St. Teresa of Avila and the Interior Castle
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.
It 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).