Friday, August 10, 2007

Looking Deep Within and Finding a Gem

by St. Teresa of Avila
Let's face it. This is a scary book. First of all, St. Teresa is a Doctor of the Church. For most of us that means her writing is of lofty thoughts about hard-to-understand subjects. It doesn't help that she is consistently described as a "16th-century mystic ... considered one of the most profound spiritual teachers in the history of Christianity." For most people that equals a "too hard for me" message about her writing.

Happily, I am here to tell you that, although all those things are true, The Interior Castle by St. Teresa is also accessible to you and me with many valuable messages about everyday living as well as the loftier goal of knowing one's own soul and God. Consistently, all the members of our book club, who have various levels of previous "difficult" spiritual reading, would show up for monthly meetings with exclamations of surprise about how helpful and inspirational this book was for them.
She complained: “Lord, amid so many ills this comes on top of all the rest.”

A Voice answered her, “Teresa, that is how I treat my friends.”

She retorted, “Ah, my God! That is why you have so few of them!”
Perhaps our surprise was because we forgot the most basic element about this spiritual guide ... the book was written for Teresa's fellow nuns and surely, therefore, had to be able to communicate with people who were all at different spots on the spiritual path as well as many varying levels of intellect. Perhaps also it is because we forgot about Teresa's own basic nature which is not only spiritual but also down-to-earth, humorous and spunky. After all, this is the woman who taught her nuns to dance, ate a gift of game birds on a feast day and, most famously of all, had the above conversation with God after being dumped into flood-like conditions on a difficult journey to establish a convent.

This book's whole purpose is to show us how to get closer to God. Teresa uses the analogy of our soul being a castle with six mansions or dwelling places within, with God living in the very center. She was ordered by her superiors to write about it and her book begins thus:
Today while beseeching our Lord to speak for me because I wasn't able to think of anything to say nor did I know how to begin to carry out this obedience [of writing this book], there came to my mind what I shall now speak about, that which will provide us with a basis to begin with. It is that we consider our soul to be like a castle made entirely out of a diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, must as in heaven there are many dwelling places. for in reflecting upon it carefully, Sisters, we realize that the soul of the just person is nothing else but a paradise where the Lord says He will find his delight. So then, what do you think that abode will be like where a King so powerful, so wise, so pure, so full of all good things takes His delight? I don't find anything comparable to the magnificent beauty of a soul and its marvelous capacity. Indeed, our intellects, however keen, can hardly comprehend it, just as they cannot comprehend God; but He Himself says that He created us in His own image and likeness.
This is lofty sounding indeed but Teresa provides ample practical examples to help the reader grasp her meaning. For instance, she speaks of the beginner as being able to enter the gate of the castle with prayer and reflection, though hindered by many reptiles and vermin which they cannot even recognize. Those reptiles and vermin are our many sins which we can't recognize without help.

Her constant goal is to help us see the enormity and beauty of our souls and how little we recognize what is within our grasp should we even make a small effort. By recognizing things as they are, in other words by recognizing the truth, we than can begin to achieve true humility that leads us to love and serve God increasingly selflessly. Again, this may sound difficult and lofty, however, it is punctuated with Teresa's constant practical advice and reminders. These provide ample opportunities to see oneself a little more clearly all the time. Teresa also places a great importance on the necessity of recognizing that we are in spiritual warfare constantly. We can't blame everything on the devil, naturally, but she reminds us how often our own faulty inclinations leave the way open to be attacked.
I am amused sometimes to see certain souls who think when they are at prayer that they would like to be humiliated and publicly insulted for God, and afterward they would hide a tiny fault if they could; or, if they have not committed one and yet are charged with it -- God deliver us! Well, let anyone who can't bear such a thing be careful not to pay attention to what he has by himself determined -- in his opinion -- to do. As a matter of fact, the determination was not in the will -- for whom there is a true determination of the will it's another matter -- but a work of the imagination; it is in the imagination that the devil produces his wiles and deceits. ...
This is not a book which one can sit down and devour chapter after chapter at a sitting. I found it most fruitful to read a few paragraphs daily which then would sink in over the course of the day. It also is a book that lends itself to repeated readings. I can imagine it becoming a daily companion for spiritual reading and reflection as there is much that I need to hear many times before it really sinks in.

Do not let yourself be intimidated by the high reputation or spiritual goals of this book. If you are looking for spiritual reading you cannot do better than The Interior Castle.

A word about translations:
When I mentioned that we were going to begin reading this book it touched off a spirited series of translation recommendations. Laura H., whose recommendation this book was and who has read it five times, held out for Allison Peers. That is ultimately the translation our group read and no one had any trouble with it at all. So many had also recommended the Kavanaugh translation that I also got that and alternated reading the same sections from both books. I found this a most profitable way to let the message sink in. The Peers translation is a bit more old fashioned in wording and the Kavanaugh much more modern. All translations above are from Kavanaugh for the simple reason that I lent my Peers book to a friend who wanted to begin the book. I can't recommend one over the other. Both had distinct advantages and sometimes one translation would make a point clear that the other did not. However, I believe that is a distinctly personal reaction. It is more important to get this book and begin reading than to get hung up on translations. Either is wonderful and should you like the book enough to contemplate repeated readings you can then indulge in the other translation.

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