The Long View: The Interior Castle

This luminous review of St. Teresa's The Interior Castle finally brings me full circle, back to the mysteries of human experience, and the unity of mystical experience across religions. 

The Interior Castle
By St. Teresa of Avila

Translated by: 
The Monks of Stanbrook, 1911
Spanish Original:
Published Circa 1583
Barnes & Noble, 2005
227 Pages, US$9.95
ISBN: 978-0-7607-7024-5


If someone asks you, "What do you want from life?" all sorts of answers may occur to you. Ancient tradition suggests, however, that you should ask for something like this:

[T]he spiritual marriage with our Lord, where the soul always remains in its center with its God. Union may be symbolized by two wax candles, the tips of which touch each other so closely that there is but one light; or again, the wick, the wax, and the light become one, but that one candle can again be separated from the other and the two candles remain distinct; or the wick may be withdrawn from the wax. But spiritual marriage is like rain falling from heaven into a river or stream, becoming one and the same liquid, so that river and rainwater cannot be divided; or it resembles a streamlet flowing into the ocean, which cannot afterwards be disunited from it. This marriage may also be likened to a room into which a bright light enters through two windows--though divided when it enters, the light becomes one and the same.

The spiritual marriage is an event that occurs in the Seventh Mansions of the seven-region structure of the soul described in this book by Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada (1515 -- 1582), the reforming Carmelite nun. She was later named a saint and a Doctor of the Church; she is best known as St. Teresa of Avila. The state she described is the best thing that can happen to a living human being.

The contemplative tradition of prayer in which Teresa is such an eminent figure prescinds from most late-modern discussions about the reality and nature of the divine. God is not a proposition to be proven; or even an object of faith, at least after the first stage of prayer as self-initiated meditation. Rather, God is known through direct experience, an experience that is prior to any philosophical or scientific glosses that students of contemplation might apply to it. In that sense, contemplative prayer is an existentialist enterprise, rather like Heidegger's study of conscience as the voice of Being. The difference is that modern existentialism appeals to immediate experience on the assumption that experience will always behave itself. In the world of the contemplative, experience does not behave itself at all.

Be that as it may, any class of phenomena that are predominantly mental is going to raise at least some suspicion of insanity, fraud or mistake. Teresa reminds us more than once that she suffers from headaches, and that she sometimes hears a sound like rushing waters. There were points in her spiritual life, she makes clear, when she was simply ill. Critical of her own experience, she offers readers frank cautions about the psychological pathologies to which the nuns of her Order are subject. ("Melancholia" is not a modern diagnosis, but it seems at least as useful as later terms have proven to be.) She has a quite lively sense of the power of wishful thinking. She evidently knows mere silliness when she sees it. She also warns that even the most dramatic psychological event can be a diabolical deception, or may simply have no deep significance at all.

Readers of her book will soon appreciate how disciplined her treatment of contemplation is. They will also appreciate that quite a lot of this discipline is external.

Throughout her career, Teresa's activities were impeded because she was a woman in a society where women had limited legal personality, and, in any case, were not expected to have serious intellectual interests. Teresa was the daughter of a converso family, which also made her an object of suspicion in 16th-century Spain. More important, she and her colleague in the male wing of the Carmelite Order, Saint John of the Cross, were continuing to cultivate a tradition of late medieval spirituality that the Spanish hierarchy of her day strongly suspected, not without reason, to have contributed to starting the Reformation. Teresa was periodically suspected of being one of the alumbrados, a mystical movement whose beliefs shaded into antinomianism.

For a variety of reasons, then, Teresa had protracted problems with the Inquisition and her own superiors. In fact, in 1577, when this book was written, her access to religious texts and even her own earlier works were restricted; when she makes a Biblical quotation, she warns that she may have misremembered it because she cannot look it up. Nonetheless, it says something for her general mental health that she proved to be a formidable bureaucratic infighter. She managed to keep her major works in circulation, and she co-founded the Discalced Carmelites, a branch of the 12th-century Carmelite Order, that remains an important institution in the 21st century.

Teresa's uncongenial historical circumstances created fewer restraints than the system of confession and spiritual direction that can be found in some form in any religious order, but that are especially important to contemplatives. They are not unwanted intrusions, but an integral part of the discipline she describes. She repeatedly urges her readers, whom she assumed would at first be her fellow Carmelites, to keep their confessors informed about their spiritual experiences, and their prioress about their social and psychological ones (sometimes, the best next step in one's prayer life is a vacation, or at least a change of assignments). Of course, Teresa was aware that she knew more about the theory and practice of advanced spirituality than some of her spiritual directors did. The book is sprinkled with passages like this:

The time which has been spent in reading or writing on this subject will not have been lost if it has taught us these two truths; for though learned, clever men know them perfectly, women's wits are dull and need help in every way. Perhaps this is why our Lord has suggested these comparisons to me; may He give us grace to profit by them!

Leaving aside the question of which two truths were at issue, there are several ways to view this passage. Maybe it is a simple expression of humility. Maybe it is a way of deflecting possible criticism from suspicious prelates. There is also some reason to suppose that Teresa was the snarkiest Doctor of the Church since Augustine.

* * *

We should note that nowhere does Teresa suggest that the contemplative path is necessary for salvation, or even peculiarly helpful for it. Neither does she make special claims for her model of the soul as a castle like a translucent crystal. Nonetheless, for those who found the analogy helpful, she suggested that those who wished to advance in the knowledge and experience of God could think of themselves as moving through a concentric system of six rings of rooms or mansions ("moradas") toward a seventh, central set, where God was most perfectly present. Each of these rings of mansions presented its own challenges in terms of personal reformation and the type of prayer that is possible there; also, in each successive ring God affects the seeker in a more dramatic and overwhelming way. After the inner sections, particularly after the Fourth Mansions, God is clearly controlling the advance, but grace of some kind is needed for every step, including the original decision to enter the Castle.

Outside the castle is a dark landscape, where poor sinners are preyed upon by "reptiles," which may be demons, or the temptations, or the sinners' own ill will. Entering on the spiritual life, the penitent comes to the First Mansions. There, with some suffering, he gains self-knowledge. This painful process is necessary, though these mansions are a relatively crepuscular region, where the assaults of the reptiles are still common. The Second Mansions are similarly dark and dangerous, but there the aspiring soul will first learn how to pray. In the Third Mansions there is less danger from the cruder assaults of evil. It is the region of ordinary virtue; continuance in a state of grace becomes easier. Though we are not told this explicitly, one might gather from the text that these are the Mansions where the faithful in secular life might ordinarily expect to spend their lives.

In any case, even in these first three sets of Mansions, one meets here some of the subtle dangers of the spiritual life. Teresa counsels her readers on dealing with aridity and distraction in prayer, and about indiscreet zeal, the temptation to judge and criticize persons who seem less pious than oneself. The denizens of the Third Mansions in particular are tempted to think their lives are saintly because they are irreproachable; such people can actually benefit from the humility that comes with misfortune.

In the first three Mansions, the aspirant soul may sometimes be aware of special manifestations of divine grace, and of peace in prayer. As a rule, though, the divine is experienced only through the ordinary means of preaching and the sacraments, and through the natural satisfaction in a job well done (if you are a contemplative nun, the distinction between liturgy and labor tends to disappear). The Fourth Mansions, however, are the point where "consolations" normally begin to play a large part in the spiritual life. There are moments of the "expansion of the heart" that are outside the normal range of emotions; and indeed, in some manifestations, outside the range of nature.

There is a science of mystical experience. The Interior Castle is one of the key sources of its data; so are Teresa's earlier works, including the Life and The Way of Perfection. Rather than try to summarize the increasingly complex treatment of the inner mansions, let us here simply paraphrase the editor's Note 113 to The Interior Castle, even though it uses some of Teresa's terminology that does not occur in this particular book:

The first three Mansions of the Interior Castle correspond with the first water, or the prayer of Meditation. The Fourth Mansion, or the prayer of Quiet, corresponds with the second water. The Fifth Mansion, or the prayer of Union, corresponds with the third water. The sixth mansion, where the prayer of ecstasy is described, corresponds with the fourth water.

As for the Seventh Mansions, this review begins with a description of the spiritual marriage that occurs there.

The present text assumes that the reader is familiar with these modes of prayer and how they are performed. Meditation, for instance, seems to mean principally the sustained contemplation of the incidents in the life of Christ or of the Passion; the Rosary is a prayer of this type. In the other forms of prayer, some voluntary recollection or other act may be necessary, but the higher forms are events in which the will of the aspirant plays a smaller and smaller role. In any case, this book is less concerned with how to pray than with how to handle prayer's effects.

* * *

The theological subtext of The Interior Castle is Thomistic. Teresa was not herself trained in systematic theology, however, and even by her own account she garbled some points. This text has editorial notes and an interpolated chapter to clarify these points. Thus, they amplify with a venerable Scholastic gloss her distinction between the prayer of Union, which occurs in the Fifth Mansions, from the Marriage that occurs in the Seventh Mansions. The prayer of Union, the monks suggest, involves the accidents of the soul (its senses and cognitive functions), while the Marriage involves a change of its substance. This change is a transformation that identifies the soul with the divine to the degree that Teresa has a vision in which Jesus says to her "that henceforth she was to care for His affairs as though they were her own and He would care for hers." In the spiritual marriage, a human life becomes Christ's life. The editors do not make quite so bold as to call this transubstantiation.

Note that this was an "interior vision." Teresa describes "imaginary visions," which occur when people see images as if they were physical objects. She does not say such things are impossible, but that they do not belong to her experience. She also describes raptures, in which the spirit feels itself to leave the body (the she is professedly agnostic about whether this is actually the case). She also describes "jubilees," which can involve more than one person, and which sound a bit like charismatic behavior. Until she gets to the dramatic (and apparently somewhat dangerous) ecstasies of the Sixth Mansions, she herself is far more comfortable with "intellectual vision," in which knowledge is infused directly into the intellect, without the intervention of the senses. This can involve a direct awareness of an object or person, including the physical appearance. Indeed, one of the greatest consolations in the more advanced Mansions is the repeated and even habitual awareness of the divine presence.

Even a cursory familiarity with the literature of mysticism will find resonances in this work. This reviewer was surprised to discover how much of this book's advice about prayer and the dangers of the advanced spiritual life is echoed in C.S. Lewis's most popular work, The Screwtape Letters. Lewis was familiar with the literature of mysticism, of course, but that is unlikely to be the whole explanation. Serious spirituality is an empirical enterprise; people who have experienced its effects will recognize them in the accounts of others who have experienced them.

This does not mean that all the writers say the same things about the same experiences, or even that it is certain that the experiences are the same. For instance, in The Interior Castle, Teresa speaks of a point where a word, an idea, any small thing will cause an eruption of the divine presence. The divine sends out a flurry of sparks, any one of which could cause the soul to ignite. This sounds a bit like the climax of the anonymous English work, The Cloud of Unknowing, from two centuries earlier. In that book, the prepared soul sends out, at unpredictable intervals, shafts of aspiration that pierce the Godhead. Similar to The Interior Castle, yes: but are these moments identical?

There are certainly points where Teresa takes care to distinguish her views from those of other writers. There are some texts that suggest there comes a stage in the seeker's journey when the whole object of attention is God without qualification; the earlier meditations on Christ and His Passion were necessary, but are no longer relevant to the final stages. That is the view of The Cloud of Unknowing, which demands a preparation of perfect faith and purity of life, but moves to a point where everything, including even the benefits conveyed by God, is neglected in favor of the love of God. Teresa says that this is not her experience; she never ceases to focus on Jesus and the Cross. She never forgets the Saints, who at this level become felt companions rather than merely recipients of prayers for intercession. The Interior Castle presents a world that is less arid and alien than other expressions of advanced spirituality, particularly those of the 20th century. Finally, we may note that the seven-part structure of the Castle makes the journey through it into a history of seven ages, which inevitably calls to mind some of the models of time based on the structure of the week. The spiritual marriage of the Seventh Mansions calls to mind the Millennium, an idea that might have a literal personal application even if it does not have a historical one. More speculatively, one of Teresa's best-known metaphors, that of the caterpillar that spins a cocoon and later dies to be reborn as a butterfly, might have an application not just to the aspiring soul, but also to the Incarnation. The cocoon begins to be spun in the Fifth Mansions, after a long history of preparation. This is not unlike the idea that the Incarnation is the center of history, structurally if not necessarily in terms of the duration of the time periods to either side.

Even if Teresa had any thoughts along these lines herself, she does not mention them in The Interior Castle. They are the sort of notion that made the Inquisition cranky, for one thing. For another, speculation was not Teresa's vocation. She wrote about only what she knew.

Copyright © 2011 by John J. Reilly

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