Reflecting on the Old Testament reading for the first Sunday in Lent (Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7) offers connections to the Ash Wednesday Gospel and to the exciting spiritual reading we will post reflections on throughout Lent: St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle.
The Sunday passage from Genesis reminds us that when God formed us of clay, the life-creating moment came from the movement of God reaching within us: He “blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” Notice also that the description of the Garden of Eden places the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil “in the center of the garden.” Likewise, when we consume the Eucharist, the life of God enters directly into the center of our bodies to transform us within. That which lies at the center remains an important reminder that the core of our spiritual life rests within us.
Centering our Lenten Practices
In Lent, we are reminded that the good works for Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — focus on directing the will to sacrifice, spiritual growth and the building up of the Body of Christ. A terrific way to order these Lenten practices to the life within is by exploring the depths of the “interior castle” of the soul which rests at the center of our being.
This movement inward also aligns with the famous Ash Wednesday Gospel where Our Lord reminds those of us fasting not to use our fast as a way of showing off our ‘holiness,’ like the Pharisees did in his time. He tells us not to be gloomy, but joyful; not to be dour-looking but to radiate with joyfulness. The message in this Gospel reading is obvious. However, a small clue reveals a deeper connotation.
Jesus says, “when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” Later in the passage, he tells us not to “appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” (Matthew 6:5-6; 16-18) What might be the deeper connotation to the surface images of “inner room” and “what is hidden”?
In another of St. Teresa of Avila’s works, she writes: “To seek God within ourselves avails us far more than to look for Him amongst creatures” (Soul Weavings). This Lent, Anne and I are embarking on a journey inward, by reading St. Teresa of Avila’s best-known work, The Interior Castle. Will you join us on this journey to discover that which is “hidden” and to unlock the door to our “inner room”? (I will be reading the translation by Mirabai Starr.)
St. Teresa of Avila
Although St. Teresa was born in 1515, her backstory that led her to the convent sounds more like the Haley Mills’ movie Trouble with Angels than Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Teresa was a spirited young woman, who liked being the center of attention, who lead other youth in risky adventures, and who twice tainted her reputation by being too familiar with a young man.
She also came from a questionable family for her time period. Her grandfather was a converso, a Jew who converted his family to the Catholic faith under the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The family was accused of false conversion and of secretly maintaining their Jewish faith, a charge that caused the family to suffer the shame of a long public walk before scorning townsman. Teresa’s father was the youngest child in that shameful procession, and he spent his adult life seeking social acceptance to compensate for this painful formative experience.
In her early teens, Teresa’s father ‘sent her to a nunnery’ to protect her from the social consequences of an unnamed indiscretion with a young man. In that time period, just being without a chaperone counted as a horrible indiscretion; we do not know the full story. At this time, the convents were filled with young women placed there by families for a variety of reasons, including financial incentives: The cost of dowries for marriage had risen, and the fees to enter a convent were cheaper. Teresa’s father expected Theresa to wait out some time in a convent, repent of her sins, stay safe from gossip, and then return home ready to marry. Her path varied considerably from his plans, and it took him some time to accept her path.
Teresa lived 20 years in convent life before she truly fell in love with Jesus and converted her heart to His will. This led her on a painful journey. She suffered extensive physical illness and persistent pain, and she suffered persecution from without and from within the Carmelite order which she sought to reform of its worldliness. Eventually she started the Mendicant Carmelite order, founded some 17 convents, was a close friend of the mystic, St. John of the Cross, and carried a life burdened by organizational duties when her heart longed for contemplative solitude.
The Interior Castle
Teresa undertook this writing task under the directive of her spiritual advisor. Her emphasis on personal spiritual awakening put her under suspicion by the Inquisition, and she lived in fear of being misinterpreted. She had many visions, and the Church remained uneasy with private revelation in the era following the Protestant Reformation, a movement that fractured the Church as a result of private revelation. Teresa’s spiritual director told her to write this book in a way that reframed personal revelation into insights gained through her experiences with other Mendicant Carmelite sisters in her order. He told Teresa that her insights needed to be shared, and expanding the reference point beyond her personal experiences may enable her a wider audience without undue suspicion from inquisitors.
First Dwelling: Chapter 1
Teresa begins the book complaining that she is reluctant in fulfilling the command of her spiritual director to write this book. She says, “…I have no idea how to begin this particular vow of obedience.” Yet, offering this to prayer, she shares a vision that defines the soul through an analogy: “the soul is like a castle made exclusively of diamond or some other clear crystal. In this castle are a multitude of dwellings, just as in heaven there are many mansions.” (35)
Not only does this castle lie within, but there are many dimensions and facets to this inner sanctuary where the divine life dwells within us. The Interior Castle explores these layers in seven dwellings, each moving more deeply within. The method for moving through these castles is through deepening meditative prayer. She reminds us that the “soul is made in God’s image,” (36) and that at our center “the most secret things unfold between the soul and her Beloved” (37). She notes that this book is unique because it calls on us to “enter within” (37) ourselves at the deepest levels of prayer.
St. Teresa of Avila on Prayer
St. Teresa criticizes the most common character of prayer. She criticizes those who focus primarily on intercessory prayer when she warns about not getting into “the habit of addressing the Magnificent One as if he were her servant” (37). She also criticizes those who pray in a distracted way: “merely letting whatever pops into her head fall out of her mouth.” In addition, St. Teresa criticizes merely rote prayer: “spilling out words by simple repetition.” St. Teresa identifies these as “beastly ways” of praying. (38)
Teresa clarifies that “true prayer” marries “vocal prayer” with “genuine reflection.” This authentic manner of praying requires a deep “awareness of who she is talking to, what she is asking, and who is doing the asking and who is being asked.” This requires cultivating a deep relationship with Our Lord within. This is the journey she calls us to, and the one on which Anne and I are traveling this Lent. Will you join us?
The Interior Castle is a book one should read slowly and meditatively because the outward reading requires much inward journeying. The book has 26 chapters; and, if we read about 7 pages a day, we will finish the book by the end of the Lenten season. We encourage you to also share your own reflections on each chapter by posting your comments below.