Don’t just think about it. Don’t just theologize about it. Experience it.
If St. Teresa was living today, she might say this very thing. If she could scan the bookshelves and see the many books written on union with God, she might say, “Oh, how wonderful. But are you experiencing it?!”
If you’ve been following this blog series (see links below), you realize that Teresa will not let you (and me!) off the hook. From that First Mansion – the addiction treatment center of the soul! – to this Fifth Mansion, she has invited us to remove every obstacle to union. We’ve come to realize that even our thinking about God and about union gets in the way of union. Our spiritual control-and-security strategies get in the way of union.
Oh friends! How could I describe the riches, the treasures and delights to be found inside the fifth dwelling? There is no way of knowing how to talk about such things, and I almost think it would be better to remain silent.
And yet, she is not silent. She tells us that the experience of union is not some dreamy state. No, we are wide awake – to God, to life, to love. The distractions that stir up a frenzy in our minds melt away. The soul is awake. The feeling of alertness and connection is so profound that “the soul can never forget…she never doubts…God was in her and she was in God.”
It’s important to remember again that for Teresa, this is not some “emotional high.” This experience transcends mere emotion. If fact, for Teresa, our emotional reactions can become just as much an obstacle as our distracted minds. We need to learn to discern. We must listen beneath transitory emotions for the whisper of the Spirit. Just about anything can become a cheap substitute for real union and communion with God…even our “feelings” of closeness to God.
With that in mind, she paints a picture of the process through which union occurs. It is a cruciform process, imagined through the journey of a silkworm. Transformation, in other words, doesn’t occur without death. Now, the hungry silkworm doesn’t know this at the outset. Like many of us living outside of the castle, the silkworm’s world is an all-you-can-eat buffet. The silkworm is a crawling consumer. Transformation is not on its mind. But ever so subtly, a new vocation emerges from within, as “imaginal cells” begin to whisper within – You were made for something more! A battle ensues in the being of the crawling creature, as its more dominant cells scream – No, you were made to crawl and consume! It’s a battle for a larger life, a more noble vocation.
But transformation will not come easy. It is not available on the buffet line. No, transformation will require death. Does this creature realize it is preparing for its death as it spins the crysalis? Do we prepare for our own cruciform journeys? (This is where I’d love to riff on silkworms and Lent, but that’s for another blog post!) What we do know is that transformation does happen. What goes in crawling comes out flying. We cannot control the speed of this process. We cannot quicken its outcome. We can create space in our hearts and lives for it, and surrender to it. Yes, we are the silkworm, Teresa says.
As I write this, I’m remembering when my girls were young and we lived in Orlando, FL. They’d carefully cut a branch with a crysalis on it from the milkweed in our backyard, and transfer it to a container on our porch where we’d await the transformation. I remember one sunny day when my girls came running in to wake me up. “Daddy, daddy…it’s a monarch butterfly!” The beautiful creature had emerged, its wings outstretched before the hot sun, sitting in a posture of praise.
For St. Teresa, we can’t plot or strategize our way to union. It’s not offered on a spiritual buffet. There isn’t a 3-step formula. No, it’s realized…in and through our dying – to our attachments, our false selves, our smaller versions of God, our control strategies, our cheap union-substitutes. And it doesn’t generally happen in our preferred timing. Teresa says, “No matter how hard we try, we can’t get it on our own.” She says that the King brings us into his wine cellar. We wander around looking, but God enters in. We need only make ourselves available in surrender.
Now, you’d think she would end there, with an image of a butterfly, wings spread before its Maker. But she doesn’t. The Fifth Mansion ends with a call to action. But this time, we’re not acting out of a moralistic impulse. Our acting is isn’t inauthentic or arrogant. No it emerges out of love. It is the self-giving love of one transformed.
It is our participation in the Trinitarian dance of eternal giving and receiving, the dance of love. As our desires are aligned with God’s, we can’t help but participate in this Trinitarian choreography. After all, it’s our deepest memory, what we’ve known all along that we were made for. Union and mission go hand-in-hand.
And so, perhaps you’re thinking what I’m thinking – “This is it, right Teresa? The end of the road? The heights of the interior castle?”
Not so fast.
The journey is not yet done. Teresa will invite us into still-deeper union and communion in the coming mansions. It’s almost too good to imagine.
Now Available! Chuck’s new book – Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and the Divided Life
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 6 – Entering the Fourth Mansion | Grace is Always Flowing
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.)