Teresa of Avila

The Interior Castle

Reviewed by Georgia Gojmerac-Leiner, 2008 

Teresa of Avila. The Interior Castle. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1979.

Saint Teresa of Avila created an all new way to God, albeit in the sixteen century. She created the Interior Castle, a book about prayer. She was asked to write it and reluctantly agreed to do it because she did not feel qualified. She frequently complained of having a headache as she wrote. The subject was difficult for her. The Castle is a special place. Teresa wrote, “this castle has many dwelling places: some up above, others down below, others to the sides; and in the center and middle is the main dwelling place where very secret exchanges between God and soul take place.” Paradoxically, this castle is the soul, and she wrote, “For if this castle is the soul, clearly one doesn’t have to enter it since it is within oneself. How foolish it would seem were we to tell someone to enter a room [they are] already in.”

Teresa created the castle as an inner place of refuge. While outwardly sister novices had to be obedient to their abbesses, for instance, or perhaps to the authorities of the time, the Inquisitors, in the interior castle they could be free to encounter God as they wished. The interior freedom was necessary for the personal experience and relationship with God. At the same time, the Interior Castle was a place of struggle and battle as well as a place of consolation. Teresa taught her sisters how to tell the difference between the presence of God and the devil within, and how to discern God’s will. The struggles all came from fears and lack of self knowledge and self esteem, she maintained. Like Saint Augustine, Teresa felt that by knowing God we know ourselves, and vice versa.

Saint Teresa did not want the sisters to think that the castle was limited to a few rooms either. She wrote, “Thus I say that you should think not in terms of just a few rooms but in terms of a million; for souls, all with good intentions, enter here in many ways.”

She was good to her charges and encouraged them to eat and sleep well, and to take care of all of their physical needs. Her regard for the physicality of the person paralleled her practice of meditating on the humanity of Jesus, whom she called “Majesty.” It is a testament to Teresa’s imagination that she wrote such a remarkable spiritual work. Imagination is a major theme in the book. Yet she said that imagination distracted and puzzled her. She did not trust it. The mind also was not the soul.

Justice cannot be done to her imagery in such a short review. But the metaphors she chose to explain levels of prayer are quite elaborate. She described two founts, and within the two founts there was a three tiered process of prayer mitigated by the human, and a fourth level that was accomplished for the human only by God. While the prayer of human effort brought consolation, spiritual delights, or union with God, could only be achieved by God. In this way Teresa is consistent with other mystics who fit the apophatic, or “negative theology” of Pseudo-Dionysius.

Teresa may not have thought of herself as a capable spiritual guide but even today she can teach us how to be good spiritual guides or directors. She made a distinction between a confessor and a spiritual guide. A confessor, she said, had to be a “learned man” but if he did not have the gift of providing spiritual guidance another person should be found for that purpose.