Sunday, February 26, 2012

Teresa of Avila: Reflections on the Interior Castle

In Teresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle” there are seven mansions.  Each mansion represents a particular development in the life of prayer.  Teresa wrote primarily for the nuns under her care.  Nuns and monks have made a basic commitment to live in a community whose life is structured around the seven times of prayer that make up the Daily Offices.  That commitment to community and regular prayer forms the necessary foundation for the contemplative theology of Teresa.

The great mystery of Christian life is that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit,[i] and through the gift of the Spirit the Father and the Son come to us and make their home within us.[ii]  That is not only an objective fact based on Holy Scripture and the doctrine of the Church, but also a fact that is meant to be experienced subjectively in our personal experience in real time.

The Quaker Thomas Kelly wrote “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which may continuously return.  Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself.”[iii]  That Light is Christ Jesus our Lord.  He is the light of the world.

In her book The Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila tells us, “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 mansions.”[iv]  She goes on to say, “In speaking of the soul we must always think of it as spacious, ample and lofty; and this can be done without the least exaggeration, for the soul’s capacity is much greater than we can realize, and this Sun, Which is in the palace, reaches every part of it.”[v]

However not every soul is a glorious castle.   With its central dwelling place and surrounding rooms the medieval castle is an image of the interior life; but what of the ruined castle with its crumbling stairs and battlements and all of its wooden floors long since rotted out?  Evelyn Underhill remarks, “Some souls, like some people, can be slummy anywhere.  There is always a raucous and uncontrolled voice ascending from the basement, and a pail of dirty water at the foot of the stairs.”[vi]

The first order of business with the soul is housecleaning.  John testifies, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[vii]

We come to the door of the castle through the grace of forgiveness and our acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord.  That is only safe way to approach the door.  Teresa tells us, “As far as I can understand, the door of entry into this castle is prayer and meditation.”[viii]

If we are going to enter through the door we have to purposefully approach the door.  Prayer, to be prayer at all must be both conscious and intentional.  Teresa says,  “If a person does not think Whom he is addressing, and what he is asking for, and who it is that is that is asking and of Whom he is asking it, I do not consider that he is praying at all even though he may be constantly moving his lips.”[ix]  St. Benedict tells us, “Whenever we want to ask some favour of a powerful man, we do it humbly and respectfully for fear of presumption.  How much more important, then, to lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion?”[x]  What tends to be lost in our age is a sense of awe, and love without awe is a poor counterfeit.

There is in St. Teresa a fusion of awe and familiarity with her Lord.  She refers to her Lord as “His Majesty,” and at the same time refers to Him as “the Beloved.”  Too often in prayer we strive to reach that place of warm familiarity and intimacy without realizing that holy awe is an absolute necessity; and those who shy away from holy awe do not in truth recognize the God they seek to approach.  Teresa tells us that if we do not recognize the person we are addressing we are not praying, just moving our lips. 

That acknowledgment of awe runs through all of the Psalms and is a fundamental part of prayer.  It is not just a sense of awe in relationship with God in Trinity in Unity, or a sense of awe in God the Father alone.  We are particularly prone to sentimentalize our relationship with Jesus, but of Him the Psalmist declares;

Psalm 110   Dixit Dominus

1          The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, *
            until I make your enemies your footstool.”

2          The LORD will send the scepter of your power out of 
            Zion, * saying, “Rule over your enemies round about 

3          Princely state has been yours from the day of your 
            birth; * in the beauty of holiness have I begotten 
            you, like dew from the womb of the morning.”

4          The LORD has sworn and he will not recant: *
            “You are a priest for ever after the order of 

5          The Lord who is at your right hand
            will smite kings in the day of his wrath; *
            he will rule over the nations.

6          He will heap high the corpses; *
            he will smash heads over the wide earth.

7          He will drink from the brook beside the road; *
            therefore he will lift high his head.[xi]

A common problem with contemporary Christians is the tendency to enter through the gate and never go beyond the courtyard.  Teresa tells us that, “Many souls remain in the outer court of the castle, which is the place occupied by the guards; they are not interested in entering it.”[xii]  Part of the problem is that they have not been taught to enter the castle itself.  All of their attention has been focussed on the necessity of entering through the gate, rather than dwelling in the castle, and much effort is spent on attempting to relive the initial experience of conversion, rather than pursuing the more arduous business of living with Christ in the interior of the castle. 

Teresa tells us that many “reptiles” also enter through the gates with us.  By reptiles Teresa is referring to the thousand preoccupations of worldly people “for they are very much all the time filled with their preoccupations, for they are very much attached to them, and, where their treasure is, there is their heart also.”[xiii]  Prayer at this stage remains difficult and arduous because of the variety of distractions that come from our attachment to the world.  Entry into the first floor of the castle is no protection.  Teresa tells us that the reptiles come through the very doors of the castle with us, “Eventually they enter the first rooms on the lowest floor, but so many reptiles get in with them that they are unable to appreciate the beauty of the castle or to find any peace within it.”[xiv]

There is one room on the first floor of the castle that is most important, and that is the room of self-knowledge: Teresa says, “I do not know if I have explained this clearly; self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it; so long as we are on earth, nothing matters more to us than humility.”[xv]  You will visit this room frequently and occasionally spend a great deal of time there.  “Yet one can have too much of a good thing, as the saying goes.”[xvi] 

It is in the room of self-knowledge that humility is acquired, yet if you gaze only at yourself you will lose perspective and perhaps even become prey to the Accuser who is always looking for an open window to enter.  You must leave the room of self-knowledge seeking the vision of God and his glory in order to even understand the meaning of your self-knowledge.  “So long as we are buried in the wretchedness of our earthly nature these streams [of misery] of ours will never disengage themselves from the slough of cowardice, pusillanimity and fear.  We shall always be glancing around and saying: “Are the people looking at me or not?” “If I take a certain path shall I come to any harm?” “Dare I begin such and such a task?” “Is it pride that is impelling me to do so?”[xvii]

Our context within the created order must also be understood, and understood with both balance and appreciation for the wonders that God has made, including ourselves, and with an understanding of the nature of the evil that we encounter in the world.  It is not enough to view ourselves in isolation, although that is essential; one must view one’s self in the context of humankind.  Benedictine balance calls us to moderation and balance, not to a focus on grim self-knowledge alone.  It is important to accept the grace of God already evident in the experience of each one of us.  St. Paul speaks a great truth when he says, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.”[xviii]  We have come this far by grace, through the gate, across the castle grounds, through the castle door itself and into the Room of Self-knowledge. 

That in itself is a great accomplishment.  But we must not rest there but hear also that our God proclaims that we are precious in his eyes, honoured, and that he loves us;[xix] and even more than that, through the effective work of redemption and grace we are already beautiful in his sight.  Self-knowledge demands that we not only see our need for penitence and transformation but that we also see the glory of that ongoing transformation already at work in our lives.

[i] I Corinthians 6:19-20  
[ii] John 14:23 “Jesus answered him, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
[iii] Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, (New York: Harper and Row, 1941), p. 29
[iv] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, E. Allison Peers, trans, and ed. (New York; Doubleday, 1989),  p. 28
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Evelyn Underhill, The House of the Soul, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1930), p. 19
[vii] 1 John 1:7-9  
[viii] Teresa. p. 31
[ix] Ibid. p. 32
[x] The Rule of St. Benedict, CH. 20:1,2
[xi] The Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 753-754
[xii] Teresa. p. 31
[xiii] Ibid. p. 32
[xiv] Ibid. p. 33
[xv] Ibid. p. 38
[xvi] Ibid.
[xvii] Ibid. p. 39
[xviii] I Corinthians 15:10
[xix] Isaiah 43:4