Editor's note:

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) 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 created dialogue from the first chapter between myself (MCF) and Teresa (TOA). The dialogue is mostly 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 have a personal talk with her.

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.

Now Underway: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? First, choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

Learn more >

Selections from: Teresa of Avila, St.; Peers, E. Allison (2010-10-07). Interior Castle (Kindle Locations 358-434). Wilder Publications. Kindle Edition.