God is our homeland, Augustine once said. It’s we who are not home. God in Jesus and through the Spirit has taken up residence in our “interior castle,” and yet we’re often away, scattered here and there, far from home.
Even amidst our religious practices, we might be distant from home. Our busyness – spiritual, vocational, relational or otherwise – keeps us scattered about going from this appointment to that project to this meeting to that ballgame for the kids. Often, we feel like we’ve got to take care of everything else before checking in with ourselves. We live externalized, disconnected. In theory, we might believe God lives in us but we’ve not experienced that profound union and intimacy in a long time.
Occasionally, there is a hint, an echo. Our memory is triggered, an ache is exposed. Our hearts are stabbed with longing. We see it in a flock of birds ascending, in a sunset over the lake, in the eyes of a newborn. We were made for something more.
I came across this lovely line from a favorite poet of mine, Mary Oliver.
Though Eden is lost
remains in the heart
and the imagination.
Teresa of Avila has been our guide through these mansions to remind us of this. Eden’s loveliness dwells in us. God the Spirit has taken up residence, enthroned in the innermost chamber of the mansion, longing for our return.
This final ‘destination’ for Teresa is not some high and lofty and unattainable goal. Teresa does not speak down to us in a condescending voice. Humble as ever she says, “I’m worried that people might mistake me for someone who knows these things through experience.” She remains compassionate as ever as she considers those (like me?!) who remain so scattered about that they never come home: “These unhappy souls are trapped in a kind of dark prison with their hands and feet shackled.” This is hell. This is exile. Anything other than union is a living hell. And yet we’re quite adept at prettying up our prison cells and justifying our union-substitutes.
The seventh mansion for Teresa is the consummation of divine love, and I do love Mirabai Starr’s emphasis on “companionship” in her translation. Even in her busyness, she lives in God’s companionship. The soul is “more present than ever before. As soon as she finishes a task, she rests again in that divine companionship.” Any sense of disconnection is seemingly lost in this state. In our coming and going, we’re with God. At the grocery store, we’re in God. While filing our tax returns, the Spirit dwells. We enjoy an easy, conversational intimacy.
She ventures a metaphor that might help. The soul is like a drop in the ocean. Where does the drop end and the ocean begin? Another contemplative says that we are like sponges in the ocean. Sponges are sponges, but immersed in water they don’t really know the difference. Creator and creature are one. The caterpillar dies. The butterfly emerges. In this state, we take flight in freedom and joy.
In this oneness, even suffering and persecution cannot touch the deepest, truest self. The saying goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” For Teresa (who experienced suffering and illness frequently), her body might be beaten but her soul remains unshakable. Her idea is not to dichotomize soul and body. Better language might be “true self” and “false self.” The false self is insecure, fragile and subject to injury. But the true self, because it is the God-self, is steady, stable, centered. In this state, she says that “a special love for her persecutors grows in her.”
I think that there is an especially practical word for us here. I heard a speaker recently say that she grew up spiritually and emotionally repressed. She wasn’t allowed to feel, to have emotion, to be angry. She said, “Now I can be angry and let people see the real me. I say what I need to say. I live from my true self. If I’m pissed, I let people know it.”
Teresa would be grateful that this person has grown in freedom. But she might say – Do not mistake what is quite possibly another compensatory, false self for the true self. The true self lives in love. It is the embodiment of the fruits of the Spirit. It is not simply the raw, reactive person who emerges after being repressed. She’d rejoice and validate the journey, but counsel that we still have much work to do on ourselves. God wants us to die to every false self that attempts to rule in his place. The Beloved wants to remove every obstacle to union in true intimacy.
God is also kind to us in this mansion. Teresa always seems to exhibit great compassion and exercise great self-compassion. The person in this mansion is not some spiritual guru perpetually in a zen-state of calm, but prone to sin, struggle, and distraction. She writes, “Whenever the soul becomes distracted, the Beloved…wakes her up.” She says, “She makes many mistakes. She doesn’t mean to, of course.” What compassion! I realize that I’ve been trying to attain a sage-like state of contemplative perfection, and yet Teresa kindly and gently invites me to back to my humanness, my ordinariness. What grace!
Finally, a word of counsel that sustains her: “Fix your eyes on the crucified and everything else will seem insignificant.” Jesus is first and last for her. Jesus sustains, loves, and matures us. Left to our own, we’re scattered about. Left to our own, we want to save the world. She says, “it’s not necessary to help the whole world. It’s best not to start off exhausted by impossible efforts.” It’s as if she gets us. She knows how prone we are to trying to become the Messiah to everyone rather than living as uniquely you and uniquely me, being God’s very presence wherever God graciously places us. Let Jesus be Jesus. You be you. Keep walking. Keep loving. Do it all in my presence, coram deo, and life will go well.
What wisdom. What grace. What love. What a beautiful journey she invites us into.
I do hope you’ve enjoyed this series on the Interior Castle. Teresa has become a friend to me, a companion, a grace-giver, a challenging prophetic voice amidst my apathy and distraction. I’d love to see her get a much wider reading than she has received. But now you get to be the conduits of her vision and her love. May God bless you in this. And may God grant us all many returns home, many long days in the companionship of Jesus, now and forever.
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
Blog Post 8 – Entering the Sixth Mansion | Suffering Love
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.)