I first stud­ied Tere­sa of Avila’s Inte­ri­or Cas­tle twen­ty or so years ago, after many years of efforts to under­stand, live, and com­mu­ni­cate what the spir­i­tu­al life por­trayed in the Bible was meant to be. I had found many help­ful com­pan­ions on The Way, spread across time and space and denom­i­na­tion­al dis­tinc­tives.” But this book and this author imme­di­ate­ly announced them­selves as a unique pres­ence of God in my life. The book pro­vid­ed instruc­tion on a liv­ing rela­tion­ship with God that I had found nowhere else. I think it very like­ly that you will expe­ri­ence the same refresh­ing shock as I did when you read this book. 

The first thing that Tere­sa helped me with was appre­ci­a­tion of the dig­ni­ty and val­ue — indeed, the vast real­i­ty — of the human soul. Empha­sis upon the wicked­ness and need­i­ness of the human being tends to sub­merge our aware­ness of our great­ness and our worth to God. That empha­sis in turn inclines us toward think­ing of our­selves as noth­ing, and to mis­take our lost­ness and vile­ness for noth­ing­ness, a mere vac­u­um, rather than see­ing it as the des­o­la­tion of a splen­did ruin.

Tere­sa urges us to start on the path to trans­for­ma­tion by con­sid­er­ing our soul to be like a cas­tle made entire­ly out of a dia­mond or of very clear crys­tal, in which there are many rooms.” We are meant to occu­py every room or dwelling place” with God, and there­by to become the radi­ant beings which he intends. Tere­sa makes clear what lies half-con­cealed upon the pages of the Bible and in the lives of the great ones” for Christ — that I am an unceas­ing spir­i­tu­al being, with an eter­nal des­tiny in God’s great uni­verse. We may be far from God’s will, but we must know that it is pos­si­ble in this exile for so great a God to com­mune with such foul-smelling worms; and, on see­ing this, come to love a good­ness so per­fect and a mer­cy so immeasurable.” 

The rooms” in the inte­ri­or cas­tle are ways of liv­ing in rela­tion to the God who made us and seeks us. Teresa’s supe­ri­ors had ordered her to write on prayer. And so she does, but prayer under­stood pre­cise­ly as a way of liv­ing, not as an occa­sion­al exer­cise. This book, and oth­ers such as The Way of the Pil­grim, helped me to under­stand what it is to live a life of prayer. I learned from it what it means to live in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with God to him, not just speak­ing, but lis­ten­ing and act­ing. Most of what I know about the phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy of God speak­ing to us, I learned from study­ing and putting into prac­tice what Tere­sa says in the Sixth Dwelling Places, Chap­ter Three. It is still, I think, the best treat­ment ever writ­ten of what it is like for God to speak to his children. 

Anoth­er thing I came to see more clear­ly from study­ing this book was why things go as they do in the lives of pro­fess­ing Chris­tians. There is still today not much good infor­ma­tion on this. But if you will look at ordi­nary church life” with Dwelling Places One through Four in hand, you will be able to under­stand a huge amount of what is real­ly going on, and of what to expect, for good and for ill; and you will be able to give good coun­sel and direc­tion to your­self and oth­ers as you go through the process of life togeth­er. You will real­ize that Tere­sa is an absolute mas­ter of the spir­i­tu­al life and pos­sess­es an amaz­ing depth and rich­ness of spir­i­tu­al the­ol­o­gy. Yet there is no stuffi­ness or mere head knowl­edge” in her at all. She has remark­able free­dom to be exper­i­men­tal, and to say now I can’t real­ly explain this to you,” and to go ahead and say aston­ish­ing­ly illu­mi­nat­ing things any­way. You can put what she says to the test. 

Back of all this instruc­tion is the fact, which was very impor­tant for my par­tic­u­lar back­ground, that there is a reli­able order and sequence to growth in the spir­i­tu­al life. This is built into her mod­el of the cas­tle” of the soul. Now,” she in effect says, this is the lay­out, this is what is to be gone through, here is where you start, here are some things to do, and here is what you may expect to hap­pen and what it means.” And she con­veys all this wis­dom with an appeal­ing hum­ble, exper­i­men­tal tone. 

Final­ly, Dwelling Places Five through Sev­en proved to be, for me, the finest treat­ments of union with Christ and with God that I have found in spir­i­tu­al lit­er­a­ture. There are oth­er help­ful things, in this con­nec­tion, such as James Stewart’s A Man in Christ, but for the phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy, the descrip­tive analy­sis of the details of what it is real­ly like, noth­ing has ever sur­passed Teresa’s Cas­tle. Union with Christ — in regen­er­a­tion, jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, and glo­ri­fi­ca­tion — is of all themes the one in most need of recov­ery today. And Teresa’s entire treat­ment of redemp­tion in the spir­i­tu­al life with Christ is unsur­passed and unlike­ly to be sur­passed in the future. 

One of the unfor­tu­nate things that has hap­pened to the lat­ter stages of the Inte­ri­or Cas­tle, and even to the book as a whole, is that peo­ple have tried to read it as if it were an inter­faith,” not a dis­tinc­tive­ly Chris­t­ian, por­tray­al of mys­tic union.” To do this is to miss its sub­stance, deprive it of its con­text, and make it unprof­itable for those whose faith is in Christ and his Father. Of course any­one is free to take what they can from it, but to dis­miss its par­tic­u­lar­i­ty will leave lit­tle to gen­uine­ly assist the read­er to walk with God. 

A word about how to read this book. It is not a mod­el of easy read­ing, judged by today’s stan­dards, and must be approached as if you were min­ing for trea­sure — which you are. First, read it non­stop — just push ahead — to get a view of the whole. Mark themes and divi­sions clear­ly as you go, and at the end sketch out the out­line. This is cru­cial for under­stand­ing Teresa’s project as a teacher. Then go back and read slow­ly from begin­ning to end. This time you mark strik­ing pas­sages for fur­ther study. Then med­i­ta­tive­ly dwell on those pas­sages, not nec­es­sar­i­ly from begin­ning to end, but in the order your heart and mind call you to. Call upon His Majesty” to assist you as he assist­ed Tere­sa. And the dia­mond cas­tle which is your soul will increas­ing­ly glow with the divine presence.

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From Tere­sa Of Avi­la: Selec­tions From The Inte­ri­or Cas­tle, Harper­collins Spir­i­tu­al Clas­sics, 2004, Pp. XIII-XI. Also avail­able in The Great Omis­sion, San Fran­cis­co: Harper­collins, 2006, Pp. 206 – 209.

Originally published December 2003