October 15th is the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila. A Carmelite nun living in the 1500s, one of her most famous works is “Interior Castle” (known as “The Mansions” in her native Spain) which she wrote at the request of her confessor. A mystic who communed intimately with God, she had experienced a vision of “a most beautiful crystal globe, made in the shape of a castle, and containing seven mansions, in the seventh and innermost of which was the King of Glory, in the greatest splendour, illuming and beautifying them all. . . outside the palace limits everything was foul, dark, and infested with toads, vipers and other venomous creatures.” This castle became Teresa’s metaphor for the soul. Teresa truly believed that anyone who knew what treasures lay in the center of this castle would never want to sin because sin mires the soul in “misery and filth.” “Interior Castle” explores each of the seven mansions in great detail. Her intended audience was the sisters who made up her cloistered religious community, however her insights offer much to the world at large.
Teresa wrote reluctantly and felt that she had little to offer that had not already been said. She also emphasized that her description and her path to the center of this castle was not the only one. She believed that “Our Lord will be granting me a great favour if a single one of these nuns should find that my words help her to praise Him a little better.” She focuses on the beauty of the soul and laments that we spend so much attention on our physical body and so little on the divine spark that is within.
Teresa focuses on gaining self-knowledge, but not in the way we in the 21st century interpret that term. For her, self-knowledge means coming to know the soul within. It means understanding our dependence on God and gaining humility by acknowledging that we are nothing without Him. The route to self-knowledge and entry into the interior castle comes through prayer and meditation. As one progresses through the mansions, one comes to know and long for God more and more and to reject the world and its attractions. Teresa encourages the beginner in prayer “to labour and be resolute and prepare himself with all possible diligence to bring his will into conforming with the will of God.” She also offers encouragement: “If, then, you sometimes fall, do not lose heart or cease striving to make progress, for even out of your fall God will bring good.” Teresa also makes the point that prayer leads to action rooted in love. “True perfection consists in the love of God and of our neighbor, and the more nearly perfect is our observance of these two commandments, the nearer to perfection we shall be.”
As one makes her way ever deeper into the heart of the castle, increased spiritual consolations and trials become par for the course. Many (perhaps even most) do not reach the most inner mansions in this lifetime. Teresa is quick to point out, however, that “the Lord gives when He wills and as He wills and to whom He wills, and as the gifts are His own, this is doing no injustice to anyone.” Indeed she cautions her readers to never believe that they deserve any gift that the Lord bestows upon them, nor should we set out to obtain any consolations or mystical experiences because “the most essential thing is that we should love God without any motive of self-interest.”
Teresa was truly granted amazing gifts of insight and experience from God. While we may not fully share in her experience, “Interior Castle” offers a unique portrait of our souls and invites us into a deeper relationship with God.