Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions. If not, I would have told you: because I go to prepare a place for you. And if I shall go, and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will take you to myself…– John 14:1-3 (Douay Rheims)
I have read widely enough to know when I’m over my head with a book and I know that I’m over my head with this one.
Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that what pertains to me personally is mostly in the beginning. So that’s what I’m going to write about here.
About St. Teresa of Avila
St. Teresa of Avila was a leader and reformer of the Carmelite Orders of both women and men and the first female Doctor of the Catholic Church. She was courageous. She was articulate. And she was devoted to God.
St. Teresa was born in Ávila, Spain in 1515. She was a noblewoman whose paternal grandfather was a marrano (or forced Jewish convert to Christianity). At age 20, she entered the Carmelite Order. She read widely throughout her life. Her writing include an autobiography (The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus), The Way of Perfection and Interior Castle.
When St. Teresa began Interior Castle on Trinity Sunday, June 2nd, 1577, she was already on the radar of the Inquisitors. That may be why she is self-effacing, in the writing that follows, calling herself foolhardy or wretched, a mere woman writing for her fellow sisters only because women understand other women best.
Or that may be how she actually thought of herself. She was humble, after all. A saint.
And a mystic.
There is a lot about mysticism I don’t understand but there are couple of things that I notice in St. Teresa’s writing. My first observation is that legitimate mystical experience requires an unusually high degree of personal sanctity. The second is that mysticism calls for an intense and unwavering desire to get as close to God as is humanly possible.
That St. Teresa had such a desire from a young age, is obvious. We can see it in the story of how she set out for land of the Moors, as a child of seven, in order to be martyred and then see heaven. And we can see that same dedication shining through the words that she wrote.
The Interior Castle Framework
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 many Mansions. – St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle
While St. Teresa often speaks of multiple castles or mansions the model she uses is one of rooms or levels in a greater castle which is ruled by God. The rooms are numbered one through seven, but are at the same time innumerable.
St. Teresa is clear in saying that the castle itself is something which we should not expect to ever understand fully.
…there is no point in our fatiguing ourselves by attempting to comprehend the beauty of this castle…the very fact that His Majesty says it is made in His image means that we can hardly form any conception of the soul’s great dignity and beauty.– St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle
We also are shown that we should not think of the various floors or chambers in a strictly linear way.
Let us now imagine that this castle, as I have said, contains many mansions, some above, others below, others at each side; and in the center and midst of them all is the chiefest mansion where the most secret things pass between God and the soul. – St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle
Entering into the Castle
The chambers that St. Teresa describes are beautifully and progressively filled with light but they are not, even on the lowest level, accessible to everyone.
…there are souls so infirm and so accustomed to busying themselves with outside affairs that nothing can be done for them, and it seems as thought they are incapable of entering with themselves at all. So accustomed have they grown to living all the time with the reptiles and other creature to be found in the outer court of the castle that they have almost become like them; and although by nature they are so richly endowed as to have the power of holding converse with none other than God Himself, there is nothing that can be done for them.St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle
While not everyone can enter the castle, those who do will come through the doorway of prayer.
As far as I can understand, the door of entry into this castle is prayer and meditation: I do not say mental prayer rather than vocal for, if it is prayer at all, it must be accompanied by meditation. If a person does not think Whom he is addressing …I do not consider that he is praying at all even though he be constantly moving his lips. – St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle
Leaving behind the poor “paralyzed souls” who are unable to gain entry, St. Teresa moves on to talk about those in a second group who may (or may not) enter in. St. Theresa describes them as people who…
…are very much absorbed in worldly affairs; but their desires are good; sometimes, though infrequently they commend themselves to Our Lord and they think about the state of their souls, though not very carefully. Full of a thousand preoccupations as they are, they pray on a few times a month and as a rule they are thinking all the time of their preoccupations, for the are very much attached to them, and, where their treasure is there is their heart.St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle
To my mind, this describes most of us. But I found that encouraging because it also holds out the hope that those who develop a true awareness of their worldly state may achieve ground level access.
The First Castle
St. Teresa describes the path of the worldly (but not hopeless) individuals outside the castle as follows:
From time to time, however they shake their mind free of them [meaning their worldly concerns] and it is a great thing that they should know themselves well enough to realize that they are not going the right way to reach the castle door. Eventually they enter the first rooms on the lowest floor, but so many reptiles get in with them they are unable to appreciate the beautify of the castle or to find any peace within it. Still they have done a good deal by entering at all.St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle
The idea that we can be within the castle but still caught up in worldly desires highlights the fact that entry is only a beginning.
You must note that the light which comes from the palace occupied by the King hardly reaches these first Mansions at all; for, although they are not dark and black, as…the soul…in a state of sin, they are to some extent darkened … because … snakes and vipers and poisonous creatures …. have come in with the soul …. [and] prevent it from seeing the light.St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle
Remember that in few of the mansions of this castle are we free from struggles with devils … it is most important that we should not cease to be watchful against the devil’s wiles, lest he deceive in the guise of an angel of light. For there are a multitude of ways in which he can deceive us, and gradually make his way into the castle, and until he is actually there we do not realize it.St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle
St. Teresa dedicates chapter one to the first castle. Chapter two addresses the topic of sin and the subtle ways in which Satan can deceive us. In chapter three she moves on to the second castle.
But I am fascinated by the vipers in chapter one.
I remember a dream I had about fallen angels and poison and writing. And another about a pit full of lizards.
I think about the poisonous reptiles in my waking life.
St. Teresa tells us that these creatures can be a problem in the second castle or the third. She uses the image of a poisonous viper as a metaphor for sin and worldly preoccupation and the demonic.
Full of a thousand preoccupations as they are, they pray only a few times a month and as a rule they are thinking all the time of their preoccupations, for the are very much attached to them, and, where their treasure is there is their heart.
I think about my own attachments and feel quite sure that I am part of the ground level group St. Teresa describes above.
I remember how spiritually advanced I imagined myself to be when I was involved in the new age and the occult. I find it interesting that now, having returned to the Church, I’m struck by how spiritually remedial I actually am.
I set aside Interior Castle and take a short personal inventory. I come up with seven behaviors that I would like to change. And I know that I’m right to want to change them. These are things that stand between me and God or at the very least show that I don’t really trust him.
This is how I know that I am over my head with Interior Castle. While I know that I will read the rest of it anyway, I also know that it’s the first chapter I need to focus on. I remember that St. Teresa said we enter the castle through the doorway of prayer so I know that prayer is the key.
I order a book that Fr. Chad Ripperger recommends called The Ways of Mental Prayer. It promises an explanation of contemplative prayer that is based on of the work of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales and others.
I think about the Interior Castle a lot over the next couple of days. I know it’s not especially impressive to find myself stuck in the entryway to St. Teresa’s beautiful palace. But to me it feels like a discovery.
There are several versions of Interior Castle available. The Dover Thrift Edition (affiliate link) at $4.99 for the paperback or .99 for the Kindle version. Or a very nicely narrated version on audible for $10.95. There is also a free version of the audiobook on YouTube. You can find it on my channel (in my Saints playlist) here.