Teresa of Avila
As a teenager in sixteenth century Catholic Spain, Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada enjoyed dressing up and reading novels of knightly chivalry and romance. Vivacious, with alabaster skin and shiny black hair, she enjoyed her little flirtations and romances, but was sure to keep them secret to preserve family honor.
As she moved towards adulthood, her choices were limited to marriage or becoming a nun. The Carmelite Order's Convent of the Incarnation, just outside Avila, was one where the sisters could have her own rooms, receive visitors and be allowed to read. These freedoms appealed to Teresa, and against the wishes of her father, who expected her to marry, she joined up as a novice. Although she had felt no vocation or particular spiritual leaning, she found convent life to her liking.
With her intellect and way with people, Teresa might have risen to the head of her convent, but otherwise lived an unremarkable life. But she began to have raptures and visions, mystical experiences which turned her into a something of a holy celebrity. In another time she may have been instantly recognized as a saint, but Spain was in the grip of the Inquisition. Teresa's claim that her raptures allowed her to converse directly with God bypassed the authority of the Church, and many believed that these conversations were not with the Lord, but with Satan. She had to be careful. Teresa turned to confessors, learned religious men who had the authority to correctly diagnose her states as real or imaginary. Their probing luckily led to a consensus that her experiences were a genuine gift from God.
Though many would remain suspicious of her, Teresa's work to reform the Carmelite order (towards stricter observance) and founding of seventeen new convents and two monasteries greatly reduced the risk of reproach. These activities are chronicled in her popular and influential Life.
Inside the castle
It is her Interior Castle, though, that is considered to be the masterpiece. What is it and what prompted her to write it?
A description of the stages of her soul's growth, the book was originally intended for the eyes of the Carmelite sisters only, that they may feel less alone in their spiritual trials. Teresa's inspiration was her imagining 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."
In Spanish the book is known as Las Moradas (The Mansions). These dwelling-places we will now visit in brief.
This initial level of the life of the soul is likened to a courtyard surrounding the castle, in which the 'venomous creatures' of sin prowl. Here, humility is slowly learned through the effects of sinful action. Souls here are challenged to find the discipline required to act from beyond base impulses. Though God desires the best for the soul, its ability to recognize and love God is not great, and therefore self-knowledge also will be limited.
Teresa speaks of those who are continually busying themselves with their affairs, never realizing the treasure that lies within. Some of these people do have the honest desire to enter the door of the castle through prayer and meditation, but their prayer is too infrequent and weak. Yet Teresa says that just the attempt to get in on the first floor the castle is a great step.
We now appreciate the need for regular prayer to stave off our old ways, and to feel a comforting nearness to God. God makes a great effort to beckon us closer, even though we are very much still involved in the 'pastimes and businesses and pleasures and hagglings', as Teresa puts it, of this world. The devil continues to try to make us believe that material things and relationships are of an eternal nature and all-important. Teresa says of this crucial point: "What confusion the devils bring about in the poor soul, and how distressed it is, not knowing if it ought to proceed farther or return to the room where it was before!"
In the second mansions, the soul starts to get more in charge of itself, and seeks out the things of God to keep it on the spiritual path. Through prayer it becomes more able to resist temptations. Yet in this first flush of real love for the Divine realm, we tend to look for spiritual favors. Instead we should be willing to suffer more, offering our suffering to God.
By this point we may be perceived by others as being 'good' or 'religious', yet these rarefied heights are also a dangerous place for the seeker of God. Whatever faith and godliness we have achieved so far, in the third mansions of the soul they are at risk of evaporating through hubris and forgetting to fear God. Teresa counsels to remain humble, for "the more we have received of Him, the more deeply do we remain in his debt." We may experience periods of 'aridity' when we do not feel the rush of love or faith, but we must plow through it and not be restless.
At this level of the interior castle we stand on a threshold: full surrender to the Divine - or going back to relying on our own reason.
This is the first mystical level of the castle, when we are depending less on ourselves and relying on God, falling into God's embrace with trust. Instead of always thinking about God, we begin to receive the gift of natural understanding. Teresa tells the reader 'not to think much but to love much'.
These mansions are of such beauty that we are not able to describe them to those who have yet to see. We start to get natural blessings or consolations without even praying for them. This is the long-awaited takeoff point in our awakening, when striving gives way to grace.
Within these walls is achieved union with God.
We can pray all we like, but spiritual union is a mystery. When it happens it is unmistakeable. Teresa here uses her famous analogy of the silkworm. The soul is like the silkworm which feeds on the sustenance of God, and when we are in a state of full trust we are cocooned in divine love. Only from this parcel of piety can we emerge the butterfly, imbued with a lightness never possessed before: "It sets no store by the things it did when it was a worm - that is, by its gradual weaving of the cocoon. It has wings now: how can it be content to crawl along slowly when it is able to fly?"
The medium of advancement
For Teresa, then, the soul's journey is divided into two stages: in the first to third mansions, striving on one's own to get closer to God; and thereafter, progress which comes from God's grace.
Yet only through prayer and meditation can we begin to progress. Prayer is not for 'getting things', but for drawing closer to God and God's will. It is the act of admitting that we don't know everything, that there is a higher power who will help if let in on a problem. The chance of experiencing grace - unexpected bursts of blessing in which everything is good the way it is - increases the more we engage in thoughts about God in prayer. Pray, Teresa urged, even when you don't think it is effective. The Divine time scale is different from the human.
Going to church, saying prayers, reading holy works, forgiving people - all seem hopelessly old-fashioned now, yet as Teresa says, such things take us out of the incessant chatter of our minds, elevating us to greater and more lasting things. Simple worship and contemplation keeps us 'on the straight and narrow', providing a clear path through the thickets of our mind.
Throughout Interior Castle Teresa states her ignorance before learned men and describes herself as a 'bird with a broken wing', hopeless at writing and offering nothing new. Yet this picture of a demure sister who knows little was largely false, because when she wrote it Teresa was a powerful figure who did not suffer fools gladly. Cathleen Medwick's biography of Teresa notes that she was "an extremely businesslike mystic." Single-minded, even brash, she was a good negotiator and had learned something of finance and law. She enjoyed conversations about books (St Augustine's Confessions was a favorite; she identified with the reformed sinner), cultivated society figures, and liked having a good meal and a laugh. "There is a time for penance", she is reputed to have said, "and a time for partridge".
There is certainly a contrast between the worldly religious entrepreneur and the saint who discovered the deepest reaches of the soul - Teresa was amazed by her spiritual gifts and embarrassed by her visions - but it was what she experienced in prayer and meditation that gave her the motivation for her earthly achievements.
William James said of Teresa that "her idea of religion seems to have been that of an endless amatory flirtation - if one may say so without irreverence - between the devotee and the deity." Indeed there is a famous Bernini sculpture of Teresa in one of her prayerful ecstasies, which the artist naughtily gave the appearance of orgasm.
The non-religious mind finds it hard to comprehend how a person can channel their love towards something invisible, but in Teresa's case the 'going without' only served to awaken her individuality and powers. If she had married, it is unlikely much would have come of her life, but as a 'bride of Christ' she beat a path that not even her teenage books of chivalric romance could match in excitement or purpose.
Source: Tom Butler-Bowdon 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)
"As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble."
St Teresa of Avila
Teresa de Ahumada was born in 1515. Her grandfather had undergone conversion to Catholicism, and her own father, partly because the family was well-off, retained a life-long fear of being exposed as Jews instead of Christian nobility.
Teresa joined the Carmelite order in 1533, taking her vows two years later. In 1562 she left the convent where she had lived for almost thirty years to found, in a small house in Avila, the Convent of St Joseph. In 1567 the general of the Carmelite order requested that she extend her convent reforms, and in the last twenty years of her life founded 17 convents and 2 monasteries.
Teresa died in 1582 at the convent of Alba, but her body was exhumed a few months later. The total lack of decomposition indicated that she was a saint, and her body parts were given away to various convents as holy relics. It was said that her unearthed body emitted a fragrance, the 'odor of sanctity'. She was canonized in 1622, and in 1970 was the first woman to achieve the Vatican's distinction of 'Doctor of the Church'.
Interior Castle was written in only three months and edited by her friend Padre Gracian, provincial of the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites. The original unedited version is generally used today, and the classic English translation is by Edgar Allison Peers.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2023
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