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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
Mourning, Not Melancholy:
A Review of Nothing Was the Same: A Memoir by Kay Redfield
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
The Psalms - Praises, Pleas & Protests
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.