"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Interior Castle by St. Theresa of Avila, Part 1

I’ve been reading The Interior Castle by St. Theresa of Avila, and as I’ve mentioned we’ve been having a discussion of it as part of a book club read for the Catholic Thought group at Goodreads.  We’re still going through, and you’re welcome to join our book club and participate if you like.  Below are my contributions to the discussion.  They are my posts put together sequentially.  Even though you might miss the give and take and not notice when one posts ends and another starts, I think you’ll be able to get my thoughts. 

For you information, The Interior Castle divides into seven mansions, and our group is taking each one in series.   I’ll break these up into a few posts.  I’ll post these as part of a Faith Filled Friday series.  This first one will cover the Preface and first mansion.  If you wish to read The Interior Castle, you can do so online, here


I’m not sure what is considered the Introduction.  If we mean the introduction by the editor, then everyone’s translation will probably have a different introduction.  So I’m not going to comment on the introduction in my edition.

But St. Theresa does have a Preface, and if that’s what Doreen is calling the Introduction, I do have a couple of thoughts, and these are just random thoughts that come to me as I read and jot down in the margins.

She comments in that second paragraph that she has already said what she will say in this book in other books.  I have not read any other of her books, but I am a little surprised by that.  What did she mean?  I am not aware she wrote about a spiritual journey in the form of a castle before.  The Wikipedia entry does not mention that she wrote anything along those lines before.  Her book The Way to Perfection speaks about ways of prayer that perfect the soul and the four stages of perfection.  This book describes seven stages of the soul.  Are they the same thing only now she’s come up with seven categories instead of four, a sort of fine tuning on her original thoughts?  If anyone has read The Way to Perfection, can someone comment on the difference between the two books?

I love her metaphors and similes.  The Castle with all these rooms is a metaphor that shapes the book.  Also in that second paragraph she says she “writes mechanically as birds taught to speak.” So she says she writes as a parrot speaks.  I find that unusual.  So does that imply someone taught her?  I find what she says extremely original.
In the last paragraph in the Preface she says she’s been commanded to write this for the nuns in the convents “because women best understand each other’s language.”  Well, that’s probably true back in her day when I bet most women were illiterate.  I wonder how many of those nuns in her day could read.

First Mansion

I think we should quote the central sentence of the entire book, right in that first paragraph in the First Mansion:

“I thought of the soul as resembling a castle, formed of a single diamond or a very transparent crystal, and containing many rooms, just as in heaven there are many mansions.”

I agree, that’s a great image, but as I look at it more carefully she says the castle is “formed of a diamond or very transparent crystal.”  Normally we think of a soul as being vaporous and amorphous.  A crystal is just the opposite.  It’s hard.  I don’t think she explains why.

And look at the end of that complicated metaphor.  The soul (resembling a mansion) has “many rooms, just as in heaven there are many mansions.”  What confuses me is that I thought the soul enters these rooms but here she seems to be saying that the soul is made up of rooms.  Fast forward to the fifth paragraph where she addresses that:

“Now let us return to our beautiful and charming castle and discover how to enter it. This appears incongruous: if this castle is the soul, clearly no one can have to enter it, for it is the person himself: one might as well tell some one to go into a room he is already in! There are, however, very different ways of being in this castle; many souls live in the courtyard of the building where the sentinels stand, neither caring to enter farther, nor to know who dwells in that most delightful place, what is in it and what rooms it contains.  Certain books on prayer that you have read advise the soul to enter into itself, and this is what I mean.”

So the soul is a castle with rooms and yet it walks into its rooms, into itself.  Now that is mystical!

There were interesting passages in chapter 2 as well.  For instance the very opening lines:

“Before going farther, I wish you to consider the state to which mortal sin brings this magnificent and beautiful castle, this pearl of the East, this tree of life, planted beside the living waters of life which symbolize God Himself. No night can be so dark, no gloom nor blackness can compare to its obscurity. Suffice it to say that the sun in the centre of the soul, which gave it such splendour and beauty, is totally eclipsed, though the spirit is as fitted to enjoy God's presence as is the crystal to reflect the sun. While the soul is in mortal sin nothing can profit it; none of its good works merit an eternal reward, since they do not proceed from God as their first principle, and by Him alone is our virtue real virtue. The soul separated from Him is no longer pleasing in His eyes, because by committing a mortal sin, instead of seeking to please God, it prefers to gratify the devil, the prince of darkness, and so comes to share his blackness.”

There’s that crystal again as I mentioned it in my other comment.  And a few lines into the next paragraph, St. Theresa brings in what will be another big metaphor later in this book, the spring or river:

“In a state of grace the soul is like a well of limpid water, from which flow only streams of clearest crystal. Its works are pleasing both to God and man, rising from the River of Life, beside which it is rooted like a tree. Otherwise it would produce neither leaves nor fruit, for the waters of grace nourish it, keep it from withering from drought, and cause it to bring forth good fruit. But the soul by sinning withdraws from this stream of life, and growing beside a black and fetid pool, can produce nothing but disgusting and unwholesome fruit.”

There’s the crystal again.  I think in St. Theresa’s symbolism, the crystal represents the pure soul.  I’m pretty sure that tree beside the river is an allusion to the beginning of Psalm 1:

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers.  Rather, the law of the Lord is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night.  He is like a tree planted near streams of water that yields its fruit in season; its leaves never wither; whatever he does prospers.”

Another interesting passage is that on self-knowledge.  It’s a few paragraphs in from the beginning of the chapter.

“A soul which gives itself to prayer, either much or little, should on no account be kept within narrow bounds. Since God has given it such great dignity, permit it to wander at will through the rooms of the castle, from the lowest to the highest. Let it not force itself to remain for very long in the same mansion, even that of self-knowledge. Mark well, however, that self-knowledge is indispensable, even for those whom God takes to dwell in the same mansion with Himself. Nothing else, however elevated, perfects the soul which must never seek to forget its own nothingness. Let humility be always at work, like the bee at the honeycomb, or all will be lost. But, remember, the bee leaves its hive to fly in search of flowers and the soul should sometimes cease thinking of itself to rise in meditation on the grandeur and majesty of its God. It will learn its own baseness better thus than by self-contemplation, and will be freer from the reptiles which enter the first room where self-knowledge is acquired. Although it is a great grace from God to practise self-examination, yet 'too much is as bad as too little,' as they say; believe me, by God's help, we shall advance more by contemplating the Divinity than by keeping our eyes fixed on ourselves, poor creatures of earth that we are.”

There’s a lot to unpack there.  As I think I understand it, the sequence of events is prayer leads being industrious like the bee, which leads to humility which leads to self-knowledge.  It’s this self-knowledge that leads to the first mansions.  Now to be frank, I don’t know what she means by “self-knowledge.”  She doesn’t define it, but it seems to be different than self-examination.  That too is interesting because that contrasts with Jesuit spirituality, where self-examination plays a big part.  St. Theresa says—and this may be her Carmelite spirituality—that it’s better to focus n the Divinity than on oneself.  Still I’m at a loss to know what she means by self-knowledge.  Did she define it somewhere and I missed it?


  1. Manny, as I read your post, I can't help but wonder. Is St Theresa writing this for the nuns in her convent in a special code that only she and they can understand? “Because women best understand each other’s language.” may not refer to the fact that women back then were illiterate. It could refer to the fact that "we all know what I'm saying here; know what I mean?" type of innuendo which only she and her audience would understand. We, reading this many years later, are left out of the hidden knowledge because we don't realise what she is talking about.

    I suspect that at the time Christianity was still under persecution. So it is cautious to write in code that only certaion people would understand, and not leave the writer open to attck.

    God bless.

    1. Yes, she is writing for her nuns at the convent. Her language can be obtuse at times. I struggled too to understand her, but it was a worthwhile read. She can be quite poetic at times, especially with her metaphors.

      She finished writing this book in 1577, so I don't know what persecutions you're referring to. If you're referring to the protestant persecutions of Catholics, such as in England where you live, I don't think it applied to St. Theresa. To my knowledge there wasn't a strong protestant movement in Spain. However, she was open to the attack of heresy, and so she did have to be careful that what she wrote passed the Inquisition. Plus she was a woman, and so she had to make sure she wasn't teaching theology, which was I believe off limits for women. Her works are on spirituality rather than theology, which made it acceptable.

    2. That's exactly what I had in mind, Manny. The inquisition and other remnants of those who believed they knew better about theology. A little reminiscent of the Pharisees at the time of Jesus.

      Such people would no doubt frown about a woman (or anyone I guess) writing about religion, (whether theology or spirituality). So, I guess, she wrote to/for the nuns in a secret coded language that only they understood.

      A bit like in the early days of the Church in the Holy Lands. The symbol for Christianity then was a fish. The symbol of a fish was found on ancient Christian monuments and buildings. It represents Christ.

      The Greek word for "fish" is ICHTHUS.

      If we take the letters of that word they provide the first letters of other Greek words.

      Iesous Christos Theou Uios Soter

      Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour

      So the symbol of the fish suggests all this to a Christian. It may well have been a secret sign used by early Christians to identify each other.

      God bless.

    3. I don't think it was "secret, coded language." She's not always clear, and I think it's just her writing style. She supposedly did not edit. It was whatever she wrote down the first time, and you know how how that doesn't lead to clarity.

      Thanks for your interest Victor.