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St. Teresa of Avila's "Interior Castle":

Posted on the Donmeh mail list,
Mon, 25 Jan 1999

[NOTE: St. Teresa of Avila was from a family of Jewish converts to the Catholic Church. Her classic work of mysticism, "The Interior Castle," reflects the influence of Jewish mysticism on her thinking. What follows is by Mr. James Dobbins, moderator of the Catholic Spirituality discussion list. -- Yakov Leib]

Teresa of Avila: Commentary on Interior Castle

Ref:  Vol 2, The Complete Works of Saint Teresa of Jesus

Reflections on First Mansions, Chapter 2

Teresa begins Chapter 2 with a description of a soul falling into mortal sin.  Even though God is still there in the center of the soul, the sin is such an affront and rejection of God, all external evidence of His presence in the soul is extinguished, and the soul can gain no spiritual profit.  The soul has wilfully separated itself from God, and is, to recall a phrase common a few years ago, left swinging in the breeze.  It has chosen to reject God, so by what right can it expect God to participate in its acts or recognize any goodness therein?  The soul in the process of committing mortal sin has the intent, not to please our loving God, but to please satan, to, in effect, make satan its God, proving by our actions that we prefer him over God.  What greater affront could we give God?  The soul takes on the likeness of satan instead of the likeness of God,  it mimics the Prince of Darkness, and thus becomes one with darkness.  St. Teresa, having been shown a soul in darkness, and actually referring to herself as the one to whom a vision of the soul has been shown, tells us that if a person could understand this, understand to what they are giving their loyalty and the implications of this, perhaps they would not sin.

Question:  If this is so, why would God not show this vision to all, and thus prevent the countless number of souls He so dearly loves from plunging into the depths of Hell?  Why would a loving Father not give His children this grace and thus thwart satan?

Teresa then asks that we pray earnestly for souls in darkness, just as we have been taught through the Divine Mercy counsels received by Blessed Faustina.  Although Teresa does not address this point specifically, I could not help but imagine the pain it causes our dear Lord to live in the center of a soul in mortal sin, when His very Divine radiance has been impeded by the willful rejection of Him by that soul, that soul He loves with an infinite  Love.  The power of free will is the power to completely obscure the infinite Love of God, an awesome power with dreadful consequences.

She then cries for the soul so situated.  "How miserable is the state of those poor rooms within the castle!  How disturbed the senses are, that is, the people who live in the rooms!  And in the faculties, that is, among the custodians, the stewards, and the chief waiters, what blindness, what bad management!  In sum, since the tree is planted where the devil is, what fruit can it bear?"

As I read this last part, I could not help but think of the Spiritual Canticle of John of the Cross as he tells us we can not even begin our quest for God unless we have stilled our house, until we have gained control over our faculties and appetites.  How sad the soul which never begins the quest.

The next point Teresa makes is interesting.  She references a spiritual man who was "not surprised at the things done by a person in mortal sin, but at what was not done".  This is an intriguing observation.  We often think of a soul in mortal sin engaged in all sorts of evil activities like running drugs or committing murder or engaging in pornographic activities of all sorts.  But the things not done are, I would propose, those which are in accord with the two commandments of our Lord.  We do not love God, and  therefore do not do those things which exemplify a love of God, like adoration, prayer and proper reception of the sacraments which give life saving grace.  Likewise, we do not love our neighbor, and thus do not do those myriad of things which we could do to exemplify that brotherly and sisterly love.  How very easy it is to ignore one in need, to turn one's back. Teresa teaches another lesson, one of fear of God.  Respectful fear of God was a recurrent theme in the Hebrew Testament, and is less evident in the New Testament.  And yet she teaches us what proper fear of God is, a great fear of offending Him, both for the consequences to ourselves as a result of our fall from grace, and because of the rejection of His infinite love, a rejection which injures Him so.  And so she admonishes us to pray continually for the strength not to fall. She also begs us to recognize the need for humility, to recognize the true Source of any good that we do, and to immediately give praise to God alone for any good we do or see done by another.

Teresa then teaches us something which is very subtle (at least I thought so) and which caught my attention, but I could not at first fathom why.  I think I may have finally discerned it, and had several discussions in our prayer group about this, so I offer this observation to you for your comment.  It may be very elementary for most you, but it was not for us.  She says, in speaking of the Constitutions that tell the community about the obligation to pray, "...little is explained about what the Lord does in a soul, I mean about the supernatural."  How often do we pray and in doing so enter a dialogue with our Lord, or beg His favor, or ask His pardon, but all the while think of our soul as unchanged by the experience, as being the same before and after our prayer?  Yet in every prayer we should have an encounter with God, and at every prayer time God has an objective - something He wishes to accomplish in our soul.  We should never emerge from prayer unchanged, for if we do we have not truly prayed.

God is always drawing us to Himself, always bringing us closer, if we will but cooperate.  Imagine how frustrating it is to Him when we think we come to prayer, and then do not give Him our minds and hearts to work with, but send them elsewhere, focused on things of this world.  Imagine the spiritual treasures we lose, the graces we could have received but do not.  Prayer is an encounter with God.  We approach God, and He approaches us.  We work in His heart by our attitude, and He works in us, sanctifying us, drawing us closer and closer to Him, into His heart.  These prayer times are treasures of grace we may never be able to recapture, for God never does the same thing exactly the same way twice.  He does each thing perfectly,  and once.

I also wondered at one time, as I considered the activity of God in our souls during prayer, if our soul can grow, so to speak, depending on the degree of grace received. As we explore the castle, does each new grace add a new facet, as in a diamond, so that more of God may be reflected throughout the entire castle, and in effect allow Him to grow in us as we diminish, as we see less and less of the crystal and more and more of the brilliant Light streaming forth from the center room?  Do we use prayer and meditation to both enter and navigate through the castle, and in the process increase in  grace with each new room we visit?

Teresa tells us that we need to have some unconventional thinking in terms of our soul.  We always think of ourselves in terms of limits.  I am so tall, so heavy, so white or brown or black or whatever, so bald or hairy, so young or old, always placing differentiating boundaries with which we can be identified.  She teaches us that we need to remove such limitations when thinking of the soul.  The identification of the soul is in terms of grace and the degree to which it has been identified with Christ, the degree  to which it has been transformed in Him.  She makes some very important points, pivotal really, in her whole dialogue beginning in what is labeled section number 8 in Kavanaugh.  In Kavanaugh this is on page 291 and in Peers it begins at the bottom of page 207.  She places great emphasis on self knowledge as she tells us to roam through the castle to explore the rooms. There are two rooms of central importance in the castle, the rooms of humility and self-knowledge.  The room of self-knowledge is an exception among the rooms, an exception not shared by any other, even the room in which our Lord resides.

In my spiritual journal I had a question: Do I have to know myself, does it matter whether I know myself or not, if I am going to be transformed in God and become that which I am now not, and thus become someone I know not yet?  Teresa shows us that  self-knowledge is very important. She does connect humility and self-knowledge.  She also makes the point that in self-knowledge we see how base we are and how we are still associates of the reptiles and vermin that came into these rooms with us, and that through this ever-increasing recognition we gain humility, especially as we soar out from this room to meditate on God and then see how base we are in comparison.  We never lose the need to revisit this room where humility is gained and maintained.

She also tells us that "In my opinion we shall never completely know ourselves if we don*t strive to know God". The emphasis Teresa places on self-knowledge is seen in her assessment of how the devil uses so many tricks to keep us from gaining the advantages of humility and self-knowledge.  She speaks of fear, and fear coming from our lack of self-understanding.   She tells us to *set our eyes on Christ, our Good, and on His saints. There we shall learn true humility, the intellect will be enhanced, as I have said, and self-knowledge will not make one base and cowardly.  Even though this is the first dwelling place, it is very rich and so precious that if the soul slips away from the vermin within it, nothing will be left to do but advance.*

It may be difficult to grasp the full meaning of what Teresa is getting at here unless one has been through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.  In the book of her life, Teresa says she was greatly impressed and influenced by the writings of Ignatius, and sought out Jesuits as her confessors.  Let*s look for a moment at Ignatius* concept of self-knowledge.  Self-knowledge is not our activity of trying to understand ourselves.  We cannot trust ourselves enough to do that.  The dynamic is letting God reveal us to ourselves.  It is gaining an understanding of those attachments we have which must be discarded so we can place God first in our lives.  Thus, to gain self-knowledge, we must encounter God through prayer.  We trust that God is acting in us to bring about this personal relationship.  God is inviting us into the relational life of the Trinity, not in some kind of sporadic or episodic way, but continually, at every moment of our life.  He reveals Himself to us, and reveals us to us, helping us see ourselves through His eyes. Thus, the link between self-knowledge and humility.  They are inseparable. God calls us to recognize the religious dimension of all of our earthly experiences, to feel His touch in our lives.  In our quest for self-knowledge, we do not need to know everything.  We need to know what God wants us to know, so He has to lead us there. Another important point made by Ignatius, in what he calls The Principle and Foundation, is that since we are made to praise, reverence and serve God, and thus save our soul, all of our experience has this as an objective.  We eventually find within us the experience of knowing we have been desired into existence by God, and because God loves what He desires, we are desirable, not only to other persons, but to God.  This is continuous and underlies all of our relationship with God.  It is how we experience the presence of God.  In gaining self-knowledge, we work to discard our fears so that the absolute deepest desire of our being, of our heart, is God Himself.  We desire this absolute Mystery who is God, and everything else is seen relative to this objective.  Since we do not yet know God well, our desire is for *I know not what*, a recurrent theme also found in the writing of St. John of the Cross.

One thing I found very interesting is Teresa's description of the many rooms in these first mansions, entered into in many ways by the soul, each room having things that try to block the souls progress, although the closer we get to the King*s rooms the less of this we find.  Up to this point in the book, I had assumed that once inside the castle I was safe, and from that point on was tasked with growing in grace.  But Teresa warns us that we are tasked to grow in grace, for that is how we approach the King's mansion, but that we must also, like knights of old, slay the reptiles and dragons of sin as we make our way toward this abode of safety.  Even though the environment is one of crystal beauty, it is not without its dangers for portions of the journey within, including the danger of satan appearing to us as an angel of light to deceive us and draw us away from our objective.  We must keep working through the first dark rooms, clouded with our attractions for the world and our tendency toward sin, and navigate our way toward that place where we can begin to see the Light, where we have a beacon to guide us to the vessel which will take us in safety the rest of the way to the center.  This vessel is commanded by God Himself, and thus He must decide when to send us this craft.

She tells us that if we have any intention at all to move on to the second mansions, that  "...it is important that he strive to give up unnecessary things and business affairs.  Each one should do this in conformity with his state in life".  God must be our primary, and hopefully our one, objective.

Question: In what ways can one leading a secular life, with a family to care for, honor this advise she gives?  What would constitute unnecessary affairs and business?  Would striving for a promotion fall into this category?



"The Interior Castle" of St. Teresa of Avila
Wed, 10 Feb 1999
James Dobbins

[NOTE: St. Teresa of Avila, the great Catholic mystic, was Jewish by birth. Her book, "The Interior Castle" shows the influence of Jewish mysticism on her thinking and life. -- Yakov Leib]

Reflections on Second Mansions.  There is only one chapter in Second Mansions

       Having told us about the Castle entry, and the reptiles and vermin which snuck in with us and will accompany us through much of the Castle, and the apparent dimness of the Light within due to our clouded vision, Teresa now begins to take us further into the Castle.  What are the criteria, or conditions, for a soul to enter the second mansions?

       First, she says that those entering the second Mansions are those who have begun the practice of prayer.  Her definition of prayer is mental prayer, not vocal prayer.  In the book of her Life, which is in Vol 1 of the Collected Works, she said that mental prayer is an intimate friendship, a frequent heart-to-heart conversation with Him by whom we know ourselves to be loved. They are also those who understand the necessity of moving forward, but who might not be as resolute in this as they ought.  They have not yet reached the condition where they will avoid occasions of sin.  The key, for Teresa, seems to be their desire to escape the reptiles, their desire to move forward, even for short periods of time.  Once they begin trying, they have a harder time breaking the chains of the world, but "it now seems that souls in them recognize the dangers, and there is great hope they will enter further into the castle."  The desire these souls have comes from their recognition of the voice of the Lord calling them, and their desire to respond to that still small voice.  Before, in the first Mansions, they were as if deaf and dumb to the Lord.

       This call of the Lord comes to the soul continuously, and the soul, in its struggle to respond, falls into sin many times, tripping over the reptiles repeatedly, for it has not yet gained the strength to avoid occasions of sin.  The soul suffers from its lack of immediate response to God, but it still continues to respond to the call.  This call comes to the soul in many ways; sermons, books, good people, and any variety of means the good Lord chooses to place before the soul. (For us, one of these means is this on-going discussion of Interior Castle).  It may come through sickness or other trials, or may come through prayer; but come it will, for our Lord loves the soul and reaches out to those who seek Him, having promised "seek and you will find".  He did not say, "Seek, and maybe, if you are lucky, I'll let you find Me".

       The thing we have to be ever aware of is the need for our perseverance, and the infinite patience of God.  Teresa says that having perseverance and good desires is very necessary here, and through them the soul gains greatly.  Many have, for example, said they intend to persevere in this study, something we know Satan would not want us to do.  Because of this progress, the assault of the devil is ever more powerful, for he is losing his grip on a soul he thought was his. Suffering will increase, but so will the grace from God to persevere. Here the devils play on pride, showing the soul the great esteem in which it is held by the world.  Impediments of all kinds will be presented as obstacles to prayer.

       In the midst of this confusion, the lessons learned in the rooms of self-knowledge and humility begin to bear fruit.  The soul, recognizing itself and its weaknesses, will throw itself upon the mercy of God and beg His help to go forward, trusting in His mercy, goodness and love.  The soul is able to develop an understanding of the perpetual presence of God, and calls upon this eternal companion to come to its aid in times of weakness, for it knows God is motivated by love for this soul which seeks Him.  Much of what Teresa tells us here is also found in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, which greatly influenced her.

       The soul realizes the enticements thrown toward it by the devil, all temptations being designed to retain the soul in the first Mansions or to draw the soul back out of the castle and into the environs beyond the walls where there is nothing but spiritual misery and worldly pleasure.  The soul realizes that only in the castle will it find peace and security.  The soul is in a position where it can leave, like the Prodigal son, or remain and move forward.  It must do one or the other. It cannot do both.  If the soul rejects the Prodigal call, it if chooses not to "eat the food of swine", it will be greatly rewarded by our loving God.  It is the soul who must decide to seek, but it is Jesus who will provide all necessary grace to do so.  The soul must be ever vigilant against "vain habits" to which it can fall prey, and must follow the call of faith.  *If the devil, especially, realizes that it has all it needs in its temperament and habits to advance far, he will gather all hell together to make the soul go back outside.*

       Teresa then expresses the importance of companionship, like what we have here in the List or in a community environment.  "It is a wonderful thing for a person to talk to those who speak about this interior castle, to draw near not only to those seen to be in these rooms where he is but to those to have entered the ones closer to the center.", ... for "he can converse so much with them that they will bring him to where they are." [This last point is, it seems to me, very important, and I would like to see us discuss this idea to some reasonable extent, and not just pass over it.] 1.  How does one go about recognizing what rooms others are in or have been    in? 2.  How does one tag along, or get close enough to have them take us along?    What is the mechanism or process?  Is there one that is describable?

       Teresa then cautions us about looking for or expecting spiritual favors in this Mansion, for*These are not the dwelling places where it rains manna; those lie further ahead, where a soul finds in the manna every taste it desires; for it wants only what God wants."  Here, Teresa exhorts us to embrace the Cross God sends us, for those who can suffer the most will have the most perfect freedom.  She is insistent in her advise: "The whole aim of any person who is beginning prayer - and don*t forget this, because it is very important - should be that he work and prepare himself with determination and every possible effort to bring his will into conformity with God*s will." 1. How do we, if we are married laity, know the will of God in our   unstructured every day life?

       Teresa asks, "Now then, if we err in the beginning, desiring that the Lord do our will at once and lead us according to what we imagine, what kind of stability will this edifice have?"

       Relying again on what was learned in the first Mansions, Teresa cautions us to "Let them trust in the mercy of God and not at all in themselves, and they will see how His majesty brings them from the dwelling places of one stage to those of another and settles them in a land where these wild animals cannot touch or tire them, ... ." Recalling again the key to entry into the castle - prayer - Teresa then says "Well now, it is foolish to think that we will enter heaven without entering into ourselves, coming to know ourselves, reflecting on our misery and what we owe God, and begging Him often for mercy." 1. Does this strike anyone as a rather strict view, one which equates lack   of entry into the soul with mortal sin? 2. If Teresa is right, it would seem that a high percentage of those we know   in the world will not make it to Heaven.  What can we do about that?

Jim Dobbins




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