October 15th, Feast of St. Teresa of Avila
Today’s saint, Teresa of Avila, is honored by the Church as the “Doctor of Prayer” – and so indeed she is. Of all the spiritiual treatises on the life of prayer, the writings of the Carmalite Reformer stand at the head. From among these writings, it has been recognized by many that “The Interior Castle” deserves a special pride of place as the greatest (or, at least, one of the greatest) works on the nature of prayer. Together with “The Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa’s “Castle” is arguably the greatest treatise on the spiritual life.
Rather than considering, in this little post, the progression of the soul through the seven mansions of St. Teresa – which progress is the most often-noted aspect of the little book – we will benefit greatly from a prior consideration of St. Teresa’s conception of the soul in God, and God in the soul.
The Interior Castle – The soul in God
In the opening pages of “The Interior Castle”, St. Teresa describes how she came to the metaphor of the castle and it’s meaning:
“WHILE I was beseeching Our Lord to-day that He would speak through me, since I could find nothing to say and had no idea how to begin to carry out the obligation laid upon me by obedience, a thought occurred to me which I will now set down, in order to have some foundation on which to build. 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.
“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 centre and midst of them all is the chiefest mansion where the most secret things pass between God and the soul. You must think over this comparison very carefully; perhaps God will be pleased to use it to show you something of the favours which He is pleased to grant to souls, and of the differences between them.
“Now let us return to our beautiful and delightful castle and see how we can enter it. […] You will have read certain books on prayer which advise the soul to enter within itself: and that is exactly what this means. […] 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.”
St. Teresa sees the soul as a castle of many rooms or mansions – we say, by way of addition, that the soul is a spiritual universe, far greater and more beautiful than the material universe (and how much more valuable!).
The interior castle is the soul herself, and in the heart of this castle dwells the Lord – so long, at least, as the soul is in the state of grace. Indeed, even if a man should fall from grace, God still dwells in his soul insofar as the Almighty keeps the soul in existence. If the Lord is present to the soul in mortal sin, how much more does he dwell within that soul which is united to him through supernatural charity!
Do Christians turn inward or outward in prayer?
St. Teresa is extremely clear: “You will have read certain books on prayer which advise the soul to enter within itself: and that is exactly what this means.” For the Doctor of Prayer, Christian prayer is a turn inward – St. Anselm put this well when he wrote in his Proslogion: “Up now, slight man! flee, for a little while, your occupations; hide yourself, for a time, from your disturbing thoughts. Cast aside, now, your burdensome cares, and put away your toilsome business. Yield room for some little time to God; and rest for a little time in him. Enter the inner chamber of your mind; shut out all thoughts save that of God, and such as can aid you in seeking him; close your door and seek him.”
Our Savior said it most beautifully, But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee. (Matthew 6:6) The Church Fathers interpret the inner chamber as the heart of the soul, wherein we enter even when we pray publicly if only we pray with our heart and mind.
Christian prayer is not so much characterized by a looking out to the world, to creation, but rather it is a looking inward.
Even the highest ecstasy is an inward movement – St. Teresa places these ecstatic movements in the higher mansion as we progress further and further into the heart of the soul.
Christian prayer, as distinct from other traditions
Now we see that Christian prayer is quite distinct from other forms of prayer. Consider, for example, the prayer of the pagan naturalists. The pagans worshiped the created world and were amazed by the stars, the planets, and also the earth. But they failed to look inward, at least they did not do so sufficiently. It is on this account that St. Augustine rebukes them: “People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.”
Likewise, consider how different is Christian prayer from that of the Buddhist. While most of Buddhism seeks self-annihilation, the Christian recognizes that the self is all the more exalted and elevated as it is given to God. The Christian does not desire to destroy himself and his desires, but rather strives to see the true desire which the soul has for her Creator. The Christian does not pray that God should subsume him and he should utterly disappear, rather he says: “Lord take me from myself and give me to yourself, so that I may truly be myself in you.”
Sanctifying grace, the indwelling of the Trinity
Does not this discussion of prayer risk the danger of self-absorption? How can we reconcile this inward movement of prayer with the necessity of being rid of inordinate self-love? Ought not the soul to love God first above all else – and how can this be if she must first turn inward upon herself?
The key to this dilemma lies in the recognition that the soul is not loved for herself alone, but rather for whom she is in God. Yes, the inward turn is not a self-absorption, because the soul seeks not her own will as she retreats from the world but rather seeks her Creator who dwells within her.
This is why true prayer – we mean, meditative prayer which is the door of the interior life and of union with God – can only be had by one in the state of grace. Unless God dwell in the center of the soul through sanctifying grace, the inward turn of the soul will remain purely natural and will not be efficacious unto eternal life.
The inward movement of the life of prayer, when conceived of in terms of God indwelling within the soul through sanctifying grace, is no longer a self-absorption but is much more a recognition of the ultimate authority which God himself has over the soul. Recognizing that the Trinity dwells in the innermost mansion of the sanctified soul teaches us that he alone rules over the soul, and that the soul belongs more to God than to herself.
And, lest we should fall into Pelgianism – thinking that we have the ability, from our own natural powers, to enter into the mansions through our own effort as though it were not entirely a grace from God – St. Teresa reminds us at the very end of here treatise:
“It is true that, however strong you may think yourselves, you cannot enter all the Mansions by your own efforts: the Lord of the Castle Himself must admit you to them. So, if you meet with any resistance, I advise you not to make any effort to get in, for if you do you will displease Him so much that He will never admit you. He is a great Lover of humility. If you consider yourselves unworthy of entering even the third Mansions, He will more quickly give you the will to reach the fifth, and thenceforward you may serve Him by going to these Mansions again and again, till He brings you into the Mansion which He reserves as His own”
St. Teresa of Avila, Pray for us!