Listening to the Saints – Teresa of Avila: The Interior Castle

Let learned men, who have studied, do the writing; I am a stupid creature and don’t know what I am saying. There are more than enough books written on prayer already. For the love of God, let me get on with my spinning and go to choir and do my religious duties like the other sisters. I am not meant for writing; I have neither the health nor the wits for it.” – Teresa of Avila

Those words come from early on in the spiritual classic, The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila. She was inspired by a vision of the soul as a globe in the shape of a castle. This castle contained seven mansions, and by journeying through these mansions the soul came to union with God. Teresa wrote this book in 1577.

I have asked it before: what does a nun who lived over 400 years ago have to teach me? Or any of us for that matter? Well, we may not see the human soul as a castle, but we would probably agree with Teresa that prayer is a key part of a life of knowing Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, we have trouble praying.

Teresa wants to help us: “All that the beginner in prayer has to do — and you must not forget this, for it is very important — is to labour and be resolute and prepare himself with all possible diligence to bring his will into conformity with the will of God.”

Prayer takes work. It is not easy. I know when I pray all the things in my life, all my worries and fears and joys and excitements, come rushing into my head. Just clearing your head, entering a quiet place away from cell phones, computers, kindles (or nooks, if you must), televisions and everything else is next to impossible.

If we manage to get into a situation where we can pray, what do we say? Teresa has some words that may appear harsh to us, but I think there is wisdom in them: “if a man is in the habit of speaking to God’s Majesty as he would speak to his slave, and never wonders if he is expressing himself properly, but merely utters the words that come to his lips because he has learned them by heart through constant repetition, I do not call that prayer at all — and God grant no Christian may ever speak to Him so!

We live in a Christian culture that, at least to me, focuses on joy and happiness and entertainment (Jesus is my buddy!  Jesus is my homeboy!).

It is true that Jesus is our friend. This is a side of who our God is that deserves to be emphasized. But do we over-emphasize it? Do we forget reverence and fear for a holy, majestic God? Do we approach God in prayer flippantly or with awe that we can communicate with the Creator of the universe?

Prayer in terms of just talking to God is completely fine. But just as how a child learns to communicate by listening to others who communicate better, so God has given us all kinds of prayer in scripture (the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer to mention two) that teach us how to pray.

Or as Teresa puts it: “I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble.”

God is truly great and majestic.  Teresa that emphasizes however much we think we know of God, we barely scratch the surface:

we creatures go about like silly little shepherd-boys, thinking we are learning to know something of Thee when the very most we can know amounts to nothing at all, for even in ourselves there are deep secrets which we cannot fathom. When I say “amounts to nothing at all” I mean because Thou art so surpassingly great, not because the signs of greatness that we see in Thy works are not very wonderful, even considering how very little we can learn to know of.”

I can’t leave that as the last word…the beautiful thing is that grand, majestic God took on flesh, was born of a virgin, and walked among us. Awesome.

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