St. Teresa and the 'Interior Castle'

Imagine a beautiful princess who marries a prince. As in all fairy-tales, this prince is a real Prince Charming: courageous, kind, and loves the princess more than life. He builds her a magnificent castle and she is unspeakably happy to share her life with him. However, on the first day of their marriage as he is waiting to have supper with her inside the castle, the princess is outside in the garden. She has completely forgotten her prince, and is spending all her time thinking about what she sees outside: the city, the castle walls, and what people think of her as they are walking past the garden gate. As she is admiring herself in the reflection in the pond, or talking to visitors, she forgets that somewhere inside the castle, her husband is waiting to spend some time with her.

I think if I read a fairy-tale like that, I would be very puzzled and wonder why this princess is acting in such a way. I would probably wonder if she has been placed under some spell by an evil witch in the story. However, – as I thought about this image, I decided that maybe it’s not too different from the reality that has often occurred in my soul.

St Teresa of Avila was a Spanish Carmelite nun who helped to reform the Carmelite order at a time of great laxity. One of her greatest works is a book called the ‘Interior Castle’, in which she describes the soul as a castle, in the center of which dwells the King – Jesus. Our spiritual growth consists of going through various mansions in this castle until we reach to the very center. Each mansion is characterized by different ways of prayer and levels of virtue and love for God.

The journey starts somewhere outside the castle or in the first mansion, where the soul is more in danger from the allurements of the world and the enemy. This soul does not yet have a strong interior life or strong virtue. In this way, she is much like the fictional princess in the fairy-tale: she is living outside, forgetting that God is waiting for her in the center of her soul to commune with her.

St Teresa herself experienced distraction and temptations to vanity in her youth. She struggled with not going into the castle deeply. In her autobiography, she writes that as a young lady in the world, she spent hours reading books on chivalry, seeking to please others, and adorning herself. She met and talked with a lady who was described as being very “frivolous” in her conversation. The amount of time and effort that she spent on these things, and the way her heart was perhaps attached to them, caused her to not progress as much spiritually as she did later in life. Even as she entered the convent, at first she continued spending time in more worldly pastimes, and speaking often with people in the parlour.

For us living in the world, the question may arise – is this really all that wrong? Is it wrong to spend some time thinking of our appearance, or having more casual conversations with others? I think what St Teresa was trying to say is that having an attachment to these things and spending an inordinate amount of time with them, could become a distraction. We begin spending all our time facing ‘outward’ from the castle, instead of being attentive of God. The better solution would be to spend time in prayer and learn to continually be aware of His presence within us, even as we live in the world. This might also require giving up some attachments, as the Holy Spirit prompts us during prayer. This can be a very challenging area of growth.

St Teresa found that over time as she continued living in this way, she lost her taste for prayer and spiritual things, and found less joy in them. She also began to feel ashamed and guilty, as she was a nun, and began to avoid prayer while seeking to please others. Eventually, God lead her deeper into prayer and she began to advance far beyond the first ‘mansion’ in the castle, until she became a Saint.

As I thought about her life, I began to remember the ways in my life in which I’ve been forgetful of God within me and instead focused on myself and others in ways that were distracting. This way of focusing on others by trying to get their approval, is different from charity and is in the end, only about the self. I also thought about the ways in which this is promoted in our society today.

One way I’ve noticed I lost focus on God within me is by being inordinately anxious about how others perceive me. At one point, my life and many of my thoughts were only about this. “What will they think if I wear the same sweater as yesterday? Why didn’t enough people ‘like’ my picture on Facebook?” and other similar questions crowded my mind. There could be an obsession over ‘likes’ on Facebook, on selfies, or on spending an extremely long time over my appearance. I never or rarely considered what God thinks of me and others’ approval was much more important. I was also not being honest in my relationships with others that were tinged by jealousy and competition instead of self-giving and charity.

Another form of vanity is not so much about others’ approval as it is about use of time. It took me a very long time to realize how much time I was wasting. Spending days reading ‘escape’ novels or watching romance movies that present an unrealistic view of women and relationships, can distract from God’s plan for us and from building healthy relationships with others. By spending all my time being focused on externals – media, uninterrupted talking, checking my phone every ten seconds to escape silence – I had no more time to give to God and to simply listen to Him. I was risking making my life all about the world’s expectations instead of His will for me.

In reading St Teresa’s book the ‘Interior Castle’, we see a beautiful life with God in an inner world that is captivating in its variety of ‘mansions’ or levels of knowing Him. It is never dull or repetitive and it brings peace and joy to the soul. I believe that God is calling each of us to spend time with Him inside the ‘castle’, and to forget what is outside as we go deeper into our relationship with Him in prayer. I do not think this is something selfish because in the end, it allows us to face our relationships with others in a more Christ-centered way. In the center of a soul in grace, Christ is waiting to be discovered, to show us His healing love in a deeper way.