"We cannot enter by any efforts of our own; His Majesty must put us right into the centre of our soul, and must enter there Himself."
St Teresa of Avila reluctantly began to write Interior Castle (or The Mansions) in 1577, complaining that "this writing under obedience tires me and makes my head worse". She set herself to the task of explaining her vision of the soul being like "a castle made of a single diamond... in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions".
Her writing is engaging but dense; I found it difficult to read more than about ten pages at a time. She also has a habit of introducing terms like favours or intellectual visions and talking about them for a while, before finally defining what they mean several chapters later. This gets confusing.
On the other hand, St Teresa is good at thinking of illustrations to explain what she means. She frequently exclaims that these visions are impossible to describe to anyone who hasn't experienced God in such a way, but she does a pretty good job. By the end she is able to conclude, "I think my labour has been well spent" - and clearly it was, since we are still reading her words five centuries later.
What is the book about?
St Teresa divides the soul into seven mansions. The soul which begins to seek God enters the first mansion through prayer and meditation. From there God may reveal himself more and more fully through successive mansions, although this comes at great cost and there is always the possibility of falling back if the soul ceases to grow in love. The seventh, and innermost, is where God dwells, and where the soul is fully united with Him.
This journey is accompanied by favours from God, by which the soul comes to know him. These may include visions, words, and feelings of intense longing and love. But they should never be the prime focus; God gives these favours as he wills, and they don't, in themselves, make a person a better Christian.
What encouraged you?
I liked the practicality of St Teresa's approach. This rather sums it up: "I am doing this so that you may not suppose everything you imagine to be a vision, and so that, when you do see a vision, you will know that such a thing is possible." In other words, don't get over-excited and think that every little thing is a vision from God, but don't discount it all as fantasy, either.
She carefully lists ways in which you can tell an experience is from God (for example, a sense of peace and certainty) and makes sure to point out that you can't force any of these things to happen. You can put yourself in a position of "humble expectation", but if nothing happens, don't "stay there like ninnies". Carry on with works of charity and prayers. "Our best plan is to place ourselves in the Lord's presence... and leave Him to give us what he wills."
What challenged you?
Some of the parts about sin and suffering were difficult to understand, because they were very different to how I would think about it. St Teresa says that she had a vision of a soul in mortal sin, and from that "she had learned to have the greatest fear of offending Him... she continually begged Him not to allow her to fall". Later she talks about the extreme suffering that comes from longing to be united with God, and remarks, "He can torment as well as comfort". To modern-day ears, such statements sound like a description of an abusive relationship. Yet I'm sure St Teresa would say that nothing could be further from her experience.
More generally, she is in poor health, and attributes at least some of that to God afflicting her. As I understand it, St Teresa believes that Jesus suffered a great deal, so our suffering is a way to join with him; and that any amount of suffering is worth it if it leads to unity with God. I would hesitate to claim that God causes any illness or suffering. But then, I live in a culture that regards any amount of pain as bad, something to be avoided at all costs. Is that true, or can there be positive aspects to it?
How has it changed how you see things?
St Teresa devotes a chapter to locutions, which essentially means "voices" or "words from God". It appears that most people she comes across think that these locutions are pure imagination. They don't believe that people can hear God speak, either audibly or internally.
Most churches I have attended could broadly be described as charismatic evangelical. These take the opposite approach. It is expected that anyone can, or should, hear from God; and if someone claims to do so, the veracity of it is rarely questioned.
It was interesting, then, to read St Teresa's thoughts on the matter. She starts by saying that locutions "may come from God, in any of the ways I have mentioned, or they may equally well come from the devil or from one's own imagination." She suggests several ways in which it may be clear whether a word is from God or not. Even if you are "very confident", she says; "if what is said is of great importance and involves some action", you should consult a trusted person "of clear insight" before doing anything.
I think this is important. I do like her straightforward approach to these things. Yes, it might be God speaking to you, but it might not. Weigh it up. Don't rush to believe it or dismiss it.
What would you like to explore further?
In the chapter on the First Mansions, St Teresa stresses the importance of humility with this beautiful image: "Humility must be always doing its work like a bee making its honey in the hive: without humility all will be lost." Self-knowledge is key; this leads to the kind of humility which realises how undeserving we are of any of God's favours, not the false kind of humility which won't attempt anything because we think we will fail. This self-knowledge comes not only from looking at ourselves, but also from looking at God. "We shall reach much greater heights of virtue by thinking upon the virtue of God than if we stay in our own little plot of ground."
I can always use a little more humility and a little more looking at God.
What is one thing you will remember?
"All that the beginner in prayer must do - and you must not forget this, for it is very important - is to labour and be resolute and prepare himself with all possible diligence to bring his will into conformity with the will of God."
"The Lord asks only two things of us: love for His Majesty and love for our neighbour... If we attain them perfectly we are doing His will and so shall be united with Him. But how far we are from doing these two things in the way we ought for a God Who is so great!"
Regardless of visions and mystical experiences, St Teresa knows how to drill down to the essentials of the Christian faith. Without this as our foundation, everything else is pointless.