For the Bookshelf: The Interior Castle
October 8, 2018—Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda entered a convent at twenty years of age and battled many illnesses. Yet her devout convent life and intense prayer practices, led to supernatural experiences, including trances in which she was paralyzed for hours. Once she was seen levitating. As Teresa of Avila, she created this manual of prayer at the command of the Inquisition. In The Interior Castle, Teresa writes of her experiences in an effort to assist other nuns in their prayer journeys and to inspire them to seek a closer relationship with Christ. Teresa was a mystic. She used the allegory of the castle to describe the soul’s progress on a journey to intimacy with Christ. The castle represents a place with many mansions, through which one must travel to find their soul ultimately in union with Christ. What a beautiful image!
The prayer journey begins at a castle, a diamond/crystal castle inside of our souls. “It came to me that the soul is like a castle made exclusively of diamond or some other very clear crystal.” The castle is inside of each person. “If this castle is the soul, you obviously cannot enter it, because it is inside yourself.” It is made up of seven mansions. Participants should try to reach the innermost mansion, where the Beloved rests. To reach it, one must give up all vanity and temptation, and follow a path of contemplative prayer. Prayer is the entrance into the castle. Pleasures, wealth, and other distractions in the world make the soul deaf towards God’s voice and unable to enter the castle. And of course, without faith, the journey is impossible. Much of the work to progress in the castle involves practicing Christian virtues. “Sustained by the food of good meditations, the soul grows and thrives.”
The more serious a person is in their devotion, charity, and humility, the closer they move toward Christ, at the center of the castle. “Without humility all is lost.” Teresa outlines the stages of this increasingly intimate prayer journey as follows:
The first mansion contains reptiles and one can hardly sense any light coming from the inner mansion of the castle. Within the castle, sins and temptations are represented by poisonous serpents, reptiles, and other creatures. The soul is deaf and dumb in this room. The person is still attached to the world, and must make more progress in loving God and neighbor.
In the second mansion, the person is continuing to practice prayer, but also continues in ways of spiritual error. The serpents are grasping. But the voice of Christ is coming through, especially through reading and other spiritual guides. As the person becomes willing to give up all worldly things, the creatures become harmless. “It is not that the soul is in a wicked state. It is that she is still so immersed in the things of the world… all these attachments distract her…”
In the third mansion, the person must carefully avoid any imperfection, must practice long hours of meditation and numerous acts of charity. “They [souls in the third dwelling] use their time wisely, spending long hours in meditation.” God begins aligning the person with God’s own will. The person experiences mastery over cravings. But any lack of humility will prevent further progress into the castle. Along the path, Jesus becomes increasingly more present.
The fourth mansion represents the soul’s surrender to the Holy Spirit. The person notices that the mansions of the castle are becoming more beautiful. Somehow, sweet smelling warmth permeates the soul. A continuous increase of humility and prayer is required to continue. The person surrenders into the arms of God, as the natural and spiritual begin to merge.
When reaching the fifth mansion, the soul transcends any sense and reason. Like a deep faint, the person dies to the world and lives fully in God. The lizards have become tiny and do no harm. This is blessing beyond imagination, as union with God transcends all earthly joys. To achieve this level, the person must still perform routine tasks of service and charity.
When entering the sixth mansion, the soul is wounded with love. God humbles the person as intense pain penetrates the soul. It is a sweet wound. This is all in preparation for the final mansion. The soul has no doubt that Christ is calling. Christ gives the soul rapture.
In the seventh mansion, the soul is freed from suffering and is in a state of suspension. Vision is transcended and unspeakable. All external experiences are oblivious. There are visions of saints and angels. There is total ecstasy but it doesn’t last long. There is a growing desire to bear burdens and suffer. Everything is about praising him. Although a person does not stay in this pure contemplation, some of the blessings always remain in their soul. The person never feels alone. So in one sense, the person never leaves the seventh mansion.
There are not many people today, willing to practice such a pure life and seek perfection for Christ. Teresa describes many of the essential practices for daily devotions, but when they are carried to this mystical extreme, they are not as tangible for most modern disciples. The examples of study and prayer are helpful, but the transcendental nature of Teresa’s journey is not as practical for developing personal devotional practices.
Teresa. The Interior Castle. Translated by Mirabai Starr. New York: Riverhead Books, 2004.
Rev. Paul Sherwood is pastor of the Oakmont Presbyterian Church, Hoover AL and a DMin candidate at Columbia Theological Seminary.
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