Blessed is the man who fears the LORD[i],
“But of one thing I must warn you : … do not be too sure of yourselves…nor must you become confident because you are always talking about God, continually engaging in prayer, withdrawing yourselves completely from the things of this world and (to the best of your belief) abhorring them.”[ii]
Teresa is addressing the sisters in her Order, so what she advises is not surprising. They are cloistered. They observe the Hours of Prayer. They fast, sometimes too much. They meditate. They talk of God. She exhorts them, “Enter, then, enter within yourselves, my daughters; and get right away from your own trifling good works, for these you are bound, as Christians, to perform, and many more.”[iii] What is surprising is the simple fact that we are so far from the problem that Teresa is concerned about.
Contemporary Christians, particularly from an evangelical background, are too sure of themselves and have an odd confidence based on their assurance that they have accepted Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. They have been told that they are accepted by God, and that’s the end of it. They therefore assume that they must be perfectly fine. Very few even know what the Hours of Prayer are. In general they have a hard time praying and reading Scripture once a day, even for a short period of time. They pray when the heat is on. Meditation is exceptional. And far from doing good works they assume that if they keep away from doing real stupid and wicked things that they are perfectly alright.
Contemporary Christianity has barely gotten through the gate of the Castle. Having by grace arrived that far, some of the more adventuresome have entered the Interior Castle; accompanied by their snakes and vipers and poisonous creatures. There they sit, often for far too little time in the Room of Self-Discovery, for self-discovery is a painful thing. We live in an aspirin culture. Pain is not something we are taught to endure.
What then can we gather from Teresa’s exhortation to her sisters in the Third Mansion? Certainly this, “Blessed is he who fears the Lord.” God is to be held in awe, and we are not to rest on our own laurels. She says, “Get away from your trifling good works,” and compared to her sisters our works are indeed trifling. We should understand also that we would be wise “to get away from” the false assurances of contemporary Christianity. What the Room of Self-Discovery should teach us is that God is awesome and we, by contrast are an embarrassment to the angels. How could God love such creatures as we are? “O LORD, what is man that you regard him, or the son of man that you think of him?”[iv]
It is alarming to hear St. Teresa say, “What do you expect His Majesty to do, for the reward which He is to give us must of necessity be proportionate with the love which we bare Him? And this love, daughters, must not be wrought in our imagination but must be proved by our works.”[v]
Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century scientist philosopher makes an important observation about the difference between imagination and the heart. He says, “Men often take their imagination for their heart, and often believe they are converted as soon as they start thinking of becoming converted.”[vi] Peter Kreeft comments, “Not all direct and immediate intuition is from the heart. Imagination also intuits rather than reasons. It “sees pictures”. But it is not the heart. And we can easily mistake it for the heart. This is why we can imagine ourselves to be saints. We can easily imagine, think of, contemplate and be attracted to the idea of giving our whole selves and lives over to God without actually doing it, and think we have done it because we have imagined it.”[vii]
That is why the biblical view of conversion and surrender does not rest on subjective feelings, even though subjective feelings are a legitimate part of conversion. In his epistle St. John says, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”[viii] What Teresa said was, “This love, daughters, must not be wrought in our imagination but must be proved by our works.”[ix] Those works include the works of righteousness and the works of love as we reach out to others.
We often spend too much effort in trying to recapture the subjective experiences of the Presence of God. Instead of expecting unearned favors and blessings from our Lord, Teresa would have us understand that aridity in prayer is a gift given to help us understand our limitations and by spiritual discomfort draw us to greater discipline in seeking the Lord. We have been taught a false application of the doctrine of justification by faith. We are justified by faith. That does not mean that there is no further discipline of effort required on our part. We sense that and it makes us uncomfortable. Often contemporary Christians try to relive the first flush of spiritual fervor by attending more conferences, or more renewal events.
That is no substitute for simple spiritual discipline. Pray the Daily Office. Read Scripture. Sing praise to the Lord. Practice the awareness of His Presence. Meet frequently with the Saints. Pray for one another. Become aware of the need to lead a more disciplined life. Pursue love. Seek the spiritual gifts.
Teresa tells her sisters, “Believe me, what matters is not whether or not we wear a religious habit; it is whether we try to practice the virtues, and make a complete surrender of our wills to God and order our lives as His Majesty ordains: let us desire that not our wills, but His will be done.”[x]
She cries out, “How I wish our [love] would make us dissatisfied with this habit of always serving God at a snail’s pace! As long as we do that we shall never get to the end of the road. And as we seem to be walking along and getting fatigued all the time—for, believe me, it is an exhausting road—we shall be very lucky if we escape getting lost.”[xi]
The essence of the Third Mansion is this: It is a Mansion, that is, a place of development, a stage in the Interior Castle. Whether or not our spirituality matches that of her sisters, she would call us once more to understand that, “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,” to be humble before our God, and to surrender our wills to Him and once more to renew our spiritual disciplines.
[i] Psalm 112:1
[ii] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, ed. & trans. E. Allison Peers, (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 56
[iii] Ibid. p. 60
[iv] Psalm 144:3
[v] Teresa, p. 61
[vi] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, (San Franscico: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 232
[vii] Ibid. p. 234-233
[viii] I John 3:19
[ix] Teresa, p. 61
[x] Ibid. p. 65