Saint Teresa of Avila: An Interior Castle

By Br. Stephen, MIC

When the name of Teresa of Avila comes to mind, many people think first of her great spiritual work, The Interior Castle. Teresa herself, with her high degree of mental prayer, seems like a kind of interior castle: She is hidden, concealed from the average Catholic by high and fortified walls which are (more obscurely still) spiritual walls. Even St. Therese of Lisieux, her fellow Carmelite, was initially put off by the grand portrayal she was given of Teresa of Avila, choosing instead her well-known “little way.”

The saint’s biography almost consistently furthers this impression. As a child, she and her brother attempted to flee to Africa to convert the Muslims, hoping to be martyred. When that flight was foiled by their watchful parents, the two tried instead to construct hermitages, but this, too, failed. Later, Teresa enjoyed “playing nuns” with her friends — hardly a common pastime in our day. To be sure, after actually joining the Carmelites, she went through a period of spiritual laxity that most of us would mistakenly call “being human.” After this, however, she was impelled by grace to the heights of sanctity, and became a Doctor of the Church on the subject of prayer. This honor, the highest conceivable “doctorate” in the created order, is shared by a bare 35 others in the Church’s 2,000-year history.

Let us consider this title, “Doctor of the Church.” The Church does not declare someone a Doctor because that person is unimaginably or inaccessibly holy. A doctor (Latin for “teacher”) is declared to be outstanding in holiness and learning, but this learning is precisely intended to be shared with the whole Church. The insights of the Doctors may need to be explained by others. However, these truths can be adapted to our words and adopted in our lives. We might think of Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, explaining St. Therese’s “Offering to Merciful Love” in his 33 Days to Merciful Love. Similarly, Fr. Thomas Dubay, SM, has described Teresa of Avila’s doctrine on prayer in his book Fire Within.

Father Dubay brings out three central themes of St. Teresa: the universal call to holiness; what this holiness consists of; and the means of attaining it. No Christian would disagree that we are all called to holiness; Catholics, in particular, can point to the fifth chapter of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (The Light of the Nations). However, there is enormous confusion about what this holiness consists of. This confusion may be one reason why the “transforming union” described by St. Teresa appears so outlandish.

However, in reality, the “transforming union” is outlandish, in the sense of “other-worldly.” The spiritual life is something wholly different from this earthly life, more unlike than like our normal experience. Consider this paradox: God is perfectly simple and yet the Source of richer complexity than we can fathom. As we draw closer to Him, therefore, we too become both simpler and more intricate. Teresa of Avila’s image of the soul as a castle with many rooms, yet made out of a single diamond, captures this complex simplicity aptly. Other paradoxes, such as the unity of love and knowledge or the just one’s ability to know creation through God rather than knowing Him through His creation, are also characteristic of the spiritual perfection to which St. Teresa invites her readers. These outlandish paradoxes, however, are not mere spiritual fairy-tales. They are referred to in the Scriptures: “Love and truth shall meet … [and] justice will look down from heaven” (Ps 85:11-12).

How is it possible to grow toward a goal that is beyond human understanding? We must look to the words of Jesus: “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God” (Mk 10:27). Thus, the primary way for us to grow in holiness is simple obedience to the will of God as revealed in His Word and in His Church. Teresa adds that the soul seeking perfection will not be content with mere obedience, but practices complete generosity, doing anything to please God. This echoes the words of Jesus to the rich young man: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mt 19:21).

One may ask, however: What if I find myself in a bad situation, where complete generosity to God does not seem possible? Any mature person is aware that his environment affects him at every moment, and not always for the good. However, St. Teresa insists that growth in holiness does not depend on one’s environment. Rather, as she writes in her Book of Foundations, “the time is always propitious for God to grant His great favors to those who truly serve Him.” Even in the worst of circumstances, a person may be granted the grace of great holiness, and may accept it. Conversely, a person even in the holiest of convents may fall from a deep prayer life into the state of mortal sin. Environment affects us, but it does not destine us; grace working through, with, and in our free will is the ultimate deciding factor.

I would like to close by reflecting on the Church’s name for Teresa of Avila, which is “Teresa of Jesus.” This is what makes St. Teresa important, far more than her mystical experiences or her outstanding gifts: She was close to Jesus, so much so that her name and His are forever linked. Would you be able to say the same about your name? Taking the name “John” to stand for your name: If any friend of yours reviewed your life today, could that friend say, “This was truly ‘John of Jesus’?” That is the great responsibility that we take upon ourselves with the name “Christian:” We are to be Christ-like.

One very Carmelite way to practice being Christ-like is to spend time simply loving Jesus. The greatest commandment, as Jesus re-affirmed to the scholars of the Mosaic Law, is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30). Praying to Jesus, listening to His Word, and just being silent with Him, helps us to love Him and follow Him better. Love moves us to action, but the first acts of love are interior acts. Just as we must ask for mercy before we can show true mercy to others, we must seek and accept God’s love before we can share it. Only when we love God more than ourselves can we really love our neighbor as ourselves. The interior act comes first, then the exterior actions follow. This interior act of love, consistently and generously practiced, may indeed be the key by which we can unlock and enter the mystery that St. Teresa calls “the interior castle.”

 

Photo by Rita Burza on Unsplash

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