In today’s Mass readings, we are reminded of what it means to be God’s chosen, and we are challenged to develop spiritual perfection. These themes align directly with our spiritual reading of ‘The First Dwelling’ in St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle.
In today’s Old Testament passage (Deuteronomy 26:16-19), we are reminded that in following the commandments you must “observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.” Further, we are reminded to “walk in his ways…and to hearken to his voice.” We “are a people particularly his own.” In choosing these selections, I’ve emphasized the inward dimensions to our call. In observing the commandments, we cannot become robots outwardly observing in form; we must become inwardly captivated to give our whole heart in loving obedience.
The Gospel reading today (Matthew 5:43-48) goes further, by challenging us to look deeply beyond the principles of measured justice to full abandonment to “love your enemies…[and] pray for those who persecute you.” When the Lord challenges us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” this seems like we are set up to strive for a goal impossible to achieve. Yet, the solution lies not simply in our ongoing outward efforts but in humble awareness that God must transform us from within. It is that inward perfection in love that calls us toward a deepening connection to our Lord and more faithful service to others.
St. Teresa of Avila’s ‘First Dwelling’ of The Interior Castle
St. Teresa leads the reader through dangers as she guides us to take our first step inward into the “First Dwelling” of our Interior Castle — the movement inward towards direct encounter with the divine. When she describes the soul as “a castle made of clear crystal,” she notes that there are many facets and layers of the soul. Our journey inward is neither easy nor without dangers.
As we take our first step inward, St. Teresa emphasizes a dual set of dangers. Our sins create dark splotches on that crystal castles so that we cannot see inwardly to the divine. These spots must be cleansed by confession and penance. In addition, there are serpents, lizards and reptiles that sneak in when we begin our inward journey. These creatures personify evil forces trying to deter us in the spiritual journey.
In addition, St. Teresa emphasizes that our own worldly distractions imperil us. She emphasizes that the attachment to “the things of this world” are not inherently evil, but they create blinders that further prevent us from seeing through the clear crystal of our interior lives into our connection to God. St. Teresa clarifies our nature in a distracted state:
It is not that the soul is in a wicked state. It is that she is still so immersed in the things of this world, still caught up in possessions or honor or business affairs, that even though she may long to gaze upon the beauty of the interior castle, all those attachments distract her from doing so (49-50).
St. Teresa clarifies that the journey to our first step (‘First Dwelling’) inward toward the interior castle, requires soul-cleansing and the redirection of our attentions away from outward foci toward an inward focus. She also reminds us that we face the greatest danger from demons in these initial steps inward.
St. Teresa of Avila on Perfection
St. Teresa clarifies that our prayer should focus not only on spiritual protection but especially on God’s gift of internal freedom. Her words are very specific in directing our focus:
Because of our imperfections, many of us who have been blessed by God fall back into a wretched state. We may live free from certain external involvements, but may God please grant us internal freedom as well! Guard yourself, my friends, against matters beyond your control (50).
Teresa’s emphasis on worldly distractions speaks directly to me. Of course, any woman working and managing a family necessarily faces worldly distractions, but the challenge is to cultivate our connection to God inwardly to transform and free us within. This takes a less outwardly active and more inwardly attentive orientation.
Ultimately this renewed focus requires humility and attunes us to our dependence on God. Teresa talks about what a woman she knows first discovered through this inward-turning process:
[S]he discovered a mirror for humility inside herself which reflected the truth that none of our good works has its source in ourselves but flow instead from the sacred spring where this tree that is the soul is planted and in the divine sun that gives warmth to everything we do (43).
Lenten blessings on your progress in humility and spiritual awakening this Lent!