Summary of St. Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle
“If, then, you sometimes fall, do not lose heart, or cease striving to make progress, for even out of your fall God will bring good, just as a man selling an antidote will drink poison before he takes it in order to prove its power.”
~ St. Teresa of Avila ~
St. Teresa of Avila spent most of her life in a convent, was never formally schooled, and was repulsed at the idea of attaining public fame. Yet no other books by a Spanish author have received such widespread admiration as Life and Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila. She “established new foundations for her order, carried on the spiritual direction of souls…wrote brilliant treatises for the edification of her fellow nuns, and reached the very summit of personal sanctity through a life of prayer, humility, and charity” (Peers, 1). What caused her to earn such an exceptional reputation? The grace of God.
St. Teresa, in fact, was opposed to writing but did so out of obedience at the request of her superiors. She considered herself, and therefore her writings, to be of so little importance that she did not ever reread what she had written in between writing sessions. Her audience was the sisters of the convent. She also wrote for those that might someday have the desire to penetrate either the outer or inner Mansions. She wrote Interior Castle towards the end of her life, starting the book on June 2, 1577, and finishing it on November 29 of the same year. During this time, much was happening; the Reform, the transition of St. Joseph’s, Avila, from the jurisdiction of the Ordinary to that of the Order, and the Incarnation “when the nuns endeavored vainly to elect St. Teresa as their Prioress” (17). Her experiences of persecution, due to the Inquisition, also had an influence on her writings.
Although she was uneducated, the theology of her books was very accurate. Woven throughout her works were themes of the importance of self-knowledge, detachment, and suffering. Upon its completion, her book was reviewed by a Dominican theologian, P. Yanguas. He said this of her writing:
I would take up numerous phrases in the book saying that they did not sound well to me,and Fray Diego would reply, while she (St. Teresa) would tell us to expunge them. And we did expunge a few, not because there was any erroneous teaching in them, but because many would find them too advanced and too difficult to understand; for such as the zeal of my affection for her that I tried to make certain that there should be nothing in her writings which could cause anyone to stumble (16).
Interior Castle, like many of her other books, was written in a very simplistic way, yet her thoughts were profound and full of theological significance. She described the subject of her writing as such: “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” (10). She used the metaphor to explain the soul’s progress from the First Mansions to the Seventh and its transformation from a creature of sin to the Bride of Christ. She then went on to describe how it was by prayer and meditation that the door to the first castle could be entered. A key virtue that was brought up again and again was humility. She also stressed the importance of self-knowledge. The journey was to begin by “entering the room where humility is acquired rather than by flying off to the other rooms. For that is the way to progress” (11).
The souls that made it to the First Mansions were in a state of grace, but were still intoxicated with the venomous creatures (symbolic of sin) that dwelt outside of the castle in the outer courtyards. In order for the souls to have made any progress, they would have to stay in the First Mansion, The Mansion of Humility, for a long time.
The Second Mansions were where the soul would seek every opportunity for growth, by listening to sermons, partaking in enriching conversations, and so on. These were the Mansions of the Practice of Prayer. In these rooms, the soul would not be free from the attack of the venomous creatures, but its powers of resistance were strengthened.
The Third Mansions were those of Exemplary Life. Those in these mansions realized the dangers of trusting in one’s own strength. These souls had attained a high standard of discipline and were charitable towards others. Limitations in this stage were that one lacked vision and the ability to fully experience the force of love; also it had not yet come to the point of total submission and its progress was slow. It had to endure a spirit of aridity and was given only occasional glimpses of the Mansions beyond.
It was in the Fourth Mansions that the supernatural and natural met. No longer did the soul depend upon its own efforts. The soul would be totally dependent on God. This was the Mansion of the Prayer of the Quiet. Love came not from an aqueduct, but flowed from the true source of living water. It had broken all bonds which had previously hindered it and would not shrink from trials. It had no attachments to things of the world and could pass between the ordinary life to one of deep prayer, and back again.
The Fifth Mansions were described as the Prayer of Union—it marked a new magnitude of contemplation. The soul would prepare for the gift of God’s presence. Psychological conditions were also associated with this state, in which the “faculties of the soul are asleep…it is short in duration, but while it lasts, the soul is completely possessed by God” (12).
In the Sixth Mansions, Bride and Groom were able to see each other for a long period of time. As the soul would receive increasing favors, it would also receive more afflictions, such as “bodily sickness, misrepresentation, backbiting and persecution; undeserved praise…and depression…which is comparable only with the tortures of hell” (13).
The soul would reach Spiritual Marriage in the Seventh Mansion. Transformation was made complete and no higher state could be reached. It was in this Mansion that the King dwelt—“it may be called another Heaven: the two lighted candles join and become one; the falling rain becomes merged in the river” (13).
It is truly a gift to have a writing such as Interior Castle. It gives us a glimpse into the life of an “ordinary” woman during a time of hardship and resistance, providing hope and encouragement to the saints, past, present, and future, of the exciting possibility of living a life of prayerful contemplation and intimacy with Christ. We can see that though centuries separate us from those such as St. Teresa of Avila, we are united by the commonality of Christ. Values such as self-knowledge and humility, and desires like seeking intimacy with Christ, are timeless.
St. Teresa of Avila; Peers, E Allison. Translator and editor. Interior Castle. Garden City, New York: 1961.