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The Interior Castle of Saint Teresa of Avila

September 13, 2010

castleLet nothing upset you;

Let nothing frighten you.

Everything is changing;

God alone is changeless.

Patience attains the goal.

Who has God lacks nothing;

God alone fills every need.

This short prayer-poem of Teresa of Avila expresses several of the Saint’s abiding convictions about the pursuit of a life of prayer.  To enter into prayer we must leave many things behind.  The route mapped out in The Interior Castle is especially lengthy and calls for extensive detachment from the distractions of everyday life.  Teresa frequently mentions business affairs, for example, as an obstacle to peace and prayer.  And then there are the habits of mind that keep us from taking the risks of growing in prayer: concerns about the level of our functioning and productivity; apprehensions about what others may say regarding the changes they detect in our involvements with them; and the host of anxieties that beset us whenever we clear a space to enter within. Sensitive as she was to this emotional terrain, Teresa remained firm in encouraging the beginner to set off on the journey of prayer.  One should get going and not look back.  For Teresa our frights are part of the superficial self which must be overcome by trust and faithfulness in the practice of prayer.

    A major factor contributing to our sense of insecurity and instability is the reality that “everything is changing.”  Teresa boldly asserts the reality: Yes, everything is changing!  But if our eyes are on God we shall behold the still point in this turning world of ours.  Teresa urges her sisters to keep moving toward God.  In The Interior Castle this movement is envisioned as the soul’s journey toward the center of the castle, where God resides.  In this way, what is at the center and deepest in us becomes the grounding principle of life.  God, who alone is changeless, becomes our security and stability, the   affective counter to all of those inner and outer disturbances that threaten to destabilize us emotionally.

    Throughout The Interior Castle Teresa calls for patience, determination, and perseverance.  She tells us here that “patience attains the goal.”  This is akin to the adage that 98 or 99% of life is showing up.  We have to grapple with the actual struggle inherent in the attempt to pray.  True, prayer sometimes occurs naturally — wells up in us, as it were.  There are many occasions for short prayers to be said in the course of one’s day.  And, fortunately, some of our pauses for prayer and reflection will be peaceful and spontaneously refreshing.  Teresa, however, is addressing herself to the regular practice of prayer.  Her goal is not so much saying prayers as it is becoming prayer.  Making our life a life of prayer inevitably will mean confronting ideal notions we may have about prayer and praying.  We don’t imagine it hard or burdensome, a process that will turn us inside out.  We idealize the act of prayer, imagining ourselves to be already transformed.  The Saint from Avila knows better.  It will be an arduous journey, entailing conversion of heart, psyche, mind and will.  Learning to will “as God wills” and what God wills for our life will require infinite patience and resolve.  Teresa’s calls for patience and determination are upbeat nevertheless; she believes in what the soul can attain..

    The word “humility” does not appear in this short prayer, as it does frequently and throughout The Interior Castle.  Likewise, there is no mention of penance or repentance, topics that obviously figure significantly in the stages of prayer the Saint describes in the book.  But we have a hint of these themes in the last two lines of this prayer.  We are not sufficient unto ourselves.  We lack.  Teresa’s words echo the truth that God alone suffices.  We will never be whole; will never have everything to a point of enduring satisfaction.  Yet Teresa urges us to seek God humbly in the innermost chamber of the soul.  Speaking from experience, she affirms the possibility of the journey and its attainment.  “Who has God lacks nothing.”  For Teresa, our fulfillment lies in the soul’s union with God.  God will fill every need.  There will be joy.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.