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Teresa of Ávila, Part III: The Interior Castle

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Mystics and Non-Dual Thinkers: Week 3

Teresa of Ávila, Part III: The Interior Castle
Tuesday, July 28, 2015

As you will see in her writings, Teresa of Ávila was quite astute psychologically. Her mystical masterpiece, The Interior Castle, written in only two months’ time when she was sixty-two, describes the stages of spiritual growth with amazing insight. The Prologue explains how reluctant she was to write another book. Her health, never good, was growing progressively worse. Mirabai Starr beautifully describes how Teresa turned to God for help and the vision that ensued. “‘Beloved,’ she prayed, ‘I have no idea what to say here. If you want me to do this thing, you’re going to have to speak through me.’” [1] Apparently, God did.

Teresa received a vision of a crystal castle inside the human soul, with God, the Beloved, at its center. Starr writes: “The journey to union with the Beloved is a journey home to the center of ourselves. . . . The human soul is so glorious that God himself chooses it as his dwelling place. The path to God, then, leads us on a journey of self-discovery. To know the self is to know God.” [2] This is exactly the connection that C.G. Jung found so lacking in the 20th century Swiss Calvinism in which he was raised. (Jung’s father and five uncles were all Protestant ministers.) This led to his major criticism of Christianity: it was all external and intellectual; there was no inherent connection between God and the soul. It is a shame Jung never read Teresa!

Teresa believed that God is ever alluring and inviting us home and that our longing for God is the core motivation of our beings. Through contemplative prayer, the soul moves through seven mansions or dwellings of the interior castle, ever drawing closer to the center:

  1. In the first dwelling, the soul becomes aware that there is a castle to be explored and discovers her own longing for God. Monstrous creatures distract and tempt. Teresa saw that the soul’s only hope, as Starr says, “is to cultivate a discipline of humility and self-knowledge . . . to recognize her own limitations and praise the greatness of God” through the practice of prayer. [3] The soul moves beyond rote prayer to intimate conversation with God.
  2. In the second dwelling, the soul learns to recognize God’s quiet voice amid the noise of the world. God’s voice comes through the words of teachers, friends, and sacred texts.
  3. Prayer begins to feel dry and empty, a test of humility. Starr explains: “If the soul can quit trying to figure God out with her mind and concentrate on feeling him with her heart, if she can learn to surrender her personal will to the inscrutable will of the Beloved, she will progress to the fourth dwelling.” [4]
  4. Here the senses and mind are stilled in what Teresa names the Prayer of Quiet. Up until now, the soul has been striving through conscious effort, but in the fourth dwelling, the soul begins to experience someone else as the Doer as God takes over.
  5. In the fifth dwelling, the soul and God become engaged to marry in what Teresa calls the Prayer of Union. Starr writes: “Here, the faculties are totally suspended. When the soul emerges from this state, she [knows] that ‘she was in God and God was in her.’” [5] Teresa uses the metaphor of a silkworm, spinning a cocoon in which to die, to illustrate how it is only by dying to our False Self that we can be transformed and fly to God.
  6. God and soul fall more deeply in love and come to know each other through time together in solitude. This love is felt as a deep wound, an unbearable longing, physical ache, and even betrayal. Yet there is also joy and ecstasy, for the wounding comes from God.
  7. At the center of the castle, the innermost dwelling, the soul finds union with the Beloved. Starr beautifully describes this experience: “Like rain falling into an infinite sea, all boundaries between the soul and God melt. Union, by definition, transcends the subject-object distinction. There is no longer any lover left to enjoy her Beloved. There is only love.” [6]

Before death and ultimate union, the soul must let ego bring it back to the ordinary world, to the seeming separateness of individual life. But there is a lasting transformation: “The soul who has dissolved into God reemerges with a vibrant wakefulness.” [7] There is now a permanent place of peace from which the soul can approach day-to-day tasks and responsibilities. The soul knows the Beloved lives inside and will never leave.

Gateway to Silence:
“God alone is enough.”  —Teresa of Ávila

[1] Mirabai Starr, trans., The Interior Castle, (Riverhead Books: 2003), 21.
[2] Ibid., 21-22.
[3] Ibid., 23.
[4] Ibid., 24.
[5] Ibid., 25.
[6] Ibid., 26.
[7] Ibid., 26.

Image credit: St. Teresa of Ávila (detail) by Fray Juan de la Miseria, 16th c.
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