As we travel into the depth of the interior castle, I find myself out of my depths. I long to know the experiential intimacy that Teresa speaks of, but I spend the bulk of my life ambivalently living with one foot outside of the castle and one foot in the first mansion. If I’ve stuck my pinky toe in the waters of the sixth mansion, I’m grateful.
Teresa begins with these words:
Here the soul is wounded with love for her spouse and is always looking for space to be alone. In response to her woundedness, she strives to strip away anything that might get in the way of for solitude.
So far, so good. I like alone time. I’d like to strip away things that get in the way of my solitude. This is Chuck’s kind of mansion…the mansion of introverts. But even in this simple passage, she hints at something much larger than my self-serving need for space. What does she mean that the soul is wounded with love? Clearly, we’re entering mystic territory.
In fact, if you take the time to read this lengthy description of the sixth mansion, you’ll see that the mystic sweet communion Teresa experiences is beyond most of our every day experiences. She describes rapturous moments where she experiences ecstasy, feels transported beyond herself, and knows intimacy and communion in her deepest being. She is careful to not make emotion that point. Certainly, these moments are experientially pleasurable and satisfying. But, something else is happening.
The question is: What is being stripped away? For Teresa, this intimacy is experienced because so much is being stripped away:
- her expectation of how God will show up
- her need for life to go according to her plan
- a view of God made in her image
- an expectation of life without suffering
- her control
- an emotion that can be manufactured or duplicated
- an easily reproducible experience
- the shame of her sexuality
The surrender can only be described in erotic terms. This is a love affair. It is ripe with longing. The pangs of longing are wounds. We’ve all felt it…that stabbing sensation of love. C.S. Lewis once said, “Joy is the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.” What does that even mean???
The words don’t come easy for Teresa:
Before fully uniting himself with her, he fills her with burning desire for him. He does this in such a delicate way that the soul doesn’t understand where her longing comes from, nor could I successfully explain it except to those of you who already know from experience what I’m saying. These impulses rise from so deep inside the soul and are so subtle and refined that I can’t find a fitting metaphor to describe them.
A story. When I lived in Orlando, one of the most lovely and generous people I’ve ever known became a kind of mystic-mentor to me. He recently passed. His name was Bruce. He was a PhD mathematician who’d discovered the intimacy of divine union in and through several life-threatening diseases and treatments. His joy was unhinged. At times, it felt as if he was caught up in perpetual delight. He’d come to visit me at Border’s Books on Thursdays and tell me of his ecstasy. Sometimes, people would walk by and overhear our conversation, and I’d hide my face and cringe. What do they think? Who talks like this? Mystics do. And I suspect that Bruce was trying to share with me what Teresa offers to us in the sixth mansion.
The closest approximation we have to this biblically is Song of Songs, the story of two Jewish teenagers. It portrays the stab of longing:
I opened for my beloved, but my beloved had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure. I looked for him but did not find him. I called him but he did not answer.
And the thrill of reunion and ecstasy.
Take me away with you – let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers. We rejoice and delight in you; we will praise your love more than wine. How right they are to adore you!
Many Christians are unfamiliar with and perhaps even suspicious of this erotic language. I remember preaching a sermon series on Song of Songs years ago and getting pushback from middle school mothers. (Please note: the main characters in Song of Songs were young teens.) We’re more comfortable with the religious language of legal transaction than divine ecstasy. But perhaps, we’ve not traveled into the depths of our interior castle. Perhaps, we’re choosing a substitute intimacy over the experiential union for which we’ve been made.
The Calvin College philosopher and theologian James KA Smith is helpful here:
I suggest that, on one level, Victoria’s Secret is right just where the church has been wrong. More specifically, I think we should recognize and admit that the marketing industry – which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination – is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church. In other words, I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied desiring creatures whose being-in-the-world is governed by the imagination. Marketers have figured out the way to our heart because they “get it”: they rightly understand that, at root, we are erotic creatures – creatures who are oriented primarily by love and passion and desire. As Augustine famously put it, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This is not a matter of intellect; Augustine doesn’t focus on the fact that we don’t “know” God. The problem here isn’t ignorance or skepticism. At issue is a kind of in-the-bones angst and restlessness that finds its resolution in “rest” – when our precognitive desire settles, finally, on its proper end (the end for which it was made), rather than being constantly frustrated by objects of desire that don’t return our love (idols). Desiring the Kingdom, 76-77.
In my tradition, we’re quite comfortable in the courtroom of Romans. We’re not quite that comfortable in the bedroom of Song of Songs.
Thanks to St. Bruce and St. Teresa, the invitation is ours. I don’t know about you, but this makes me really nervous. I’ve had tastes of this intimacy…perhaps even more regularly when I was first discovering the mystics in the early 2000’s. Today, I confess a bit of shame even as I write. Who cares? Who talks like this? Or perhaps more acutely…what if I’m just not cut out for the ‘dance’ of intimacy like Bruce and Teresa? What if my fear keeps me on the sidelines, like it did when I was at the middle school dances?
Courage Chuck! And courage friends! Let’s keep presssing into the depths of the castle. So much more is offered! Our cheap substitutes can be stripped away, and new depths of intimacy attained. God’s infinite love in the dance of divine union is ours…if only we’d receive it…
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
Blog Post 7 – Entering the Fifth Mansion | Transformed for Union
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.)