Teresa of Avila wrote Interior Castle in obedience to her superiors in 1577. She had written extensively about prayer and her experience of it in her autobiography (Life) several years before, but that book was now in the hands of the Inquisition. She had no desire to write another book. She was busy with the monasteries she had founded, in the midst of what could be an official quashing of her reform, and she had terrible tinnitus that made her head ring with noise. But she obeyed, having no idea what she was going to say.
She prayed for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. The result was one of the most iconic images of the soul ever created.
I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.” (First Mansions, Chapter 1)
The King (Jesus) dwells in the center of the baptized soul like a burning sun. Light from this sun reaches every corner of the castle, but those closest the center are the brightest. The castle has upper and lower stories and even a courtyard. Our goal as Christians is to progress towards the central room of the castle. Unfortunately, most of us get stuck somewhere along the way. Some abandon the faith, leaving the castle itself.
We are all called to pursue this journey to the end. There is no room for saying, “Oh, those higher stages of prayer are for other people.” That would be like saying that the King in the center of your soul was teasing you, taunting you with desires that could never be fulfilled. No, He dwells there so that we can reach Him. He calls us unceasingly.
The importance of self-knowledge
Teresa shows how astonishing it is that so few people recognize the beauty of their soul.
It is no small pity, and should cause us no little shame, that, through our own fault, we do not understand ourselves, or know who we are. Would it not be a sign of great ignorance, my daughters, if a person were asked who he was, and could not say, and had no idea who his father or his mother was, or from what country he came? Though that is great stupidity, our own is incomparably greater if we make no attempt to discover what we are, and only know that we are living in these bodies, and have a vague idea, because we have heard it and because our Faith tells us so, that we possess souls.” (Ibid.)
God’s light and beauty are greater than we can imagine. He made us in His image and likeness. God dwells in every human soul as the Creator and Sustainer of life. But the Holy Trinity dwells in the baptized soul in a deeper way.
Self-knowledge is one of the foundations of Teresa’s spirituality. She says that prayer that does not consider who the soul is, and who God is, is not rightly prayer at all (Fist Mansions 1, no. 7).
Why should we know ourselves?
Pere Marie-Eugene, OCD, has an entire chapter on self knowledge in his synthesis of Carmelite spirituality, I Want to See God. He notes that the purpose of self-knowledge is to help us grow closer to Christ. We can see the entire book of Interior Castle as a demonstration of this. At each stage of the journey, Teresa tells us clearly about the state of our souls. Only when we know that state can we work to improve it through grace.
We never seek self-knowledge for its own sake. I have heard a priest speak from the pulpit, encouraging parishioners to spend time each day in quite, asking themselves what they think, feel, and believe. He erroneously called this practice prayer.
Prayer is about God, not about ourselves. We might start with ourselves by briefly setting aside distractions, examining our conscience, and sharing our cares and concerns with God. But prayer for Teresa is a dialog. We do not turn in on ourselves. Instead, we turn to God who dwells within us, yet is completely “other.”
Throughout Interior Castle Teresa will show what an expert at psychology she is. She understands herself and others. She knows our struggles from the inside. She often uses herself as an example of what not to do. But she (barely) disguises the fact that she is talking about her experiences, so that the Inquisition does not confiscate this book as well.
As we continue to study Interior Castle, we will see again and again what it means to be a Christian in the state of grace, what it means to be obedient, what it means to be a saint. I hope you are excited to explore this self-knowledge with me!
Please Note: I have used E. Alison Peers’ translation for my quotes, since it is in the public domain.