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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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Where are you in Teresa’s seven mansions?

File:Peter Paul Rubens 138.jpg
St. Teresa of Avila by Rubens (Wikimedia Commons).

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
  • virtue
  • soul’s traits
  • temptations
  • advice

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.

Downloadable Chart of the 7 Mansions

Connie Rossini


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Your soul is a castle

El Alcazar, Segovia Spain. Photo illustration by Connie Rossini, All Rights Reserved.
El Alcazar, Segovia Spain. Photo illustration by Connie Rossini, All Rights Reserved.

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!

Connie Rossini

Please Note: I have used E. Alison Peers’ translation for my quotes, since it is in the public domain.

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Should we care about stages of the spiritual life?

I would like to begin studying, meditating on, and sharing with you Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. But even before beginning a question arises: Why should we bother about stages of the spiritual life?

Fr. Thomas Dubay answers this objection:

One of the most common mistakes made by some spiritual directors is to dismiss as irrelevant the question of where a directee is in prayer development.” (Fire Within, 73)

He proposes these reasons, taken from Teresa’s writings for knowing stages and where we fit into them:

  • People who are on a journey must know their destination or they will not reach it.
  • Knowing the difficulties and trials of each stage saves us from anxiety when we encounter them.
  • If we don’t recognize the gift of contemplation for what it is, we might act in a way that prevents us from receiving it.
  • Each stage has its own appropriate practice of prayer and virtue.
  • Seeing that we have made some progress encourages us to keep moving forward.
  • We need to be able to distinguish between true prayer development and self-deception or deception by the Devil.

Given all this, I’d like to begin discussing the different stages of prayer and how we should act at each stage. We will look not only at the beginnings of the spiritual life, but at the middle and advanced stages as well. I hope we will all recognize ourselves in one (or more) of Teresa’s mansions, and be inspired to keep striving towards the next stage. Let us keep each other in prayer as we study and discern.

Speaking of prayer, I will be giving a talk on Learning to Trust God at a parish in the Twin Cities tomorrow morning. Please pray for me and my listeners. God reward you!

Connie Rossini

Note: You can purchase Interior Castle on Amazon and I will earn a small commission through the affiliate program. I recommend the translation by Kieran Kavanaugh, either the Study Edition or Volume 2 of The Collected Works of Teresa of Avila. I will be using this second edition and referring to its page numbers. If finances are tight, the older translation by E. Allison Peers is free online. I will be reading Peers’ commentary and may at times remark on the differences in the two translations. If you don’t read along, I hope to discuss the book in enough detail here that you can still benefit.