The Journey Within: St Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle

One of the guiding metaphors I’ve slipped into throughout this series on knowing God has been the spiritual journey. It’s an unoriginal idea, but like most over-used analogies, it’s over-used because it’s so apt. Coming to know God is very much like a never-ending journey, down a long and winding road, into unfamiliar territories, in all kinds of weather, seasons, and terrain. But what if, in that paradoxical way knowing God demands of us, this journey into the wildest expanses of the spiritual life is actually a journey within? What if the destination is really the deepest and truest part of our own being?

This is the wisdom of St Teresa of Avila, who was an older contemporary and friend of St. John of the Cross. Towards the end of her life, when Teresa regularly fell into religious ecstasies and trances, Teresa’s spiritual father instructed her to write a book on prayer for her fellow Sisters. At a loss as to where to begin, she prayed to God for help, and received a vision of a castle built in seven concentric mansions. The outer ring symbolizes the decision to pursue the life of faith, and at the centre lies the inner sanctum where God dwells. In her introduction she describes this innermost dwelling as a garden, in keeping with the central garden courtyards of traditional Spanish architecture:

It came to me that the soul is like a castle made exclusively of diamond or some other very clear crystal. In this castle are a multitude of dwellings, just as in heaven there are many mansions.

If we muse on this deeply, friends, we will see that the soul of a righteous person is none other than a garden in which the Beloved takes great delight. What do you think a place might be like that such a king — so powerful and wise, so pure and filled with all good things — would find so delightful? I myself can come up with nothing as magnificent as the beauty and amplitude of a soul. (The Interior Castle, Ch1)

This is a lovely metaphor, but beyond the surface niceties, it’s also very profound. For it insists that the human heart is the most beautiful and precious place in all of creation, the spot where God feels most at home and longs most to be. The irony to this is that while God is in our innermost heart, we have to journey to find it. “What a shame,” she mourns, “that, through our own unconsciousness, we do not know ourselves!”

The rest of The Interior Castle is her exploration of what that process of coming to know ourselves involves. In brief:

  • The First Dwelling is entered through humility. This requires the decision to pursue the things of God and renounce the world. There is grace here — one is safely inside the castle — but old attachments sneak in the doors with us and seek to distract us and entice us back outside.
  • The Second Dwelling is a place of excitement and learning, though here one learns only from the wisdom of others (sermons, conversation, example, books, etc.) and not directly from God.
  • The Third Dwelling is one of living an exemplary life. It is disciplined and governed by repentance and good works, but it is a mastery of routine and not the heart.
  • The Fourth Dwelling marks the transition from the outer circles to the inner ones and so it is here that we first find a taste of communion with God.
  • The Fifth Dwelling is where the soul prepares to receive divine blessings and is compared to a betrothal.
  • The Sixth Dwelling is where the soul and God become friends and lovers, and the soul is always looking for opportunities to be alone with the Beloved.
  • The Seventh Dwelling, the innermost circle, is that garden in which the soul and God are wed, united in full communion.

Coming from our more individual-minded contemporary Western ideas, we might well ask how this process is actually a return to the self. Most of the tools at our disposal — whether the traditional ascetic tools of monastic rules or contemporary ones of our values-aligned habits and intentions — are to fall away half way through the journey within. That’s frightening, to nun and life-coach alike. It’s a radical stripping away of anything in us that isn’t essential — not just the outer obligations and expectations of the superego or the bodily drives of the id, but everything in us that isn’t God. It’s asking us to give up not only our crutches and security blankets, but our clothes too. The call is complete nakedness before ourselves and God, stripped of everything, including our desires and attachments to our ideas of God, until all that is left of us is the Image of God in accordance with which we were made.

St Teresa offers five reasons for this extreme humility (4.2): 1. True love is not motivated by self-interest (cf. St Bernard); 2. Doing what is right for the sake of gain is not the way of Jesus; 3. If we truly long to be united to our Lord, we must be united to his sufferings; 4. The goal is to be liberated, not satisfied; and 5. Consolations or blessings are not the point: the point is God (cf. St. John of the Cross.)

These ideas rub seriously against the grain of our culture, which turns everything into a way of attaining our desires. I’m reminded of how our culture has co-opted Buddhist practices over the past decade. Meditation is being sold as a remedy for high blood-pressure and a tool to boost productivity and improve performance — everything except what it really is: being alone with who we really are.

If we are seeking God for any reason other than simply to know God, then we are not going to find the true intimacy we crave.

If we are seeking to know ourselves truly for any other reason than to strip away all that is false, then we will never reach that innermost garden.

This journey through the Interior Castle is a long one indeed. The vast majority of us will never reach the seventh dwelling in the course of our life. And that’s okay. There is grace and beauty everywhere inside the castle walls. This is one thing I love about this visual: It makes room for all parts of the life of faith. It has room for both the Western theological preoccupation with beginnings and boundaries (i.e., what it means to enter the Castle) and the Eastern interest in spiritual potentials (i.e., what it means to reach the centre garden). It likewise insists on the importance of asceticism (the first three Dwellings), while also insisting that such discipline is not itself the answer (discipline can lead us to the Fourth Dwelling but no further).

And so, St Teresa’s vision of the Interior Castle is a welcoming one: Whether we are standing at the gates weighing the costs of walking through, whether we are in a place of ascetic doing or mystical being, there is room for all of us.

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