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Teresa of Avila: the Interior Castle

Her heart is full of joy with love,

For in the Lord her mind is stilled.

She has renounced every selfish attachment

And draws abiding joy and strength

From the One within.

She lives not for herself, but lives

To serve the Lord of Love in all,

And swims across the sea of life

Breasting its rough waves joyfully.

~ Teresa of Avila


Where Lovers MeetTeresa of Avila was exhausted and over-extended with business matters and a heavy travel schedule when she was ordered in 1577 to write her last book, The Interior Castle.  She did her best to get a “second opinion,” in effect to reverse the order, but to no avail.  The priest she consulted agreed that she should write the book.  And write she did.  In a mere two months, during a six-month period of intense activity, she produced her crowning literary work and a spiritual treatise of enduring value.  The Kavanaugh-Rodriguez introduction to the English translation offers a testimony by one of the sisters in her community of Teresa’s absorbed and rapid writing each day following communion.  Although Teresa believed by this point that she had written herself out and had said all she had to say on the subject of prayer, she applied herself to the task before her.  In Where Lovers Meet: Inside the Interior Castle (ICS Publications, 2008), Susan Muto points out that in the course of writing the book the Saint “discovered something she had known all her life: that obedience lessens the difficulty of doing what, humanly speaking, seems impossible.” (p. 18)  This insight entered into the text itself, for Teresa was tireless in stressing that human effort comes to naught and that we must rely on grace alone.  (p. 19).

     According to one of Teresa’s early biographers, God showed her the whole book in a flash:

There was a most beautiful crystal globe like a castle in which she saw seven dwelling places, and in the seventh, which was the center, the King of Glory dwelt in the greatest splendor.  From there he beautified and illumined all those dwelling places to the outer wall.  The inhabitants received more light the nearer they were to the center.  (From the introduction to the Kavanaugh-Rodriguez translation.)

Her inspiration for the writing proceeded from a vision of the just soul “as a paradise where the Lord says he finds his delight”:

I don’t find anything comparable to the magnificent beauty of a soul and its marvelous capacity.  Indeed, our intellects, however keen, can hardly comprehend it, just as they cannot comprehend God; but he Himself says that he created us in His own image and likeness.  (IC, 35:1)

The subject of the book is the soul’s journey to the center, to the indwelling mystery and love of God.  Teresa uses images and metaphors at each stage of the journey to explain the successive challenges of the various dwelling places leading to “the center of the castle (which) is God’s dwelling place.”  Although Teresa attests to be recording only what she has heard from others about this inner journey, it is clear that she has intimate knowledge of and speaks from personal experience about the different stages of prayer leading to union with God.  It is because she understands so well the terrain of prayer that she was instructed to write in the first place, assuring that her competence as a spiritual guide would not be lost to future generations.

     Dr. Muto echoes the saint’s emphasis on prayer as the only way to enter the brilliance of the castle: “In every line of the The Interior Castle, Teresa invites us to participate in the graced action that occurs between us and God through prayer.” (p. 24)  Prayer is understood as a two-fold process reflecting the ascetical and mystical dimensions of the spiritual life.  The ascetical life refers to our efforts at purification and reformation; the mystical level refers to graced union and transformation.  The two dimensions work together at each stage along the way.  The mystical represents the pull of God drawing us toward prayer and meditation; the ascetical represents “the gentle efforts we are called to make under the impetus of grace to facilitate this sacred journey.” (p. 43)  It is a long journey with obstacles to be overcome at each stage of the way.  Muto synthesizes the “seven veils” that correspond to the seven dwelling places and which, according to Teresa, need to be removed if we hope to pass from one dwelling place to the next, and to overcome the particular obstacle that would block our attainment of deeper self-knowledge at each level.  Very briefly stated, these veils are: deliberate sin, attachment to external affairs, hidden defects, ideas and assumptions about God, willfulness and/or will-lessness, affective distortions, and attachment to great suffering or joy.  (p. 30)  The gradual drawing away of these veils initiates a new level of Christian maturation at each level and increases our ability to dwell in equanimity with the mystery at the core of our being.

     Anyone familiar with Teresa’s life will be aware that she suffered greatly, physically and spiritually, in the decades during which she passed through these dwelling places.  The integration of the Saint’s life with her prayer leads Muto to observe that Teresa’s teaching “facilitates a movement from merely saying prayers to becoming living prayer.” (52)  Trials and interior struggles were accepted in the advanced dwelling places as part of God’s plan for the soul’s emergence in Christ.  In individual chapters devoted to each topic Muto traces the Saint’s personal progress through each stage of prayer.  We learn about recollection and the prayer of quiet (fourth mansions), spiritual courtship (fifth mansions), betrothal (sixth mansions), and mystical marriage (seventh mansions).  As in an earlier study on the ascetical spirituality of Teresa’s companion saint, John of the Cross for Today, Muto deftly investigates the more nuanced aspects of Teresa’s teachings, including her experiences of interior words or locutions; raptures, ecstasies and trances; flights of the spirit; imaginary and intellectual visions; and “arrows of fire.”

     Teresa’s way was not presented as a means of growing in worldly wisdom or sophistication.  It was meant to lead us home, to provide a pathway of authentic delight.  Prayer for her was not only an exercise, a mere part of one’s life.  Prayer was life’s essence; it was “the better part.”  Praying and living “spoke” to each other, formed an interactive whole, and shared the same spiritual goal of union with the divine mystery.  Where Lovers Meet honors the life and teaching of a preeminent sixteenth century mystic whose guidance in prayer remains a valid and valuable guide to growth in Christian love and transformation.

     The profound account of Teresa’s growth in love through prayer in The Interior Castle is given further detailed consideration in two noteworthy books.  Rowan Williams’s Teresa of Avila (Continuum, 1991, 2000) contains an excellent chapter titled “God at the Center.”  Williams points out that The Interior Castle is, among other things, an attack on our notions of the ideal self.  Teresa taught self-knowledge, which amounts to humility before the God who radiates love from the center of our creatureliness: “By seeing God we see more clearly what we are!” (p. 116)  Again, in Williams’s treatment of the subject, there is an emphasis on the two-fold process of the soul’s progress toward God, spoken in this case in terms of “what we do” and “what god does”.  Noel O’Donoghue’s Adventures in Prayer (Burns and Oates) offers over one hundred pages of reflection on “St Teresa of Avila: Woman of Vision,” half of which serve as “A Guide to The Interior Castle.”  The notion of spiritual progress receives thoughtful attention in these pages, along with insightful discussion of each stage of prayer associated with the seven dwelling places.  In 1999, Alfred A. Knopf published a biography of the Saint by Cathleen Medwick: Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul.  The book is well researched and well-written, and it provides a readable account of St Teresa’s spiritual journey.

Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine

An Autobiography by Huston Smith with Jeffrey Paine

Tales of Wonder is the autobiography of Huston Smith, well known scholar, student and teacher of the great religious traditions of humankind.  Smith has authored countless works and is, perhaps, best known for The Religions of Man, originally published in 1964 and later reissued as The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions.  His most recent books prior to this autobiography are Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief and The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition. The former, released just prior to the events of September 11, 2001, could not be more topical and significant, given not only the caricature of religion in much of the “secular” world but the abuse of the great traditions at the hands of fundamentalists of all stripes.  The latter is a personal and foundational apology for Christian faith from the mind and heart of a most dedicated adherent.


Mourning, Not Melancholy:

A Review of Nothing Was the Same:  A Memoir by Kay Redfield Jamison

Kay Redfield Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-director of its Mood Disorders Center, is a renowned expert in the study of manic-depressive illness and the author of several books on the topic, including the co-authorship of the standard medical text on the illness: Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression and a memoir of her own struggle with the illness: An Unquiet Mind.  As her honorary professorship in English at The University of St. Andrews attests, she is also a lucid and elegant writer.


The Psalms - Praises, Pleas & Protests

Rev. Brenda Bennett

Last week, as I met with family members to prepare a funeral, I was asked if I would include the “prayer” that begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The psalm’s promise of Divine peace and protection had touched the heart of this next-of-kin just as it had spoken to her father in the days before his death.

     People who are bereft, bewildered or battered by life, find that the psalms can give utterance to their deepest thoughts and feelings. They were the prayers of ancient Israel but they have acted as the pleas and protests of persons in distress throughout the ages.



In the general introduction to his four-volume series on The Presence of God: The Foundations of Western Christian Mysticism Bernard McGinn explains that “Christian mystics over the centuries have never been able to convey their message solely through the positive (italics added) language of presence.” (p. xviii)  Mystics such as Teresa of Avila speak fervently and eloquently about their quest to attain a special consciousness of the divine presence.  But, as McGinn points us, the pursuit and experience of presence tells only half of the story: in fact, mystical language of necessity employs a paradoxical dual strategy of presence and absence.  “Positive” or cataphatic mystics such as Origen and Bernard of Clairvaux present the alternating rhythms of presence and absence in terms of the comings and goings of the Divine Lover, as in the “Song of Songs.”  “Negative” or apophatic mystics have tended to emphasize the “no-thingness” of God; that is that our consciousness of Divine Presence proceeds by way of negation.  God is not an object, not just one more thing apprehended by focal consciousness.  Indeed, we must empty our mind (consciousness) of concepts, images and words.  Simone Weil conjectured that if “contact with human creatures is given us through the sense of presence . . . contact with God is given us through absence.”




In his most recent book (Ill Fares the Land, New York, Penguin, 2010), Tony Judt, University Professor and Director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, reflects on the state of political life in the United States and Great Britain.  His title is drawn from a passage in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

As a historian, Judt points out that the greatest political crises occur when an untenable disparity of wealth between segments of a society develops. He believes that the crises in which we today find ourselves are due to this disparity.



Eileen F. Young

Books about eating; yes, the field is full. But unlike the bumper crop of material on weight loss, cancer prevention, and cholesterol lowering, eating is not the problem, not the solution, but a vital clue to the sacredness of life. Kass’ book offers up courses about what it is to be human. Those offered range from the necessity of food and its digestion to the evolution of the family meal and dietary laws. There are generous servings of philosophy, physiology and Biblical commentary.



It is over eleven years since she began to leave us. Sometimes focally, often diffusely and unconsciously, a sense of pathos colors my entire life: my prayer, my relationships, my work. And now on a Sunday afternoon in the Fall of 1995, I sit and try to make a connection, to find a place where I can be with her. My mother, recently turned eighty, sits in a wheel chair and tries to speak, to tell me about what she has been experiencing. Occasionally a decipherable word or phrase emerges, and I seize upon it, like a drowning man grabbing for a rope, and reiterate it. As I do she smiles. She seems pleased at our communication and encouraged to say more. But in the spaces between my exhausting efforts to hear and find responses, I miss her. As I reflect later that evening, “You never miss someone as much as when you’re with them, but they are not there.”


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Last updated: 11/25/10.