Editor's note:

Tere­sa of Avi­la (15151582) was a Span­ish mys­tic who lived dur­ing the Counter Ref­or­ma­tion as a Carmelite nun. She was of con­tem­po­rary of John of the Cross.

Because of Dal­las Willard’s rec­om­men­da­tion of Teresa’s book Inte­ri­or Cas­tle,” I sought to work through this tes­ti­mo­ny of com­mu­nion with God. I long to hear God bet­ter and under­stand some of the things that Dal­las trea­sured from past great ones” of the Way. 

In order to under­stand and appre­ci­ate what she taught, I imag­ined a con­ver­sa­tion between myself (MCF) and Tere­sa (TOA), draw­ing on con­tent the first chap­ter. The dia­logue is direct­ly from the trans­la­tion with only a cou­ple of added respons­es like Yes, but” and a cou­ple of omis­sions of sis­ters,” since I want­ed to make the talk personal. 

Although the writ­ing was still chal­leng­ing to under­stand and undoubt­ed­ly says more than I gath­ered and respond­ed to, I found this method help­ful for fol­low­ing her ideas and dis­till­ing them down into some­thing I can prac­tice and chew on. 

—Matt Filer

Prayer Begins by Notic­ing The Soul

Matthew C. Fil­er: Tere­sa, I long to hear God and I know I need to learn many things. Can you show me how to pray?

Tere­sa of Avi­la: A thought occurred to me, a foun­da­tion on which to build. 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. Now if we think care­ful­ly over this, the soul of the right­eous man is noth­ing but a par­adise, in which, as God tells us, He takes His delight. For what do you think a room will be like which is the delight of a King so mighty, so wise, so pure and so full of all that is good? I can find noth­ing with which to com­pare the great beau­ty of a soul and its great capacity. 

MCF: The begin­ning of prayer is how we see our own soul? My prob­lem is that I do not under­stand my own soul.

TOA: 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. Is it not a sign of great igno­rance, if a per­son were asked who he was but had no idea who his father or his moth­er was, or from what coun­try he came? Though that is great igno­rance, 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. As to what good qual­i­ties there may be in our souls, or Who dwells with­in them, or how pre­cious they are — those are things which we sel­dom con­sid­er and so we trou­ble lit­tle about care­ful­ly pre­serv­ing the soul’s beau­ty. All our inter­est is cen­tered in the rough set­ting of the dia­mond, and in the out­er wall of the cas­tle — that is to say, in these bod­ies of ours. 

MCF: True. It is easy to focus on our bod­ies and our out­ward life and ignore the soul and the inward life.

TOA: Let us now imag­ine that this cas­tle, as I have said, con­tains many man­sions, some above, oth­ers below, oth­ers at each side; and in the cen­ter and midst of them all is the great­est man­sion where the most secret things pass between God and the soul. You must think over this com­par­i­son very care­ful­ly. Per­haps God will be pleased to use it to show you some­thing of the favors which He is pleased to grant to souls. It will be a great con­so­la­tion to you to know that such things are pos­si­ble. Even if you nev­er receive any, you can still praise His great good­ness. It does us no harm to think of the things laid up for us in Heav­en and of the joys of the blessed ones with him, but rather makes us rejoice and strive to attain those joys our­selves. In the same way, it will do us no harm to find that it is pos­si­ble in this exile of ours for so great a God to com­mune with such small and bro­ken crea­tures. We may love Him for His great good­ness and bound­less mercy. 

Prayer is Stopped by Envy and Thoughtlessness 

MCF: Can’t such think­ing lead us to think­ing that some Chris­tians are bet­ter than oth­ers or that God plays favorites? Is it fair that God would give some favors he does not give to oth­ers in prayer?

TOA: I am sure that any­one who finds it harm­ful to real­ize that it is pos­si­ble for God to grant such favors dur­ing this our exile must be great­ly lack­ing in humil­i­ty and in love of his neigh­bor. With such love and humil­i­ty, how could we stop rejoic­ing that God should grant these favors to one of our brethren, espe­cial­ly when this in no way hin­ders Him from grant­i­ng such favors to our­selves? How could we stop rejoic­ing that His Majesty should bestow an under­stand­ing of His great­ness upon any per­son? He grants these favors, then, not because those who receive them are holi­er than those who do not, but in order that His great­ness may be made known. 

It may be said that these things seem impos­si­ble and that it is bet­ter not to trip up those who are too weak to accept them. But less harm is done by the weak dis­be­liev­ing us than by our fail­ing to edi­fy those to whom God grants these favors. Those who receive such favors from God will rejoice and will awak­en oth­ers to a fresh love of Him Who grants such mer­cies, accord­ing to the great­ness of His pow­er and majesty. They all know and believe that God grants still greater proofs of His love. I am sure that, if any­one does not believe this, she will nev­er learn it by expe­ri­ence. For God’s will is that no bounds should be set to His works. Nev­er do such a thing, then, if the Lord does not lead you by this road. 

MCF: I see that begrudg­ing and doubt­ing the great things God can give through prayer and oth­er means can often point to a lack of love and humil­i­ty. Not only that, but that such doubt­ing can inhib­it a per­son from ever receiv­ing such good things from God. Would you say that I should nev­er try to pur­sue things by effort that I can­not trust God to give because of his great love?

TOA: Yes, but now let us return to our beau­ti­ful and delight­ful cas­tle and see how we can enter it. I seem rather to be talk­ing non­sense, for, if this cas­tle is the soul, there can clear­ly be no ques­tion of our enter­ing it. For we our­selves are the cas­tle: and it would be absurd to tell some­one to enter a room when he was in it already! But you must under­stand that there are many ways of being” in a place. Many souls remain in the out­er court of the cas­tle, which is the place occu­pied by the guards. They are not inter­est­ed in enter­ing it and have no idea what there is in that won­der­ful place, or who dwells in it, or even how many rooms it has. 

A short time ago I was told by a very learned man that souls with­out prayer are like peo­ple whose bod­ies or limbs are par­a­lyzed: they pos­sess feet and hands but they can­not con­trol them. In the same way, there are souls so infirm and so accus­tomed to busy­ing them­selves with out­side affairs that noth­ing can be done for them, and it seems as though they are inca­pable of enter­ing with­in them­selves at all. And although by nature they are so rich­ly endowed as to have the pow­er of hold­ing a con­ver­sa­tion 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 but only look­ing out­ward­ly, just as Lot’s wife was because she looked back. 

Med­i­ta­tion Brings Thought­ful­ness to Prayer 

MCF: I love how you put that each per­son is already present to God in his soul, but that there are many ways of being” in a place. In the same way a par­a­lyzed per­son also has hands and feet like a mobile per­son, but is unable to use them. So con­ver­sa­tion with God is our her­itage and is ours by nature, but when our atten­tion is always else­where, we find our­selves not real­ly with God but inward­ly par­a­lyzed. What can be done about this condition?

TOA: As far as I can under­stand, the door of entry into this cas­tle is prayer and med­i­ta­tion: 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 or even think­ing great thoughts. True, it is some­times pos­si­ble to pray with­out pay­ing heed to these things, but that is only because they have been thought about pre­vi­ous­ly. If a man is in the habit of speak­ing to God’s Majesty as he would speak to a slave, and nev­er even thinks about express­ing him­self prop­er­ly, but mere­ly utters the words that come to his lips because he has learned them by heart through con­stant rep­e­ti­tion, I do not call that prayer at all — and God grant no Chris­t­ian may ever speak to Him so! At any rate, I hope in God that none of you will, for if we are accus­tomed to talk­ing about our inte­ri­or mat­ters, that is a good way of keep­ing one­self from falling into such ani­mal-like habits. 

MCF: Thought­less prayer can be so dam­ag­ing and mis­lead­ing. When it is a habit, I see it can keep a per­son from hear­ing God at all. Such is the dan­ger of mind­less reli­gion and dog­mat­ic athe­ism. Real­ly think­ing about our inte­ri­or mat­ters” and about the mean­ing of our prayers can save us from such habits?

TOA: Yes, but remem­ber that these par­a­lyzed souls, unless the Lord Him­self comes and com­mands them to rise, are like the man who had lain beside the pool for thir­ty years: they are unfor­tu­nate crea­tures and live in great per­il. There are also oth­er souls, who do even­tu­al­ly enter the cas­tle. These are very much absorbed in world­ly affairs, but their desires are good. Some­times, though infre­quent­ly, they com­mend them­selves to Our Lord. They think about the state of their souls, though not very care­ful­ly. As they are full of a thou­sand pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, they real­ly 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. Where their trea­sure is, there is their heart also. From time to time, how­ev­er, they shake their minds free of them. It is a great thing that they should know them­selves well enough to real­ize that they are not going the right way to reach the cas­tle door. Even­tu­al­ly they enter the first rooms on the low­est floor, but so many rep­tiles” (that is, dis­trac­tions, wor­ries, and sins) get in with them that they are unable to appre­ci­ate the beau­ty of the cas­tle or to find any peace with­in it. Still, they have done a good deal by enter­ing at all. 

MCF: Begin­ning in prayer starts with infre­quent stops and starts and may be some­what dis­sat­is­fy­ing or dis­cour­ag­ing because of pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and sins that both­er us. Such a begin­ning is bet­ter than the paral­y­sis and igno­rance that come from nev­er start­ing at all. That is great encour­age­ment. I need to hear that begin­ning is not always easy, but it is not God who oppos­es me.

I am encour­aged to begin with some thought about the state of my soul.” Not just its ruined con­di­tion and need for ren­o­va­tion, but about its nature, what it is made for. I think it tends to lie unused and unat­tend­ed to because I for­get what it does: pro­vide a dwelling place for God. Just because of this, my soul must be a great place indeed, an inward place that sur­pass­es the out­ward places I live in. Pon­der­ing such great­ness with­in my life which is giv­en by God can move me into prayer. I want to pon­der the ques­tion, What do you think a room will be like which is the delight of a King so mighty, so wise, so pure and so full of all that is good?”

With­out such thought my prayers may remain just words.” Med­i­ta­tion on God, his works, and his words are a great start­ing point for prayer because it enables me to start see­ing the real­i­ty of prayer, of who I am, and of the One I am speak­ing with.

May God raise me from my paral­y­sis of bad habits and my thou­sand pre­oc­cu­pa­tions into a life of prayer so that the door to my soul might be cracked open, and the light of God spill out.

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Selec­tions from: Tere­sa of Avi­la, St.; Peers, E. Alli­son (20101007). Inte­ri­or Cas­tle (Kin­dle Loca­tions 358 – 434). Wilder Pub­li­ca­tions. Kin­dle Edition.

Originally published May 2016