Teresa of Avila's Castle of the Soul

Rick Hamlin shares how his own spiritual life has been impacted by St. Teresa of Avila's inspiring book on prayer, The Interior Castle.

Posted in , May 17, 2018

St. Teresa of Avila

The New York City subway system is a veritable cacophony. Train brakes hissing and wheels squealing. Performing panhandlers. Distorted music leaking from the headphones of soon-to-be-deaf straphangers. I shut most of it out. I’ve got my eyes closed, praying, as is my practice every morning. I’m sitting on a hard plastic seat with my briefcase on my lap, but my mind is someplace else: a castle discovered by a sixteenth-century Spanish nun.

Not a castle of stone and brick, but a beautiful metaphor envisioned and described intimately by the passionate, neurasthenic, self-effacing, witty, demanding, practical Teresa of Avila. Her defining work, El Castillo Interior, about the “interior castle,” is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the deepest levels of prayer. When I set out to write my own book on the subject, I’d often marvel over something Teresa said: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours....” Or “It is foolish to think that we will enter heaven without entering into ourselves.” For Teresa, prayer was more than just words said to God. So much more. It was a state of being, often an otherworldly state.

Born in 1515 to a noble family, from an early age Teresa showed no interest in an ordinary life. At seven years old, she tried to run off to Africa with her brother to “fight the infidels” at war with Spain. Ready to die a martyr’s death, she only got as far as the outer walls of Avila before being caught and reprimanded. With few real options for the adventure she craved, Teresa entered a local convent as a teen. Ironically, the convent offered greater freedom in that patriarchal society. Within its walls, she discovered a different kind of journey. She meditated for long periods and often fell into trances. At other times she experienced such rapture that both pain and joy transfigured her face.

One of her most famous visions, immortalized by the great Italian sculptor Bernini in his Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, was her union with God in prayer. “On my left an angel appeared in human form,” she wrote. “He was not tall but short, and very beautiful, and his face was so aflame that he seemed to be one of those superior angels who look like they are completely on fire. In his hands I saw a large golden spear, and at its iron tip there seemed to be a point of fire. I felt as if he lunged this into my heart several times.” A wild story? You bet. But Teresa described the experience in such precise and convincing detail, Bernini found it easy to recreate.

Teresa wasn’t afraid to claim a personal relationship with Jesus, one in which she often challenged him—a relationship she believed everyone should have. In one oft-repeated story, she was traveling by mule and fell off the beast, landing in the mud. “Lord,” she cried out, “you couldn’t have picked a worse time.” He spoke back to her: “This is how I treat my friends.” Never at a loss for words, she responded, “And that is why you have so few of them!”

Teresa did much to reform her order of nuns and went on to found other monasteries. Her fame spread, inviting the dark scrutiny of the Inquisition, and yet she had her defenders too, in particular the king, Phillip II.

Her confessor persuaded her that she should write a book to help her nuns in prayer. At first she objected, “I have neither the health nor the wits for it.” But soon another vision came to her. She saw a beautiful crystal globe made in the shape of a castle, containing seven mansions. In the seventh and innermost was God, illuminating them all.

Quickly she put down what she saw, never rewriting, filling hundreds of pages with a practical guide to the otherworldly journey of the soul. The entry to the castle is through meditation. If you let go of worry and fear, opening your heart to God, your soul finds its true home. “Considering how little you have to entertain you, my sisters . . . I think you will find consolation and delight in this interior castle,” she wrote, “where you will be able to go inside and walk around whenever you want.”

The Interior Castle was written for nuns, but it’s a journey anyone can take. Even on a crowded subway, I can slip away for a while, wandering those inner rooms Teresa describes, drawing close to the heavenly light that abides there, seeking the God within.

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