Living a life of grace can be so exhausting.
Can you imagine hearing this?
I heard this from an older man who’d lived a very devoted Christian life, who’d served as an elder and volunteered to serve and taught a Bible study.
He knew an awful lot about grace. His categories were clear, his convinctions strong. But something was amiss. And so, we sat together as I listened with curiosity to questions he had never, ever dared raise to another human being – questions about God’s goodness and his utterly unacceptable being before a holy God. I was his pastor. I listened. And in the weeks to come, depths of confusion and shame and uncertainty an anxiety and self-hatred poured out of the previously ‘buttoned-up’ elder. “I didn’t know all of this was in there, Chuck,” he said. “I guess I’ve professed a belief in God’s grace, but I never really drank from its cup.”
Can you relate? Do you profess belief in God’s astounding grace, but find yourself exhausted?
What the first three rooms of the interior castle accomplish in one’s soul is a kind of holy ‘de-cluttering’ which creates space for grace to permeate every ounce of our being. But the de-cluttering process can be confusing. In Mansion 3, our “control strategies” were exposed – even the seemingly good ones – and this can leave us feeling empty, restless, and unsure. What do we do when the things that gave us power (the beliefs, attitudes, agendas, strategies, theologies) no longer satisfy? What do we do?
Most of us have learned to re-commit, to double-down, even resolving to avail ourselves of the means of grace available to us.
And this is what exhausts us.
Teresa wouldn’t question the sincerity of our motives nor the reality of those means of grace – fellowship or communion, reading Scripture or listening to a good sermon. These are wonderful things. But she would ask us to look at the inner realities that these good, outer things point to.
Her metaphor goes something like this. You’ve treated this life of grace like a project. To avail yourself of grace, you grab a bucket and take it to the nearest grace-source of water. There you fill the bucket and bring it back home for your nourishment. But this grace-bucket gathering is exhausting. In time, you wonder if it’s worth it. Imagine this, however. What if the source of life was within you? What if those external signs pointed to an already-inherited inner reality? What if Life itself was gushing forth from within? What if the Fountain never, ever stopped flowing, offering an infinite supply of love, of life, of grace?
We’re often exhausted because we’re distracted. Our minds attempt to apprehend, to understand, to control. Our obsessive thinking leads to anxious living. In time, Teresa says, “they complain of trials, grow depressed, and their health declines.” In other words, this 16th century sage understood the psychological and biological impact of living out of our control strategies. She says that we end up “staying on the periphery” to the point that the “spirit of evil would like nothing better than for us to just give up.” Do you feel this way sometimes?
Teresa says, “Don’t lose heart. Trials and disturbances like these come mostly from not knowing ourselves.”
Like the man I mentioned above. He was a really good man, but he’d never tackled deep questions beckoning from within. Or the pastor who seems to articulate so clearly a theology of grace but confesses to an affair. Or the person whose trauma runs so deep that anger is projected aimlessly onto anyone in the way. Or me. Or you. How many couples have I counseled who say after 20 or 30 years, “I’m not sure I ever really knew my spouse.” Who among us really know ourselves? We all have blindspots.
It seems that Teresa always comes back to a centering theme.
Take a long, honest look within.
And she does this for two reasons.
First, you’ll discover (she hopes) your pattern of self-satisfaction. What does your bucket-carrying look like? She’d invite you to hover in those first rooms of the castle for as long as you need to discover just how you might be sabotaging God’s infinitely-loving grace. What patterns stifle life-giving grace? Slow down and take a look.
Second, you’ll awaken with great surprise and delight to an ever-flowing source of grace, a Fountain within, springing eternal. Perhaps, you’ll say, “Why have I been trying so hard for so long?!” Perhaps you’ll stop long enough (and silence your mind’s inner chatter) to experience the refreshing waves washing over you and in you and through you…which become waves of love given over to the other. Perhaps the means of grace will, in fact, become real conduits of grace too.
This becomes that first inkling of the contemplative life to which Teresa beckons you and me – a life bathed in grace, sourced by the Living Water. This becomes that first hint that sometimes we need only stop and surrender and look within to what is already given over to us as grace upon grace upon grace.
Exhausted? Stop. Pause. Listen within.
What patterns (even good ones) do you notice?
Can you relax your hands, release the bucket, and feel the Living Water flow from within?
For Teresa, the Living Water is Jesus who, by the Spirit, awaits deeper presence, deeper intimacy, deeper union. The Spirit who says, “Come home.”
Catch up on the series, and join a significant group of people all over who are reading along and processing the journey with the book resources listed below.
Blog Post 1 – Introduction – (Re)Union
Blog Post 2 – Out of Illusions, Into the Depths
Blog Post 3 – Entering the Journey | St. Teresa’s First Mansion
Blog Post 4 – Resources for the Journey | The Second Mansion
Blog Post 5 – Entering the Mansion | Facing our Control Strategies
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.)