for bread as recorded in The Way of Perfection.[1] For Teresa, asking for our daily bread encompasses the fulfillment of God’s will in Christ, the reception of His eucharistic presence, and the practice of post-Communion recollection. Each of these three elements will be analyzed respectively as laid out in chapters 33 and 34 of the Way. Before doing so, however, it is necessary to briefly consider a few fundamental aspects of this particular work as a whole.

The Way of Perfection

Written in two redactions, probably around 1566-1569, The Way of Perfection stands out as Teresa’s most accessible work. “Of all St. Teresa’s writings,” observes E. Allison Peers, “it is the most easily comprehensible … [I]n a way profitable to all, she intermingles her teaching on the most rudimentary principles of the religious life, which has all the clarity of any classical treatise, with instruction on the most sublime and elusive tenets of mystical theology.”[2] This book was originally addressed to the nuns in the convent of St. Joseph in Ávila.

“These Sisters in this monastery of St. Joseph,” explains Teresa, “have known that I received permission from the Father Presentado, Friar Domingo Báñez … to write some things about prayer … The sisters have urged me so persistently to tell them something about it that I have decided to obey them.”[3] She pens this treatise to aid her sisters in following their Carmelite Rule.[4] As members of a contemplative order, Teresa represents their call to prayer as a quest for the living water Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman (John 4:7-15), an image which for the Saint implies seeking “a sublime degree of contemplation in which God and the soul are intimately united.”[5]

With this end in mind, Teresa organizes her book into two parts. The first half addresses the manner of life which is necessary for engaging in contemplation (chapters 1-15), and the second the subject of prayer itself (chapters 16-42). More specifically, chapters 1-3 detail the purpose of their Carmelite community. Chapters 4-15 discuss the three main virtues which ought to shape their life together: mutual love, detachment, and humility. Chapters 16-26 provide general instruction on prayer. The book culminates with a commentary on the Our Father in chapters 27-42.[6]

In terms of historical context, the Inquisition was becoming particularly suspicious about the increasing interest in spiritual practices such as mental prayer or contemplation. Vernacular books on these topics were rapidly disappearing out of concern that they might lead people away from the established practices of the Catholic Church. As a woman writing yet another book on prayer during this controversial era, Teresa is well aware how carefully her work would be examined. Consequently, she opens the Way by explicitly stating: “In all that I say in this book I submit to what our Mother the Holy Roman Church holds.”[7] Nevertheless, her fidelity to the Roman Church does not prevent her from arguing “hard and fast against the learned men who were in opposition to mental prayer,” especially “those who prohibited it for women.”[8] Teresa employs a very ingenious approach in order to accomplish this risky task.

“Teresa’s strategy is,” describes Rowan Williams, to address herself to those who are alarmed by the thought of formal meditation of an intellectual kind, to take the most basic and prosaic elements of familiar piety and to show what they may become when used by someone one whose imagination and desire are not confined by the satisfying of external criteria alone.[9]

One of the main ways in which she does this is by expounding on the inherent spiritual dimensions of the Our Father, a standard prayer of the Church which no one could question. For as Teresa assures her nuns, even though all their books about prayer may be taken away, “no one can take from them the book par excellence the Our Father.[10] Furthermore, as long as they could ask God for daily bread, they could always hunger for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

The Fulfillment of God’s Will in Christ

Chapter 33 of the Way continues Teresa’s exposition on the Our Father by focusing on the request: Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie.[11]She introduces this section by noting how “Jesus understands what a difficult thing it is He offers for us. He knows our weakness, that we often show we do not understand what the Lord’s will is … He knows that a means was necessary. He saw it would not be in any way to our benefit if we failed to give what He gave.”[12] In light of the previous petition in the Our Father, Teresa believes that Jesus is perfectly conscious of how helpless humans are to fulfill God’s will. A divine means is required for us to benefit from handing back to God all He has given to us.

Teresa provides various examples which vividly illustrate how costly it is to keep God’s will. “If we tell a rich person living in luxury that it is God’s will that he be careful and use moderation at table so that others might at least have bread to eat … he will bring up a thousand reasons for not understanding this save in accordance with his own selfish purposes.”[13] Likewise, if “we tell a backbiter that it is God’s will that he love his neighbor as himself, he will become impatient and no reason will suffice to make him understand.”[14] Teresa thus feels prompted to ask: “What would have happened if the Lord had not provided for us with the remedy that He gave? There would have been only a very few who would have carried out these words … fiat voluntas tua.[15] Such is our human predicament—and even worse, for Scripture is clear that absolutely no one but Christ could fully keep the Father’s will (see Rom 3; Heb 10).

Nevertheless, the good news is that Christ “sought out a wonderful means by which to show the extreme of His love for us, and in His own name, and in that of His brothers He made the following petition: ‘Give us this day, Lord, our daily bread.’”[16] For Teresa, this short request signifies that God has indeed supplied a reliable means in His Son for His will to be done in us. Teresa thinks that Jesus made this petition out of His resolute desire to “remain with us here below,” and in so doing, He “well understood that He was asking for more in this request than He was in the others, for He knew beforehand the death they would make Him die.”[17] In teaching His disciples to pray for daily bread, Jesus foreshadowed the price He would pay for this provision to take place. Since “He had already said, fiat voluntas tua, He had to do that will … even though His fulfillment of this commandment was at a cost to Himself.”[18]

For Teresa “it is impossible to speak of prayer without praying,” notes Tomás Alvarez.[19] “O Eternal Father!” she cries out, “[h]ow much this humility deserves! What treasure do we have that could buy Your Son? The sale of Him … was for thirty pieces of silver. But to buy Him, no price is sufficient.”[20] Teresa is astounded by the unmatchable reality of Christ’s self-sacrifice. There is no earthly treasure which can purchase it, and yet it is the Father’s heavenly pleasure that we share in it by virtue of the Incarnation. “Since by sharing our nature He [Christ] has become one with us here below—and as Lord of his own will—He reminds the Father that because He belongs to Him the Father can in turn give Him to us. And so He says, ‘our bread.’”[21] One with God incarnate, we can now keep His will and “give ourselves up each day for His Majesty” by means of the offering of “our bread.”[22] And this is precisely what the Eucharist is all about for Teresa. Here “above all we discover what the sovereign will of God is.”[23]

The Reception of Christ’s Eucharistic Presence

Teresa dedicates two more consecutive chapters to the Eucharist. According to Williams, this is “the longest sustained meditation on the subject in any of her writings.”[24] Teresa resumes her commentary by indicating that in “this petition the word ‘daily’ seems to mean forever.”[25] If this request consists in asking the Lord “to be ours every day,” it is so “because here on earth we possess Him and also in heaven we will possess Him.”[26] In other words, Teresa believes that the end of this prayer is not merely temporal, but eternal. The very same bread we beg God for in the Our Father is the very same bread we will feast on in the world to come. Our daily bread is our everlasting bread, because Christ Himself is that bread. The Lord “has given us this most sacred bread forever … the manna and nourishment of His humanity that we might find Him at will and not die of hunger.”[27]

Teresa is thoroughly convinced that the sacred bread of Christ’s humanity is communicated to us in the Eucharist. “For Teresa, the Eucharist exemplifies God’s passion to be available to his creatures,” comments Julia Gatta.[28] And this is why Teresa is confident that the Our Father’s petition for bread is intrinsically linked to the sacrament. As Williams clarifies,

her certainty has to do, more than anything else, with the conviction that—since the Eucharist is so preeminently the sign of God’s desire to be with us, God’s humility and faithfulness in being unconditionally accessible to us—we should expect to find it at the heart of a prayer that is so pervaded by the acknowledgement of this divine availability from its first words onwards.[29]

Accordingly, Teresa goes on to remind her sisters that “no matter how many ways the soul may desire to eat, it will find delight and consolation in the most Blessed Sacrament … There is no need or trial or persecution that is not easy to suffer if we begin to enjoy this … sacred bread.”[30] In this meal there is more than enough sustenance for the Christian pilgrim to endure every affliction in this life in companionship with Christ—our faithful friend till the end.

Stressing the all-encompassing nature of Christ’s eucharistic provision, Teresa poses the following question to her nuns: “Do you think that this heavenly food fails to provide sustenance, even for these bodies, that it is not a great medicine even for bodily ills? I know that it is.”[31] She appeals to a personal testimony. “I know a person with serious illnesses, who often experiences great pain, who through this bread had them taken away as though by a gesture of the hand.”[32] Charles Terbille points out that “in the conventions of her time,” this is just “a modest way to present one’s own experiences.”[33] As she continually does in The Book of Her Life, Teresa discretely opens up about her own eucharistic experiences, so as to show her sisters what great wonders God is able to work through the sacrament. In this case, it is miraculous healing.

Teresa refuses to relate any more experiences. Since the “wonders this most sacred bread effects in those who worthily receive it are well known, I will not mention many that could be mentioned regarding this person.”[34] She is willing, however, to add that the Lord granted her such living faith that when she heard some people saying they would have liked to have lived at the time Christ our Good walked in the world, she used to laugh to herself. She wondered what more they wanted since in the most Blessed Sacrament they had Him as truly present as He was then.[35]

This is, of course, the main point of her meditation on the request for daily bread. Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, as Teresa herself came to believe, truly satisfies even the greatest longings one may have for God. Nevertheless, the Saint’s faith was not always so strong. For many years she struggled with perceiving Christ’s presence in the sacrament. Yet thanks to the practice of post-Communion recollection Teresa gradually subdued her unreliable senses to the unchanging reality of Christ’s eucharistic gift.

The Practice of Post-Communion Recollection

“We know that Teresa herself found post-Communion meditation the heart of her prayer,” states Williams.[36] This section in the Way is a representative example. Her teaching on the far-reaching significance of the Eucharist as the believer’s daily bread digresses into an excursus about the eucharistic experiences of “a person” (Teresa herself), and what she learned from them through the practice of recollection. “But I know that for many years,” recounts Teresa, “when she received Communion, this person, though she was not very perfect, strove to strengthen her faith so that in receiving her Lord it was as if, with her bodily eyes, she saw Him enter her house.”[37]

It is very telling that in a book which would come to be titled The Way of Perfection, Teresa refers to herself as “not very perfect” when describing her early eucharistic experiences. As Terbille explains, this is not just the standard Counter-Reformation trope for modesty. Teresa was a very lively “people” person, an administrator with a passion for detail, very astute in real estate transactions, and very effective in the ecclesial politics of her time. In our time we might think of her as a career woman trying to balance work and family, rather than a cloistered nun. She probably has in mind the almost inevitable mistakes and failures in conducting business and the great diversion of her energy to it when she calls herself “not very perfect.”[38]

Put otherwise, Teresa was a real human being, and as such, she often struggled with carrying out her own vocation.[39] She knew very well how difficult it can be to remain in God’s will—even while receiving Communion. Nevertheless, Teresa “strove to strengthen her faith” till her skeptic senses yielded to “believe that Christ truly entered her poor home” in the sacrament.[40] And how did she do this? 

She strove to recollect the senses so that all of them would take notice of so great a good … She considered she was at His feet and wept with the Magdalene, no more nor less than if she were seeing Him with her bodily eyes in the house of the Pharisee [Luke 7:36-48]. And even though she didn’t feel devotion, faith told her that He was indeed there.[41]

For Teresa, “to recollect the senses” means to focus all of her faculties on the subject of her meditation (in this case, Christ’s presence in her), to the end that every part of her being may be properly reoriented around the truth she is participating in.[42] By engaging in recollection, Teresa enscripturates herself into God’s sacred story,[43] and realizes that even when she does not feel it, Christ is as present with her in the Eucharist as He was in the Pharisee’s house with Mary.

As reflected above, the practice of post-Communion recollection deeply invigorated Teresa’s faith in Christ’s eucharistic presence throughout her life, galvanizing her soul to trust that she was truly partaking of His body, whether she felt it or not, each time she received the sacrament. Accordingly, Teresa exhorted her nuns to devote themselves to this spiritual discipline.

[D]on’t lose so good an occasion for conversing with Him as is the hour after having received Communion … But after receiving the Lord, since you have the Person Himself present, strive to close the eyes of the body and open those of the soul and look into your own heart. For I tell you, and tell you again, and would like to tell you many times that you should acquire the habit of doing this every time you receive Communion.[44]

If God Himself is given to us as our daily bread in the holy sacrament, why would we not take time to give Him thanks and dwell on this precious gospel mystery after Communion? For Teresa, there “may be other occasions when devotion comes more obviously and easily, but thanksgiving after Communion must remain the very centre of our spirituality.”[45]


Clever, candid, and captivating, Teresa’s exposition on the Our Father’s petition for bread leaves one hungry for more, hungry for God, unable to pray this familiar prayer in the same way ever again. The realization of God’s will in heaven and earth, the gift of Christ’s body and blood, and our prayerful recollection into His sacred story are all intimated in the humble request for our daily bread. Teresa’s insightful interpretation of the Our Father effectively displays how closely interrelated personal prayer and eurcharistc worship are in God’s providence. The way to perfection integrates both. For it was the perfect Son of God who taught us to ask for our daily bread and to feed on His flesh (John 6:54). “This, then, is a good time for our Master to teach us, and for us to listen to Him, [and] to kiss His feet [in gratitude].”[46]


Alvarez, Tomás. St. Teresa of Avila: 100 Themes on Her Life and Work. Translated by Kieran

Kavanaugh, Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2011.

Gatta, Julia. “Mysticism and Incarnation.” STR 36, no. 2 (Easter 1993): 259–63.

Newman, Elizabeth. Attending the Wounds on Christ’s Body: Teresa’s Scriptural Vision.

Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012.

O’Keefe, Mark. In Context: Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, and Their World. Washington,

D.C. ICS Publications, 2020.

Ramge, Sebastian V., O. C. D. An Introduction to the Writings of Saint Teresa. Chicago, IL:

Henry Regnery Company, 1963.       

Terbille, Charles Ignatius. “The Eucharist: A User’s Manual.” Spiritual Life 51, no. 4 (Wint

2005): 198–210.

St. Teresa of Avila. The Way of Perfection. In The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Vol. 2.

Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1980.  

St. Teresa of Avila. The Way of Perfection. Edited and translated by E. Allison Peers. Mineola,

NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2012.

Williams, Rowan. Teresa of Avila. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1991.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, every subsequent citation or allusion to this work belongs to St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 2, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1980).

[2] Introduction in St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, ed. trans. E. Allison Peers (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2012), 17.

[3] Teresa, Way, Prologue.1.

[4] Sebastian V. Ramge, O. C. D., An Introduction to the Writings of Saint Teresa (Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery Company, 1963), 71.

[5] Ramge, An Introduction, 76-77. For an example of this theme see Teresa, Way, 42.5.

[6] I am largely following Kavanaugh’s chapter division. See Introduction in Teresa, Way, 34-35.

[7] Teresa, Way, Foreword.

[8] Tomás Alvarez, St. Teresa of Avila: 100 Themes on Her Life and Work, trans. Kieran  Kavanaugh (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2011), 326. In response to those who oppose mental prayer, Teresa insists that both heart and mind are to be engaged in every form of vocal prayer. Mental prayer consists in praying in a manner which is duly mindful of what you are saying and to whom you are saying it. Teresa, Way, 21.10, 22.2-3. 

[9] Rowan Williams, Teresa of Avila (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1991), 88.

[10] Alvarez, 100 Themes, 326.

[11] Teresa “recited the Our Father in Latin in the liturgy of the Mass and in the Hours of the Breviary. For Carmelite nuns who could not recite the divine Office, the Rule of Carmel prescribed the recitation of the Our Father a great number of times. In the text of the chapters [of the Way] she transcribed the invocations as she recited them into Castilian.” Alvarez, 100 Themes, 330.

[12] Teresa, Way, 33.1.

[13] Teresa, Way, 33.1.

[14] Teresa, Way, 33.1.

[15] Teresa, Way, 33.1.

[16] Teresa, Way, 33.1.

[17] Teresa, Way, 33.2.

[18] Teresa, Way, 33.3.

[19] Alvarez, 100 Themes, 329.

[20] Teresa, Way, 33.5.

[21] Teresa, Way, 33.5. Cf. Heb 2:14, 10:10.

[22] Teresa, Way, 33.5.

[23] Williams, Teresa, 96.   

[24] Williams, Teresa, 96.

[25] Teresa, Way, 34.1.

[26] Teresa, Way, 34.1.

[27] Teresa, Way, 34.2.

[28] Julia Gatta, “Mysticism and Incarnation,” STR 36, no. 2 (Easter 1993): 261.

[29] Williams, Teresa, 96.

[30] Teresa, Way, 34.5.

[31] Teresa, Way, 34.6.

[32] Teresa, Way, 34.6.

[33] Charles Ignatius Terbille, “The Eucharist: A User’s Manual,” Spiritual Life 51, no. 4 (Wint 2005): 199.

[34] Teresa, Way, 34.6.

[35] Teresa, Way, 34.6.

[36] Williams, Teresa, 97.

[37] Teresa, Way, 34.7.

[38] Terbille, “The Eucharist,” 199.

[39] One remarkable study which captures this aspect of Teresa’s ministry is Mark O’Keefe, In Context: Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, and Their World (Washington, D.C. ICS Publications, 2020). As Keith J. Egan observes, “a mystic’s path is a pilgrimage through the everyday pain and joys of being human … O’Keefe’s book overcomes the temptation of hagiography to paint the saints and mystics as flawless and ever super human.” Foreword in O’Keefe, In Context, x.   

[40] Teresa, Way, 34.7.

[41] Teresa, Way, 34.7. “Teresa naturally takes for granted the traditional identification of the unnamed woman in this passage with the Magdalene.” Williams, Teresa, 97. 

[42] For a more extensive explanation of the practice of recollection see Teresa, Way, 36.1-10. 

[43] “Teresa’s way, while at times lonely and dark, is enfolded … into God’s story of communion through Christ.” Elizabeth Newman, Attending the Wounds on Christ’s Body: Teresa’s Scriptural Vision (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 15.

[44] Teresa, Way, 34.10, 12.

[45] Williams, Teresa, 97.

[46] Teresa, Way, 34.10. She is referring to praying after Communion.  

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