Teresa, The Interior Castle & Our Contemplative Prayer (Part 1)

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Part of "St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross and Our Vocation to Contemplative Prayer"

2. Teresa, The Interior Castle & Our Contemplative Prayer (Part 1)

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St. Teresa of Avila, this giant. She is Doctor of the Universal Church and proclaimed such by Pope Paul VI, who spoke of her wonderful profundity. Just within the margin, we might soon have another Carmelite woman Doctor of the Church. Strong rumors are that Thérèse of Lisieux, Theresa's little daughter, so to speak, will be proclaimed Doctor of the Universal Church later this summer in August, and she certainly follows in this way. I think it's wonderful that we do have these women teachers and teachers for this most profound dimension of our Christian life, that is, our contemplative union with God. Several of you, in briefly introducing your own journeys, mentioned your friendship with Thérèse, or how Thérèse somehow speaks to you, simply for her warm humanity, and I think that's a delightful characteristic of her.


Panikkar, the great expert on mysticism, East and West, he's written a delightful introduction to this, a Paulist Press edition of The Castle. He writes of her, perhaps one of the most striking features was her thoroughness, her wholeness. Her holiness brought her to such close union with God as a person can have in this world, and such union really divinized her being. Now, this is something for him to say, who knows the whole range of Eastern mystics. No one got closer to God than she, that's his claim. All the same, she remained a fully human personality, with a sense for all little human business on earth, even with a very exquisite sense of humor. This often comes up in her writings. She doesn't like false piety and devotion and a kind of a nervous, I'm better than you


are kind of thing. Her union with God did not separate her from her fellow men and women, and she remained throughout a woman with all the complexity of a feminine soul. So, I think that's why she very much draws hers today, simply this warm, really a delightful humanity. That whole feminine side is very interesting. You may know there's all kinds of studies being done on her. The very latest, America, has a review of a book, Teresa of Avila and the Politics of Sanctity by Gillian Algren of Cornell University. It's a very complicated argument, but we'll see a little more of it in the context of her time. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, that kind of authoritative reference book that we recommend to everyone, simply says of her, she was the first to give a scientific description of the entire life of prayer, from meditation to mystical marriage.


We'll try to see this. But a whole area that's so mysterious and vague, she was able to articulate it and give it a structure, well, I've never found it, at least for my own journeys through past, I just find it very helpful, without artificially constricting and confining moments, because she never claims that this is a photograph of what's happening or something. But still, it's just extremely helpful for also encouraging us to journey onward. We know, of course, she didn't write just The Interior Castle, she wrote all kinds of other things. There's a wonderful two-volume collection of her collected works with Cavanaugh. Of course, again, as we were mentioning just before, if you can read Spanish, that's the way to go. All kinds of studies on her. Also critics. She has her critics. Also in the Carmelite family, Ruth Burroughs, a very insightful feminist.


She thinks there's things about Teresa that are very questionable, we'll see that also. So she's not to be, well, in that she might have been divinized, but she's not to be idolized. What's her historical context? She's just not floating above time, but very much a woman of her time. The only thing is, I think one could argue, two amazing parallels between her time and our time. But she lived 1515 to 1582, an extremely glorious age for Spain, extremely tumultuous age, with very dark aspects also. In some ways, it might parallel the time of our great American empire, but it was the golden age of Spain's empire, extending into Central America, South America, Florida, the West Indies, Africa, India, Ceylon, the Philippines, it's glorious. With this mind of, well, the whole world is ours, and it expands in directions we didn't


even imagine a few decades ago, even. So this amazing thing of the new frontier kind of thing. And it's amazing what she does with that. She finds this astonishing spaciousness within. She says, we don't have to go running off to the Philippines and South America, et cetera. It's at least as immense and vast, the human heart. A little dark side of the time was the Inquisition, and specifically the Spanish Inquisition, which was one of the ferocious. With our introductions yesterday, I was a little afraid we were giving the implicit message that you have to become a Roman Catholic by the end of the conference this year. She struggled with this side of her church. Some of her favorite writings in contemplative prayer were condemned by the Inquisition. This was a big blow for her. She was under attack and accusation, as was John of the Cross.


And according to this book, she had to play it very carefully. And if you read between the lines, what she's basically regularly trying to do is defend herself so that she won't end up in jail or her books burned or anything like that. It was the time of the expulsion of the Jews, 1492, the same year of the discovery of America. Tragic, where they were just driven out of Spain if they wouldn't convert. And of course, conversions under pressure, does this even make sense? There were the statutes of purity of blood that these former Jews who had become Catholics, since their full Catholicity was suspect, they couldn't really go into the religious orders. Well, Teresa, who apparently was aware that she had Jewish blood in her, she just set all this aside for her Carmelite order. She didn't explicitly write about her being of Jewish background. She was a prudent gal. She wasn't looking for battles that needed not to be fought in that moment,


though she can be criticized for this by others. But she did what she could in that context to not follow this heavy anti-Semitism that was flourishing, even tragically, within the religious orders. There was a tremendous fear also of, of course, heretics of any time. This was the time when the whole monolithic Catholic world fell to pieces. A chap back in Germany called Martin Luther was doing his thing. So when she was born in 1515, it was one Catholic church. And when she died, it was just quite a dynamic situation, let us say, in all of Europe. And so that impacted. And then, of course, with the backlash of the so-called counter-revolution, counter-reformation with Trent, etc. Now, what this latest book traces is what is the implication of all this?


First of all, for mystics, it was a very much suspicion of mystics that they were caught up in their own trip. And they were cut off from the Roman authorities, the Roman hierarchy. They thought they could do whatever they wanted because they were immediately illumined by the Holy Spirit. So Rome was very concerned about this. And in fact, there were crazy mystics out there. There's no doubt about that. One of the scholars just mentions one, a visionary, Magdalena de la Cruz, who was a poor clair, who had this wonderful reputation for great holiness. She was into severe fasts and long vigils. She had the stigmata. She had the marks clearly on her body that she was conformed to Christ. Well, in fact, there was all kinds of secret stuff in her life of pacts with the devil, etc. And she fooled bishops and kings, etc. And then it all came out. She said she had no more need of food except the Holy Eucharist and she was sneaking food on the side, etc.


So this kind of thing caused great terror of these kind of people and also legitimate terror. The only thing this book explores is, was it a little overdone and were women too much the target of this fear? Was part of the Counter-Reformation just reestablishing hierarchy, especially a male hierarchy, and women should stay in their convents and be nice and not get too involved in anything, and maybe not even in mysticism. And so she has to go up very carefully with all of this. What about our own time? Again, if you think of the American empire now, it's an economic empire, but with the American flag it flies without fear in so many parts of the world. I was just reading a little article about Vietnam. We've won there. We've got McDonald's all over. They've just capitulated. According to this one book, the Marxist revolution of Vietnam is no more.


They've just capitulated to the Western free market. And, well, so I think we have this sense of, boy, we're everywhere. And then, of course, there's the whole space probes and, indeed, the new frontier, etc. It is a time that Rome is concerned about deviations, and there are warnings, there are condemnations and excommunications in our time, also specifically regarding the religious dimension. And I don't know if you read a recent comment of Cardinal Ratzinger about Buddhism and concern of Mother Angelica about centering prayer and all this. So we're in something not entirely different, it can be argued. But anyway, I think one of the things that can be argued is sometimes the most confused and the most dark ages also can be times of real spiritual interiority and flourishing. Another case in point is the famous 14th century. It was just a disaster of popes and anti-popes


and the church split and the plague and the 30-year war and everything else. And that's the time of the English mystics and Eckhart and a great flourishing of mysticism. So sometimes it's precisely these dramatic eras that invite deeper interiority. Just quickly through her life, 1515, born of a father comfortably well off, not wealthy, wealthy, but quite well off, and seven sons and two daughters and two sons and a daughter by a first wife. So it was a good Catholic family. Unfortunately, the mother dies when Teresa is just 13. This is a shock. And the nervous father pops her in an Augustinian convent for her education. And then at the tender age of 21, then she goes into the Carmelites. This is the regular Carmelites.


She immediately starts having health problems, tremendous health problems, and modern scholars are fascinated by this, to what extent it is psychosomatic, etc. She had a serious breakdown in health just two years after being in the convent and went out, a kind of a leave of absence, to her, what, I want to say sister-in-law. Married half-sister. And so she stayed there a while. Then she had an attack of catalepsy. She was partly paralyzed. She goes back into the convent, but kind of, she describes her early years as lukewarm, confused, kind of thrashing around. It was not until she was 40 years old that she had what she said, a definite second conversion of commitment all the way to the Lord. So here she is all these years in the convent as a younger sister, just kind of anguished and exploring and not healthy at all. And so she's one of those witnesses


for those of us who are getting a little up in age that things can begin at 40. She has one confessor who says she's just diabolically inspired and she's just better give up all these prayers of quiet. And also the Lord speaks to her and all that stuff. She talks to Jesuits who very much reassure her and they kind of save her sanity. And she meets a Saint Peter of Alcantara and he wants to reform the Franciscans. And so the Jesuits and the Franciscans back her. The Dominicans are more critical. Also after her death, they really attack her. She wants to reform the Carmelites, make them more contemplative. She has words from the Pope that that's okay and she moves forward with it. She meets this extremely important friend, St. John of the Cross, who he's thinking about becoming a Carthusian.


But he says, all right, if we do this quick, as we'll see this afternoon, I'll join you. So he becomes her personal confessor and director, but also her spiritual child in another way. That friendship, again, is a very powerful witness to this anima thing. At the age of 62, she finishes this classic of the interior castle. So again, she's a witness that life begins after 60. She was ordered to write it by her confessor. She said, I don't have an idea. What am I going to write? And as we'll see, suddenly this image came to her, interior castle, and it just all came together in a moment. And then it became a kind of a joy for her. She was out there trekking all up and down, founding these Carmelites, some 14 of them, making friends with the local aristocracy and getting money from them and land from them and setting up the convents and then moving on and fighting with archbishops and bishops


that didn't want them in their diocese. This is one text from her book, The Foundations. There was one archbishop that resisted her all the way, and she wrote, All we can do is wait till the archbishop gives us license out of sheer exasperation. laughter So she kept pushing and kept pushing, and finally said, all right. So they built the thing, and he goes for the consecration, and he is so moved by it, and he weeps, and she writes, as well he might. laughter Then she went to one priest for her confession. He said, I won't even hear your confession. It's just teenage scruples. You don't have any really serious sins. She says, don't be miserly with what is not yours. So she didn't mind fighting with clergy and archbishops and all the rest. She dies at the age of 67,


uttering a humble and contrite heart, O Lord, you will not despise. She's canonized only 40 years later, despite all this opposition from the Dominicans, who later were to become her greatest champions, and then declared a doctor of the Universal Church in 1970. So we're doing kind of a rush job on just the context. Some of you know this very well, but some maybe not, just to situate this a bit. You always want to know what she'd been reading. Well, she wasn't able to read thoroughly and feel at peace with lots of these 16th and 15th century classics of mysticism, because, again, the Inquisition was putting them on the index. But she loved scripture, and she used the scripture a great deal, sometimes in a funny way. She says, somewhere it's written scripture. I don't know. It says at least something like this, and then she puts down a pretty good quote. But she was able to read a bit,


the Conferences of Cassion. This is the classic that also generates the whole of Western dynasticism. Something of the Morals of St. Gregory the Great, also decisive, the Confessions of St. Augustine. She knew the Imitation of Christ, and that whole current of Devotio Moderna, which very much personalizes our love with Jesus. And some of the authors that hadn't been condemned, Peter of Alcantara, and then, of course, Dialoguing at Length with John of the Cross. She writes, I shall speak of nothing of which I have no experience, either in my own life, or in the observation of others, or which the Lord has not taught me in prayer. So this isn't kind of hearsay. This isn't what she studied. This is directly from her experience. And it took courage to write that, because then the Inquisition could go in and say, you're not a learned woman. You're just making this up. In Spain, her life and her interior past


are the most read books of all, after Cervantes, Don Quixote. So she very much dominates Spanish culture. And certainly she's being more and more rediscovered, I think, in America and all of Europe. She has all these different dimensions. First, she founds a very significant contemplative order, the Carmelites. You can say, regarding the men's branch, she co-founds with John of the Cross. Then she herself is a towering mystic. Again, right up there, demonized. No one, I think, doubts this today, the authenticity. Some raise real questions about how healthy was she. Was she psychologically wounded at least, heavily neurotic? But I think no one doubts that she was able to work in and through that neurosis to this profound communion with God. But then, beyond that, she can write about it in a delightful and brilliant and insightful way. That's a whole different gift.


And so she's got these different sides that I can very much commend her. We mentioned just a bit yesterday, she's aware of all the darkness inside. She talks about serpents and venomous things. But they're at the outer gates of the castle, just in the first mansions of the castle. But her thesis is that if we really journey into the heart, what we discover is this spacious, glorious, lightsome castle, to use that analogy. So she has a very upbeat view of who the human person is with baptism. And I think we need to, again, claim that in this age when we can perhaps be overwhelmed with the image that all we are is darkness and horror within and wasteland and that sort of thing. She writes at the very beginning of the interior castle,


the things of the soul must always be considered as plentiful, spacious, large. To do so is not an exaggeration. The soul is capable of much more than we can imagine. And the sun that is in this royal chamber shines in all the parts. It is very important for any soul that practices prayer, whether little or much, not to hold itself back and stay in one little corner. Let it walk through these dwelling places, which are up above, down below, and to the sides, since God has given it such great dignity. Don't force it to stay a long time in one room alone. So there's this joyful optimism, I think, about the soul of the person who has any kind of contemplative awareness. This sun shining in every room, this is a rather different emphasis than John at the cross, as we'll find one of his dominant images is darkness, darkness.


And I think in that way they complement each other. Sometimes we do feel a bit more in the light, and she very much helps. Sometimes more in the dark, and then John can see us through. But I think this is a basic good news. If we can really fundamentally convince ourselves of this, that would be enough, I think, for this weekend. And so to journey within with all this enthusiasm and optimism of the explorers that were journeying all over the world. She said in the light of all these bulletins that were coming in about the empire and the far reaches, she said, Is it not somehow amazing that a poor nun of St. Joseph's Cloister can reign over the whole earth and elements? So she had no need to jump on a ship and go off here or there because there's this vast realm within. And what makes it particularly exciting, again, is that it's inhabited, and at the center of this golden castle


is the spouse who's awaiting for us to bestow on us all this love and intimacy. Let us imagine that within us is an extremely rich palace built entirely of gold and precious stones, in sum, built for a lord such as this. And imagine also that in this palace dwells this mighty king. So it's this bovand that, if we can just claim this, I think it's, again, decisive for our inner life. Sometimes we can get into such a kind of a narrow and anguished and depressed and dark thing. Well, that can happen to us, but it's not the way of St. Teresa. The vastness of the castle. Remember, there are seven mansions, not more, not less. No, that's not her approach. She's saying seven mansions. That's just a way to talk. That's just one way to kind of organize the material.


But it's just a tentative model. Again, it's not a scale model. It's not a photograph. It's just a way of talking. So at the very end of the castle, she relativizes the whole model, that we not take it some kind of fundamentalistic way. Oh, I'm halfway through the fourth mansion, but I've got another 20 feet to go or something. Although no more than seven dwelling places were discussed here, in each of these there are many others, below and above and to the sides, with lovely gardens and fountains and labyrinths, such delightful things that you would want to be dissolved in praises of the great God who created the soul in his own image and likeness. So it's much more vast than this. This is just a first schematization, and that's one of the worst, if you want to take it too literally. But just as suggesting something, it might be helpful.


So the main thing, her main message, is just come home. And I think this is a huge message for us moderns. I think so often we're distracted in the literal sense of outside of ourselves, and we do, again, have these multi-billion dollar media entertainment industries to keep us distracted. We have our careers, and we have so many things we've got to do. Maybe we're running away from home, or terrorized by what we're afraid is just the darkness within, and all the stuff in our mortality and sin and all the rest. So she says, first of all, we've got to just find peace within. And if we're at peace within, if we have any kind of notion of this beauty within, then it can all start to happen. She writes again in Interior Castle, Can there be an evil greater than that of being ill at ease in our own house? What hope can we have of finding rest


outside of ourselves, if we cannot find rest within? But from what we feel, these seem to be warring against us. She's talking, I passed over a whole thing about all our faculties, which are great friends and relatives, with whom we must always live, even though we may not want to. But from what we feel, these seem to be warring against us because of our vices. Peace, peace, the Lord says, my sisters. And he urged his apostles so many times to this peace. Well, believe me, if we don't obtain and have peace in our own house, we'll not find it outside. This is a basic movement of Carmelite spirituality, this interiorization. So we're talking about contemplative prayer, we're talking about interior personal prayer. And that's fine. Again, as we mentioned yesterday, that is only one dimension. We're very aware of Christian spirituality today.


What about liberation theology and justice and the social dimension of liturgy? Again, not much about that in any of this. But for this, she's very good, as is John of the Cross. And what they would argue is, if I'm not at peace in my own heart, how can I truly deeply minister to others in a way that bestows peace? Or is it just, in fact, a more elegant way of running away from ourselves? So again, she has an upbeat model of the human person. And I think of what the human community can be. That's our little diagram below, which is, again, the symbol of Christ in the center, with lots of circles around that symbol, and then with rays from the Christ symbol going through the center of each of the circles. If each of those circles, say, is a Christian in community, then we are centered on the one cross, on the one Christ, and so we're united.


And not just that, but we find each one of us Christ in the depths of our own heart. Now, that's very different from maybe an implicit model of where we are today, where each of us can think of ourselves as so isolated. Each one of us is just a monad floating out there. We can't really relate to any other with any depth. You know the paintings of Edward Hopper, where people at midnight are just sitting in a diner, and each one is just leaning over his own cup of coffee, and nothing holding it together except the very artificial context, the very artificial light of the diner kind of thing. This is a very different view of the human condition with faith, with Christ, and with contemplative experience. So I think that's the main things to claim, whatever we do with the nuancing.


So the great dignity of the human person, but we're safe only if we journey deeper and deeper into humility, because on our own there is all this ambiguity, and there is all this contradiction, and we're constantly tempted to spiritual arrogance, etc. So the journey forward into the depths of the castle, which is in our diagram there, kind of moving from left to right, has to be a journey into deeper and deeper humility. So she says wonderful things. But it's not a humility, what she calls emphatically false humility, that keeps us away from the Lord. I'm not worthy of the Lord, therefore I'm going to stay away from the Lord. That can sometimes be in the back of our mind. Her humility is to be humble enough to accept the invitation, and to journey forward, even to this incredible mind-blowing vocation of total union with the Lord.


She doesn't like, again, this nervous, self-righteous thing that nuns and monks can get into, and people very centered on their mystical prayer. And I'm holier than you, because I'm in the sixth mansion, and now I have to go out and beat myself, that kind of thing.