Book Review by Cameron Daly of St. Teresa of Avila’s “The Interior Castle”

(Originally published on the class blog for Prof. Heather Voccola’s Church History course, at https://voccola.blogspot.com/2017/.)

St. Teresa of Avila Stained Glass Image

Photo credit: User:Donisecz of Wikimedia Commons

One important thing to know about St. Teresa of Avila is that she was (and, being a saint, still is) even more awesome than this beautiful stained-glass image of her. She was a fourteenth-century Carmelite nun of strong faith who “made significant contributions during the Catholic Reformation”[1] (a revitalization that resounded throughout the Catholic Church as, at least in part, a reaction to the Protestant Reformation[2]). “In 1970 she was declared a Doctor of the Church for her writing and teaching on prayer.”[3] What an honor it is, then, to be reviewing her book The Interior Castle, which has prayer as one of its primary foci[4] and is probably one of the works that led to her receiving such a title.

Yet, Teresa herself never would have predicted that. Quite the contrary, she made it clear that she thought her book would be of use to no one beyond the bounds of her convent, her fellow nuns being those for whom the book was originally intended[5] (something I did not know before I began The Interior Castle, but which did not keep me from learning from it). As she put it, “the idea that any one else could benefit by what I say would be absurd.”[6]

This is just one example of her incredible humility as it’s manifested in The Interior Castle. I mean, it’s not often that you see an author tell her audience such things as how “stupid” or “very ignorant” she thinks she is[7]; but at the same time, it’s probably not often that you read an author as humble as Teresa of Avila.

The main premise of the book is to outline the steps of the spiritual journey of the soul by analogizing each of these steps with sets of mansions that the soul progressively lives in. These range from the first mansions, which contain people “still absorbed in the world, immersed in its pleasures, and eager for its honours and distinctions,” and who “possess little strength for self-defence,”[8] to the seventh mansions, which contain those who experience—to some degree—“divine and spiritual nuptials.”[9]

Teresa also recounted the effects of being in these mansions, the various trials, favors, attitudes, and forms of mystical prayer that will come upon a person as she (remember, this was written for her fellow nuns) progresses through them. Some of these can seem rather unsettling, especially when it comes to “dryness,”[10] having one’s friends turn on one,[11] and spiritual pain.[12] Yet, these things should not deter a person from pursuing progression through the mansions. Teresa reports that, in the seventh mansion, God will at times allow people to feel what it’s like to be back in prior mansions—that is, to feel the difference between the past and the present—and to realize how much worse off they were back in those stages. “[T]hese persons learn what benefits they derive from the holy Company they are in.”[13] No matter what trials it might entail, it is unquestionably better to have developed the closeness to God and the aversion to sin found in the later mansions than to have stayed put in the earlier ones.[14]

Of course, there is one potential issue I would like to point out in the theory of step-by-step spiritual progression. While it might make sense to apply it very generally to any number of people, it’s also important to keep in mind that 1) all people are different, and 2) God has the exact same plan for no two people. My point is, one cannot expect these steps to produce exactly the same effects in any two people. Sometimes, Teresa might edge towards applying such effects too specifically to too many individuals; for instance, when she says of those in the seventh mansions:

If [God] would have [a person in the seventh mansions] suffer, she is content; if not, she does not torment herself to death about it as she used to do. She feels a great interior joy when persecuted, and is far more peaceful than in the former state under such circumstances: she bears no grudge against her enemies, nor wishes them any ill. Indeed she has a special love for them, is deeply grieved at seeing them in trouble, and does all she can to relieve them, earnestly interceding with God on their behalf. She would be glad to forfeit the favours His Majesty shows her, if they might be given to her enemies instead, to prevent their offending our Lord.[15]

Could not these things also be the case for some of those in earlier mansions? Perhaps they’re more likely in the seventh mansions, but aren’t they possible in earlier ones? Obviously, all are called to love their enemies, regardless of their varying levels of spirituality—and I would think that some in lower levels would be truly capable of this. However, it’s important to note that Teresa does take differences between particular people into account, such as in her discussion of the sixth mansions, where she states that certain “particular graces are not granted to everybody, [so] any one who receives them should esteem them highly and strive to serve God more zealously.”[16]

Something that really struck me in The Interior Castle was the notion of, as I mentioned above, spiritual agony. This is also covered in the section on the sixth mansions. Here’s an excerpt from Teresa’s description of it:

This is a trance of the senses and faculties except as regards what helps to make the agony more intense. The understanding realizes acutely what cause there is for grief in separation from God and His Majesty now augments this sorrow by a vivid manifestation of Himself. This increases the anguish to such a degree that the sufferer gives vent to loud cries which she cannot stifle, however patient and accustomed to pain she may be, because this torture is not corporal but attacks the innermost recesses of the soul. The person I speak of learnt from this how much more acutely the spirit is capable of suffering than the body; she understood that this resembled the pains of purgatory, where the absence of the flesh does not prevent the torture’s being far worse than any we can feel in this world.[17]

This is a very powerful reminder of what those in Purgatory and, worse still, those in hell experience (hell being even worse torture than Purgatory[18]). For practical purposes, it shows why one will want to spend as little time as possible in Purgatory and avoid hell at all costs.

One way to work towards this end is to pray; for as Teresa points out, “prayer is a necessity to prevent us from constantly falling into temptation.”[19] But a person can’t pray mindlessly. Another very important point she brings up is that “if it is prayer at all, the mind must take part in it. If a person neither considers to Whom he is addressing himself, what he asks, nor what he is who ventures to speak to God, although his lips may utter many words, I do not call it prayer.”[20]

Though at times it may go off-topic or become a bit confusing (as Teresa herself points out[21]),The Interior Castle overall isn’t too difficult to follow. While strict adherence to the entire proposed method of spiritual progression may not be practical for all people (for instance, though everyone should obviously all strive to grow as much as they can spiritually, days of being wiped out from spiritual trials[22] may not work well for those trying to raise small children; such people have another duty), it could certainly be useful for those who have been called to religious life and can educate most anyone about the Catholic spiritual life.

There are various ways to read or listen to this book. Following are three links to it: the first to a PDF copy provided by Documenta Catholica Omnia, which I’ve chosen to reference here; the second to the chapter-by-chapter copy at Christian Classics Ethereal Library; and the third to the first part of a YouTube playlist of audio-recorded parts of The Interior Castle amounting to the entirety of it (which is what I myself used to listen to the book).

http://documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/1515-1582,_Teresa_d%27Avila,_The_Interior_Castle_Of_The_Mansions,_EN.pdf

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/teresa/castle2.toc.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-ZqQD4F-4s

 

 

[1] John Vidmar, OP, The Catholic Church through the Ages: A History, Kindle edition.

[2] see Alan Schreck. Ph.D., The Compact History of the Catholic Church, revised ed. (Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books, 2009), 78-79.

[3] “St. Teresa of Avila,” at Catholic Online (25 April 2017), at http://www.catholic.org.

[4] see St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, ed. Benedict Zimmerman and transcribed by John Bruno Hare (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 15, at Documenta Catholica Omnia (29 April 2017), at documentacatholicaomnia.eu.

[5] see Teresa, Interior Castle, 15-16.

[6] Teresa, Interior Castle, 16.

[7] Teresa, Interior Castle, 40, 44.

[8] Teresa, Interior Castle, 23.

[9] Teresa, Interior Castle, 120.

[10] Teresa, Interior Castle, 71.

[11] see Teresa, Interior Castle, 69.

[12] see Teresa, Interior Castle, 112.

[13] Teresa, Interior Castle, 128.

[14] cf. Teresa, Interior Castle, 29-30.

[15] Teresa, Interior Castle, 124.

[16] Teresa, Interior Castle, 102.

[17] Teresa, Interior Castle, 112.

[18] see Teresa, Interior Castle, 113.

[19] Teresa, Interior Castle, 30. cf. “Origen on Prayer: Chapter XIX: And Bring Us Not Into Temptation but Deliver Us From Evil,” at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (29 April 2017), at www.ccel.org.

[20] Teresa, Interior Castle, ref. Way of Perf. ch. xxi. 6; xxix. 4.

[21] see Teresa, Interior Castle, 43, 34.

[22] see Teresa, Interior Castle, 112.

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