St. Teresa of Avila and the Interior Castle

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There was a time in my life when I would have described prayer as boring. A time when talking to God definitively felt like a one-way conversation. When prayer had a simple formula learned from childhood and repeated without awareness: close your eyes, bow your head and when you’re done, end with “Amen.” Back then, when others talked about spending hours in prayer, I could not understand it. What would prompt someone to do that? Wouldn’t they run out of things to say? Wouldn’t they fall asleep? I related well to the Psalmist when he cries out, “Don’t turn a deaf ear when I call you, God,” (Ps 23:1), because I had no way of knowing if he heard anything I said.

But this was before my Abba, by his grace, enkindled in me the burning flame of his Spirit. This was before his love for me was not only something I had faith in, but something I had directly experienced. Before he made the simple act of being with him a thing filled with joy and mystery. Before, quite suddenly, prayer gave me a glimpse of how unfathomable and kind he was.

It was before I found the entrance to the interior castle of my soul:

“It came to me that the soul is like a castle made exclusively of diamond or some other very clear crystal. In this castle are a multitude of dwellings, just as in heaven there are many mansions,” (First Dwelling, Ch. 1, Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila).

Once invited to enter, I found that the deeper into myself I traveled, the closer to God I came:

“At the center is the most important dwelling of them all where the most secret things unfold between the soul and her Beloved,” (First Dwelling, Ch. 1).

But the going has not always been easy. I have encountered trials within and without. Looking back, I see the Good Shepherd had used them bring me to greater maturity. Indeed, every manifestation of our Lord’s love that I have experienced has only inspired me to pursue him more, including those very trials. And now, every bit of me is invested in the task.

Interior-CastleIt is this prayer journey towards divine union that is the focus of the book Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila. She begins speaking about those unaccustomed to prayer and unable to discern the voice of God, that “still small whisper” (1 Kings 19:12) that I started out incapable of hearing. She then explains how a desire grows within the soul for God and it begins to journey inward.

From there, the book follows the development of the soul’s relationship with it’s Creator, taking the reader on a mystical journey through seven different “mansions” or “dwellings”, all leading to the very center of the soul, where the Living God is pleased to dwell. In each mansion, she describes the kinds of prayers that the soul experiences, which have more to do with the action of God within it than the action of the soul itself. At the end of the book, the soul reaches the center and is united to its Beloved.

Throughout the book, the overriding theme is humility:

“I was once pondering why it is that our Beloved is so fond of the virtue of humility. Without it ever having occurred to me before, this thought suddenly came to me: It’s because God is supreme truth. To be humble is to walk in truth. It is true to say that we ourselves are nothing. Whoever does not understand this walks a lie. Whoever does understand this is more pleasing to supreme truth, because she is walking in truth,” (Sixth Dwelling, Ch. 11).

A devotional soul whose love of God knew no bounds, St. Teresa freely expresses herself in Interior Castle, often going off topic to praise her King for several paragraphs before returning. Her language is rich and lavish, using countless superlatives. The imagery she paints for the reader makes the shrouded, intangible topic much easier to grasp.

St. Teresa was a nun of the Carmelite order living in the sixteenth century. Seeing the disintegration of the rule and the insidious entrance of sin into her convent, she longed for a pure, ascetic life. Finally, in 1562, she resolved to begin a reformed Carmelite order which later became the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites. Through the course of her life, she founded sixteen convents. She was a contemporary and friend of St. John of the Cross, who helped her bring her stricter rule to the male side of the order. She died at the age of 67 on Oct 4, 1582.

The Interior Castle, written in 1577, is counted as one of her most important works. It is a huge encouragement to those who may not see the point of prayer but inwardly long for a deeper relationship with the Lord, as well as a guide for those further down the path. In it, she not only covers a great variety of weaknesses common in souls, but she shows how God’s grace progressively moves the soul towards Christlikeness. This demonstrates the verse, “…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus,” (Phil 1:6).

This progression leads to more and more profound types of prayer which begin with internal discourse and meditation and move through contemplation, spiritual sweetness, the prayer of recollection and beyond. The soul encounters many trials along the way, including but not limited to aridities (being unable to feel God’s presence), loss of stature among men, spiritual counselors who give unhealthy advice, the purifying fire of the Spirit, self-doubt, physical ailments, gossip and the constant temptation to fall into sin.

In our modern, fast-paced world, the contemplative life is increasingly rare. When someone does begin down that illumined path, it is easy to fear that the things they are experiencing may not come from God. It is also easy to loose hope when encountering trials and aridities, because they fear they have lost the love of the Holy One that they desire. Not only are there a multitude of misunderstandings and misgivings that could occur, but there is no one around them to guide them along.

For me, my saving grace was found in the spiritual writers I have read from ages past like St. Teresa. I can read their works and get an idea of where I am and where I am going; I can keep my pride in check by seeing how much of a spiritual giant I am not. The Lover of My Soul has not left me bereft and bewildered by his affections for me, floating adrift at sea. Rather, he has given me a rudder for this little boat by helping me to discover the Interior Castle and other mystical treasures.

“Remember: if you want to make progress on the path and ascend to the places you have longed for, the important thing is not to think much but to love much, and so to do whatever best awakens you to love,” (Fourth Dwelling, Ch. 1).

Christian Yoga and the Dark Night of the Soul

April 13, 2013 by  
Filed under Meditation

candle

St. John of the Cross was a Christian mystic and friar from sixteenth century Spain. As a mystic, he strived for union with God by the surrender of the soul to the inner workings of the Spirit. Such surrender allows for the soul to be tempered like metal in a furnace — the result being the death of the ego or false self. Unencumbered then by the world, the devil and the flesh, the soul is free to enjoy loving union with God.

When St. John wrote the above poem, Songs of the Soul, he was in prison for his attempts to reform the Carmelite order. While in prison, he was treated so poorly that he was near death by the time he managed to escape. Unbeknownst to his captors, however, he spent his time in his cell in communion with the Spirit of God. His jailor, recognizing his holiness, gave him the means to express himself on paper. The result is the above poem, an outpouring of unhindered love and yearning of the soul for God.

4.2.7Later, John was asked to explain what the poem meant, since it could easily be misinterpreted as a poem about two lovers having a secret rendezvous in the night. The Dark Night of the Soul was then composed to explain, line by line, what the poem intended.

The Dark Night is a careful examination of what it is like to experience the death of the ego. Many people of the modern era have misinterpreted the work to be an encouragement for someone going through hard times. This renders the work to have too restricted a scope. St. John is attempting to explain how the Holy Spirit goes about perfecting the soul after it has accepted the gift of salvation through Christ Jesus. It is a painful annihilation of the individual will in favor of the will of God and the purging of every desire until the only thing the soul longs for is God. The book encompasses the darkest, most painful parts of the Christian journey towards maturity in Christ.

Given this backdrop, it is important to mention that he breaks the process into two “Dark Nights.” The first he calls the purgation of sense, where the soul is purified of its attachments to the pleasures of the world. In it, the soul feels separated from the Spirit whose consolations it has come to adore. God seems distant, and the pleasures of the world no longer appeal to it. The soul is taught how to follow God for God’s sake, instead of for “What God can do for me.” The first night cleanses the soul of the vices associated with attachments to sense, including pride, self-condemnation, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and laziness.

The second night, a much darker, more painful night, is the purgation of the spirit. Here, God gets to the root of the problem, the infiltration of sin and corruption deep within the soul. The second night seems unbearable and the soul feels abandoned by God: “Loving God so intensely that nothing else matters, she sees herself as so wretched that God could not possibly love her back” (Book II, Chap. 7).

St. John describes this second night like a purging fire:
“Let’s look at this loving knowledge and divine light like fire. Fire transforms wood into fire. When fire touches wood, the first thing it does is that it begins to dry the wood out. It drives away moisture, causing the wood to shed the tears it has held inside itself. Then the wood blackens, turning dark and ugly; it may even give off a bad odor. Little by little, the fire desiccates the wood, bringing out and driving away all those dark and unsavory accidents that are contrary to the nature of fire. Finally, heating up and enkindling the wood from the outside, the fire transforms the wood into itself, rendering the wood as beautiful as the fire is”(Book II, Chap. 10).

Dark Night of the Soul is a heavy work, not to be read lightly. For sure, the holiness St. John reached in his lifetime is a gift few receive. There is a tendency for the reader to wonder where on the path to Godly union they can be found; to try and find themselves in the book. Perhaps the best route for us all is to abandon ourselves into the care of the Spirit; to be at peace first with where we are and next with wherever he will take us. If union with God is our goal, we are on the right path.

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Jesus Christ, Mat 16:25).

Songs of the Soul

On a dark night,

Inflamed by love-longing–

O exquisite risk!–

Undetected I slipped away.

My house, at last, grown still.

Secure in the darkness,

I climbed the secret ladder in disguise–

O exquisite risk!–

Concealed by the darkness.

My house, at last, grown still.

 

That sweet night: a secret.

Nobody saw me;

I did not see a thing.

No other light, no other guide

Than the one burning in my heart.

 

This light led the way

More clearly than the risen sun

To where he was waiting for me

–The one I knew so intimately–

In a place where no one could find us.

 

O night, that guided me!

O night, sweeter than sunrise!

O night, that joined lover with Beloved!

Lover transformed in Beloved!

 

Upon my blossoming breast,

Which I cultivated just for him,

He drifted into sleep,

And while I caressed him,

A cedar breeze touched the air.

 

Wind blew down from the tower,

Parting the locks of his hair.

With his gentle hand

He wounded my neck

And all my senses were suspended.

I lost myself. Forgot myself.

I lay my face against the Beloved’s face.

Everything fell away and I left myself behind,

Abandoning my cares

Among the lilies, forgotten.

John of the Cross, translated by Mirabai Starr

 

Tao Te Ching: A Christian’s Perspective

March 8, 2013 by  
Filed under Christian yoga

The Tao and Christianity

“Heaven will last,
Earth will endure.
How can they last so long?
They don’t exist for themselves
And so can go on and on.
So wise souls
Leaving self behind
Move forward,
And setting self aside
Stay centered.
Why let the self go?
To keep what the soul needs.”
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, #7, “Dim Brightness”

Reading Lao Tzu reminded me of my experience of the Spirit in meditation. While abiding in the Spirit, peace and stillness is always at hand. There, contentment is a natural state; pressures from the outside world dissolve. The now is all that matters, and it is easy to recognize that past and future are mere shadows and figments of the imagination. Lao Tzu expanded that inner world, and I could see the bigger picture. I recognized the ways of God beyond myself.

Ancient Chinese Text of Tao Te ChingIn Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu captures the flow of creation in the embrace of the Creator and puts it into words. Written somewhere between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, this sacred Chinese scripture is the basis for Taosim and highly influential in the Buddhist sphere. It is one of the most translated texts in the world, boasting over 250 translations. It is said to have been written by a scribe named Lao Tzu, or “Old Master.”

Through his poetry, Lao Tzu gives the reader a glimpse of God by exploring the way God moves and works in the world. God, called Tao (the Way), is nameless and indescribable, intangible yet the constant source of the tangible. This Tao flows and moves effortlessly, and by just being, causes all things to take place perfectly. The wise soul, or sage, never fights against this natural flow (Heb 3:15), but instead flows with it. These divine attributes are mirrored in Biblical passages:

• Indescribable: “Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” (Rm 11:33).
• Intangible: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth,” (Jn 4:24).
• The source of the tangible: “In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him,” (Jn 1:1-3).
• Flows and moves effortlessly: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” (Jn 3:8). (Note: the same Greek word means both wind and spirit.)

But although the topic is weighty, the Tao Te Ching never comes across that way. It deals with the most profound and sometimes even contradictory thoughts, but it does so in a lighthearted manner. Although similar to James 1:19, I found myself laughing when I read the following:

23 Nothing and not

Nature doesn’t make long speeches.
A whirlwind doesn’t last all morning.
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day.
Who makes the wind and rain?
Heaven and earth do.
If heaven and earth don’t go on an on,
Certainly people don’t need to.

Or the simple line, “To live till you die is to live long enough” (33).

Lao Tzu is at home in humility (Pro 8:12-13), and speaks of it in an unfamiliar way – as a path to true leadership. In many of his poems he advises leaders to become like water: molding and moving around the obstacles in its path with softness; willing to go to the lowest places. When he speaks of the greatest kind of leader in poem 17, he says they, “are hardly known to their followers,” which reminds the reader of God himself, willing to remain unseen yet leading all of heaven and earth.

The emphasis in the text remains firmly in the yin, or the female, quiet, meek and nurturing characteristics of all things, and Lao Tzu views these attributes as foundational. This echoed the personification of Wisdom as a female in the Proverbs. The yang, yin’s natural opposite (male, loud, strong, active), is reduced to something to understand and make use of if it makes sense to do so, like it is a tool. War and violence, clearly yang in their nature, are repulsive to Lao Tzu.

The irony of the Tao Te Ching is its ability to remain simple and complex all at once. The language comes across as almost elementary, speaking of nature and simple objects, yet the contradictions it offers invite the reader to pause and give it deeper thought. This is much like paradoxical scriptures such Proverbs 26:4-5, or Matthew 12:30 with Mark 9:40. It is full of wonderful truths put in ways seldom encountered in the West, but it won’t spoon-feed the reader. It rather plants a seed and lets the wise soul watch it grow.

Amy Arias is an instructor for the Holy Yoga Foundation, a non-profit organization that sends out teachers the world over to teach Christian yoga in their communities. She also writes a blog at JesusIsMyGuru.com, a site about all things Jesus and yoga

The Bhagavad Gita: A Christian Perspective

February 6, 2013 by  
Filed under Bhagavad Gita

Christians who practice yoga read the ancient Bhagavad Gita with new eyes but also with questions. In the midst of a great battle, Arjuna and his friend, Lord Krishna, stop to discuss the meaning and purpose of human life.[/caption]
“The point, old friend – and this is very important – is to do your worldly duty, but do it without any attachment to it or desire for its fruits. Keep your mind always on the Divine (Atma, the Self). Make it as automatic as your breath or heartbeat. This is the way to reach the supreme goal, which is to merge into God.”
— Bhagavad Gita, Karma Yoga, 19 (Translator: Jack Hawley)

My interest in the Bhagavad Gita came from my admiration of Mohandas Gandhi. I had heard that it was an influential text in the development of his spiritual life, and from that moment on wanted a chance to read it. And it is no wonder it caught and captured Gandhi’s attention, for the Gita’s ancient wisdom is as relevant now as it was in the days it was written. Native to the peoples of the Indus Valley, it is claimed by some to be up to 5000 years old. It is part of a larger epic narrative called the Mahabharata, and contains about 700 verses. The Gita is difficult to translate because it contains so many terms that are easily understood within the context of Hindu culture, but are alien to the West. In fact, although the Gita itself is only traditionally 18 chapters in length, the common practice when translating it into English is to expound upon the text so much that volumes are added.

By pure chance (or God-incidence), I happened upon a translation by Jack Hawley. He wanted the West to have an experience of the Gita in a way that was accessible to them, without lengthening the text and losing its depth and feel. This was an incredible way to get my first taste of the compelling narrative, and it found its way instantly into my heart.

The Gita takes place in the middle of a battlefield, with both lines of soldiers facing each other, just moments before the fighting begins. Prince Arjuna, who represents the forces of good, is between the two lines in his chariot and looking over the foes drawn up against him. In those forces, he spots some of his own family members, former friends, and admired teachers. He begins to despair, thinking that he would rather die than kill all these people whom he loves so dearly. He slumps down in his chariot despondently, and looks to his chariot driver and dear old friend for advice.


What the prince does not know is that his driver happens to be Krishna, god incarnate. When Krishna sees that Arjuna has humbled himself to become his student, he begins to reveal the secrets of the universe, the meaning of life, and the ways of god himself. His monologue takes up the majority of the text.

A Christian reader is quickly amazed by the parallels found between Krishna’s description of the Hindu godhead, Brahman, and Christianity’s one true God. God (also called the Atma) is:
• The source and sustainer of all created things
• Eternal (goes on forever and has always been)
• Existence itself; pure consciousness (spirit)
• Unchanging, indestructible and immutable
• Everywhere
• Beyond time
• Unmanifested (invisible)
• Unknowable, as his ways and being are infinite
• Continually sacrificing to and serving all of creation selflessly
• Love itself

The end goal of humanity, namely unity with god, is also the same as the Christian one (called theosis). And how does one reach that goal? The path is beset with the same dangers as found in Christianity. As Christians, it is easy to fall into the error of trying to work our way to heaven. The Christian who truly understands the nature of grace knows that it is in surrender to God’s will and allowing God to work through you that you are brought closer to Christlikeness. The intentions of our hearts determine whether our works are burned up or produce fruit (1 Cor 3).
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