St. Teresa’s first mansions

Pursued by the Furies by John Singer Sargent (Wikimedia Commons). The soul in the first mansions is surrounded by reptiles and temptations to sin.

Okay, you’ve all poured over the chart of the seven mansions from Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle that I posted last week and now you’re ready to study each in depth, right? Let’s dig right in.

Many people, unfortunately, live completely outside the castle of their souls. These include the unbaptized, atheists and agnostics, and Christians who have unconfessed mortal sin.  Their state is truly pitiable and only an act of God can open their eyes to it.

“So accustomed have they grown to living all the time with the reptiles and other creatures to be found in the outer court of the castle that they have almost become like them; and although by nature they are so richly endowed as to have the power of holding converse with none other than God Himself, there is nothing that can be done for them. Unless they strive to realize their miserable condition and to remedy it, they will be turned into pillars of salt for not looking within themselves, just as Lot’s wife was because she looked back.” (1:1, 7)

Of course, when Teresa says “there is nothing that can be done for them,” she does not mean that we should give up hope for their ultimate salvation. But often it is worse than a waste of time to try to argue with them or present them with the Gospel. It can be a matter of throwing our pearls before swine (Mt 7:6). We can still pray and sacrifice for them, however. And it may be that a few of them are open, but truly ignorant.

How can such people enter the castle? By beginning to pray.

As we grow in holiness, we become more and more interior-focused. That does not mean we focus more on ourselves, or that we ignore other people. Instead, it means we begin to place the soul’s concerns above those of the body, God’s way above the way of the world. We begin to detach ourselves, with God’s grace, from everything but God.

This process takes a lifetime. We don’t have to worry about the tasks of the seventh mansions when we are in the first. Each stage has enough concerns of its own, to paraphrase the Gospel (Mt 6:34).

The first dwelling places

So then, what is the life of the soul like who has barely entered the castle?

“These are very much absorbed in worldly affairs; but their desires are good; sometimes, though infrequently, they commend themselves to Our Lord; and they think about the state of their souls, though not very carefully. Full of a thousand preoccupations as they are, they pray only a few times a month, and as a rule they are thinking all the time of their preoccupations, for they are very much attached to them, and, where their treasure is, there is their heart also.” (1:1, 8)

Mortal sin is a real danger for them. They are doing the bare minimum to stay in the state of grace. Many reptiles from outside the castle have entered these first rooms with them. The soul walks in semi-darkness, unable to see the beauty in the center of the castle, even when it would like to. The Devil easily conquers it.

Spiritual advice

R. Thomas Richard has written an intriguing book about the Our Father and Carmelite Spirituality, called The Interior Liturgy of the Our Father.  I have not read the entire book, but it has received an endorsement from Dr. Anthony Lilles.  And I have an article on the same subject in my Carmelite formation files.

In “The Our Father, and the Interior Castle of St. Teresa,”  Richard connects the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer with the seven mansions. The sequence is in reverse order. Thus, the petition of the first mansions is, “Deliver us from evil.” Richard writes that the weakness of souls in these mansions requires urgent prayer for God to free them from “the horror and ugliness of all sin, and to grow also in the realization of the sublime beauty of the soul.”

Souls in the first mansions, Teresa writes, should begin addressing God as often as possible, calling on the saints, especially the Blessed Mother, to intercede for them. They must acknowledge how weak they are, and not be ashamed to ask for help.

How else should these souls pray?

“I do not say mental prayer rather than vocal, for, if it is prayer at all, it must be accompanied by meditation. If a person does not think Whom he is addressing, and what he is asking for, and who it is that is asking and of Whom he is asking it, I do not consider that he is praying at all even though he be constantly moving his lips.” (1:1, 7)

All of us must take care not to rattle off words, but to pray from the heart. Those in the first mansions might be confining themselves to a Hail Mary or Our Father. If they strive to recollect their souls for even the space of those short prayers, they will come into contact with Christ. If they do not do so, they are not praying at all.

Charlotte Mason and distractions in prayer

This reminds me of the Charlotte Mason method of education, popular among homeschoolers. I use many Charlotte Mason ideas myself. Mason advocated short lessons followed by narrations, to train young children to pay close attention to the subject at hand. She considered this the foundation of true education. When a child has made a habit of paying attention for fifteen minutes, the teacher can begin extending the lesson time, in small increments.

I think we can learn much from this. How often do we pray a Rosary and find our minds wandering for four of the five decades? Perhaps we should go back to the beginning, practicing saying one Hail Mary with fixed attention, then moving on to two, et cetera. We may balk at the idea of having to do something so basic. But is our pride keeping us from growing in intimacy with Christ? Are we willing to become little, to go back to a practice we should have made a habit of in the first mansions, in order to advance through the second or third mansions?

I have to confess that my mind wanders terribly during vocal prayer (although not so much in mental prayer). I always fear I am not praying at all, that I am wasting my time. Of course, we can’t overcome all distractions in prayer on our own. But I am committing today to try this method of baby steps to see if it will help me. Beginning today, I will say one Hail Mary, slowly and prayerfully during my mental prayer time. I am not too big for returning to spiritual kindergarten in some areas.

In Way of Perfection, Teresa tells of a nun who went straight from praying the Our Father with attention, to infused contemplation. Many authorities believe this nun was Teresa herself, who suffered terribly from distractions. If Teresa was not too proud to begin this way, how can we be?


That reminds me that some of my readers may be unfamiliar with the terms Teresa takes for granted. Here are a few definitions from the late Fr. John Hardon to keep in mind as we continue.

vocal prayer – “In its broadest, generic sense, vocal prayer is prayer that follows a set form of words. In vocal prayer the words may be those of someone, someone whom we’ve never met. But it’s someone else and the words of the one who is praying. Again, in vocal prayer in the broadest sense it may be using the words of Sacred Scripture. Or using the words of our Lord when He taught us the Lord’s Prayer. Or it may be a prayer composed by one of the saints, like saint Francis of Assisi, or naturally, St. Ignatius of Loyola. That’s the one meaning of vocal prayer.” This is the sense in which St. Teresa speaks of vocal prayer. She does not concern herself with whether or not we are praying aloud.

mental prayer – “In mental prayer we use our own thoughts to express our mind and heart to God.” That’s it. You can even pray mental prayer aloud! I do this sometimes when I’m in danger of falling asleep. It helps keep me awake.

Connie Rossini

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Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

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15 Responses

  1. barbaraschoeneberger

    Connie, I like how you are putting all of this together. It addresses continuing problems I have in prayer, and those my friends have shared with me. Going back to kindergarten in prayer is a great idea because going back to basics is a way to refresh ourselves and often helps us move forward with new insights.

    • Connie Rossini

      Truthfully, I didn’t think this would be a very interesting post for me to write, but I was surprised at how much I could learn from reading about the first steps in holiness.

  2. KM

    Question: When I am saying the rosary, I am not concentrating so much on every part of the individual prayers of the Hail Mary. I do concentrate on the Our Father, the Glory Be and the O my Jesus. However, I find myself thinking a lot more about aspects of the various mysteries and it’s almost like the words of the Hail Mary are in the background. Sometimes a question will arise as a result of this and I will ask the question of Mary, which is like a small pause in the vocal prayers. The only line that always gets my full attention is the additional line of the Flame of Love in each one. I live in a rural area and there are no spiritual directors available. Is this what should be taking place with the rosary?

    • Connie Rossini

      Kathy, this is exactly right! You are letting your vocal prayer merge into mental prayer by way of meditating on the mysteries. Sometimes when I can’t get a particular subject out of my head when praying the Rosary, I’ll try to think about how each of the mysteries relates to it. For example, if my book on cholerics is distracting me, I’ll ask what cholerics can learn from the Annunciation, etc. Keep going as you are.

  3. Kathy

    It has recently been an awareness of how we are just saying but not truly praying at church and at my prayer times as well. I am subject to lots of distractions and I love the idea of saying 1 Hail Mary prayerfully. I thought I might of been in castle 2 but reading on distractions maybe I’m in castle 1. Doesn’t really matter to me, God is so close and if it’s beginner consolation , I am clinging to His sweet presence. Thank you for an important , important awareness! May I stay here in this realization until I can pray more or for more with pure reverence and love. There is more worth in 1 heartfelt plea than many ,many, mindless words. Thank you, for opening the eyes to my heart!

    • Connie Rossini

      I’m so glad this was helpful to you. As I said in an earlier post, you may be in different mansions/at different levels at the same time. If you are praying regularly and striving for holiness, you are probably beyond first mansions. But sometimes, especially since few of us have gotten good instruction on the spiritual life, we’ve formed bad habits. We didn’t learn to do things right the first time. So we can go back and relearn, if we are open enough to realize we need some remedial work.

  4. Betty

    This was so very good on prayer. Here is what I do when I’m praying the rosary by my self. It becomes praying with the heart. I begin Pray the first part as usual,when it comes to holy Mary Mother of God pray for my sons conversion now and at the hour of his death amen, or Holy Mary Mother of God please intercede for the person who is contemplating abortion today. Pray that they will say yes to life. Pray that our of their death amen. This becomes so powerful and asking our mother for her intercession.
    I hope this helps.
    God bless Betty.

  5. Michelle M

    If you’re willing to go back into spiritual Kindergarten, then I shall be happy in Pre-K!!

    • Connie Rossini

      Ha ha, Michelle. I’m not sure what pre-K would be. But if you can think of something more basic than thinking about God when you pray, let me know. Chances are I’m not doing it very well either.

  6. Sherry Maghsoodloo

    Today I too decided to go back to spiritual kindergarten, I prayed one Hail Mary with intention and almost made it to the end without distraction..I’m afraid I started this backward from today and when I realized how in depth this study is, I went back to your first posts. I am reading along with you on the interior mansions and that chart was and is most helpful. I saw your link to the EWTN copy of interior castle and like it better than my kindle copy. Thank you for this, this is where I feel God wants me now, to learn how to pray. Before I go, what is recollection in the sense that you need recollection during or preceding mental pray?

    • Connie Rossini

      Hi, Sherry. Recollection is just what you are practicing with that one Hail Mary–trying to remove distractions and think about God. St. Francis de Sales does an excellent job of describing different ways to do this in Introduction to the Devout Life. Some people (maybe St. Francis himself) call this placing oneself in the presence of God. You can think about the fact that the Holy Trinity dwells in your heart, or that God’s presence surrounds you, etc. It’s a way of saying, “Okay, I’m setting aside the things I usually do and think and about, and now I am going to focus on God, who is Lord and King and deserves my full attention.” Maybe I need to write a whole post on this.

  7. Cheryl M

    Do you mean by Teresa took the terms Vocal Prayer and Mental Prayer for granted, that they came so naturally to her, that she did not think to define certain aspects of them because she was taking for granted that the student would know what she meant?

    • Connie Rossini

      Hi, Cheryl. She was writing primarily for Carmelite nuns, in a time period in which they all would have been familiar with her terms, so there was no need to define them. In our time, some have suggested scrapping the term “mental prayer,” because of the lack of understanding. I am rather in favor of teaching people what it means. Then we can understand not only modern books about prayer, but the works of the saints as well.

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