Today I’d like to start digging a little deeper into Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. Specifically, let’s talk about the seven mansions and how each of them is different.
While Teresa divides her book into sections talking about seven different stages of the spiritual life, we should note that she speaks about “first dwelling places,” et cetera, not “the first mansion.” What does this mean? Each stage has several rooms. Not everyone follows exactly the same path to union with God.
You must not imagine these mansions as arranged in a row, one behind another, but fix your attention on the centre, the room or palace occupied by the King. Think of a palmito, which has many outer rinds surrounding the savoury part within, all of which must be taken away before the centre can be eaten. Just so around this central room are many more, as there also are above it. In speaking of the soul we must always think of it as spacious, ample and lofty; and this can be done without the least exaggeration, for the soul’s capacity is much greater than we can realize, and this Sun, Which is in the palace, reaches every part of it. It is very important that no soul which practises prayer, whether little or much, should be subjected to undue constraint or limitation. Since God has given it such dignity, it must be allowed to roam through these mansions — through those above, those below and those on either side. It must not be compelled to remain for a long time in one single room — not, at least, unless it is in the room of self-knowledge.” (Chapter 2, no. 8)
Identifying your present level
I’m a person who never fits into one category on personality and temperament tests. Until last year when my husband brought home material from work on the DISC temperaments system, these tests always frustrated me. They never seemed to ask the right questions, or ask them in the right way, to get at my true temperament.
I find something similar happens when I try to find myself in Interior Castle. Some of the characteristics of one level fit me, but others do not. I find my soul spread out, as it were, among three different groups of mansions. I believe this is a common experience.
While the seven mansions provide an apt vehicle for explaining the development of contemplative prayer, we ought not to imagine them as pigeon holes and the developments as discrete jumps from one stage to another. Living things grow gradually, and communion with God being the supreme of all living things, likewise matures imperceptibly… ‘There is no closed door,’ says St. Teresa, ‘to separate the one from the other’…” (Fr. Thomas Dubay, Fire Within, 80)
Fr. Dubay follows Teresa in saying that this is especially true in the final mansions, the pinnacle of the spiritual life.
A chart to help you
I searched through all my Discalced Carmelite formation material to find a chart I could give you. I found I started filling one out long ago but (typically) never finished it. So thanks, readers, for being the catalyst to help me finish this project!
In each of the dwelling places, we should look at several aspects of the life of the soul:
- prayer development
- soul’s traits
In addition, it’s always wise to leave a column for miscellaneous notes. Here is the chart for downloading. I have left the “other” column blank for you to complete as we read about each stage in more detail.