By Teresa of Avila. Translated by E. Allison Peers
Publisher: New York, NY: Image Books, 2004.
Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), passionate lover of God, mystic, reformer, humble servant and loving sister to all, is one of the most beloved of the Catholic saints. She was both a contemplative and a reformer, balancing a life of prayer and meditation with an activist’s zeal and energy. She was the only woman in the history of the Church to reform a religious order of men, and one of only two women recognized as a Doctor of the Church. She lived during a time of intense religious persecution and was herself threatened by the Spanish Inquisition. She suffered from significant physical ailments and was beset by doubt, but she never turned aside from the interior way and her desire for mystic union with God.
Interior Castle, one of the most celebrated books of mystical theology, was written toward the end of her life. It was undertaken in obedience to the request of her superiors. She believed herself to be unworthy of the task: “If you find anything good in this book which helps you to learn to know Him better, you can be quite sure that it is His Majesty Who has said it, and if you find anything bad, that it has been said by me.”
It begins with a simple metaphor: “I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions,” with God, the great King, dwelling in the innermost mansion. Using this metaphor, Teresa sought to describe the journey to God, whose call is gentle but so powerful that the aspirants on this journey give up all things outside the castle for love of him. Battling the forces that would lead them astray, passing from room to room, they ultimately reach God himself, where “the two lighted candles join and become one; the falling rain becomes merged in the river.”
The journey home begins when we realize that we are lost.
Would it not be a sign of great ignorance, my daughters, if a person were asked who he was, and could not say, and had no idea who his father or his mother was, or from what country he came? Though that is a great stupidity, our own is incomparably greater if we [do not know] what good qualities there may be in our souls, or Who dwells within them.
The way into the castle and through the mansions is clear: “As far as I can understand, the door of entry into this castle is prayer and meditation.” She explains that our attention has been focused on the exterior of the castle rather than on the interior where the Lord resides. The spiritual journey is made by reversing this process, by shifting our attention from the exterior to the interior and from ourselves to the Lord.
The interior life of the soul is described as it progresses through the inner mansions. Upon its entry into the first mansion it is imperfect and sinful, beset by base desires pictured as venomous creatures. On reaching the seventh and final mansion it has become pure and worthy to be the bride of a spiritual marriage. The foundation of the journey is humility; the momentum is longing; the result is ever-increasing love; and the culmination is merging with the Beloved.
Teresa, an advocate for balance, believes that self-forgetfulness and self-knowledge must coincide and that both should be held within the container of contemplation on God.
However high a state the soul may have attained, self-knowledge is incumbent upon it, and this it will never be able to neglect even should it so desire. … Yet one can have too much of a good thing… and if we never rise above the slough of our own miseries we do ourselves a great disservice. … The soul must sometimes emerge from self-knowledge and soar aloft in meditation upon the greatness and the majesty of its God.
She suggests we should be able both to forget our weaknesses – “Let us leave our reason and our fears in His hands and let us forget the weakness of our nature which is apt to cause us so much worry” – and to remember them: “Let us think of his greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble.”
The struggle required to subdue the mind is presented with sincerity, humility and the intimacy of a long-time combatant. Although her pain is sometimes palpable, she is always hopeful and positive, emphasizing the grace that always accompanies effort in meditation.
Do not imagine that the important thing is never to be thinking of anything else and that if your mind becomes slightly distracted all is lost. … The soul may perhaps be wholly united with Him in the Mansions very near His presence, while thought remains in the outskirts of the castle, suffering the assaults of a thousand wild and venomous creatures and from this suffering winning merit. So this must not upset us, and we must not abandon the struggle.
Our purpose is clear. “The Lord asks only two things of us: love for His Majesty and love for our neighbour.” The second love is only possible through the first: “I do not believe we could ever attain perfect love for our neighbour unless it had its roots in the love of God.” Yet love of our neighbour also increases our love for God:
And be certain that, the farther advanced you find you are in this [love of neighbour], the greater the love you will have for God; for so dearly does His Majesty love us that He will reward our love for our neighbour by increasing the love which we bear to Himself, and that in a thousand ways.
She admonishes us for the ease with which we love and forgive ourselves and the “censoriousness concerning our neighbours, lack of charity towards them, and failure to love them as we love ourselves.”
She enjoins us to live in his will at all times and cautions us against desiring anything outside his will, especially spiritual favours. This is particularly difficult during times of spiritual dryness.
Do not ask for what you have not deserved. … Oh, humility, humility! … Whenever I hear people making so much of their times of aridity, I cannot help thinking that they are somewhat lacking in it. … These periods of aridity may teach you to be humble, and not make you restless, which is the aim of the devil. Be sure that, where there is true humility, even if God never grants the soul favours, He will give it peace and resignation to His will, with which it may be more content than others are with favours.
We are advised to persevere regardless of results. “All that the beginner in prayer has to do … is to labour and be resolute and prepare himself with all possible diligence to bring his will into conformity with the will of God. … You may be quite sure that this comprises the very greatest perfection which can be attained on the spiritual road.”
The beauty and necessity of dying in order to live is explained using the metaphor of the silkworm.
You will have heard of the wonderful way in which silk is made. … The silkworm … starts to spin its silk and to build the house in which it is to die. This house may be understood here to mean Christ. … Let the silkworm die – let it die, as in fact it does when it has completed the work which it was created to do. Then we shall see God and shall ourselves be as completely hidden in His greatness as is this little worm in its cocoon.
Teresa teaches that though we are small, limited and feeble, we can, with His love, reach the Lord. He gives us that love, and all we have to do is give it back to him. Our part is clear: “If you would progress a long way on this road and ascend to the Mansions of your desire, the important thing is not to think much, but to love much; do, then, whatever most arouses you to love.”
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