“The soul is like a castle made exclusively of diamond or some other very clear crystal. In this castle, there are a multitude of dwellings just as in heaven there are many mansions.” St. Teresa of Avila
At first, Teresa’s description of an “interior castle” with many dwellings sounds like esoteric mumbo-jumbo. Because we live such pragmatic lives in an efficiency-oriented world, Teresa’s inward journey feels strange. But being a kind of spiritual doctor of the soul, she knows what ails us. She knows how exhausted we are. She sees our fragmentation. She knows it personally.
Teresa struggled with spiritual apathy and angst for decades until she picked up a book given to her by her uncle. The Third Spiritual Alphabet by Spanish mystic Francis Osuna awakened her to her inner divisions, inviting her to spiritual “recollection” – literally, to be re-collected. She recognized that her soul was dispersed in a thousand different directions, and she entered into a journey of self-knowledge, as she called it – a journey toward wholeness, undividedness, shalom.
This is our invitation, as well. Busy and scattered, we do not take the necessary time to stop, to pay attention to our hearts, and to gather back our fragmented parts. “What a shame that, through our own unconsciousness, we do not know ourselves,” Teresa writes. Our spiritual laziness leaves us addictively attached to all kinds of “reptiles and vipers” which hound us outside of the castle, frustrating our longed-for peace and impeding our effectiveness in mission.
You see, at our worst we are externalized, seeking satisfaction in things ‘out there’ when infinite joy is already ours. How? Because the King is on the throne, in the castle, at the very center of our being. There, God dwells in inexhaustible light. The warmth of God’s love draws us in. We need not search for it ‘out there’. Union is not acquired, but realized…realized as already ours. And so, Teresa says “Go within!” She says, “The sun at the center radiates to every part.” In a sense, she is saying, “Wake up. Live your life. Live from your center, which is God.” This begins by entering the castle.
How do we enter the castle? Through contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer is the doorway. It is a prayer of awareness more than a prayer of words. It requires presence and imagination. It invites us to look within, to the “plains and caves and caverns” of our being (Augustine) in order to notice our dis-order and dis-ease. Often, our wordy prayers get in the way of real intimacy. Think of a conversation with an intimate friend – does incessant talking breed intimacy? Sometimes, our talking gets in the way. We stay up in our heads. We avoid what might be revealed in our hearts.
And so, begin by allowing yourself 20 minutes of silence. Can you do this for yourself? In the silence, tune in to your spirit. This may be the only thing you can accomplish amidst the noise of your soul. Don’t expect some spiritual breakthrough. Just be faithful in the act. Your sincere intention is enough. Teresa might tell you to expect many inner disturbances. As you cross the drawbridge into your inner being, those nasty “reptiles and vipers” of your attachments will rear their ugly heads, attempting to distract. Your old addictions will arise. Racing thoughts. The pull to binge. The distraction of political or sports news. The everyday apathy and laziness of spiritual inattention. That is alright. Just attend. The Spirit is in the depths, drawing you in.
In the first room, three things will happen.
First, you are invited to humility. This is the fruit of self-knowledge for Teresa. Humility, in fact, may come from humiliation – an awareness of just how deep the addiction goes, or just how distracted you are, or how much resentment you live with. You will be tempted to leave the castle and give up. Don’t. Stay attuned. This first stage is a battle. Knowing ourselves naturally breeds humility because we become aware of just how far from God we are.
Second, you will experience a sense of inner chaos. Leaving the security of your attachments is akin to the Israelites leaving Egypt. It’s the only game in town, and it’s the game you know. “Switching stories” is difficult. We are secure in the things we know. Allow for significant disruption. Welcome it. Welcome God, the great disrupter. This will be hard.
Third, listen for the soft whisper of the Beloved. God is drawing you ever further, deeper still, into intimacy. It is what you most deeply long for. It is the only cure for your addictive soul. So, listen. And be drawn in by love.
The first mansion is like an addiction treatment center. Entering requires intention. Staying, however, takes a wrestling match with God. You will suffer withdrawal. You will fight silence. You will abandon the journey. But know this – God is infinitely patient. God longs for intimacy. God will continue to draw you in. The invitation never, ever ends.
Thanks for taking this journey with me.
Resources for the Journey
Blog Post 1 – Introduction – (Re)Union
Blog Post 2 – Out of Illusions, Into the Depths
Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila translated by Mirabai Starr (I love Starr’s translation of Teresa, John, Lady Julian, etc. She is a fresh new translator of these classic works. Her introduction alone is worth the price of the book.)
Entering the Castle, Caroline Myss (this book is the cheapest investment in your own therapy you’ll ever experience, though the emotional and spiritual investment may be costly!)
Into the Silent Land, Martin Laird (this is best accessible introduction to the purpose and practice of contemplative prayer I know. Laird is an Augustinian priest teaching early Christian studies at Villanova U.)